K-Ming Chang on Storytelling as Her Greatest Inheritance
In Conversation with Kendra Winchester on Reading Women
From the episode:
Kendra: You have a Maxine Hong Kingston quote in the beginning that says, “There’s a lot of detailed doubt here,” which is fantastic. Sachi and I did a deep dive into Maxine Hong Kingston earlier this year, and having just come off that research fairly recently, when I was reading your book, I was like, this definitely reminds me of Maxine Hong Kingston. Especially in The Woman Warrior, where she plays on storytelling and women of different generations telling their stories.
K-Ming: Yeah, for sure. “No Name Woman” is definitely something I return to all the time. Even the first line of the book, “Do not tell anyone what I’m about to tell you”—it’s so incredible and so iconic. That feels like the first line of my own storytelling impulse, which is always this desire to not be complicit in some way, or to think about the silences that have been inherited and to create an almost speculative family history. All those impulses were definitely inspired by her.
Kendra: In an interview that I read, Maxine Hong Kingston talked about her mom telling her the story, and that inspired her work a lot, that storytelling within her family. And I believe your mom told you a story that also inspired this book. Can you talk a little bit about that, and what form that took for you when you were starting to work on this project?
K-Ming: My mom is a huge storyteller. Many people in my family are. There’s such a strong oral storytelling tradition. It feels in some ways like my greatest inheritance, all of these stories that were being woven around me when I was a kid. And I kind of didn’t realize it. I was always tuning in and tuning out. I would catch the beginning of something or the end of something and be like, wait, what just happened there? It’s always such a theatrical production, too, to tell these stories, which I’ve always loved. It’s this fully embodied experience.
The story that I would force my mom to tell me over and over again—which she was very done with—was the Hǔ Gū Pó story, the story of the Tiger Spirit. It’s kind of like a Little Red Riding Hood story in that the Tiger Spirit disguises herself as a benevolent grandmother and then ends up eating the children’s toes.
What I realized about all of those stories is that they were also a way of transmitting family history, but told slant, told in a way that’s more indirect. There were so many undercurrents in the stories she told me that I only realized when I was older. And it also was seeing the context of my family. I was like, oh, it makes so much sense that these are the stories that we choose to tell or to subvert or to twist. It was so revealing—so much about what it means to be a good mother, a good woman, all of these things that have been subverted in my family. That really inspired me, the idea of telling a history slant, through myth and fable.
K-Ming Chang / 張欣明 is a Kundiman fellow, a Lambda Literary Award finalist, and a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honoree. She is the author of the debut novel Bestiary (One World/Random House, 2020), which was longlisted for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize. Her micro-chapbook Bone House, a queer retelling of Wuthering Heights, is forthcoming from Bull City Press’ INCH series in 2021, and she is currently working on a collection of short stories.