K-Ming Chang brings her poet’s voice to this visceral, bold and crackling debut — and, our latest Discover Pick of the Month. Tackling the traditions of myths and oral history, Bestiary follows the perspectives of three generations of Taiwanese American women, illustrating the evolving nature of storytelling and its influence on who we become. Ultimately a novel of family, Bestiary is full of strangely beautiful prose that makes for a powerfully transformative read. K-Ming Chang was recently recognized as one of this year’s 5 Under 35 Honorees — a program that spotlights young, debut fiction writers whose work “promises to leave a lasting impression on the literary landscape.” We’re already quite smitten with Chang and had the pleasure of asking her five questions on everything from the inspiration behind this vibrant debut, the pull of cultural folklore, to what she’s reading and recommending right now.
Bestiary pretty much has it all: vibrant prose, captivating mythology, familial drama. What came first for you as you were writing this novel? Character, story or language?
Thank you so much! I’m so glad that all of these elements were captivating — for me, I always begin with a combination of language, voice, mythic influences. The mother’s voice, especially, arrived with so much urgency and force, a mixture of bluntness and lyricism that propelled the story forward. I always knew that I wanted to write about Hu Gu Po, the tiger spirit in childhood stories who ate the toes of children, but I didn’t realize I was writing about this force of hunger and desire until mid-way through writing the book, when I realized that the girl narrator was beginning to take on the characteristics of that which she feared. I feel like it was all simultaneously converging on the page: the language and the sentences led me into the space of myth, and the characters drove the language.
There are so many sides to each story, so many sides to trauma. You ask the question “Is there a way to tell a story without sides?” How does perspective shape a narrative?
This is such a great question! I’d like to know that myself. I always struggle with perspective, because I like to write first-person narrators who are effaced, who tell the story even when it’s not about them. For Bestiary, I wanted the perspectives to blend together and become porous, so that even when there are three different first-person narrators, they all share a certain vocabulary and borrow elements of each other’s language. I’m interested in using perspective as a way to create a collective voice, even within first-person. Perspective also shapes the heart of Bestiary’s conflict, especially when Daughter realizes that her relationship to her grandmother is shadowed by violence she didn’t witness. She’s forced to confront multiple narratives about a single person, and this becomes an internal and external struggle, one that can’t be easily resolved. At one point, Mother reminds her daughter that the story you believe in depends on the body you’re in: there’s no singular truth or narrative, and the characters embody multiple narratives and voices and perspectives, which I wanted to explore through experimental form. Bestiary is a bit meta in that way: it’s a story about the endless complexities of storytelling.
Every family and culture have their own oral history, their own folklore. What drew you to the particular myths told in Bestiary?
What drew me to these stories was a feeling of intimacy: most of the myths in the book were told to me by my mother or other women in my family who act as story-keepers and oral historians. I can trace each story back to the memory of first hearing it: the story I heard on a bus ride with the smoggy windows, the bedtime story I heard while we slept on the carpet next to a space heater. Every myth and story knots me to my experiences and to a particular relationship and closeness. I realized that these myths are intended to impart a moral, but I always wanted to question those morals and probe at these stories until they opened into something else. The myths I heard had the power to enforce the status quo, but they were also full of magic and inexplicable transformation, creating room for alternative endings. I was drawn to their cosmic scale and wanted to harness the language of creation and destruction to imagine queer futures and reinvented lineages.
As a poet working on your first novel, did anything surprise you or catch you off guard when you switched from writing poetry to writing fiction?
It’s really funny, because when I write poetry, I always feel the urge to be narrative and to have a plot, which is really counterintuitive to poetry, and when I write prose, I find myself running away from plot and character and narrative. It seems that no matter what form I’m in, I want to escape it! I think that the impulse to subvert and use language in playful ways was consistent whether I was writing poetry or prose, but one thing that surprised me — in good way — was how wasteful I could be with language when writing fiction. I could write sentence after sentence, barreling down the page, and I felt completely freed from the need to be precise in the moment — it felt like I could carve something from the language on the page later. That can be true of poetry too, but I tend to be able to open the floodgates more easily when I’m writing fiction, which makes the editing process much more grueling than the poetry editing process for me.
We always have to ask: Who are you reading and recommending right now?
I’ve recently read so many incredible things! The Gangster We Are All Looking For by Le Thi Diem Thuy, The Black Cathedral by Marcial Gala, Wild Kids by Chang Ta-Chun, Dahlia Season by Myriam Gurba and Postcolonial Love Poem by Natalie Diaz. I’m also excited for Ghost Forest, a novel by Pik-Shuen Fung, which is forthcoming in 2021.