“I Feel Like I Can Create The Rules Of The World As I’m Writing It” — K-Ming Chang On The Stories in Her Phenomenal New Collection
In Gods of Want, K-Ming Chang has assembled an assortment of sly, challenging, and consistently surprising stories that will surely earn her the same level of critical acclaim as her debut novel, Bestiary. From a young woman whose new marriage to a storm-chaser is nearly upended by the ghosts of her dead cousins to the teenage girl who becomes so entranced with a model in a cigarette ad that the ad comes to life, each of these stories inventively plays with mythology while taking the reader to unexpected places. Indeed, the exhilarating stories of Gods of Want have already captured the attention of critics. The New York Times called Gods of Want “a voracious, probing collection, proof of how exhilarating the short story can be in the hands of a writer who, as one of her narrators puts it, ‘somehow … made every word sound like want,’” and Publishers Weekly noted that “Chang’s bold conceits and potent imagery evoke a raw, visceral power that captures feelings of deep longing and puts them into words.” Chang recently spoke with us about mythology, writing characters with an expanded sense of agency, and why she held her breath in the children’s section of her library.
Mythology played a big role in your novel, Bestiary, and many of the stories in Gods of Want have a magic realist element to them. Can you talk about how mythology and folklore have influenced how you approach a story?
I think that mythology and folklore really helps me find a sense of playfulness on the page and in writing. So much of myth, folklore, and these stories that are constantly mutating and evolving are, for me, really about interpersonal connections. They’re oftentimes oral forms, and to me recall a sense of childlike wonder. They’re so much about transformation and collective ownership over storytelling, which I also really love. I love that I can enter this world of myth and folklore without necessarily needing anyone’s permission and without really needing to seek a sense of authority either, because I feel like they’re so collectively owned and collectively belong to all of us. It feels like I can enter with the sense of excitement, possibility, and potential rather than feeling like, “Oh, this is a space that’s really restrictive and prohibitive.”
I think there’s something so exciting about reading these stories because of the sense of danger that exists in them, where anything can happen and the regular rules don’t apply.
I really agree. With myth and folklore, it allows me to think about truth and writing towards truth without necessarily always creating certain conventions. I feel like I can create the rules of the world as I’m writing it. I think it gives the characters a different agency as well within their worlds. They’re individuals but they’re also tied to these cosmic forces, creation, and destruction. I really love that there’s an expanded agency with the characters on the page.
I loved the reading list you put together for Bestiary where you gave book recommendations based on the Chinese Zodiac. Can you talk about what authors were influential to you as a writer?
There are so many. I’ve been reading recently a lot of writers in translation. I’m finding works by those authors have been most influential for me right now. There’s a writer named Li Kotomi who recently published a book called Solo Dance that I’m really, really loving. A lot of story collections that center women have also been really influential for me. Trash by Dorothy Allison and Sabrina & Corina by Kali Fajardo-Anstine. It’s really interesting because while I was writing this collection was when I was really discovering the joy and the pleasure of reading collections as well. It was really this immersion in this form and learning all of the possibilities within the form while I was actually attempting it myself.
The stories in Gods of Want are divided into three sections, “Mothers,” “Myths,” and “Moths.” Can you talk about how you organized the stories?
It was actually quite a late stage when I finally discovered the order of these stories and also that it would be a triptych, split into three sections. For the longest time, I really didn’t know what stories should be in it. After realizing there were all these repetitive M words in the collection—myth, mothers, melons, moons, moths—I created a list of those words and kind of treated it like wordplay, so that it felt like something fun and not intimidating. I found that all of my stories gravitated the most towards mothers, myths and moths. It naturally arranged itself after that. It was really funny because as soon as I selected those three worlds and shuffled the papers under each of these three words, it ended up being so evenly split that I was like, “Oh, this was so meant to be.” There was almost an exact number of pages in each section without even me thinking, “There has to be this many stories in this section, this many under this word.”
I also really love the triptych structure. When I was a kid and I loved reading about Greek mythology, I read so much about the significance of threes in Greek mythology: three fates; three furies; the gods in groups of three, six nine. I remember thinking, “Oh ,this is so perfect, there’s also something kind of mythical how these three sections came together.”
On finishing the collection, I had the sense that the stories were much more interconnected than I had initially realized, that characters from earlier were popping up in later stories, that there might be a shared location among certain stories. Was that interconnectedness something you were playing with?
I was definitely playing with the interconnectedness. I think what’s interesting is when I was writing these stories across several years in different locations, I wasn’t thinking about them as connected at all. I was always thinking, “I’m writing this completely new thing that’s not really thematically relevant to anything else.” But these certain images and phrases kept recurring in many of the stories: the character of Melon, images of watermelon, moths, and water were also a big throughline through all the stories. It was really fun to play around with what stories would be next to each other and their proximity to each other.
I definitely felt like in the last section, that it’s almost like everything’s kind of cleaving together more and more by the end of the collection. It starts to become ambiguous whether it’s the same character in a different stage of their life or a different character with the same name. I really enjoyed that ambiguity. I found that a lot of the collections that I loved had those resonances that were almost like clues or hints dropped to the reader, but weren’t necessarily always totally explicable or linear, which I really, really enjoyed. It also showed me as a writer that these stories were meant to be together. While there were other stories that I was working on that I felt were more indicative of what I’m writing now and what I’m really obsessed with now, these stories felt like they had to be housed together and placed next to each other.
Now that you’ve talked about these connections, it makes me think of other images, like of tongues or rust, that keep echoing throughout the stories.
I really enjoy on a micro level of language of certain images and certain phrases recurring through the book. To me it felt like a natural way of thinking about a collective voice. So much of the collection is also interested in collectives—collectives of aunts, widows, cousins. It felt right that it all comes from this collective pool of language.
Several of the later stories focus on adolescent girls who are figuring out their world and sexuality. Can you talk about how you approach your adolescent characters?
I’m definitely really interested in writing about girlhood and the entwinement of violence and queerness, and also what it means to be in a position of witnessing. I think children often are witnesses and may not necessarily have the power to intervene in certain dynamics that they witness or in the world that they see. To me, it’s really interesting to balance this sense of wonder and imagination, the sense that there’s a kind of safety in imagination for the children, specifically the girls in this collection. I think oftentimes we’re very discouraged to write what’s considered a passive narrator or a narrator who’s mostly seeing or observing, but I find that oftentimes those are the most interesting perspectives. I want to center this idea of what does it mean to see and maybe not always be able to act. What can be transformed from that experience or that memory?
There’s something powerful about these young women observing their world and not judging it.
I’m really interested in what it means to write about empathy and the fact that there are so many complicated relationships, especially complicated mother-daughter relationships, complicated relationships between all kinds of caregivers and people who receive care. I’m really interested in what it means for things like hurt and love to be entwined, and what do these characters make of that, and what do they choose to carry with them, or not carry with them.
The stories are so gripping, and really funny moments can slam against very poignant moments or scenes of shocking violence. Can you talk about how you think about tone of your stories?
It’s so funny because I read the “Auntland” out loud once at a reading at an open mic, and I heard the laughter. At the end of it I talked to a friend in the audience and she was like, “Oh, I was on an emotional rollercoaster. I was laughing and then I was like, ‘Oh, no!’ And then laughing again. It was interesting because the scenes between those moments felt like they were fraying or coming together.”
I’m really interested in contrasts or things that seem like opposites but really deep down are two sides of the same coin—so being repulsed by something and then also being attracted to it, or fascinated by it and disgusted by it at the same time. Moving between those moments, even within the same sentence, feels really interesting. It also seems very inherited from queer literature as well, that there are these contradictions that can be held together and can be revealed to be one and the same. That’s always been something I’ve been fascinated by on a language level and then also tonally broadly through the stories, how tragedy and comedy—maybe this is another Greek tragedy thing—feels fundamentally the same, how the bodily reaction of laughing and crying are so similar. To me, it’s this very embodied natural thing to want to contain both of those things, both of those contrasts, within the writing.
“Auntland” seems to be the perfect entry point to this world, because it’s so funny and yet contains all those juxtapositions you’re talking about.
I always knew that that would be the first story. It took me a really long time to figure out what the order of everything else would be, but that one felt like it encompassed so much of what I was examining and exploring. It felt like this kind of prelude and just imagining prologues of books that I’ve loved. It did feel to me like that it was always meant to be the beginning.
What role have libraries played in your life?
I just love librarians so much, especially public librarians. I feel like I was raised in a library in so many ways. All of my first memories of reading, falling in love with reading, and feeling that sense of possibility—that there was this entire expansive world and I could go through all these portals—happened in public libraries all around my city. I remember there was one library that when you would go into the children’s section there was a fish tank, it was kind of downstairs from everything else. I remember feeling like, “Oh I’m going underwater now.” (laughs) I really felt like I was entering this subterranean, watery world. There was the most beautiful uncanniness of that moment. I just remember that that was the most accessible way that I could read really, really widely. It felt like there weren’t any boundaries in terms of what I could encounter and what I could explore. It’s probably the most foundational place in my reading and writing life.
That visual of going underwater is so striking, especially thinking about the role water plays in the book.
I was fully like, “How long can I hold my breath in the children’s section of this library?” (laughs) It was probably pretty concerning. I was really invested in being a mermaid amongst these fish and books.
Tags: K-Ming Chang