Interview with Alexander Chee

Q: Your most recent book, How to Write An Autobiographical Novel, talks a great deal about your relationship with fiction as a genre. I was particularly moved by your description of fiction as a way to elicit the same emotions that realities create. I was wondering if you could talk a little more about what incentivized you, given the power of fiction, to put out a book of nonfiction? What is the power of nonfiction to you in this moment?

A: I have been writing essays for thirty years. So really, I just felt it was time. I’d been invited to speak at Columbia’s nonfiction program and was shy about accepting as I didn’t have a nonfiction book. My host, Lis Harris, urged me to pay no mind and just send her some favorites. So I made my list of favorites, noticed it resembled a table of contents, and my agent and I began talking about it.
    When I did begin looking over what was eligible, I saw there were about 70 essays. I was shocked. And that’s ignoring much of what I published in print magazines in the 90s and 00s, before almost everything went online.
    The essays in the resulting collection are drawn from across that period of time. 10 had been previously published, 6 had not.
    I had the sense the essay was growing in popularity, yes. But I really was on a different schedule. As to the power now? A good question. I remember hearing Mary Gaitskill asked this about the memoir, about 9 years ago, and just said, “Loneliness.” I would give an answer like that: I think people are lonely, but for ideas.

Q: Hmmm. I like that. I wonder — what is it about writing in particular that you think makes people less lonely for ideas? And how does your writing situate itself with regards to this loneliness given that it has been a favorite of those who are interested in the craft of writing? Is the fact that it is a favorite of writers the result of intention? Or is it, as with the collection of the book itself, a kind of coincidence? 

A: Well, if I were to say write an essay about what I imagine is behind the loneliness for ideas, I would begin with what I see as Americans feeling choked alive by the minoritarian right wing takeover of our country. There’s a massive mismatch between our culture and the politics of the country.
    But I’ll answer another way: I’m not really sure what you mean by my being a favorite with those interested in writing. I do have those fans for sure. But most of the people I hear from are not writers. They are queer Asian/Asian American readers, or queer and biracial Asian readers internationally. Or they are abuse survivors or they lived through the beginning of the AIDS crisis, or they found truth in my essay on the tarot, or on roses, one of the most popular essays in the collection. If you browse my Instagram tag, you can see a little of what I see. They’re people who have been looking to read something that they haven’t found anywhere else, and to the extent my writing is focused on that loneliness, it is because I have read and thought about what I didn’t see. My whole career began with an aesthetic act that was about me writing the first novel from the POV of a Queer Korean American man. That was the loneliness for an idea I felt then. An idea of myself in literature. Now I’ve done the first book of essays from a Queer Korean American man, 16 years later. There’s more of us than there used to be: Willyce Kim, Samuel Park, James Han Mattson, R. O. Kwon, Franny Choi. There’s more coming even next year. May it be a tide. 

Q: Queer people, and specifically queer Asian/Asian American readers, look for ourselves in the holes of history. Maybe that’s just me; I have been thinking a lot about this recently. I’m studying abroad in India and am looking for the empty spaces in history where queer lives must have been lived, the biographies of loneliness that in truth were homes of tenderness. I wonder if you can talk a little about how living and writing about queer Asian/Asian American lives today exists in reference to those empty spaces, to the voids where our stories are missing. How can we use world-building to understand what we don’t have?

A: This has me in mind of some of the most consequential graffiti of my life, found in a restroom in Seoul at the Navy Club. My grandfather had taken me to lunch there and soon I found myself in a stall there. The painting was new and pristine. And someone had just written in fresh ballpoint pen ink, in block print just like my dad used to use, “Korean Gay Sex Is Superior.”
    I laughed. That whole trip, my grandfather and all of [the] relatives had been expounding on Korean superiority to me: the alphabet was superior, the culture, the design, the art, the way of life, all were superior. My grandfather offered to arrange a marriage for me. Years later I would do my first Korean language press and an interviewer would ask, “How do you think Korean American fiction is superior to other kinds of Asian American fiction?” I declined to answer it, but it reminded me that this was not just my family’s obsession, but a nationalist competitive drive. And so I was laughing because it was as if a gay uncle of mine had just addressed me. Tut-tutting me on how while being gay I still had to be the best because I was Korean, even as he also mocked even the idea of it. But there also, in the club, I wondered what it took to write that. Who did they imagine it was for? Also, it was just a plain brag, nothing humble about it. As I went back to my table, I first imagined a Korean man most likely had written it, and then imagined the possibility of an American Navy man, then either of them, in the Korea of the late 1980s.
    The message stayed with me, either way. Let me hold my head up a little higher at that lunch and for the rest of the trip, and after, the rest of my life, to keep laughing. But also that is how you can begin to do that kind of fiction work. How did we always find each other? Cruising, bathrooms, graffiti. Jokes with at least two meanings. You let yourself begin there, where you might if you also were looking not just for history, but for sex, connection, community.

Q: A few of your essays talk specifically about organizing. You mention one above, about the AIDS epidemic. I wonder if you could speak a little bit about writing as a kind of organizing – less so in the sense of being a balm to loneliness or separation, which both organizing and writing provide, but as an active contribution to the struggle. Do you think writing is necessary for effective organizing, or vice versa? Or do you think writers and organizers just happen to coalesce in the same spaces?

A: ACT UP was and is a kind of art school, with life and death stakes. Can you make a poster that will save someone’s life? Can you make a slogan, a t-shirt, a press release, a chant, a sticker, an action? Most art schools and MFA programs are reluctant to ask you to matter. It’s considered egotistical. Some do. But in 1989, I learned that lives were on the line with things I wrote or said. And that was a lesson I needed and have never forgotten. My favorite writers have always been politically involved. I haven’t met as many organizers as writers such that I think the connection is natural but I hope it will be.