Over the summer I had the privilege to interview Kimberly Liu about her piece, “I, Iris”. We began by discussing the themes and motifs of the piece, while taking a deep dive into Iris as a character. Later, we transitioned into tackling Liu’s creative writing process.
The following interview took place via Zoom and has been edited for clarity.
Kimberly Y. Liu is an MFA candidate at Columbia University, where she is also a creative writing teaching fellow. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming in Gulf Coast, Four Way Review, and Columbia Journal. She grew up in Beijing and lives in New York. You can find her at kyliu.net.
Berkeley Fiction Review: I’m a big fan of this piece. In particular, I love how the motif of “eye/I”, both in reference to Iris herself and the physical body part, is really wonderfully woven into the story. Where did you get the inspiration to portray Iris’ character this way?
Kimberly Liu: Iris, as a character, came pretty naturally to me because I think the eye/I device is pretty well-recognized in the Western literary tradition, particularly among Anglophones because of the homophone. Sight as a metaphor for knowledge, awareness, and identity is well embedded into our collective recognition. There’s the blinding in Oedipus, and in King Lear—which is referenced in the story—so I think most of the work of laying down the foundation has already been done for me. I was just building off of that. More specific to myself, over the years I had read my share of Lacan and Freud, and I’ve always been interested in the ways that fragmentation of identity and alienation have been portrayed in literature. So these themes have always been floating around in my head. Unintentionally, Iris’ struggle seems to echo a lot of Lacan’s Mirror Stage theory, in which she looks at herself in the mirror and she sees both her “I” as in her self and an Other, and she gets increasingly frustrated that she can’t pin down herself as a subject because she’s trapped inside only one angle of self-perception. I feel like literary works are always trying to tackle these themes of anxiety about the self. They’ve often used the mirror symbol (I’m thinking The Picture of Dorian Gray in which he’s trying to cover the mirror, and also Sylvia Plath.) So those have definitely been influences for this story. I think in the end, the most potent source of my decision to write it this way is just the sense of uncanniness that I feel myself when I look into the mirror: realizing that the only time I can see my eye is when I have to behold the rest of my “I”—as in my self—and also that the only thing forcing myself to see my “I” as itself is my eye.
BFR: I think we touched a bit on the instability of self just now and all these motifs that really inspired you to create this piece. So in that sense, what provoked you to write “I, Iris,” in terms of what messages or ideas you really wanted the reader to leave with?
Kimberly Liu: I think I was just trying to convey the experience of one particular kind of emotion that comes with a myriad of other nuanced collateral emotions. These are ones that are very familiar to me, so I was also trying to explore what kinds of backgrounds could create such a particular kind of consciousness. To answer your question, I would say I was trying to tackle alienation, dissociation from both society and the self, suffocation, and a feeling of a lack of agency. I think all these aspects of existential dread are quite universal even though Iris’ situation is quite particular. It was also a fun way of exploring the questions that mid-century existentialists might be asking if they existed eighty years later and if these questions were diluted across two cultures.
BFR: I think that that’s really interesting. The themes that you mentioned just now are very complex and intricate, especially because it’s such a complicated subject and because everyone often feels those emotions differently. In that sense, were there any challenges that you faced while writing this piece?
Kimberly Liu: If I’m honest, this story was shockingly smooth in terms of the process of creation. I banged it out pretty quickly, and it went through many rounds of potential revision, but all the plot beats that we see in the version that was published in Berkeley Fiction Review have pretty much remained the same from the first draft. I hesitated over whether I should cut parts of the beginning that cover her childhood in the interest of quicker pacing, but in the end, I only cut one paragraph and it seemed to work out okay.
BFR: Towards the beginning, one moment that speaks to Iris’ identity, or lack of, is when the guidance counselor, Mr. Dens advises Iris about her college applications. In particular, he asks, “Who are you?” and then tells her to market herself. I’m particularly interested in the use of the word “marketing” to appeal to colleges. What did you want to express through Mr. Dens’ character and his advice to Iris?
Kimberly Liu: Yeah, I guess in this scene, Iris’ experience is very specific to our current age. I was mostly thinking about how these days in America—and abroad—there’s just so much competition and pressure among young people for acceptance into elite colleges. And I think when you’re seventeen and eighteen, a lot of things are going on in your head—you’re experiencing some things for the first time, so emotional stakes are higher. This is to say that Iris is in a pretty delicate state. Within America’s culture that emphasizes individuality and uniqueness, there’s additionally a lot of pressure to differentiate yourself from the other applicants, and that’s what Mr. Dens is trying to say: that Iris needs to stand out. I think this really goes against what she’s seeking unconsciously: comfort in invisibility. Yet, at the same time, she’s very conflicted because she also wants to be seen by herself or in a way that is different from being seen by others. And I think, to answer your question more directly, I was trying to use Mr. Dens to show how students have a lot of pressure to market themselves almost as if they were commodities.
BFR: Right. I think that there’s this really interesting build-up of Iris being at war with herself. In particular, one of the most climactic, moving moments of the piece to me was the 1600 meters dash that Iris participates in. Was there a specific reason you chose running as Iris’ outlet? How and why did you choose the sport as such a large part of her identity?
Kimberly Liu: I have been a long-distance runner for many years, so much of this story is drawn from my own experience. In addition to that, I think extreme endurance sports have always elicited a lot of curiosity about what kind of mind it takes to choose to pursue this kind of activity, and also what goes on inside of these minds. I think there is a tradition that is trying to explore this pursuit of pain. I’m thinking of So Many Olympic Exertions by Anelise Chen, maybe The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner by Alan Sillitoe, and Leslie Jamison’s essay in her collection The Empathy Exams. All of these stories and essays are trying to explore why people elect to pursue this kind of extreme discomfort.
Long-distance running is a bit different from others, in my opinion, because the goal is so intangible and far away and there’s no immediate gratification; there’s only one checkpoint in the entire event and that’s the end. So, for this reason, I think there’s an inherent masochistic element to long-distance running. And from my own experience, I’ve always felt—in a very paradoxical way—that there is a kind of freedom in the pain and the rhythm and the mindlessness. And I think these are the same reasons that certain people abhor running and others love it. So, since Iris’ main struggle is the pain of awareness and the pain of existing within her own mind, I felt like it wasn’t really a question that I was going to make running both a cause of her torment and also the only potential mode of release from it.
BFR: Branching out from this idea of loneliness and running, which is very much a solo activity in this sense, we can also look at the romantic relationships that are portrayed in “I, Iris”. Iris has two romantic relationships, both of which really seem to flesh out her fears and character. How do you think romantic relationships shape one’s identity, and what was the process of creating the characters of Kenneth and Katherine?
Kimberly Liu: That’s a great question. I think when we’re young, romantic relationships are always so formative, whether because of the new chemicals involved or because media tells us that they should be formative. Ideally, we’ve experienced different kinds of love already—parental love or platonic love— but we haven’t really experienced romantic or carnal feelings. I think in Iris’ case, where attention and affection from other primitive sources like her parents have been insufficient, these romantic relationships can be even more formative. When I was writing Kenneth and Katherine I was kind of leaning into the mirroring themes throughout the piece, so their names start with the same letter, and one of them has blue hair and brown eyes and the other has brown hair and blue eyes. I figured that one negative romantic experience is bad, but from a numbers perspective, it’s not really indicative of anything. If you have two negative experiences, though, that begins to form a pattern, especially when it involves two different genders. I felt like two was sufficient, so I didn’t want to have a third. But I wanted to make it more difficult for Iris by making Kenneth and Katherine different enough in that her problem with Kenneth was that she was too abnormal and visible, but her problem with Katherine was that she was not distinctive and visible enough. So in this sense, I was hoping we feel that Iris really doesn’t have an escape.
BFR: Looking back on this piece after discussing all these different events, I realized that there’s a very clear and intricate buildup of the events that shape Iris’ character to the reader; events like the conversation with Mr. Dens, the college scandal, and her relationships all really add to this aspect. While writing “I, Iris”, did you actually plan these events out specifically, or did they just naturally seem to come to you while writing the piece?
Kimberly Liu: I’m not sure that those two things are mutually exclusive. I think it could be both. I guess that they came to me and then I molded them, or cut them down a bit and maybe added other ones that, to me, felt a coherent way to explain the kind of mind that Iris eventually ends up having. In terms of these signifying events in her life, it was pretty organic, but I think I was just trying to see what kinds of formative events or moments in a youth’s mind would be conducive to the alienation and anxiety that she eventually feels to make her execute the extreme act at the end.
BFR: An overarching theme of this piece is Iris’ fear of sameness. It’s a particular point throughout the piece, and it’s highlighted through the café incident with Katherine. What inspired you to portray the fear of sameness through this example— the one at the coffee shop—and what about sameness do you think is intriguing or maybe fearsome?
Kimberly Liu: I have to say the café scene came pretty spontaneously. I think my starting point was mainly the pretty common experience among feminine-presenting queer women couples of being mistaken to be sisters. I think here, Iris is experiencing a sense of safety and contentedness for the first time with Katherine by not being othered, but when she’s faced with the potential that she might actually be seen as “the same” with Katherine, she’s just plunged into the same existential dread, but turned on its head. Or alternatively, maybe she’s just upset for not being seen for who she is in this particular instance, which is the romantic partner of Katherine, not her sister, which I think is equally if not more existentially disturbing. But, in this sense, it’s also another instance of her being othered by encountering this stranger, a woman who’s put off by their queer relationship, and who is basically saying, “You are not like us, you are something else.”
BFR: It was really interesting and eye-opening to see your process with [“I, Iris”]. Could you describe your creative process and where you usually find inspiration for your works?
Kimberly Liu: I’m not sure! I don’t really have a fixed process; it’s pretty organic. I think my inspiration usually comes from either strong emotions or real-world phenomena that frustrate me. In terms of the process of writing, I usually have to think of the macro parts in my head so that it builds up enough pressure and potential. Often, I do this thinking during runs or walks. I do this before I start writing anything down because I find that if I start seeing it on a blank page too soon, I can get really stuck. And not every idea makes it into a story. I’ve found that a lot of the time if I’m intellectually invested but not emotionally invested enough, then it often just sits around in a document.
BFR: Then, in terms of emotional investment, in what ways do you translate your own experiences or background into your writing?
Kimberly Liu: I guess the tricky thing about fiction writing is you’re supposed to be creating new lives and perspectives, but you have only ever lived your own. I think at the point in my writing career at which I wrote “I Iris,” my writing was still largely autobiographical. I think it’s a pretty common trend for writers’ early work to lean towards autobiographical, and then as they progress along, for the writing to stray from autobiography. I guess the short answer is that my experience in terms of events, raw emotions, or modes of consciousness always manages to make its way into my writing, but I tend to change the plot in ways that more accurately or potently reflect the themes that I’m trying to convey. When venturing beyond personal experience, which I think is important to do, empathy and research go a long way.
BFR: You’ve actually published both short fiction and poetry as a writer. How do you balance between working with these two genres, and do you have a preference for one over the other? Or how do they also coincide when you’re writing in either genre?
Kimberly Liu: Yeah, a good question. I exclusively wrote poetry actually up until four years ago. I enjoyed it a lot, but I gradually turned to fiction because I wanted to explore cause and effect in a more immersive way, and to explore interpersonal relationships in a way that was maybe a bit more accessible and tangible. My main attention right now is on fiction, but I still really love poetry, and I often find myself missing poetry’s esteem for abstraction and style and raw emotion; for imagery, and beauty for beauty’s sake, and art for art’s sake. My poetry formation is still very much present in my prose, and I’m pretty happy and proud with the way it’s molded my prose in regards to my attention to style, specifically sound and rhythm and imagery. I don’t think “I, Iris” is the best example of my usual style, in that it’s not a good example of how my prose, I’ve been told, is impressionistic and poetic on the sentence level.
BFR: Do you have any upcoming projects or works in progress that you can tell us about so we can continue to explore your prose and style? I really enjoyed “I, Iris”, so I’d be really excited to know!
Kimberly Liu: Thank you, that’s very kind. Berkeley Fiction Review is the first publisher of my fiction. I have two more fiction stories coming up in literary magazines, and I’m working on a short story collection, but I think that’ll be a ways away until publication.
BFR: Where can our readers find you?