“Mothers ago, there was a tiger spirit who wanted to live inside a woman.”
Kundiman fellow and National Book Foundation “5 Under 35” honoree K-Ming Chang marries magic with fire and vinegar in her debut novel, Bestiary, as she offers a visceral reckoning with immigration, violence, and certain hard truths.
Like the treatise from which it gleans its name, K-Ming Chang’s novel Bestiary is vibrantly alive with its cast of animals, though it is as much a compilation of love and lore as it is a book about beasts and being. It is a fierce immigrant epic told in fractals, passed mouth to hand and hand to mouth across three generations of Taiwanese-American women as they move from Taiwan to Arkansas to another space in the South Bay.
Cold Tea Collective had a chance to chat with Chang about her debut novel, what it was like writing a different diaspora story, and the writing community.
A tale of family through magic and animals
Mother, Daughter, and Grandmother are all unnamed, distinguished instead by their bodies, the land, and the fantastical creatures that roam in and out of their lives. Daughter comes of age in a world where her brother flies, kite-like, away from her father’s fists, and 口 (kou), a hole in the ground, unzips its mouth to spit out pebbles and love letters.
Hu Gu Po, roughly translated as Tiger Ghost Woman, features as a toe-eating spirit who haunts not only darkened bedrooms, but also Daughter’s life. At first merely a tale told to Daughter by Mother, Hu Gu Po becomes a pivotal force in the young girl’s life as she grows her own tiger tail.
Here, anthropomorphism and magical realism offer the characters roots and light. Human-animal hybrids are so often used to demonize or isolate, but here they function as a conduit, or perhaps an “umbilical cord,” between the character’s heritage and future. Daughter’s tail marks her kin, not only to Mother and Grandmother, but also generational violence. This violence can be devastating, but is also deeply intertwined with love, sacrifice, and mercy.
Writing within heritage spaces
“I come from a very talkative family. My family’s very theatrical,” Chang said with a laugh while speaking on her own familial background. “All the myths in the book were told to me orally or completely reinvented in some way when they were told to me. I never thought I would ever write about them because when I went to college [I thought] I need[ed] to write about ‘real literature.’”
But she said texts didn’t interest her as much.
In the process of figuring out what exactly it was she wanted to write and how to approach it Chang thought that she needed a mentor and permission or guidance to proceed formally. She also wrestled with barriers in the classroom.
“There were things that were not fully legible to a lot of my classmates, which I kind of already knew and understood,” Chang said. “I [didn’t] necessarily want to explain things. But I realized [that] I have to create my own rubric and also be okay with not being fully legible as well.”
These conversations around legibility and accessibility extended beyond classroom workshops into the broader literary sphere as well. When speaking of diversity narratives, Chang noted how she didn’t want her story to be framed in a manner that could be reductive, while still acknowledging that “not everyone is going to understand, and that’s okay.”
A different diaspora story
Often, diasporic narratives are tidied up, sequestering trauma, violence, and horror in darkened pantries whilst championing nostalgia, triumph, and forgiveness. Chang noted that often people romanticize Taiwan as a “land of democracy and good food.” While she doesn’t discount good Taiwanese food, Chang also pointed to the importance of wrestling with Taiwan’s complicated history as a settler state and the invisible violence that come with it.
“There’s also so many complexities and resonances [Taiwan has] with the US too, in terms of relationships between settlers and indigenous folks, class as well,” she said. In seeking to tease out these intricacies, Chang asked of herself and the text, “What are the ways in which [Daughter, Mother, and Grandmother’s] Taiwanese histories are embodied and carried within them?”
The novel explores the body sometimes in moments that are blatantly savage and unapologetically uncomfortable. Abuse is neither glorified nor condemned in these instances, but instead offered as a humbling truth. In this way, Bestiary pushes against the traditional diasporic narrative. The text, Chang said, is not so much about proving that Asians are American, or even about claiming America, so much as it is about inheriting America’s violence, and even being complicit in it.
Still, between these darker moments, she plants wobby but determined moments of shelter, hope, and love.
The patchwork nature of Bestiary
If “fluency is forgetting,” as Chang wrote, Bestiary is a lesson in remembrance. The novel stitches together prose, poetry, and academic writing in a veritable Frankenstein of voices. Its meandering narrative pushes back against the need to subscribe to a stark beginning and ending.
The stitched nature of the novel reflects both Chang’s ambition and respect for the topics discussed in the book. “It’s complicated because there are so many different power dynamics in history that I wanted to write about,” Chang said, “but I didn’t want to explain them in a way that felt objectifying or in a way that felt like an academic text where it claims authority.”
So rather than using conventional methods, Chang decided to approach everything “in a slanted way, through meta-layers…preventing the reader and writer and me from being able to see them in any objective way.”
In doing so, Bestiary reads like an intricately woven piece feeling like a reinvention of the universe. The lyricism of her words reveals Chang’s origins as a poet from the very start of the novel. Her belief that prose and poetry stem from the same consciousness is apparent in the playfulness with which she navigates between the two forms. And through whichever lens she frames her words, she remains consistent in beginning her narratives with language and voice.
Community and craft
Chang was warmly excited when talking about writers who have inspired and mentored her, whom she called the “foremothers of Asian American literature.” Alongside these literary inspirations, she also cited her editorial relationships and writing communities as integral cornerstones in her writing and writing process.
She pointed to her digital writing community in places such as Tumblr, Twitter, and YouTube as a source of encouragement and company. Indeed, despite the restrictions of quarantine, Chang noted that it almost felt like a homecoming to be in digital spaces with people.
“I felt like I met authors through YouTube,” Chang said. “Every literary thing was through the Internet. This is how I learned. This form of access was everything to me, growing up.”
When asked if she had any advice for writers, Chang muses on some helpful advice that was given to her: being a writer isn’t an identity, it’s a practice. She celebrates the habit of writing repeatedly rather than collecting accolades to affirm a particular title or occupation. Interestingly, this advice circles back to the idea of storytelling with the body.
“It’s that bodily practice of doing something,” Chang said. “I love the idea of writing as some form of practice that you do in the way that martial artists do or the way some people pray.”
Chang is currently working on a collection of short stories and her micro-chapbook “Bone House” is forthcoming from Bull City Press in 2021. You can follow her on all social media platforms at kmingchang.
Featured image from Brittany Hosea-Small.
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