By Adrian Keller Feld
On Thursday, September 28, students and other members of the community gathered together in Eliot Chapel for the first installment of this year’s Visiting Writers Series, hosted by the English Department. The writer of the night was K-Ming Chang, author of Bestiary, Bone House, and very recently Gods of Want, as well as being a Kundiman fellow, a Lambda Literary Award winner, a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honoree, and an O. Henry Prize Winner. Chang was introduced by Creative Writing Professor Sara Jaffe, who thanked the many departments responsible for the event: “the bookstore, catering, Office of Events Planning, AV, custodial staff, and English Department administrative coordinator Adam Aristo.”
When Chang took the podium, she began by reading four pieces of flash fiction, explaining a bit about each before their respective readings. Her first story was horror in genre, which she said she chose because, “it’s almost October, though for me it’s October year round.” The story, entitled “Finger,” was inspired by the myth of someone finding a finger in their chili at Wendy’s, and followed a group of girls attempting to replicate the misfortune for monetary gain – however there was much more to the story than just what was on the surface. Throughout her work, Chang’s use of language is incredibly striking, with metaphors turned literal and a plethora of visceral images, all told through a diverse range of sounds and words, including a wealth of short alliterative moments. One particularly striking image from “Finger” was when a character described themselves by saying that, “every part of me is gilded.” From her second piece, “Gloria,” another great line was, “she was pristine as an apple, and we all wanted to skin her.”
Chang’s next story was entitled “Life Cycles,” and was born from a mis-reading of a laundromat sign that inspired her to think about the concept of reincarnation in connection to a laundromat, saying that it was already a location of interest to her because one can, “do a lot of people watching in a laundromat.” The final story was especially short and again came from a mis-reading, this time of a news headline, proving that inspiration really can strike at any time. “All Whales Exhibiting Signs of Lesbianism,” read the non-existent headline, inspiring the story “Extinction,” which is an interesting rumination on whales, how they might think or feel, and what they might do. This personification embodies a lot of what Chang discussed, how she takes ordinary things or metaphors and turns them into something larger, incorporating a heavy element of folklore as well. For Chang, “everything is folklore,” and she is interested not only in the stories folklore encompasses but also the ways in which people interact with them, saying, “inseparable from myth and folklore is how you learned it.”
After the reading, Chang spent time answering questions from the audience, which dealt a lot with her technical approach as a writer. She highlighted the importance of language in her process, and how it is a starting point and focus for her, especially as she started writing as a poet. She referred to her writing as “maximalist,” and for her the writing process consists of: “when I sit down, I’ve usually accumulated some amount of language, and I kind of treat it almost like a word bank, like in a pop quiz, where I have all of these gathered detritus bits of language that have been floating around in my mind or in my dreams.” She continued that, “I like to hoard the language, and then kind of pull from it, and think of it almost like a thread unraveling, where oh, this phrase, ‘stray dogs’ is at the top of the page, what happens if I kind of tug on that and see what springs forth from exploring that?’ Just allowing the language to guide me first.”
K-Ming Chang’s discussion was an insightful glance into the work and mind of an up-and-coming author who will be releasing two more books in the coming years — Organ Meats in 2023 and Cecilia in 2024. More information about Chang, as well as a selection of her poetry and prose, including some of the stories she read for this event, can be found at her website, kmingchang.com. This event was the first in the series of Visiting Writer talks this school year, with the next one scheduled to take place on November 9 with writer Lehua M. Taitano.