In November, I talked with K-Ming Chang over Zoom about her 2020 debut novel Bestiary, her upcoming short story collection Resident Aliens: Stories, her writing process, and what she’s looking for as she judges Berkeley Fiction Review’s 2021 Sudden Fiction Contest—plus an occasional tangent about The Nanny and the magic of short stories.
Courtesy of One World
K-Ming Chang / 張欣明 is a Kundiman fellow, a Lambda Literary Award finalist, and a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honoree. She is the author of the debut novel Bestiary (One World/Random House), which was longlisted for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize and named a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice. Her short story collection, Resident Aliens, is forthcoming from One World. She is currently the Micro editor at The Offing magazine.
The following interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Berkeley Fiction Review: So I know Bestiary just came out this year; how has it been having a debut novel out during a pandemic?
K-Ming Chang: I’ve just been so grateful to see how many readers have really resonated with it, and to see it finally be born in the world—it’s such a relief and also a huge joy as well. But it’s just always so unexpected and shocking to me that people are reading it, especially in a year like this. So definitely really, really grateful and surprised every day.
BFR: I know it’s been a really rough year for debut authors because of everything going on. Do you have any novels or works that you really enjoyed this year?
K-Ming Chang: I mean, so many things. I’ve read so many incredible things this year. I would say one book that has really stuck with me is The Black Cathedral by Marcial Gala. It’s one of the wildest things I’ve ever read and it’s told in this chorus of voices and it’s translated from Spanish.
And recently another book that I just read in one sitting—and I haven’t read a book in one sitting in years—is Earth Eater by Dolores Reyes, which is also translated from Spanish. I haven’t read a book that fast—I read a chapter and then it was finished. And it’s really, really incredible and so, so strange as well. But in the best ways. Let me think what else I’ve read recently.
Oh yes, I’m currently reading the Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans. I haven’t finished it yet, but already it’s incredible.
BFR: And it’s also been really incredible for Bestiary this year, the Center for Fiction for First Novel Prize long listing, the editor’s choice in NY Times, and I also saw the National Book Foundation, 5 under 35. Like, it’s incredible. How has that been? Was it surprising, the positive reception or did you just go in with no expectations of how it would go?
K-Ming Chang: No, it’s been completely shocking. I definitely went in with no expectations, especially given how unprecedented this year was. I was like, I don’t even know if I’m reading, much less asking other people to read it. And everything has been completely unexpected; it’s just been every day, there’s something new that has completely blown me away. I always try to kind of hold onto that feeling of gratitude and let that lead me because I’m so terrible at receiving any sort of like honor or a compliment or anything like this—I have this immediate desire to completely disassociate from that. I’d be like, “Oh my God, it’s not me” or “I don’t deserve it” or “I’m an imposter.”
I’m feeling grateful and this book now belonging to a community is something that makes me so happy. I’m like, “Yay, it’s no longer mine, it’s all of yours.” And that’s been amazing.
BFR: I feel like your works are permeated with queerness and Asian-American life and themes of family. It’s really amazing to read and I was wondering, do you kind of write with this idea of representation in mind or do you feel like you’re just naturally drawn to writing about these things?
K-Ming Chang: Oh, not at all. I don’t really consciously think about it. And when I was first starting to write or thinking about what kind of writer I wanted to be, especially when I was in high school, I thought I had to write like the beats or write like Jack Kerouac or write like all of these different kinds of very glamorized writers. And I didn’t really necessarily think that anything related to me or my life or what I witnessed could be literature in any way.
And it was only when I realized, you know, I was in a class that was predominantly white and thinking about what really resonated with me, and what I really wanted to write about—and thinking really hard about all of these very exclusive institutions I’ve been idolizing made me realize that what I wanted to do was outside of that to a certain extent.
And so I definitely did think about that, but what’s really incredible is that readers have told me, “Oh, this really resonates” or “This has made me feel like my life has beauty in it” and I feel like that to me is the most precious thing, more than any accolade or external thing. That has been the most rewarding and reminded me of why I was writing in the first place.
But now it feels very kind of natural and ingrained. I realized that the writers that I truly loved and wanted to emulate were writers who were either foundational Asian-American writers like Jessica Hagedorn or Maxine Kingston or other writers who kind of didn’t care about the canon, which is really inspiring.
BFR: And you’re local to the Bay Area, right?
K-Ming Chang: [Laughing] Yes, I am. I mean I feel bad saying that because—speaking of impostors—my family’s technically from Southern California, from Montebello, which is like east of L.A. So I’m a little bit of a fake Bay Area person, but I have spent a huge portion of my life here. So maybe I can just be dually Southern and Northern Californian which I just feel like is a betrayal to the rivalry of SoCal versus NorCal. But it’s fine, I’ll claim both, it’s fine.
BFR: I completely understand. I’m also from SoCal.
K-Ming Chang: Oh yeah, it’s like the majority of my extended family and family members are in SoCal but like I’m here in the Bay Area and have been here for a very long time.
BFR: And I remember seeing your tweet about Minari and you mentioned how film stills really inform how you write place, which was why I asked about being local to the Bay Area. Can you talk a little bit more about that, about your process writing place and the use of film stills?
K-Ming Chang: I mean, for writing place, I think the South Bay has definitely emerged from my writing more and more recently, especially because I got so much feedback because a part of Bestiary takes place in an unnamed place in the South Bay or kind of like an implied South Bay—like I mentioned Milpitas once. And I’ve gotten a lot of readers who are from the San Jose area who tell me like, “Oh, it really resonates with me,” like the bootleg culture of having these bootleg CDs and this immigrant culture that exists here.
But I think the South Bay is usually considered the kind of less glamorous area of the Bay Area. And I remember meeting people who are from San Francisco who were like, “That’s not the Bay Area, South Bay’s not the Bay Area” and I remember being so shocked. I was like, well, I guess it’s true because I feel like we kind of watch what’s happening there, but they might not necessarily be watching what’s happening here. So it’s like, “Oh, that’s so interesting.”
And so I’m now making a more conscious effort to write about place in the South Bay. And I think one thing that really influenced me is the presence of the landfill in Milpitas that made its way into Bestiary. And so I find like [when] I’m driving, like the wind shield, like what’s the landscape around me, is something that very much informs how I write place. I mean it’s California, we spend so much free time commuting or between places which I find really interesting, sometimes more interesting than the destination.
Courtesy of The Criterion Collection and Yang & His Gang Filmmakers
And then in terms of the film stills, I relied a lot on them, especially when writing about Taiwan and the landscape of Taiwan. Specifically, there’s this film called The Brighter Summer Day directed by Edward Yang that takes place in the 60s and I remember seeing these stills of these hills, and the cities, and the railroad—and they were kind of exactly how my mom had described them to me. And I was so shocked because I was like “What! It exists!” in this vivid, super colorful way. And so I remember I would have screenshots of the stills on my computer while I was writing and also photos of places in Montebello and SoCal that I kept somewhere in my tabs so that I could kind of click back to them. And even if I wasn’t writing directly from them—because I think, oftentimes, stills and photos can seem a little bit static—they were kind of just there to re-immerse me and were kind of like touchstones in the process.
BFR: Wow, I love that. And for readers who only know you from Bestiary, do you have any flash fiction, short stories, or poetry of yours that you would recommend starting with?
K-Ming Chang: Oh, that’s such a great question. I would say for flash fiction or fiction, a piece called Gloria that I wrote—I’m so uneased when I read it cause I’m just like, “This narrator is such an asshole.” [Laughing] She’s like a horrible person but I really enjoyed that? She’s terrible but also at the same time I deeply empathize with her. So it’s like, maybe she’s the side of me that I wish didn’t exist—just like hyper judgemental but in a way that evades looking at herself, [laughing], that’s Gloria. It’s a piece about an unnamed narrator who’s like looking at this girl named Gloria that she hates but we all know that hate shares a very narrow border with love.
And then, in terms of poems, I think Yilan. It’s a very, very long poem that’s about a narrator who goes to Taiwan and stays in this hotel and talks about this generation of her family in Taiwan. Because for me, it is three and half pages long, it kind of feels like an epic poem, and I think that’s what the core of what I love—no matter what genre I’m in [it] is always storytelling. I mean, I love epics and I love drama and I love being super dramatic all the time. And I think those two are very angsty and dramatic in a way that feels true to me.
BFR: You write so many different forms from poetry to prose fiction, what is it like writing such a wide range? Do you feel like there are different mindsets or approaches you have depending on which form you’re doing?
K-Ming Chang: I think maybe process-wise it’s a little different in that poetry, I tend not to feel like “Oh, I have to hit a certain word count” or I have to be productive, in a way I think it can be a very anti-capitalist form in that way, in that you just allow the language to accumulate and then it becomes something.
Whereas with prose, I tend to be more like, “Ok, I’ll try to write a page” and it’s okay if I don’t necessarily reach that—or you know, I might set arbitrary word counts for myself just to kind of motivate me, but I won’t necessarily punish myself if I don’t reach that. I try not to think about productivity too much or I definitely will kind of spiral into anxiety.
But I think poetry has so much porousness. It feels like I can just leave the language on the page and leave it alone for a really, really long time, and oftentimes with prose, I feel this urgency to finish—or not necessarily finish—[but] there’s this sense of like “Okay sentence after sentence, routine” and I think that can also change too because I can put things away for a very long time and not look at them as well. So it’s not a hard fact thing, but I think other than that, I’m still led by language in either form. No matter what I’m writing, it’s always the language that guides me rather than thinking about plot, character, or “where will this end up?”—it’s kind of like word by word, sentence by sentence.
BFR: Wow, that’s so interesting!
K-Ming Chang: [Laughing] Well it’s also because I don’t know how to write plot and it intimidates me; there’s so many elements to fiction that I think seem very kind of set in stone in some way. They seem very fixed, and they have to be perfect in a way. You know like with plot especially, we talk about “Oh, it’s good, it’s satisfying” and all of these things and I’m like “Oh, I don’t know what that means, I’m just gonna be deliberately unsatisfying.” And sometimes that’s a way into the story as well.
BFR: And I know you have a forthcoming short story collection, Resident Aliens: Stories.
K-Ming Chang: Yes!
BFR: Can you just tell me what is it like writing and working on that right now?
K-Ming Chang: So it’s being officially announced I think next week, which is really exciting, or in the next couple weeks, so it’s really exciting. (Editor’s Note: Resident Aliens: Stories was announced on December 10th, 2020) It’s kind of strange because I wrote all of these at one time. So usually with stories, I feel like some are really old and some are really recent and they’re written over a span of time. But these were all written very, very close together and because of that, they’re all kind of the same style and voice. Which I think it’d be bad in some ways and so [I’m] trying to wrestle and grapple with it—but in other ways, I really appreciate that they’re kind of written from a singular impulse, because it all seems like a blueprint of something from a long time ago. It feels formed in a way, but definitely the stories individually need a lot of work.
But it’s really fun to return to a short form because I think that’s where my heart is—I love short fiction and flash fiction so much. And for me, it’s that you can be so playful and experimental within it because I think that the reader is primed for that. I think with the novel, we tend not to tolerate as much if it’s like 200 pages and we’re like “Oh god, are we going to read experimentally for 200 pages.” I mean I would love to, but I think something about flash fiction and short fiction is just so ripe with experimentation and with breaking boundaries and for kind of completely turning on its head what a story can look like.
And that’s always really exciting for me; I don’t think I necessarily do that, but I think what I’m always wrestling with in the stories is wanting to kind of hone this form in the way that I know it and have encountered it, and also wanting to deviate from it. So we’ll see which side of me wins out or if I find a kind of happy medium.
BFR: When it does release, would you want your readers to read it all at once, whip their way through it, or take it one story at a time?
K-Ming Chang: People can read it however they want, honestly. I feel that way about Bestiary too because it is so collection-like. I think that’s also what’s so beautiful about a short story collection, is that I think it is the kind of the thing you can pick up and put down. And I think usually that has a negative connotation like “Oh, it’s not page turning, I could put it down” but it’s also something so beautiful about a book companion that you can pick up and put down and pick up and put down. And that contains all these tiny multitudes and that’s what I’ve always loved about collections.
I mean some collections are also very novelistic—like I’m thinking Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang, that reads so novelistic-ly, that was like “I have to kind of read it as this cohesive thing in some way” but I think for me, probably not. Probably any order, any way, all of it.
BFR: I really love that because I know, I feel like some writers are very particular about, “Oh you need to read it like this way” which is completely valid but again, very refreshing.
K-Ming Chang: But is it valid, though? Like you know, once it’s born, it’s now out in the world, it’s like a child. It’s living its own life, it’s no longer yours, it’s out there.
BFR: Have there been any approaches about adapting Bestiary for film yet?
K-Ming Chang: That’s a good question, well I do have a film agent but I’m not sure? I have no idea how these things work so basically I don’t know [laughing].
BFR: It’s okay! I love books, but then I also love book adaptations.
K-Ming Chang: I love film as well, it’s a recent thing too. I was always that person that fell asleep in movies lots of times. But then when I was using it to do research, I was so haunted and captivated by films. Writing has provided a path into film for me.
BFR: Do you have any favorite films or tv shows that you’re watching right now?
K-Ming Chang: Oh, right now, let’s see. I’m revisiting a lot of sitcoms—I think maybe it’s just a desire to laugh at a time when there is like no laughter in my life. You know, given how, appropriately so, in this time of grief. So I’ve revisited a lot of 90s sitcoms, Frasier, The Nanny, all these things that I never really expected myself to watch over and over again. And also something about the episodic nature of sitcoms, the way that every single episode is its own self-contained arc versus a show you stream that’s basically its own one long movie—I think that’s something to do with short stories as well and wanting to look at these kind of bite-sized forms as well.
BFR: I loved The Nanny, I grew up watching it and—
K-Ming Chang: So good!
BFR: Yes, so good!
K-Ming Chang: I’m watching it for the first time and I’m so surprised I haven’t seen it before so I’m like on season 5 so I’m like, wow, zooming through it, [laughing], definitely a comfort watch for sure.
BFR: And you kind of answered this earlier but, what makes good flash fiction for you? For writers who are going to be submitting to the contest that you’re helping to judge, what should they keep in mind?
K-Ming Chang: Wow, I really feel like the sky’s the limit, you know? I think what’s so amazing about the form of flash fiction, is that it could be anything. You could do a 3-act structure or you could do a poem. It could be three sentences, it could be 999 words, which would be neat. I think there’s so much freedom and so much that’s liberating about the form as well.
It is kind of outside of our kind of capitalist ideas of what a story should look like or can look like. There’s not very much capital in the form and I think that can be a very freeing thing. It really can be anything, form-wise, content-wise, and I find that there’s kind of nothing else like that. I mean, poetry is that way as well where anything could be a poem, almost anything can be flash fiction. So that’s what I’m really excited about.
BFR: Do you have any favorite flash fiction?
K-Ming Chang: Yes! My favorite flash story is probably Black Jesus by Venita Blackburn, it’s on LitHub for free so you can search it up. But I think it’s beautiful and I think it exemplifies what flash fiction can do. It’s funny, it’s moving, it kind of plays with what a story can look like. And so, you have these reverent and irreverent moments which I really love. And Venita Blackburn, her flash in general is so incredible. I love her work so much and she has a collection called Black Jesus and Other Superheroes that have many flash stories in them.
Another favorite story is by Manuel Muñoz, and it’s called Astilla. His flash stories are also just absolutely incredible, they’re devastating and they’re tender and they’re so poetic and playful and I really am inspired by that as well.
BFR: Do you have any favorite places you like to read fiction online, I know you just mentioned LitHub but do you have any other outlets you like to look at?
K-Ming Chang: There’s so many! I think Split Lip has an amazing flash fiction section. They publish so much amazing flash. I think Wigleaf is a great place to read flash fiction. There’s The Offing, they have a section called the Micro, which I’m actually the editor of that department and it’s stories that are like a paragraph long, usually short. Actually, I think it’s the size of a tweet, the character limit is the number of characters in a tweet so everything is extremely short but brilliant.
Let me think, there are also these Norton anthologies that I really enjoyed reading when I was first exploring the form. They had a million of them, there were so many, and I checked them out from the library, and there’s like Flash Fiction International, Flash Fiction America, Sudden Fiction Latino, which was amazing, and so they have this huge expansive title backlist of flash fiction collections that I love.
BFR: Oh my god, yes, I love that and I feel like especially now with the pandemic, a lot of people are looking for places to read stories online so it’s pretty cool. I also really love Split Lip, they’re really good, that’s where I first discovered flash fiction too so it’s nice that we’re all in this little community.
K-Ming Chang: Yeah, they’re amazing. Oh, I forgot one last place, I want to shout it out: the Asian American Writers Workshop has a new flash fiction series that’s weekly, so that’s really exciting.
BFR: Also, you already answered this question a little earlier, but do you have any advice or words for the writers who will be submitting to the Sudden Fiction contest this year?
K-Ming Chang: I mean, again I don’t want to limit anyone and shape what’s already inside them that’s exciting them. So really, it’s that everything is possible, anything is possible and also, there’s just so much you can do with the form both form-wise and theme-wise and it’s okay to not be sure if your story’s a story. I think for me, whenever I finish anything, I’m always like “what was that?” and I think it’s ok to be like, “Oh, I don’t really quite know what this is or what tradition or canon this fits in.” I think that’s where the most exciting work comes from.
Submit your under-1000-word story to the Berkeley Fiction Review for our annual 2021 Sudden Fiction contest! First, second, and third place finalists are published in the journal and receive prize money up to $150. Honorable mentions are published alongside the placed winners in the journal. There is a submission fee of $5. To find out more about our annual 2021 Sudden Fiction Contest, head over here.