by Sheng Kao
Photo credit: Bestiary Cover
K-Ming Chang is a Taiwanese American poet and the author of Bestiary. New Bloom editor Sheng Kao spoke with her on October 8th to discuss Taiwanese politics and identity and how they take shape in her work, as well as themes in her debut novel, Bestiary.
Sheng Kao: Could you introduce yourself? For those who aren’t familiar with your work, what is Bestiary?
K-Ming Chang: I’m K-Ming Chang, the author of Bestiary, which is my debut novel. It came out at the end of September, and it’s about three generations of Taiwanese American women. The book is propelled by the third generation, Daughter, who grows a tiger tail overnight, and has to figure out her family roots underlying this tail.
SK: Your work is distinctly Chinese/Sino, but also distinctly Taiwanese in terms of place, culture, and history. I’m curious how you cultivate and separate these relationships within yourself and within your writing—how do you relate to Chineseness vs Taiwaneseness? How do you think they relate to each other within your writing?
KC: I was so thrilled when I read this question, because I feel like I don’t have the space to talk about it when it’s something I really want to talk about. I think in the popular imagination Chineseness and Taiwaneseness—at least to people outside of the community—are completely entwined or synonymous. For me, it’s complicated because I’m Taiwanese on my mother’s side and mainland Chinese on my father’s side, and I often write about characters, like in Bestiary, who are both Taiwanese and Chinese. Not because Taiwaneseness equates to Chineseness, but because they’re half and half. I often also write about narrators who share that experience, which I find very confusing and conflicting.
It’s also interesting for me because the Taiwaneseness that I’m connected to is indigenous, not tied to Han Taiwanese or a necessarily waishengren experience. For me, that connection is tied to indigenous displacement, which is not Chinese, not Sino at all—in language or in culture, and has been somewhat erased from diasporic Taiwanese identity. I grew up with both a Chinese community and a Taiwanese community, and for me, being Taiwanese is connected to my matriarchal lineage, so I find that when I write about myth or storytelling, those themes come out of that Taiwanese matrilineage. The prejudices that I face that come with that identity stem from that side as well. Taiwaneseness is very connected to the domestic sphere for me, and not something I saw represented outside often. Hearing Taiwanese was something I considered kind of intimate, and not something I would hear outside of the home, outside of my familial space. Being able to validate that aspect of Taiwaneseness has been difficult, but as a writer, I felt it paralleled my journey; I embraced it more and more through my writing process.
I do draw from my mainland Chinese background as well. I actually grew up hearing a lot of, “Oh, mainlanders are uncivilized,” “Oh, they have no manners,” ideas about China being backwards, and a lot of classism directed towards China. It’s really interesting to see that shift within my lifetime; when I was younger, I feel like Taiwan was seen as this place of prosperity and wealth, and it’s changed recently, where Taiwan is now seen as provincial. It’s really interesting to see those geopolitical power dynamics and Chinese imperialism, but shifting the other way. Now, Taiwan’s seen as kind of this “dead place,” whereas the mainland is where everyone is going. Taiwan used to have this soft power, this cultural power, which people in my family were very proud of, and it gave them this sense of superiority. However, it also changes depending on context. I’ve sort of grown up seeing a hierarchy within immigrant communities where wealthier Taiwanese immigrants looked down upon and exploited the labor of working-class mainland immigrants, and there’s also the broader trend of Chinese imperialism especially towards indigenous people, where language and cultural identity has been erased and stripped. It’s so complicated.
SK: I was wondering how you contend with the colonial relationship that Taiwan has with the Han Chinese first coming in as immigrants, and then the KMT establishing a colonial government later on. That violence shows up in some places in your writing, and it’s so fascinating how you draw the connection to other forms of violence.
KC: I definitely don’t consider myself someone who’s particularly knowledgeable or an authoritative figure on these topics. When I explore them through writing it’s always through a lens of personal consequence, whether it’s the erasure of a language, no longer being able to speak something, or the intimate ways people interact with each other. I find that being able to write about those things helps me understand broadly what I’m observing. I really focus on those intimate interactions and power dynamics, and how those are affected by larger political forces.
I think about that in Bestiary, writing about the grandfather figure, who was part of the KMT army and that colonial and imperial force which established martial law in Taiwan, and contending with his complicity in that. In the book, he is someone who’s beloved by many of the characters, but I also wanted to show the violence that he has inflicted. His form of memory loss is not only forgetting the war trauma that he’s survived, but also forgetting the violence that he’s inflicted. I think the grandmother character is someone who really understands what it’s like for him to be part of this colonial power, who can only counteract that with more violence, making it this cyclical intergenerational violence that gets passed down.
SK: How do you view the role Taiwan plays in your poems/writing? How do you work to construct/deconstruct Taiwan? What do you think your role is when engaging with this history (both personally and in your work)?
KC: It’s always difficult, because I don’t want to mythologize Taiwan and make it into this romanticized homeland, which I think is really common for people who write within the diaspora. I don’t want to overly romanticize it as a place of origin, and have what I write completely removed from the reality of the people who actually live there. It’s definitely something I’ve fallen into in the past, because it’s something that’s easy to lean onto.
Bestiary is so infused with myth, and I was hoping in it to write about myth but also to name the colonial powers—the nationalists, the Japanese—and not make those parts mythic. I wanted to establish that early on by naming these colonial forces very clearly and directly in the first few pages of the novel, and not create this complete haze of language right off the bat. Later on I felt more free to play within the mythological space, for example with the footnotes, hinting at what the actual violence is, since there is so much power in naming, but I also didn’t want it to become anthropological or sociological or historical work, because it’s so filtered through family history. Rather than thinking of Taiwan as a homeland, and romanticizing it as a place of democracy and boba, while I understand that impulse, I also want to portray it as a place where there is indigenous displacement and it is a settler colonial state, which I find actually has a lot of resonance with America, in the policies that Taiwan has historically enacted against indigenous people.
SK: What do you think modern literature about Taiwan can do for Taiwanese people and Taiwanese Americans? There’s some famous Taiwanese literature that has found an international audience (e.g. Qiu Miaojin, Wu Ming-yi, Pai Hsien-yung). These authors work towards constructing a Taiwanese identity in their novels—do you imagine that your work does the same for Taiwanese Americans? What do you hope your literature brings to the table for Taiwanese Americans thinking about their identity?
KC: I hope my work contributes to the spectrum of what’s out there. All of those writers you mentioned, who I love so dearly, I think have a very distinct voice and perspective, and different desires in their writing—different historical periods, various educational and ethnic backgrounds. I hope Bestiary contributes to that sense of abundance. There are so many different Taiwanese and Taiwanese American narratives, and they are often more complex than we think. I love the idea that rather than a consolidated nationalist identity, there can be a more fractured identity. That feels much more productive to me. Rather than having what makes someone Taiwanese be citizenship, or a particular way of belonging, or a particular language, or a particular food—I think a lot of Taiwanese literature resists that. It shows how there are so many different diasporic communities and also the potential to disrupt that nationalistic obsession. I hope that this book takes that direction.
SK: What has Taiwanese literature done for you in terms of thinking about your experiences and your identity? How has Taiwanese literature and the label of being Taiwanese American shaped your worldview and how you approach your writing?
KC: It took me a long time to embrace that identity, because of being half-mainlander. My family would often say I’m not a real Taiwanese person and that I don’t belong in this identity, because I’m my father’s daughter, probably especially so when we’re thinking of patrilineage. I was told to turn away from my Taiwaneseness. There was also this sense that being Taiwanese was not “useful.” That it would be more useful for me to speak Mandarin, and to be marketable in this certain way. I don’t know if I can say it was an act of reclamation, because I don’t know if it was mine to claim in the first place, but I like the idea of continuing to have a complicated relationship with Taiwaneseness because that’s where all the questions arise and my desire to write comes from. It doesn’t come from this certainty of, “I am Taiwanese American.” It always comes from me thinking about the ways I’ve been alienated from Taiwaneseness. What things have been said to me that make me feel like I’m not Taiwanese? That sense of not belonging is something that is generative.
SK: In what way does Bestiary continue themes and forms you have explored in your previous work? In what ways is it a departure?
KC: I think thematically I’ve been exploring a lot of the same things and will continue to explore them: daughterhood, matrilineage, inheritance, violence and love, and how those are entwined. I think the departure is that I tried to challenge myself more with Bestiary—challenging my own assumptions and being more ambitious in terms of scope and scale. Before, I didn’t really care about coherence, or whether something made sense in a literal sense. I think that’s a part of poetry, not having to think about that. With a book, there’s a new challenge, because there does have to be momentum, even though it doesn’t have to be traditionally plotted, and I needed to zoom out from a language level in a way that I never had before. I had to see it as architecture and step back from the language for a bit.
SK: You do a lot of interesting things with language in Bestiary, as in your poems. For example, using nouns as verbs, or turning intransitive verbs into transitive verbs. How do you think your knowledge or understanding of Chinese enhances your English writing?
KC: I don’t think I consciously thought of those things, but when I look back I do see a reverence for language. I grew up with a lot of playful and exaggerated Chinese aphorisms. My mom would always say, “You don’t have to eat the pig to know it walks,” which is a saying I really loved. I say it in English and people don’t know what I’m talking about. I learned one recently from my mom that’s like the English saying, “Killing two birds with one stone,” except it’s Taiwanese and it’s “wading for clams while washing your pants.” So you have clams and clean pants! I remember loving that and writing it down and those sayings end up appearing in my writing. That bodily and playful language makes its way into the book, sometimes I just translate these phrases literally.
I also realized that I really love reading Chinese books translated into English. I like when language feels translated. I was reading a book, I think by Mo Yan, and one of the lines was “I love you so much I could eat you,” and I wondered if that was a translating error. It disoriented me and made me feel taken aback. I find this a lot when reading literature in translation, there are moments where suddenly the possibilities of language are expanded in ways that are difficult to find elsewhere. There are so many more possibilities when you go out of the comfort zone of language. Having really good English often means using certain cliches and using words that sound “correct,” but I love going outside of that and using descriptions that feel slightly weird or jarring. It ruptures the language in a really interesting way.
SK: Bestiary uses highly metaphorical imaginative language, which often plays a role in diaspora literature. What do you think is the role of imagination in Taiwanese literature?
KC: The funny thing is that the book didn’t used to be like that, but I’ve been editing the book for two years, so I’ve gone over every sentence and whenever one bores me I add a metaphor. It was originally unintentional but I like the way it turned out. I really enjoy when language goes overboard and is very maximalist. I grew up in a hoarder household, so cluttered language really interests me.
Going back to imagination as a tool, I find that metaphor is very magical, in that you can make something into something else just through language. It’s almost like a magic spell to me, like instant alchemy, instant transformation. I think of imagination as something that feeds transformation, destroying and creating something new. On a language level, it can be so pleasurable to do that.
Imagination can be a radical tool of transformation as well. The role of imagination for me can sometimes be about wanting to intervene in the past and imagine a different future. Those things go hand in hand. I always say that Bestiary is “speculative history” because it turns the history and the past into a form of speculative fiction, and for me that’s really tied to being able to imagine a future. It feels full of radical possibility, especially for the queer and lineage themes in this book.
SK: Did you find that imagination and metaphor ended up operating differently between your poems and Bestiary?
KC: I think that in poetry we don’t attach a genre to it. When there are transformations or surreal events, we just accept it as poetry—oh, she can grow wings. We don’t distinguish between science fiction poetry vs literary poetry, for example. In poetry, we allow space for different kinds of realities, whereas I think we don’t in fiction. There’s realism, and fantasy, and we don’t really allow space for certain realities or if they do happen we go, “oh, that’s not realism.” That’s one thing, is that I didn’t really realize I was writing magical realism. I just thought I was writing. There was no genre determining it. It was only when it was labeled by other people that I was like, oh, this is magical realism, but I wasn’t thinking about it at all. In poetry, anything can happen, and just through language, there is so much speculation going on.
I think the novel also allows for more extended metaphors. For example, the tail is literal, but I think it can also be considered an extended metaphor—for what, who knows, anyone can interpret that, but it’s something that’s very sustained. Whereas with poetry I feel like with every line there’s a turn, and I feel like there are more shifts, at least for me.
SK: Lineage and inheritance are a major theme in Bestiary, and both play a big role in Asian American identity—how do you think migration perpetuates and creates new lineage-related trauma?
KC: I always thought of migrations as creating breaks in lineage, making certain generational things inaccessible, since every migration is a severance. But writing this book I think took my mind away from thinking about migration as severance, because just because something is no longer there or accessible to you doesn’t mean that you don’t carry it, or that it doesn’t haunt you, or that you can’t still have a perpetual relationship to a place. So many members of my family haven’t been back to Taiwan in 30, 40, 50 years. And yet that hasn’t severed their relationships to Taiwan at all. In fact, I feel like it has added new layers to their identities and their understandings of themselves.
I think that migration, at least for the characters in the book, creates a sense of loss and grief, but it’s complex because it’s bound to necessity as well. I wanted to write about that grief and loss as something that’s a presence, rather than something that’s an absence. The Mother character in the book says that her mother’s grief is like a child that she loves, because it can’t ever leave her, and I think in that way it does create this lineage, but it’s of loss. That sense of loss is passed down, it doesn’t just end with one person.
SK: Could you talk about how you approached the theme of transformation and subversion in Bestiary, specifically when it comes to the body and the recurring motif of the holes? I was so fascinated by the way that holes/mouths are subverted into active subjects with the capability to transform, rather than just receive.
KC: Starting with transformation and subversion, I was interested in what it means for a body to be transgressive or shameful. I think this happens on a daily basis, when people fart or burp, that is very transgressive in our spaces. It’s as if you did something wrong, and you have to apologize for it. Then on a larger level, what does it mean to be a queer person, or what does it mean to be a literal monster-human hybrid? To be seen as a transgressive body, and to resist the shame of that? I wanted their various transformations not to be tied only to shame, but to be something that they can harness as well. That’s why I feel like when I wrote about these bodily processes I didn’t want them to necessarily have the concept of shame attached. It’s very matter-of-fact or even beautiful and intimate the way the characters talk about their bodies. It wasn’t something I realized I was doing until later on.
With the holes…like you were saying, I think that our connotation for holes is often that there’s an active agent that puts a hole in something passive. Whether that’s putting a hole in the ground or punching a hole through a piece of paper or a hole in your heart that a person has left, it often assumes that the person left with the hole is passive and a victim. I was very interested in holes like mouths or anuses, which have agency. I wanted to think about holes that are completely alive, and can do things like speak, or have choice. I also didn’t want to write a book that victimized its characters. There are points where the characters do lack choice, and they are in this system that wants to strip them of choice, but everything is still alive. There is an aliveness to them, to their bodies, and to the things that they make. These holes have their own life force as well, which I think is part of the indigeneity as well, of land and water not being passive things that we’re drilling through or siphoning, but that have their own life and consciousness.
SK: Did you find that the holes represented agency for the characters?
KC: I guess I see the holes as pretty multifaceted. The Daughter digs them with the brother, but then they take on a life of their own. They become something embodied, birthed almost, in that they have this capacity to eat and digest and metabolize and also to give and spit out. They don’t seem to be something the characters can control, even though there are moments where they seem like they can, like putting the tail in the hole. There’s this sense that there’s not really a logic to them. They aren’t like doors, where you can just use a key to open and close them. I enjoyed playing with the mystery of that.
SK: Is there anything else you’d like to say about yourself or about Bestiary to New Bloom readers, whether they are Taiwanese, Taiwanese American, or otherwise?
KC: I really appreciate everything that New Bloom does and how much nuance it brings to the conversation outside of the narratives we’re used to hearing. I’m always seeking that space to talk about Taiwaneseness in a nuanced way, socially and politically and personally. It excites me to be a part of this conversation and I feel like everything I write is quite overtly and proudly political in many ways. It’s exciting to be in dialogue with publications that are doing that work.