I first encountered K-Ming Chang’s work through her dazzling poetry in Past Lives, Future Bodies (Black Lawrence Press). Now comes Bestiary (One World), Chang’s first novel where the main character, Daughter, explores her familial roots in indigenous Taiwan, her mother’s upbringing in Arkansas and the family’s eventual migration to California. The novel is populated with a menagerie of beasts both real and imagined: aunts who give birth to wild geese, rivers who copulate with humans, girls who grow tiger tails and men who can summon sea creatures with the force of their queer desire. At the center of the story are two women, Daughter and Ben, who hope to remake the fabric of their histories by giving in to their own joyous appetites. Chang and I spoke about her writing over the phone during Leo season.
Jen Lue Bestiary is about three generations of Taiwanese-American women: Daughter, Mother and Grandmother who each narrate different portions of the book. Whose voice came to you first and how did you come up with the final structure?
K-Ming Chang Daughter’s voice came first because positionally, I found that her experience dovetailed most with mine. I also found her character frustrating in a lot of ways because of her passivity. I’m often drawn to characters who witness or have this desire to intervene but aren’t really sure how to act. Grandmother’s voice, more matter-of-fact and action-oriented, came as a distinct contrast to Daughter’s voice. It felt very rapid-fire for me to write her sentences. Her voice came out in this staccato rhythm whereas Daughter’s voice languished in language a bit more.
It’s interesting because the first section in the book which starts with Mother’s voice is the last part I wrote. I was very attached to having that section come at the end but I realized later on that I didn’t want to open with Daughter’s voice. I wanted the reader to feel Daughter as a sort of absence. I wanted Mother and Grandmother to speak without Daughter present for a little while, so we get to know them outside of their relationship to Daughter.
JL One of the major themes in the book is embodiment in the form of physical transformation and how it relates to the parts of yourself that you can’t control. For example, Daughter struggles to make peace with her tiger tail and there are times when it lashes out against her family members without her consent. Can you talk a little bit about the body and its relationship to transformation and control?
KMC I was really interested in examining intergenerational trauma as a kind of bodily knowledge—the bodily history that you inherit. It doesn’t feel logical or intellectual and yet it possesses you in a certain way. I had a professor, Rattawut Lapcharoensap, who once told me that my narrators felt like they were standing in the eye of a storm. That really resonated with me. I’m interested in narrators who feel and see things that seem inexplicable—whether it be actual chaos, violence, or the decisions that other people make—who remain ever-present and deeply embedded in the environment.
Daughter’s tail is both a weapon and an umbilical cord that tethers her. As I wrote, I was thinking, What does it mean to have an embodied experience that makes you both similar to the people that you’re related to and also distances you from them? Her tail is a thing that is capable of hurting people and committing violence. But at the same time it roots her to her family and to her people. What do you do with that sort of double-edged inheritance? I don’t necessarily think I answered that question but I was interested in exploring it.
JL One of my favorite lines in the book is when Daughter retells the story of how a tiger spirit takes possession over the body of a woman and says that “the price of having a body is hunger.” How would you characterize some of the character’s appetites in the story or what the book is trying to articulate about desire?
KMC Daughter experiences queer desire as something completely engulfing. Instead of rooting that hunger in shame, I wanted to portray her desire as a kind of lineage, as something that is deeply tied to the desires of all the women in her family. So much desire in the book is shaped by Mother and Grandmother’s inherited ideas about marriage and relationships. There’s no space for desire in their marriages and there is no space for desire in the way that they build their families. It is so structured around the violence of men, around martial law and these different social forces. Their desire keeps getting deferred. There’s a part in the story where Daughter says that a wound can take generations to heal before it’s cast out. In some ways Daughter is many generations of hunger in one body. What she embodies is so ancient and multi-generational.
JL What role do you think desire serves in the myths and stories that Mother and Grandmother are passing on to her?
KMC I think Daughter is trying to defy a lot of the myths that she’s been told. On the one hand, the myths feel generative to her. On the other hand, as in the case of the tiger spirit who wants to be a woman, Daughter is told that the price of being the thing that you want to be is having to inflict violence on others. In order to stay a woman, the tiger spirit has to eat children. In a way, the spirit is criminalized for wanting to be a human woman. She becomes a foil to the idea of a selfless motherly figure.
Whether or not this cycle of violence is something that Daughter can resolve or heal is something she grapples with throughout the book. Towards the end, there’s a moment where she attempts to drag her mother down to Los Angeles to save another family member. It’s not her body that’s at stake but it’s her attempt to put a stop to the violence in her family.
JL One of the things I noticed is how bodily fluids (piss, shit, spit, and amniotic fluid) show up not only as bonds between family members but as a way to show how permeable we are as humans, on a molecular level. Could you speak a little to that notion?
KMC I’m interested in the porousness between generations. One of the edits that I got early on was, How distinct do you want to make these three voices? That could be part of my own limitation as a writer but I’d like to think that as I was writing it, I was purposefully creating these resonances between them. At the end when Daughter writes back to Grandmother, she even takes on Grandmother’s voice. I wanted there to be this exchange, on a linguistic level. I wanted to show how these three generations flow into one another. I also think a lot about water existing both inside and outside of the body. A huge part of the indigeneity of Daughter’s family is their rootedness to the land and their understanding of land and water as having its own autonomy and agency.
On a literal level, I come from a family with a very immature sense of humor. We talk about our bowel movements constantly. We’re so casual about it. It’s always been normalized and there’s a complete lack of shame around it. I wanted to lean into that shamelessness. So much of my writing is fueled by my resistance to the silence that surrounds shame.
JL I feel like the narrative of the novel really exercises freedom from the white gaze in a way that I don’t see in a lot of Asian-American fiction these days. Was this a conscious decision on your part as you were writing the book?
KMC I wanted the book to feel wild. There are parts in the narrative that feel a bit ungrounded or disorienting even to me. Ultimately, I wanted to embody these characters and show how history feels, not just what it means in a factual sense of listing the dates of martial law in Taiwan or the exact numbers of refugees from the Mainland. The way that these characters experience history resonates with experiences from generations beyond. Especially the grandfather figure who has encountered many wars, many conflicts in his lifespan. I wasn’t super interested in giving a factual backstory, since what is presented as fact is often crafted by authorities. I wanted to reanimate history as this memory of something that is continually haunting. One way I did this was with how the grandfather reacts to the present as if Japanese war planes are still flying over in the sky.
JL Language, and how language is received, feel like important themes throughout the book. Grandmother writes letters to Daughter that are translated and annotated by Daughter and her lover, Ben. Much of the text feels like a challenge to the way novels are traditionally read and received. Can you talk a little bit about how language functions in the book?
KMCI wanted the book to have the spirit of an oral history. I kept thinking, What if there’s a story with a story? What if the story within a story is about pirates and you’re like, Wait, this is obviously made up. How is this happening? I wanted the reader to experience the playfulness and porousness of the text. Even the footnotes are meant to be jokey, to show how a new reader would annotate the work. A text can feel authoritative and I didn’t want the reader to have that sort of reverence towards this text. That’s what I love about oral history. Everyone who tells it tells it differently. It changes from body to body. It’s embodied in the way that an oral story is literally told from the mouth. It doesn’t matter if it’s real or chronological, and the idea of a singular reality becomes myth. Hopefully, it’s a story that you can interact with, rewrite, or question.