Interview with Karissa Chen

I recently chatted with Karissa via email.

WW - I generally think of writers as being more in tune with the undercurrents of the world. Over the past year, American politics seems to be greatly amplified. I would imagine that regardless of one's political leanings, the level of "noise" has to take its toll. Have you felt overwhelmed such that it has affected your ability to write productively? Has the influx of news over the last year been overwhelming or a motivation? 

KC - To be honest, it’s been both. I think that sometimes it’s tempting to want to shut out the noise and ignore everything that is going on — and for our sanity and well-being, it might actually be necessary from time to time. But I think to be a responsible artist is to engage with the world, and so we can’t actually shut things out for too long. That being said, I have definitely found myself occasionally paralyzed by all the terrible things that keep happening. Particularly during certain particularly heightened moments — in the wake of yet another police acquittal for the murder of a young black man or in the face of neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville, for example — I have questioned the point of writing at all, particularly fiction, which is the genre I primarily work in. How could my imagined tales help anyone in this immediate moment? Wouldn’t my time be better spent calling senators or protesting in the streets or volunteering with non-profit organizations or even writing think pieces? Shouldn’t I make some sort of direct impact instead of writing silly stories? There were many days I didn’t write at all because I felt the work I was creating was pointless when so many people around me were hurting and being harmed. I felt helpless, frustrated, angry and the pursuit of a writerly dream felt trivial at best, selfish at worst.

And yet. I feel like in this political moment, it’s becoming more and more apparent that voices from the margins are vital. That there’s something to be learned from the rich imaginations and experiences of people whose voices have long been pushed to the side. That literature is an important tool in the quest for a more empathetic, just world. That our varied points of view are necessary, not just to bridge a gap for those different from us, but also to make visible those who might often feel invisible. I think in that sense, the anger that I feel, the helplessness — it’s been a blessing. Because I believe now, more than ever, that my stories are meaningful to those who are desperate to see their experiences and histories reflected in literature, that I must fight for my stories’ right to be seen and heard. There was a time when I might have doubted this, when I shirked away from the idea that my work was “political,” but now I both understand and believe firmly that all art is not only political, but that it should be, regardless of whether or not it deals with the political in a transparent, head-on way (in fact, I might argue that good fiction often doesn’t announce itself as political, but is instead quietly subversive). This sense of urgency is definitely a motivation, though when I sit down to write, I try my best to let the pressing noise of real world melt away so that I can simply focus in on the world of my work.

WW - You serve as one of the Editors-in-Chief at Hyphen magazine, as well as the Senior Literature Editor, where you curate The Hyphen Reader, a monthly round-up of Asian American literature from around the web. You are also the Fiction Editor at The Rumpus, a Contributing Editor at Catapult, and a Cofounding Editor of Some Call It Ballin'. How has your role with these projects affected your own writing?


KC - On the most superficial level, I could say that working with these publications gives me an inside look into how publications work, what people look for, and how decisions on what to publish and not publish get made; that I also end up honing my editorial eye, all of which helps me refine my own writing when I sit down to it. I could even talk a little bit about how reading work I admire from my writers gives me exposure to new ways of approaching the craft and new ways to think about how to tackle issues with humor, poignancy, and empathy.

But I think what I value most from my work with these publications are the relationships I get to build. Writing is mostly a solitary act so community is incredibly important to me. Being an editor means I get to meet other writers and editors who often share similar values about the role of literature and art in the world, that I get to collaborate and discuss ideas around meaningful work with them. It means I get to help someone shape something we both love into the best version of what it can be. It means I get to help play a role in pushing important stories out to the world so readers can receive them and hopefully be changed by them. All of this energizes me for my own writing because it’s a reminder for me on how powerful good writing can be, and how much I can learn from the good humans behind the work.

I’m having a hard time putting down into the words the intangible benefits on my writing of working with these writers, but I do think perhaps part of it has to do with the work making me into a better member of the literary community and a better human, all of which, of course, make me a better writer.

WW - There has been a push in recent years to elevate diverse voices and balance the numbers in publishing. Is the industry there yet? As both a writer and a person involved with a publication, do you think more needs to be done? And if so, what?

Things are getting better, for sure — I think we are seeing more and more books from diverse writers than before and more attention paid to making room for people in the margins. Still, I think we’re a long way from the industry being “there,” whatever that means. Part of the problem is that I think to many of the gatekeepers who aren’t part of marginalized groups, the word “diversity” is simply a buzzword that often stands in for “tokenism.” And so you get books where a random gay character is thrown in, or where one Asian American author on a list is toted as being “diverse.” Diversity isn’t about diverse voices or characters or stories existing simply for the sake of checking off boxes; it’s about actually making room for their unique points of views and stories because they’re reflective of the world we live in and make for a richer cultural conversation. It’s about inclusion. Particularly in book publishing, I feel frustrated when I hear stories of how a writer of a particular ethnicity was passed over because they already have a similar writer on their list, or of palatable marketing being a primary driver in how to position a diverse writer’s work. All of that caters to a status quo, and only pays lip service to diversity without actually making actual change. There’s still often an expected “type” of story that many publishing houses want a diverse writer to write because it makes it easier for them to present a neat, expected marketing package, and writers that fall outside of that will have a harder time finding gatekeepers willing to “take a chance.” The problem, to be honest, is systemic — in order for things to truly change, the gatekeepers — from agents to editors to publishers to marketers to award juries to reviewers — have to include greater numbers of folks from diverse communities, people who instinctively understand and appreciate a diverse point of view, who are looking for stories that resonate with them. But there are a lot of obstacles that prevent this from happening, including the economic reality that marginalized people often have more limited means and therefore can’t afford to toil away in an industry that doesn’t pay very much.

If I sound pessimistic here, I’m not. I just think that a lot needs to happen and it requires the attention and commitment of a critical mass of people. We’re moving in that direction, definitely — I spend a lot of time reading books by Asian American writers in particular for my work with Hyphen and I’ve been heartened by the increased breadth of work by Asian Americans even over the last five years. There are organizations like We Need Diverse Books, VONA/Voices, and Kundiman advocating for diversity in literature or supporting marginalized writers, well-known publications like Electric Literature, Catapult and The Rumpus (to name only a few) who use their platforms to elevate diverse voices, and niche presses like Kaya Press and Lee & Low that specifically seek out diverse stories. But there’s still so much more to do. I think a lot of that work will continue to start at the ground level, building a following to a point where the more established institutions of publishing will have no choice but to notice and change. That’s the hope anyway.

WW - Tell me about your creative process. Where do the pieces originate? When I think about you traveling between Taiwan and the United States, I imagine it to be a variation of scenery and language—that the traveling changes the stimuli. I'm wondering if that inspires you to write more or have more ideas for pieces than someone who travels less or doesn't travel out of the country.

KC - I like to dabble in a lot of different types of work — sometimes I write straight narrative, rooted in history, sometimes I like to be a little bit more language oriented or experimental in form. I’ve been known to write speculative work or fabulist pieces in addition to realist fiction and personal essays. Accordingly, my process varies greatly from piece to piece. Sometimes a story comes out fully formed; other times, I labor for weeks, months, even years. There are pieces that come to me from an image, a line, a song. Other times I’m inspired by a story I’ve heard elsewhere. I often have no idea where the story is going until it reveals itself to me during the process. With nonfiction, it’s usually a little easier in that I usually know the details of the story I want to tell from the beginning — it’s then usually the form that eludes me. I do find that in general, the structure or form of the piece is key in helping me unlock a piece, be it fiction or nonfiction. I don’t feel like I’ve understood what I’m writing about until I strike the right form. I also tend to have a few projects going on at once so that when I get stuck on one, I can switch to something else. My brain is still usually mulling on the other thing in the background so that I can still feel like I’m being productive while biding my time until I can return to the other project with a fresh eye.

Traveling does affect my writing. I find certain things easier to write about when I’m in Taiwan versus when I’m in the States. Recently, much of my work has been centered around the research I did during my Fulbright in Taiwan (focused on the time period during and after the Chinese Civil War), and of course, being in Taiwan makes it a lot easier for me to focus on these stories. I do feel like I unconsciously pick up on the energy of a place I’m in, and while it’s not always necessary to be in the place I’m writing about in order to do it justice (that would be awful and limiting!), I do find that certain stories feel closer to the surface when I’m in a particular environment versus others.

In terms of ideas for writing: I’m not sure my traveling necessarily helps me have more ideas than someone who travels less; after all, so much of creative writing is about having an expansive imagination regardless of where you are. I think perhaps the things I think about might simply be a little bit different. I have the privilege of being exposed to a different point of view and a different way of life than those who travel less, of living a dual life where I’m forced to codeswitch often. This probably does affect my writing in a particular way, and my writing might grapple with my own complicated feelings of home and belonging and existence (though I think this would have happened anyway, given that I am the Asian American daughter of immigrants). I do believe that a writer needs to experience life in order to write about it, but I don’t necessarily think that experience needs to take the form of travel. What I do feel strongly about is that all artists should push themselves outside of their known world, and familiarize themselves with someone else’s reality, be it in a different country or a different community closer to home. After all, all worlds, even imagined ones, will be most reflective of life if it contains multitudes.

WW - Can you share with us what you're working on next? 

I’m currently working on a couple of novels, one much closer to completion than the other. The first is a love story that begins in Shanghai during the 1930s Republican Era, spanning the Chinese Civil War and its aftermath and into modern(ish) times. The second is still nascent and so a bit of a secret, but I can tell you I’m excited about it, and that it involves time travel. I’m also slowly trying to churn out short stories based upon my Fulbright research, one of which is featured in the Asian American Writers’ Workshop anthology, Go Home!, coming out next month from Feminist Press. My hope is that eventually, I’ll have enough pieces for a collection. But the first novel has been my primary concern — I’m really hoping to have a draft of it done before the end of this year, if not sooner!

Stay tuned through 3/6/18 for more postings from Karissa.