Bonnie Chau, Grand Prize Winner of the 2040 Books Literary Awards Program, Talks Sex and Identity
Author Bonnie Chau won the grand prize in the inaugural 2040 Books Contest with her gripping short story collection All Roads Lead to Blood. Contest judge Mat Johnson wrote of Chau’s work: “Chau’s voice is consistently strong, the stories tense, and honestly I’m surprised a corporate publisher hasn’t snatched this collection up already.” All Roads Lead to Blood will be published by 2040 Books in fall 2018.
2040 Books Editor, Allen Gee, recently asked her some questions about her writing and her writing life.
Allen Gee (AG): ZZ Packer once said that she writes different “types” of stories. A church story, an expat story, an ensemble story. Can you tell me about the influences or sources or origins for your work?
Bonnie Chau (BC): I can relate to that. It can be helpful for me to manage my story ideas in that way. But conversely, I feel like I can also say that I’m almost always writing the same “type” of story, that even the stories that I write that seem pretty divergent in style or tone, are all still explorations of themes I am perpetually turning over and over.
The origins of the stories themselves come from all over the place. One of the things I do at my day job is write creative writing prompts, and for better or for worse, I feel like I can now turn anything and everything into a source of story inspiration.
Generally, I get a lot of inspiration from what I’m reading and looking at: museum exhibits, for example, or the collection of contemporary Chinese sci-fi short stories edited and translated by Ken Liu. Or earlier this year I coincidentally read back-to-back Kate Zambreno’s Book of Mutter and Minae Mizumura’s Inheritance from Mother, two books about mother-daughter relationships that were both intense in different ways. I’m also always inspired by my other extracurricular passions: plants and gardening and trees, ceramics, language-learning, and translation.
Sometimes inspiration for a story comes from something very small and specific: a phrase, a photo of an object, or even a one-line description of a book or movie’s plot. I feel like we get so much visual and textual input on a daily basis that at the end of the day or month, sometimes it’s a matter of what phrase or image still remains. I haven’t been good about keeping a notebook to jot down every single idea, so it’s like, what do I still remember? What am I still thinking about? Sometimes it’s an image that’s stayed with me for a week. Oftentimes it’s a memory of a moment or scene or place that I’ve returned to again and again for years.
AG: You write very convincing sex scenes. The women most always seem to be in control, the sex purposeful, connected to each character’s journey. Can you comment about how intentional this is, or not?
BC: In terms of writing purposeful sex – though sometimes the journey is hard to make out, or meanders, or is a circle or squiggle or blob instead of a straight line – I think the elements and scenes of a story should be relevant and meaningful and consequential.
Even in the stories that kind of veer off into weird shit, it’s important to me that the sentiment and the emotions feel true. I only write these scenes because they seem purposeful and inextricable from the character. I don’t think I could or would write a sex scene just for the sake of writing a sex scene.
It’s not a goal of mine to make sure the women in these sex scenes are or seem to be in control. It’s a goal of mine to make sure they’re curious and self-interrogating and worthy characters, but that doesn’t mean they’re flawless in the ways that they navigate sex or relationships. Frequently, I think it’s the opposite. I believe I often depict women who are – or at least who feel like they are – not really in control of their lives in the way that they wish they could be. And I hope that they come off as, nonetheless, strong and complex characters.
It’s funny because I’ve been writing for a long time, and I didn’t start writing very purposefully about sex until about five or six years ago. A writer-journalist friend of mine, Maxwell Williams, was an editor at Flaunt at the time and was looking to publish some short fiction in the magazine, and he specifically was looking for “erotic flash fiction.” I was like, um, that’s completely not what I write. I’d never written flash fiction or erotic fiction, but I decided to try to see what I could come up with, and ended up writing something I found personally and creatively really exciting and that kind of inspired a new phase of my work.
A lot of other dramatic things were happening at the time. I’d just moved to New York from California. I was making and going through some major life changes. And once that sex door opened, I couldn’t go back. Sometimes, I think that’s all I want to write about, because I feel like there’s the potential in sex for everything to come into play: gender, personal histories, identity, relationships, geographies, aesthetics, imagination, power dynamics, humor, vulnerability, fear, pleasure, pain, the body. I’m pretty into writing about the body. I think about how we put certain boxes around certain types of art, literature, film. Horror, thrillers, sex/erotica/porn – these genres that provoke a visceral reaction in the body are often seen as the opposite of what’s literary or intellectual. Like we’ve evolved so much that anything related to the body we’d rather it just sink to the bottom because it reminds us that we’re animals.
I don’t think that’s a very interesting way to look at or create art, and I certainly don’t think it’s a healthy or productive way of being human.
AG: What do you want most for readers to take away from your work? Or, what do you want your stories to convey to your readers, most of all?
BC: Oh god, that’s hard. I want my stories to be fun, interesting, pleasurable reads, but also challenging and expansive. There’s something very vital about storytelling, even stories that are thick with pain and sorrow. It takes a whole spectrum of types of stories to expand our concept of the world, and that’s an exciting thing. I hope my stories convey the sense that an intentionally shaped and sized space between writer and reader can be valuable. I’m all for writing that asks or challenges the reader to meet it halfway, but am conscious that, as a reader, I demand many different things from literature: both relief and profundity.
I hope readers who encounter my work might find a moment of recognition, or think to ask something new. I hope that my writing does some work of connecting more dots in unexpected ways in readers’ minds. I guess a very ambitious thing for me to say here is that I want a reader who’s read my work to see the world as both a tiny bit larger and somehow also a tiny bit more intimate.
I write about alienation a lot. Maybe that’s with the hope of conjuring up its opposite, with the hope that a sort of alchemy occurs in the ether between me and the writing and the reader, and creates more space for empathy and generosity.
AG: Who are the writers you most admire?
BC: The short stories I read and loved in my teens and the first half of my twenties were all the anthologized ones many of us were told and taught to read: Hawthorne and Bradbury and Chekhov. Flannery O’Connor, Raymond Carver, Alice Munro, Joyce Carol Oates. And they definitely hold a special and formative place in my heart. But I do think reading became more interesting as I began discovering and seeking out more short story writers beyond that: Lorrie Moore, Deborah Eisenberg. Daphne DuMaurier and all of Shirley Jackson’s other stories. George Saunders’ stories have made me cry, in public. Rivka Galchen, Yoko Tawada, Junichiro Tanizaki, Kafka. Claire Vaye Watkins. Etgar Keret. Dorothy Tse, Can Xue, Eileen Chang. Leonora Carrington. Angela Carter. Gary Lutz, Diane Williams, Joy Williams. Amina Cain and Joanna Walsh. A lot of women! I wish I could say my short stories are like all of these people put together, but I don’t really know that that’s the case. I’m sure their influences are in there somewhere.
AG: We never wish to be pigeonholed as Asian-American writers, but we also are proud of who we are. Can you speak to this at all, or how you view your identity as an author?
BC: I could probably speak endlessly to this topic. I’m Asian-American, I look Asian or Asian-American, my last name is Asian, and whether I claim or don’t claim an identity as an Asian-American writer, I’m making a statement. While I feel comfortable and proud to identify as an Asian-American writer, I’ve definitely identified strongly simply as a writer for much longer.
As a kid, I went to a mostly white elementary school. I wasn’t Asian-American; I was Asian. And as for being an Asian-American writer, that honestly never even crossed my mind for a very long time. Even though of course I knew of Maxine Hong Kingston and Amy Tan (incidentally both also Chinese-Americans from California), I don’t think I felt that Asian-American writers really existed, much less had communities or a lineage. So it wouldn’t have even occurred to me to identify as one. Not until, what I now feel, is shockingly late in life.
In my first few years in New York, I was introduced to several things, including the Asian-American writing collective Kundiman, the Asian American Writers’ Workshop (AAWW), and studying translation. This exposure transformed my own perceptions, of seeing myself as part of an ongoing tradition, of interrogating cultural identity and language, and having a hand in forming that – deciding what it is, what it means, and what it can be.
There’s a quote by writer/curator/organizer Ryan Lee Wong in a Teen Vogue piece from earlier this year about Asian-American identity and the arts that I think about a lot: “When people say representation and visibility, I wonder who are we representing ourselves to, and why. I suspect that a lot of times, because it is the default definition of a person in American society, ‘representation’ means representation to a white, middle-class spectator. I’m not interested in fighting for a share of that limited market, or jockeying for a visibility slot.”
I was at an event at the AAWW this summer with Patty Yumi Cottrell, Eugene Lim, Anelise Chen, and Lisa Chen, and they were talking about different generations of Asian-American writing, and how maybe right now we’re seeing the next generation, a new wave: one that explores themes and styles beyond what a previous generation of Asian-American writers might have been predominantly concerned with. That’s exciting to think about.
I’m comfortable with as many modifiers as anyone feels the need to pile on me. Asian-American female writer – maybe actively owning these aspects of my identity as a writer will expand people’s notions of what that kind of writer is or means. Add to that California. I’m definitely a Southern California writer.
AG: What do you want to write next?
BC: I’m supposedly working on the novel-in-progress that was my MFA thesis. I haven’t been able to touch it much in the last two years or so, and I would really like to get back to it. I think I might finally be ready. It’s a story about a woman who’s preoccupied with a time in her life that revolved around a couple of establishments in a desert suburbia strip mall. It involves a mysterious bartender and a Chinese restaurant and a girl who disappears – it’s about memory and alienation and landscape and language and obsession.
I also would love to write a ‘90s surrealist fabulist erotic western gothic horror mystery thriller party novel. I guess that’s just every genre mashed together. It started off as the desire to write the literary equivalent of a ‘90s erotic thriller film, but it’s gotten out of control. I don’t know how I’ll pull it off. Is it even possible? I’m not sure what a party novel is, I just added that part right now, but I want to write it. That’s what I want to write next.
Chau was raised in California and currently lives in Brooklyn. Her stories have been published or are forthcoming in Cosmonauts Avenue, Joyland, Nat. Brut, Flaunt, Timber, The Margins, Drunken Boat, The Offing, The Blueshift Journal, Columbia Journal Online, and other places. She holds an MFA from Columbia University and currently works for Poets & Writers.
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