Embracing the Wildness of Diaspora: A Conversation with K-Ming Chang
Ysabelle Cheung Talks to the Author of Bestiary
My correspondence with K-Ming Chang began with fan mail. I had recently read her flash fiction story Gloria in Split Lip—a knife-sharp story about queerness, shame, and faith—and instantly devoured the rest of her fiction and her poetry, moved by the possibilities in her writing. A Kundiman Fellow and Lamba Literary Award Finalist, Chang explores diaspora identity, desire, and queer narratives in her work, rejecting stereotypical tropes around such themes. She has written about lesbian whales, women who possess black teeth, and, forthcoming, a “queer Taiwanese-American micro-retelling of Wuthering Heights.”
In her debut novel Bestiary, a young female protagonist traces her family lineage to rewrite her own future. Like most immigrant stories, the novel is about hiraeth and the struggle to survive in new lands, but Chang also tears apart that canon—she takes the metaphors of violence, genesis, rebirth, and merges it with magical realism and the fluidity of queerness and identity. Women give birth to geese, men to rabbits; a tiger spirit called Hu Gu Po eats the toes of children; and crabs and snakes carry with them secrets and names. Told through the eyes of the protagonist, who is reckoning with her own magic—a newly grown tiger tail, and a relationship with neighborhood girl called Ben—Bestiary is Chang’s “attempt to be wild, to lean into the idea of being uncontained.”
The book began as a way for Chang to commit her grandfather’s stories to paper, but then expanded as she began to collect other narratives, such as that of the Indigenous communities of Taiwan. Over email from our respective places in Hong Kong and New York, I asked her about these stories and how they connect to land and migration, as well as the ongoing act of writing as diaspora.
Ysabelle Cheung: Several of your stories revolve around mythical creatures, from the nine-headed birds and tiger spirits in Chinese folklore, to some of your own invention, such as a woman who only eats white things. Were fables a part of your childhood? When did you begin writing your own myths—and why?
K-Ming Chang: Thank you for observing this! Yes, fables and myth have been part of an oral tradition of storytelling in my family—I experienced them first as embodied experiences, and the stories themselves are inextricable from how I heard them and who told them. I remember staring at my popcorn ceiling while listening to the story of Hu Gu Po, the space heater in the corner of the room, the quality of the dark. These oral fables bind me to my loved ones, to specific places and times—I was often told stories in transit, during bus rides or car rides or while walking with someone, and so I always associate them with movement, too—fluid and embodied stories that are full of digressions, holes, unravelings, omissions, and humor.
I began writing my own myths when I first started writing prose in my teens, mainly because I wanted to create my own queer mythological canon. So much of queerness is about making your own myths, inventing your own future and past, forging your own new lineages. I loved the cosmic scale of mythology and how much agency and power I could return to my characters, and at the same time, I loved exploring places and settings that are seemingly mundane but that are actually full of mythic weight and magic.“Real discovery emerges from changing or questioning or pushing against given and inherited stories.”
YC: In the first few pages of Bestiary, the family looks for their hidden gold and we are introduced to one of the book’s most powerful themes: burying. Throughout, you return to the idea that nothing ever remains buried; that the earth is a living organism, prone to spitting other living things back at you; and that whatever comes out of the soil is something you must name. How does this theme tie into your understanding of Indigenous land, of roots, of migration?
KC: I love this question so much! I was interested in the idea of burying after hearing stories of Tayal homes that were embedded in the mountains and literally buried, and I was interested in subterranean life and how that contrasts colonial ideas of elevation, transcendence from land/earth/dirt. I thought about Taipei 101 and European architecture, which prizes height as achievement. In contrast, to live within the earth revealed a relationship to land, a resistance to the idea that soil and earth is dirty or unclean.
To colonial Hoklo settlers and European colonizers, the mountains were seen as extremely hostile and wild but also passive, in contrast to the Taiwanese Indigenous understanding of land and water as living and embodied, with their own names and language. It was unconscious to me at first to write about earth and water in that way, but I realized that it stemmed from Indigenous storytelling, and from this desire to allow land and soil to open their own mouth and speak. This relationship to land defines how the family in Bestiary experiences migration as something violent, embodied, and bloody. At the same time, they have experienced centuries of displacement and dispossession that are only amplified by their migration. I have an obsession with names and naming too—how renaming can be a weapon, a form of erasing Indigenous history and language, and also what it means to continually reclaim or revise those names.
YC: I did notice that the protagonist remains unnamed throughout; we only ever know her as “Daughter.” I read this as intentional, as her own story is yet to be shaped…
KC: Yes! The three generations of women are all unnamed. In many ways, this book is about what it means to be a daughter, a mother, a grandmother—the story of Hu Gu Po is about this too. In my family, I’m known not by a personal name but by my relationship to others as the youngest daughter. Everyone in my family is named by their relationship to someone else. I remember being shocked when I heard someone call my mother Meimei—to realize that we shared this, that she was always a daughter. I wasn’t interested in individualized identity so much as what it means to be in a cyclical pattern of roles, a lineage of Meimeis, where everyone assumes the name of the woman before them. I wanted to explore both a breaking of these roles and lineages as well as drawing strength from them, and what it means to transgress generational or gender boundaries. For Daughter, she is called not by a specific name but by this deeper role that parallels her with her mother and other women in her lineage. Her queerness means that she looks for ways to subvert the paths presented to her, while at the same time excavating and forging her queer lineage.
YC: It seem as if though you are also drawn to radical change in narratives of queerness. For example, the scenes between Daughter and Ben are intense and electric; they border on the fantasy of transformation, anchored by Daughter’s tiger tail. You have written about queer lust and longing before—what makes this relationship special to you?
KC: I love that you mention fantasy and transformation, because that was exactly what I wanted to invoke—that they are transformed by each other, that they are literally alchemizing each other. I wanted their desire to feel fully embodied and sometimes even mythic, world-defining, almost supernatural, completely defying any definitions of what’s real or possible. Everything they want is possible. Their relationship felt like pure potential to me—while I was writing Ben in particular, there was this sense of rebellion and irreverence and redefining the rules she’s been given. Their desire is literally magic, and I wanted to channel that hunger. It felt so liberating to write them into the past and the future, to write them in a way that felt boundless.
YC: There are so many myths and stories in Bestiary; some that overlap with each other and some that clash. I’m interested in the multiple historical narratives, among them the pirates of old Hong Kong and Taiwan’s White Terror era of martial law. How did you consider each story’s role in the overall plot of the book and their relationship to the characters?
KC: The pirate myth felt deeply urgent to me—it’s about exile, and specifically about Indigenous people within the Chinese empire who were barred from any form of belonging or citizenship and land and fled to the water instead. Their very existence was criminalized, and in the myth, they created their own belonging and safety outside of empire, and were consequently further criminalized for it. These Indigenous histories felt inextricable from queerness, too. The pirate origin story felt like a subversion of definitions of heterosexual family and nation—the pirates are forced to create a new community, hunted as criminals, full of love and resistance. Writing about the White Terror felt like an extension of that urgency—I wanted to reckon with and name the unnamed, erased violence, and at the same time grapple with how two different sides of the family were on opposite ends. One side has perpetrated that violence, and the other side has been dispossessed by it.
YC: There’s a lot of discourse around the idea of decolonizing narratives through diaspora writing, especially when there are references to Indigenous stories and lands. Would you consider Bestiary an act of decolonization?
KC: Wow, that’s a really powerful and complex question, and one that haunts me a lot! I think it can be really complicated, because Indigeneity has often been erased or marginalized within the diaspora, and so it’s a double struggle of attempting to counteract the Western-centric gaze while also battling erasure within our own communities. I also think that in our broader culture, the word decolonization is often overused to mean something that’s symbolic rather than literal, and I’m guilty of this too—my book does not literally return land back to the Tayal tribe. My book does not resurrect family members and loved ones. My book doesn’t decolonize anything—but I hope that in some way, it exists in defiance of our erasure, that it pays homage to our stories. Healing may not be possible, but I think that this book is an attempt to speculate, to fantasize, to be playful, to reanimate on a much smaller, more abstract scale. I hope that it feels like an act of alive-ness.
YC: Mother says: “The river is revision, but you’re no river, so what I say is what you need to remember. Don’t delete anything from me.” I was struck by this metaphor for the fluidity of history, how future generations will continue editing our stories as they carry them forward—Ben and Daughter even add their footnotes and questions to some of these stories. I was wondering how you approach truth in writing, especially when writing about the diaspora experience, which can be fragmented.“I wanted to write a speculative, magical work rather than a realistic one, with trauma and humor co-existing on the page alongside violence and tenderness, magic, and mundanity.”
KC: I love how you’ve connected Mother’s line to the footnotes! One of my hopes is that the book contains irreverence and rebels against the idea of a canonical or authoritative text. With oral stories, fluidity and change is embedded and innate, part of the process of telling and inheriting, but text can be so rigid and authoritative. While the book is text, I hoped that the footnotes and the presence of oral stories feel playful and ever-changing and that there is no fixed truth—the real story is the one that emerges when there’s a clashing between the teller and the listener, the way that Daughter comments on her grandmother’s stories, or Ben comments on the letters. To me, that’s what feels truly dynamic and interesting, when a story is derailed or taken over by another voice, when it’s doubted or questioned or played with. For the characters, truth doesn’t exist in text or in history or in facts, especially in the face of KMT and American propaganda. Rather, real discovery emerges from changing or questioning or pushing against given and inherited stories.
YC: Speaking of given stories—the contemporary Asian-American immigrant story is often fixated on urban hardships, labor, and trauma. I feel that Bestiary acknowledges those themes, but also subverts them. What kind of immigrant story did you ultimately want to tell?
KC: I’m really happy that you felt Bestiary acknowledges these themes but also subverts them! I worried a lot about seeming cliché, and then realized I had to risk that in order to delve into the story. I wanted to tell an immigrant story that was also about Indigeneity and that didn’t romanticize any one nation as a place of mythical belonging. Homeland is elusive to these characters, who have been displaced for centuries and generations, not only when they move across state-acknowledged borders.
I also wanted to write a speculative, magical work rather than a realistic one, with trauma and humor co-existing on the page alongside violence and tenderness, magic, and mundanity. I didn’t want to just portray something, but to alchemize and transform it in the most literal ways. The most beautiful comment I got from my editors was that the book felt wild, and that was the most important thing to me. I didn’t want to contain the story. I wanted to set it free.
Featured image: Huang Quan, “Birds by Sketching Life.”