Q&A with K-Ming Chang, author of “Xiaogui / 小鬼” & “Arcadia” and The Offing’s new Micro Editor
K-Ming Chang’s “Xiaogui / 小鬼” and “Arcadia” were published in The Offing’s Fiction department on July 6, 2020 and in October 2020 K-Ming joined The Offing staff as the new Editor of the Micro department. Q&A conducted by Julia Chen, Assistant Fiction Editor and Di Jayawickrema, Fiction Reader.
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Julia Chen: I grew up in and was shaped, in so many ways, by the San Gabriel Valley. You’ve captured it in such a remarkable way — at once nostalgic and hallucinatory, sharp and surprising. (It’s such a specific place and I don’t think I’ve read much prose on it… or maybe I’m just not casting a wide enough net!) What is it about the SGV that makes it a compelling character? And how did you decide which details to include (e.g. bingbang at Ranch 99, Monterey Park) to ground the story in the middle of its more unexpected elements?
K-Ming Chang: I’m so glad you mentioned the SGV — I’m currently working on a short story collection set entirely in the SGV, and a large portion of my novel takes place in Montebello. I realized while I writing both that I hadn’t read very much prose about the area either. I was attempting to imbue familiar neighborhoods with a sense of mythology and surrealism. I also love writing about Ranch 99 because for some reason, uncanny things always happen to me in the aisles of a Ranch 99 — getting mistaken for someone else’s daughter, being approached by family members I didn’t know I had — and it’s a place that feels both completely chaotic and like a haven. When I was little, I loved spying on other families at the grocery store — so much about our domestic lives and dynamics are accidentally revealed in places like grocery stores, and I wanted to mythologize the spaces considered mundane.
Di Jayawickrema: I really enjoyed the felt experience of reading “Xiaogui” — running after the story, sometimes returning to the start of sentences to retrace the path. It resonates with how I experienced the world both as a child and as an immigrant: the sense of being swept along with your people, stories folding into other stories. How does the headlong style of writing here relate to the story?
KMC: Wow, thank you so much for sharing your insight and kind words — the story began as many, many run-on sentences that I tried to divvy into rhythms. I love what you said about it feeling like you’re being swept along — I was trying to capture that sense of being trapped in an undercurrent or getting towed along, and how the queer girls in this story are chasing their own agency. I also love what you said about stories folding into other stories — I wanted the sentences to feel intricate and relentlessly revealing. At the beginning, I purposefully wanted to establish that the girls were unsupervised because the adults were working and/or preoccupied, and so they were wild and attempting to collectively unleash their lives. They ping-pong through the story with a destructive force, and by the end, I also wanted to reveal their incredible creative power, almost divine — at the end, they’re the ones who casually create the moon with chewing gum. They’re propelled by currents of history and inherited trauma, but they also become makers of their own world, their own desires.
JC: I love how the language of fruit, insects, and bodies recurs in “Xiaogui” — the three intertwining in this dance of decay and mortality. When writing the story, did you already have these overarching images in mind at the start? Or was it something you arrived at as you wrote the piece?
KMC: Thank you so much for noticing this! I definitely didn’t set out with an intention. When I first began writing, it was a very stream-of-consciousness-like process. I didn’t want to herd the story into a shape yet. Only later, when I arrived at the image of the split-open watermelons, did I begin to think of the death and decay that surround these girls, how their youth is steeped in foreshadowed loss and trauma. The image of the watermelons and the flies felt both sweet and violent, a contrast that I hoped would carry throughout the story — the coexistence of playfulness and tragedy, joy and threat, harm and home.
DJ: The motif of disembodied teeth is prominent in both “Xiaogui” and “Arcadia.” Tell me about teeth, particularly teeth and class, which feel especially bound in “Arcadia.”
KMC: I definitely have an obsession with writing about teeth, which is probably super morbid! Thank you for asking this question — there’s a joke in my family that our teeth are the most expensive part of our body. I’m often writing characters with silver or gold teeth. Teeth-straightening is astronomically expensive and a kind of status symbol. In these stories, teeth are a marker of class, and the desire to gild our teeth with whatever we have is a kind of protective measure, an attempt to keep gold or silver close to the body, harder to thieve. In “Arcadia,” I wanted to write about class in a way that’s inextricable from the body. The love interest’s aunt is a dentist who hoards and keeps the teeth she uproots, treating them like her belongings, accruing and accruing.
JC: I know we’re all weary of discussing it, but in a way it’s been comforting to hear the responses: how has the pandemic affected the way you approach your reading and writing life? Are there habits you’ve changed/adapted that you can see yourself keeping in your life moving forward? Have you had any realizations in this moment that you wouldn’t have if the world hadn’t forced our collective hands?
KMC: I can’t quite grasp yet how my reading and writing has changed my approach, only that the obsessions and tensions that urge me to write — violence, gender, race, place, collective grief, collective care — continue to be the things that pull me to the page.
DJ: Your debut novel Bestiary, published last fall, is about three generations of Taiwanese American women. If you feel comfortable, can you share something passed down from your grandmother to your mother to you? You can answer this question as concretely or as abstractly as you like! And where can readers buy your book?
KMC: I love this question so, so much, thank you! The thing that has been passed down from my grandmother to my mother to me isn’t material — it’s a saying that I almost used as an epigraph for Bestiary. 是你的就是你的，不是你的就不是你的。”What is yours is yours, what is not yours is not yours.” Whenever I was upset about something, my mother repeated this to me. She would say that if something is meant to be yours, it doesn’t matter if you throw it out of a moving car’s window. It will return to you somehow. I used to be hyper-focused on the second part of this phrase, because I couldn’t figure out if it was meant to be comforting or if it was fatalistic. Now I choose to interpret in a new way: I want to keep and redefine what I’ve been given, and leave behind everything that needs to be.
Thank you, too, for asking for the link! It can be ordered at your local independent bookstore, as well as online here. I’m so grateful for your incredibly thoughtful and insightful questions, and can’t thank you both enough for reading my stories with such a close and caring eye. I feel so honored to be in community with you all.
DJ: We’re all so excited to have you join us as The Offing Micro Editor! Can you tell us about the kind of work you’re looking to publish? Aside from word count, is there anything that you think delineates the micro from bordering genres like flash fiction and prose poetry?
KMC: I’m so excited and honored to be a part of a publication I’ve admired for so long! I’m super open to the possibilities of the micro form, as well as to all thematic or stylistic choices — I think the beauty of the micro form is that it’s a bit hard to define, that it’s very fluid and can be a shape that’s made or broken. I think that the micro form shares a lot with poetry, prose poetry, and flash fiction — and that its concision allows for this feeling of either/both expansiveness or tightness. I love that feeling of reading something that’s small and that feels like it leads to questions or to uncertainty or surprise — there’s just so much possible about this form that I have yet to discover and am excited to. I feel like it’s up to the writer to envision or experiment with what they want to do with the form, and that I’m continually learning from them and from the micro section.
JC: How were you first introduced to The Offing? And is there a particular piece that made you go “Oh yes, I want to get involved with this!”
KMC: I first became introduced to The Offing as a reader — I don’t remember the exact piece that brought me to the site, but I remember spending hours browsing the fiction, poetry, and micro sections, and feeling like “oh, this is what I’ve been looking for!” It’s such a vital space of exploration. The broad range of styles and topics, and the decentering of whiteness, felt so essential to me, and often, when I was writing something and getting sick of it, I would browse through the site and remember what was possible. I’m forever a fan and a reader of The Offing, and very grateful and excited now to get to be a part of its vision.
K-Ming Chang is a Kundiman fellow, a Lambda Literary Award Finalist, and a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honoree. She is the author of the New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice novel BESTIARY (One World/Random House, 2020), which was longlisted for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award. Her short story collection, RESIDENT ALIENS, is forthcoming from One World. She is currently the Micro Editor at The Offing magazine.