This summer, I got to sit down for a Zoom call with K-Ming Chang, author of the Issue 41 story “Haiyang.” Our conversation ranged from discussing the intricacies within the short story to delving into the idea of writing as a practice.
The following interview took place via Zoom and has been edited for clarity.
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, 2020). Her short story collection, Resident Aliens, is forthcoming from One World. More of her work can be found at kmingchang.com.
Berkeley Fiction Review: How did your idea for “Haiyang” first come to you?
K-Ming Chang: I think it was from a conversation with my mom when we were talking about names that are also puns or homophones for other words. She mentioned someone named Haiyang. I was like, “Oh, I wonder if that’s a homophone. I wonder what kind of person would have this kind of name.”
I was just really fascinated in trying to create a character who would fit this name but maybe a little bit ironically, or who would be as unusual as this name. So, that was really the starting point: trying to figure out the etymology of this character.
BFR: And as you drafted “Haiyang,” how did it take shape for you? Did your initial idea of the characters or the plot change at all?
K-Ming Chang: Actually, it flowed fairly intuitively. I think that as I was writing [Haiyang] and the narrator, I wanted their relationship to be very very central, and also this main conflict—well, not really conflict, but the tension between them—which is the idea that I think Haiyang has. Her aspirations are very different. She’s dreamier in a lot of ways and has this real faith that she can leave and that they can shape their circumstances, in a way that maybe the narrator’s a bit more hesitant about. [The narrator] feels very trapped in the place that they’re at, and in the way that their relationship is functioning, and is thinking that she’s more in like a stasis, so to speak.
I think as I was drafting, as long as that was the core between these characters, it was always exploring the relationship. I knew that I could go anywhere with it. And it was more that the images were driving me. The idea of something very hard, like concrete, becoming water—that was a really important endpoint for the story, and I wrote toward that, even as the story began to shift and surprise me and change directions. I knew that that’s where I wanted to end up.
BFR: When you talk about images, I guess, how did the idea for the story come to you? Was it an image like that or did it just come to your mind one day?
K-Ming Chang: Yeah, I mean definitely it was the name that was my entry point, and then fleshing out who Haiyang is and how she would behave, and then a lot of images sprang from that. I was also really interested in the image of this very concrete apartment complex, where everybody was in very close quarters and knew each other’s business. And I was really interested in images of flooding and water and drowning and floating. I wanted to bring water into these places that are sterile or dry or drought-ridden. I was just really interested in the extremes of concrete and water and having those mesh.
BFR: I definitely noticed that when I was reading your story. One thing that I thought was really interesting was the name—Haiyang, and the sea—and how they were looking for the swimming pool. But I guess in an urban landscape, an ocean might as well be a swimming pool…
K-Ming Chang: Right.
BFR: I thought that was a very interesting point in your story. Also, another thing I loved and that our staff really loved was the fact that the main characters were queer and Asian. What has your experience been in finding this kind of representation in the literary world?
K-Ming Chang: Yeah, that’s such a beautiful question. I think a lot of it has felt like trying to find a language for something that doesn’t exist. And obviously, that’s not true, because there are many fictional stories of queer Asian relationships. Like, I remember reading the work of Qiu Miaojin, Notes Of a Crocodile, and Last Words from Montmartre, I think, is the name of the other book. And just realizing that there was already this vocabulary that I could play with, [that] I could be a part of and be in conversation with.
But I think when I first started writing these stories, it definitely felt like…I don’t know… grasping at ghosts or shadows or something like that. I felt like I hadn’t yet found a language, but I think that that is also a really important impulse for me in writing. And then that continues to motivate me. So I’m really drawn to something that I don’t yet have a language for, and I think that has just…really propelled me to write about these characters.
BFR: Did you have a certain audience in mind when you were writing these characters or was “Haiyang” kind of a story for yourself?
K-Ming Chang: Oh, I feel like everything I write is always first for myself. I try to think as little as possible about who else will read it. Because then it really makes it difficult for me to continue writing.
I think what really motivates me and pushes me forward is my own curiosity about these characters, and what the final image will be. I have to really tap into that. If I start to allow my own imagination to encroach upon the piece, in terms of like, “Oh, who will read this, who will like this, who will relate to this,” etc., it’s really difficult for me to continue writing. So I think first and foremost, I try to be my own audience.
BFR: Another interesting choice of style in “Haiyang” that I saw was the decision to italicize dialogue instead of using quotation marks. Why did you choose to present dialogue in this way?
K-Ming Chang: I mean, it’s definitely a bit of a quirk or idiosyncratic thing that I do that’s been really hard for me to break out of. I find myself doing it no matter what I’m writing. But I think it’s because when I was first reading, like, translated literature, for example—you know, every language has a different convention in terms of putting things in quotes or not. In the UK, for example, they do single quotes instead of double quotes for dialogue, and in other languages, in other countries, there are different conventions. You know, using dashes and indents, or in Chinese, using these square brackets to indicate spoken language.
So I was just like, “Wow, there are so many possibilities outside of the double quotes for writing dialogue!” I found that when I was writing, when I started with a double quote, my mind was like: “Okay, this is dialogue,” and it would halt my flow a bit. It almost felt like the dialogue was estranged from the rest of the text. Whereas, if I just italicized, I was able to keep in the flow of writing. It allowed me not to overthink what I was writing. It just has stuck as a part of my process—italicizing instead of quoting.
I do like that in a lot of translated literature, oftentimes dialogue is italicized. I like the idea of bringing in different conventions of dialogue.
BFR: I know you mentioned that you saw Haiyang as this dreamy character earlier in our conversation. I don’t know if this was your intention, but I also felt that italicizing dialogue made the dreaminess and like the dreamlike quality of your story come across really well. It just felt…not so grounded as I think the [double quotes] would have made things.
K-Ming Chang: I think that italicizing makes something seem like thought, as well. I really like the blurry line between whether something is dialogue because it is actually being spoken. Because I don’t write very realistic dialogue that is meant to sound like what people actually say. I really like dialogue that sounds kind of poetic or has a verse-like quality to it, or a mythical quality to it, or something that sounds different from normal spoken language. I think that italicizing also gives a hint to the reader that it’s not really very realistic dialogue or that it’s trying to be realistic dialogue.
BFR: I also think the dreaminess of that helped with the intimacy. Like you said—feeling like thought. And I think the intimacy and vulnerability that we saw between Haiyang and the narrator was very apparent, especially during the pool scene. What complexities in their relationship were you trying to convey during that moment?
K-Ming Chang: I mean, I think the pool scene is because I wasn’t really interested in a very traditional confrontation between them. Like, I didn’t want them to be standing in a room together, shouting at each other or arguing with each other. I was really interested in a more indirect moment of realization, and specifically for Haiyang to realize that her dream of swimming, and her dream of leaving, and all of these things, feel very inaccessible to the narrator. She realizes that there are certain circumstances that are preventing her from accessing that. It is this moment of realization for her.
I was just really interested in having this very non-intimate setting that is a public pool—which is like the least intimate thing you could possibly do or participate in—to feel very intimate, and to still feel like we were in their world. And this moment of giving up and capitulation. What does it mean now for the narrator, to now be in more of that guiding position, rather than the other way around?
BFR: It definitely seemed that Haiyang was this very confident, strong force in their relationship. To see those roles reverse during the pool scene was very interesting. Also, I love that one moment where she’s sitting on the pool steps and that kid comes in between her legs. Everything just feels so thrown off and out of the normal situation that they would be in.
K-Ming Chang: I also really just like estranging places that seem very familiar, [laughs], and to make them otherworldly and weird.
BFR: And that moment where that guy stood up, and he had his sunscreen on his back—I love the visuals in that scene.
K-Ming Chang: Thank you.
BFR: Another thing that struck me about the relationship between [Haiyang and the narrator] was their difference in imagination and dreams. I think the narrator felt like a more grounded character—like, actively saving up for their trip to Europe, while Haiyang seemed a lot more content with imagining their trip.
When you think about their imaginations, and how it is relative to their characters…why did you create this contrast between them?
K-Ming Chang: I love that observation about Haiyang, like, imagination is where she lives. Even though the narrator does have a sense of imagination, there’s already a defeatedness in the way that she sees the world. And I think post-pool Haiyang understands a bit more of the narrator’s perspective and way of approaching the world.
I wanted to dramatize the differences between them because I’m really interested in the unspoken differences between people in relationships, and these undercurrents that just fundamentally make them diverged in this way. And the idea of like, oh—who then has to compromise, or, what does it mean to live this way? Is this sustainable? Is their relationship sustainable? Those are all questions that were in my mind.
I think also just on a language level, it’s really really interesting for them to both interact, and for their different dream worlds or different perspectives to meld and reach each other in certain cases, as well. I thought it was just really fascinating, and I’m interested in less obviously dramatic ways of thinking about these fundamental differences between these two characters.
BFR: Personally, I think one thing I’d like to know about this topic of imagination was: while you were writing the story, was there any kind of purposeful connection that you might have drawn between queerness and the theme of imagination? Was that in your head while you were writing their relationship—the differences in how they saw imagination and also approached their relationship?
K-Ming Chang: I think it’s really interesting that, in a lot of ways, they are free of a lot of social expectations of where they should be at a certain point in the relationship. There isn’t this expectation of like, “Oh, you know, we’re saving up to get married, we have to follow this timeline of what a relationship looks like.”
In some ways, what their relationship is is tenuously and fluidly defined, because they’re inventing it as they go along. I think for Haiyang, it’s not a source of anxiety to think about—at least in the beginning—the future. Whereas, I think for the narrator, who is very fixated on things like death and tragedy and what has been lost—you know, this pool that’s now concrete—has this anticipation of loss that I think Haiyang is able to imagine out of, or to not have shadow her thoughts so much.
BFR: The ending of this story felt very powerful and in connection with the images we discussed earlier. Water, the ocean, swimming…it all felt very significant in the story. What did the incorporation of this theme mean to you?
K-Ming Chang: I was also thinking about a children’s song, or folk song, about the moon being a boat in the middle of an ocean. I thought, “Oh, that’s such a beautiful way to imagine this very natural phenomenon,” and, “Who is steering this moon?”
I was thinking on a very cosmic scale. But on a very grounded scale, I just feel like water is such an abundance. To me, it’s just so alive…and intrusive and invasive, in ways, too. I also was thinking, “What does it mean to have access to water?” What does it mean to be landlocked, or to be in this place of concrete and unmoving things? So the idea of fluidity versus rigidity, I think, always is something that really fascinates me.
Water is something that is kind of inherently sensual, as well. [That] was really really interesting to me. And the images specifically of floating versus sinking, like, thinking about survival and sustainability. This idea of sinking or swimming is such a basic metaphor that we all can mutually understand, so I was thinking about just really extending it and playing with it and experimenting with it to the fullest.
BFR: When you were writing the ending for this story, was it just a natural ending to the story for you, or were there other possible options for an ending that you were toying with?
K-Ming Chang: No, I think that was when I found that image of this idea where they’re both able to swim, but in a transformed state. I knew that that was the image I wanted to end on, and I knew that it was an interesting branch of the imaginary that I wanted to fully invest these characters into. It felt very right when I reached that image. I knew it was the end. I knew that if I kept writing past it, I would lose my thread a little bit.
Sometimes, it takes a long time for me to realize why I was writing something, and I feel like getting to that end helped me look back and realize why I was writing the story in the first place. I wanted this feeling that was both a little bit hopeful and also a bit sad at the same time.
BFR: In a broader sense, what does your writing process look like?
K-Ming Chang: That’s a great question because I think that’s something I’m still trying to discover for myself. I used to try to write every day, and I think I have spurts of energy where I can sustain that for a little while. But I also realized I’m trying to treat my writing with less of a productivity mindset and a little bit more of: “I’m practicing, I’m growing. This is a garden that I’m tending to, not something I’m trying to harvest every day.”
I’m trying to be a little bit more intuitive and in tune with myself, in terms of not punishing myself for thinking that I’m not productive enough. So I’m now writing less than I used to, but I think this is a healthier and more sustainable way for me to write.
BFR: I feel like when people talk about their writing process, a lot of times I hear ideas about churning out words every day. I think your process sounds like a really nice way to grow.
K-Ming Chang: Things like word counts, I used to do for myself. But I just realized, if I ever let myself down, it makes it very difficult for me to get over that. I’m like, “Oh God, I failed.” And I was like—I don’t want to go into that. I mean, it’s not as high stakes as it feels. I want to be able to fail again and again and not feel insurmountable or terrible. I’m trying to be a little bit more gentle with myself now.
BFR: Yeah, when you set a word count for yourself…it’s hard not to feel defeated at the end of every day.
K-Ming Chang: Yeah, exactly.
BFR: You were one of the judges for our 2021 Sudden Fiction Contest with Anna Vangala Jones and Ashley Hutson. How was your experience reading our shortlist submissions? What drew you to one piece or another?
K-Ming Chang: I loved it so much. Flash fiction is my favorite genre. It’s my favorite form. Every single time I read it, I’m so surprised, and I feel reopened to the possibilities of storytelling. So it was really really wonderful to read the shortlist.
I think what drew me to a piece is surprise or a sense of the language containing its own life and its own logic. I loved when I was reading something and it would go in a direction that I didn’t expect, or it would have these moments of stillness or language that I just couldn’t look away from. By surprise, I don’t mean plot-wise something surprising has to happen, but just my own sense as a reader of feeling taken by either an image, or a funny piece of dialogue, or a concept. That is how I define surprise, [laughs], just when as a reader I’m so compelled and just taken aback, in the best way.
BFR: Your debut novel has been doing very well. To wrap things up, it would be nice if you had a piece of advice about writing or publishing that you might want to give to other debut authors or even people who are just considering publishing their work.
K-Ming Chang: This is related to what I was saying about my process, but I think one of the best pieces of advice that I was ever given is the idea of writing as a practice rather than as an identity. I really love the idea that being a writer is not this static identity. It’s about writing as practice. And because I think so much: “Oh, am I a real writer?” It’s tied to a lot of things like institutional support and getting validation from external sources. Whereas thinking of writing as a practice makes it a lot more accessible, and at least for me, makes it feel a lot more low stakes. It’s just something I can touch base with every day. Not everything has to accumulate into something that will be published, but every, every day is practice, practice. So that’s the advice that I try to embody or follow as much as possible.
And then the other thing is something that my friend and writer, Pik-Shuen Fung, who wrote a book called Ghost Forest that just came out yesterday, said yesterday when I was interviewing her—which is that she felt so much joy and pleasure in writing her books. And I think, I sometimes lose track of writing for joy and writing for pleasure, and so that is also what I’m trying to embody and send out into the world: being led by joy and pleasure in writing.