“The characters in the novel are shameless about their bodies”: An Interview with K-Ming Chang

side by side series of the cover of K-Ming Chang's Bestiary

Part myth, part bildungsroman, part queer love story with a lyric, fabulist delivery, K-Ming Chang’s debut novel Bestiary, out today, is its own animal. This intergenerational family saga primarily follows a young girl growing up in southern California, where her parents have settled after their second immigration west—her mother’s first being from Taiwan to Arkansas, and her father’s from mainland China to Texas. Bestiary is also a novel of the body—its mundane functions, its power to create life, the ways in which it decays—as well as what can be done to a body—by war, from domestic violence, when aroused. As the protagonist, Daughter, comes of age, she reckons with her changing body and how her body situates her in a greater narrative of being a woman, especially in her family where the women have suffered under the patriarchy and war in Taiwan. Daughter comes to understand this history in pieces from the stories her family members tell her, and she also experiences this suffering herself at the hands of her father, who seemingly compulsively, by his own admission, beats her, her brother, and their mother, eventually vanishing from their lives because of this consistent abuse and his rejection of family life.

Throughout the novel, Chang continuously blurs boundaries—between family members’ roles (particularly conspicuous since none of the characters are named), place, time, Taiwanese myths, and her own mythmaking. Primarily told from Daughter’s perspective, Chang also includes sections from the mother’s point of view, as if she is talking to her daughter, in addition to a series of letters from the grandmother, Ama, that Daughter transcribes into English. The overlap in these perspectives creates a fluidity that causes the generations to blend together. Mother is a daughter to Ama as much as she is a mother, and her sections allow for her own coming-of-age story to come to the fore, which reveals the teenager she once was as well as the sides of her parents that Daughter can’t see from her perspective as a granddaughter. In these sections, Mother also expresses a deep understanding of her daughter.

Ama’s letters offer a radically different dynamic since Ama communicates to Daughter through holes in the ground that Daughter dug, creating a living, breathing landscape of her backyard, mouths that need feeding. The mouth of one of the holes delivers letters, which look like erasure poems, from Ama, who writes a letter for each of her five daughters that Daughter then translates into English. The letters elaborate on the family’s history through mythmaking, some traditional Taiwanese myths, and others of Chang’s creations; the letters are also dominated by the body. A fragment from one letter reads: “evolution is the body becoming / its best        weapon. What feeds on your body without / permission is a parasite.” In another, Ama writes, “I wanted to be / the only one     inside my body.” Both fragments reveal a bodily function that is central to Bestiary: birth, and the idea that birth alters one’s agency, possessing the body. Chang subverts expectations with birth, too; many characters, women and men, give birth to human babies, but also to animals. In another letter, Ama asks, “isn’t that a / form     of divinity? To be known to the world by / body        alone?” It’s a divinity that these women can never achieve, their bodies constantly a repository for another life, desire, and trauma.

Ama, Mother, and Daughter are also crucially connected by myths and storytelling. The most essential myth in Bestiary is the traditional Taiwanese myth of Hu Gu Po, the tiger spirit who lives in the body of a woman. The myth’s significance to Daughter evolves as she ages. First, it’s a bedtime story. “Mothers ago, there was a tiger spirit who wanted to live inside a woman,” her mother tells her, “the tiger spirit braided itself into a rope of light and lowered itself into a woman’s mouth, rappelling down her throat and taking the name of Hu Gu Po.” This tiger woman eats children’s toes like peanuts, and as she tells the story, the “mother lifted the bedsheet over [them] both . . . crouching down over [Daughter’s] feet, grasping them in her fists, and ferrying them to her mouth.” It’s a sweet mother-daughter moment, but it turns a tinge dark when the mother bites Daughter’s toe so hard she leaves a mark. Daughter also speculates that Hu Gu Po is responsible for her mother’s missing toes, a mystery Daughter mulls over until her mother reveals the sad, complicated truth.

Daughter aligns herself with the tiger woman myth further when she sprouts a tiger tail, Chang’s subversion of the classic moment in the woman-centered bildungsroman when a girl gets her period. By neutralizing the narrative power of a girl’s first period, Daughter’s tiger tail growing from her bones more complexly connects her to the generations of women before her—the tail itself isn’t a problem for Daughter; it’s what it represents. “I was tigering,” she says. “Hu Gu Po was the new governor of my bones.” With the advent of her tail, Daughter loses agency over her body, which she struggles to reclaim as she learns and comes to understand its legacy, a process that is both exhilarating and upsetting.

Around this time, Daughter meets her best friend, Ben, a girl who has just moved to the U.S. from Ningxia, China. When their teacher asks Ben why she chose a boy’s name as her American name, she retorts, “I liked Ben because it’s already short for something. This way, none of you can abbreviate me further,” addressing the othering the girls feel because of their race and gender. They bond quickly, trading their deepest secrets, and their relationship soon shifts to passion as they discover the power of their bodies for the first time. Daughter reveals her tail to Ben early on, and when she’s with Ben, the tail measures her excitement and arousal. “In her hands, my tail was potential, a hilt waiting to be drawn from me,” Daughter says. Chang still includes the now neutered coming-of-age period plot point, as well. Daughter recounts, “our teacher explained that the adhesive ‘wings’ of a Maxi pad were not literal wings and could not equip us with flight. The teacher told us to develop a platonic relationship with our bodies.” The teacher’s nearly comic repressive rhetoric falls flat for Daughter and Ben who are learning what pleasure their bodies can wield and how irrelevant Maxi pads and periods are to this exploration.

Daughter’s tail feels like a protector in the face of danger, as well, even if it is unmanageable at first. “It wouldn’t release my leg until I promised to let it hunt for me, hurt for me,” Daughter says. But then, just as she feels in control of her tail, she loses control over it when she begins to see the violence that has shaped her family. Daughter inadvertently slashes a wound across her grandfather’s, Agong’s, chest as her family is saving him from Ama, who has been neglecting him. She realizes then that she can’t control her tail—what’s inside her—as much as she thinks she can. Seeing Agong’s wound, Ama laughs, then asks Daughter if she knows “the story of Hu Gu Po, a story about the cost of having a body. The cost was butchery.” She explains that since there were no tigers in Taiwan, the myth was “brought over by men and stuffed into the bellies of women who didn’t want it.” Women, both Ama and her daughter make clear, are always at risk of being violated by men; afterward, they must metabolize this trauma, which becomes an inheritance. When Daughter reveals her tail to Ben, she tells the story of Hu Gu Po. “My mother said it was the only story she wanted me to own,” she tells Ben. “My inheritance was hurt.” Her body is not her body alone—it carries within it the tiger spirit, her inheritance of hurt inhabiting the women in her family.

I recently spoke with Chang about the embodied retelling of myths, her own mythmaking, and this intergenerational story, filled with bodies, births, trauma, passion, and tigers.

Sarah Appleton Pine: There are elements of Bestiary that you’ve queered, including Daughter’s coming-of-age through her relationship with Ben as well as your creation of a myth about gay pirates, which you inject into the canon of traditional Taiwanese myths. What was it like to queer the story both in present-day, but also through tradition and mythmaking?

K-Ming Chang: It was surprisingly easy! I think that I liberated my mind to go wherever it wanted—the gay pirate myth was so much fun to write, and so was the romance between Ben and Daughter. I let myself wander, engage in wishful thinking, and reimagine the lives of my ancestors. Queerness feels like an act of imagination. I leaned into longing and desire, and didn’t just think about what was “realistic” in the minds of straight people, and those spaces of possibility felt like an antidote to shame and silencing. It was the most joyous time I’ve ever had while writing anything, and I wanted to remember that queerness is joy, too.

SAP: I also see this rejection of shame and silencing in how candidly you write about the body. You write about a number of bodily functions (or failures) that feel a little taboo, like incontinence, farting, lots of blood, the mother’s shot off toes, and more. Why is the book so bodily?

KMC: I didn’t realize how bodily the book was at all. It was only later, when I heard feedback about the grossness of it, that I started to realize just how obsessed with the body it is. My first reaction is shame, a desire to apologize for the grossness and the bodily fluids, but then I realize that’s exactly what I wanted to confront. The characters in the novel are shameless about their bodies, and I didn’t realize how much I was writing against shame and the constant desire to apologize. Even now, I have to resist trying to apologize for it. It feels very powerful to me for the characters to be so attuned to their bodies, and I think essentialness is the perfect word. There’s a Western tradition of separating mind from body, and of considering the mind to be more important than the body. A lot of literature does this too: prizing the mind, seeking transcendence and pure intellect and abstractness. But I loved the characters being almost rude in their reminder of the body as a force—it knows more deeply than the mind, and the characters’ histories are carried inside their bodies.

SAP: Birth is a bodily function that’s particularly prominent in the novel. It’s often not a mother birthing her child, but something more startling and not limited to women (or even humans): Agong births a blind rabbit, the mother’s sister births a goose, and there are a number of other unusual births in the myths. What drew you to such unusual births? 

KMC: I was interested in this idea of possession. Birth is like being possessed—you literally have another body in your body, and so your own control of your body is very ambiguous. It feels particularly invasive and very intense and bodily. Especially with the rabbit in Agong’s body and the grandmother insisting that he’s been possessed by something. That’s the way she thinks about him, that there’s something about him that isn’t him. The sense of uncanniness throughout the book is really interesting: how much do the characters have control of themselves and how much is being controlled by something else, some other mysterious or strange body inside of them.

SAP: There’s a lot of pain, like these births, that the characters experience, and there’s a considerable amount of violence. Before the father leaves the family, he is particularly abusive. Every time we see him, he’s beating his wife or children, especially his son—often, he admits, for no reason.

KMC: Violence is at the core of this book, and love, too. It’s very complicated, because love is often entwined with violence for the characters in the book. As much as I wanted to reckon with and pay witness to the violence, I also wanted Daughter’s arc to be about the transformation of violence. She alchemizes the violence she has inherited and decides to do something else. It’s not as clear-cut in the book, but that’s where I envision her story going. That she chooses a life with Ben, and that she actively decides not to pass down the violence she has witnessed. I think that in the book, violence is also deeply entwined with power structures, both personal and political, and that confronting patriarchal or imperialist violence also allows them to reckon with the consequences of history and capitalism.

SAP: There’s talk of war, but it’s not explicit—what year or what war. We know Agong suffers from PTSD while Ama carries her own trauma from her experience as a woman during that time. This trauma seems like a strong force in all of the characters’ lives, even if it’s mostly in the background. How would you describe the influence of this war?

KMC: I’m really glad that you mention that, too, and about it being ambiguous which war, because I think that’s really true to the way the daughter understands and experiences her family’s history: without necessarily knowing the broad historical facts but understanding how they’ve intimately affected the memories and bodies of the people that she loves. She knows the shape of the violence but not explicitly what it is. That felt really important to me.

I was also really interested in seeing the dynamic between remembering and forgetting and memory. One of the results of Agong’s intergenerational trauma is the complete falling apart of his mind, and the way in which the women are not permitted to forget anything either, how they carry so much. There’s this recurring theme of men as mobility, and the women are much more tethered to each other and weighted with something. Men are their own shadow force, especially in the way the women respond to them and are kind of shaped around them.

SAP: The relationships between these generations of women often feel so fraught, which you capture at different points in time, like when the mother is still just a daughter. How was it to write all of these family dynamics through several perspectives in a way that’s so condensed? 

KMC: One of the huge relationships I wanted to examine, a very contradictory one, is a grandmother who treats her children very differently than how she treats her grandchildren, and also how the grandchildren have a very different relationship with their grandparents than their parents’ relationship. It’s that bleeding together of all those relationships that creates really interesting tension. There’s almost this kind of dual loyalty that the daughter has: on one hand, she is experiencing Ama as a caring figure, and overlapping with that is an understanding and contending with the violence that Ama does to her own daughter. That tug is always at the center of Daughter and is always unresolved. She has inherited all of it, all of these relationships that don’t belong to her.

When I was writing, I realized that people could become really confused about Ma becoming Ama but then I realized I actually really liked that confusion and wanted to lean into the ways in which all of these roles bleed into each other but at the same time the power dynamics remain very distinct. The mother will always be a daughter and never quite be able to outgrow certain power dynamics. That was something I really wanted to explore, and the inherited trauma from that as well.

SAP: How did the mother’s story develop?

KMC: The mother’s voice felt the most urgent to me—she’s much more action-oriented than her daughter by necessity, and her arc came to me the clearest. She sees the harm and intergenerational violence caused by the heteropatriarchal patterns that her own mother has had to follow, and at the same time, she chooses marriage too, reliving her mother’s history while at the same time having a little more agency. Her choices are her own, and at the same time, she seeks violence as a product of being surrounded by violence, too. The mother’s arc in some ways is a little bit opposite to her daughter’s: she runs away, by necessity and for her own safety, rather than delving into or desiring a kind of return. But there are also deeply unresolved conflicts when she flees, and it’s her daughter who intervenes. In that way, the daughter begins to take on the role of being a mother. I wanted that role-swap at the climax to be very evident: that it’s the daughter who is now “mothering” her mother, and her mother who is forced to return to and reckon with being Ama’s daughter.

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