I first met Sonya Chung—a multi-talented and multitasking writer, professor, and editor—when she was teaching in the undergraduate creative writing program at Columbia University; I was on a fellowship to cover the front desk. We immediately got talking politics: race, identity, and the politics of representation in writing programs. Her thoughts were nuanced, not ideologically driven; I had the feeling she was turning her full attention to each question we broached.
This winter we caught up to discuss her latest novel, The Loved Ones, which also deals with race and identity, alongside migration, assimilation and intergenerational love. We talked writing, Moonlight, James Baldwin, James Salter, and all that’s happening in America—because Chung is an author deeply invested in what’s happening around her. In 2013 she founded the literary journal Bloom, to correct for age-bias in the publishing industry. And alongside fiction, she has written essays on beauty, age, parenthood, and literature, for publications ranging from BuzzFeed and The Huffington Post to Tin House, and as a staff writer at The Millions.
Careful and meticulous with her words, both in writing and in person, Chung is as thoughtful about her fictional world-building as she is about the current—political, social—world we’re all building.
Melody Nixon (MN): Here we are in 2017. You’ve written a novel, The Loved Ones, about interracial, intercultural love, and about a Korean-American migrant family. This has been published into an America of increasingly open bigotry and white nationalism, protested by the many of us who view the new administration as a step backwards. What is the role of fiction, as you see it, in this climate of intolerance and resistance?
Sonya Chung (SC): My gut answer is “I don’t know.” I am as dismayed and anxious as anyone. Since Trump took office, I have been filled with anger and sadness (manifest in insomnia and a weird, literal, constant craving for protein) and face each day with a dark “what fresh hell today?” sort of survival humor. I do think that, as time goes on, we begin to remember the basics—what has always been true and will continue to be true no matter what lies infiltrate the public discourse: in this case, that we have to keep telling stories—all of us, from all walks of life—because stories are powerful, they are weapons. We’ve been fighting the “diversity” fight in the literary world for a long time; now the stakes are even higher—for writers, publishers, editors, readers to make sure marginalized, untold stories are given voice and platform.
MN: What cultural production, literary or otherwise, has been getting you through the first two months of Trump, Pence et al in office?
SC: I am glad for the timing of high-profile films like Moonlight and Hidden Figures—fictions based on real-life stories—that nourish minds and souls who are on the side of justice and social progress, and also challenge those who are open to having blind spots exposed. I do worry about the echo-chamber effect, i.e. progressive art mostly preaching to the choir. And yet, while a film like Moonlight may be seen primarily by people already friendly to its values or familiar with its world, its ability to move, heal and strengthen its audience is significant. Hidden Figures seems to me more explicitly interested in bridge-building—showing the experience of racial inequity vividly and then offering portrayals to white audiences of white characters doing right within their context. It also effectively enlightens all audiences to a history that really has been hidden—of the significant contributions made by African American female mathematicians to NASA’s space program.
MN: How did you react emotionally to the films, given their timing?
SC: I wept through both films, but for very different reasons: with Moonlight, the emotional-psychological accuracy of Chiron’s journey, especially the ending scene, slayed me—such quiet, pure complexity. Life is just that complicated, beautiful, and sad, and fiction has the power to reconnect us with reality when reality itself has become crazily, destructively fake. The more in reality we are, the more morally effective we can be in the world.
With Hidden Figures, which is supposedly a “feel-good” movie, I actually wept not out of joy or a feeling of triumph: the film felt more “Hollywood” to me in its portrayal of a relatively smooth and quick evolution of empowered whites’ attitudes toward change—racial and otherwise—within large institutions. I don’t fault the movie for that compression of time or smoothing out of conflict (though I know there has been critique about its straying from the facts of Margot Lee Shetterly’s book, on which it’s based); I think its intention is to provide a necessary vision of hope for a wide audience. But for me, it was ultimately saddening, because I am acutely aware that the real-life battle is much thornier and more taxing.
MN: Another film that’s gained a huge audience recently: I am Not Your Negro, Raoul Peck’s documentary based on James Baldwin final, unfinished novel. What did you think of this?
SC: The resurgence of interest in James Baldwin (fueled partially, perhaps, by Toni Morrison’s declaration of Ta-Nahesi Coates as his successor) is a good thing. That it’s breaking the box office at independent film venues is also great. I do wonder/worry though whether we’re in the echo-chamber again. Are more people reading Baldwin who might not have read him before? I hope so. I loved seeing so much of Baldwin on camera—which was new to me. There really has been no one else like him—intensely erudite and unapologetically angry in his critique of institutional, systematic racism in America. To watch and hear an angry gay black man resound eloquently on the Dick Cavett Show is pretty amazing.
MN: In a way, that brings us back to the real-life discussions in the US political arena right now. Can you talk about how your own writing is coming along in this new climate?
SC: I’ve lately been anxious about time. Novels take a long time to write; the novel I am working on now will, I hope, engage important ideas and experiences; but bad things are happening/unraveling now, and it’s been hard—I think a lot of novelists are experiencing this—to keep my head in the slow, long work of the novel. That fundamental tension between the process of art and the urgency of activism has always troubled me. But in the meantime, there is also the work of criticism, essay writing, teaching, and editing (and interviews like this one) that many of us will do now with more focused purpose.
MN: That said, your latest novel, The Loved Ones, feels very timely. It deals with boundaries that are being contested in the public sphere: racial, cultural, and national boundaries. The book subtly mines the restraints that our identities can place on our private lives and bodies. What drew you to write about these kinds of relationships?
SC: I am interested in all that is heterogeneous and intersectional, and in all that is risky. My own life trajectory has been one of journeying from convention and tradition—restraints, as you put it—to a more crafted, alternative life shape, via risk. More specifically, some years ago I ended a marriage that was, to the people around me, a perfectly acceptable one, and subsequently entered into a relationship that was considered more, shall we say, irregular. I am always keenly aware that the ready-made version of anything—the one size fits all—is often both inadequate and dangerous. So I care about that in the stories I tell. I want to show characters working through the process of finding their own particular way, regardless of what’s expected or readily available to them.
MN: The Loved Ones is also a novel about motivations and context. The characters’ opportunities, misunderstandings, and decisions, are put into the broader context of upbringing, gender, race, class status, and cultural background. This is echoed in your epigraph by Sewell Chan, quoting a West African proverb: “Look to the past to understand the present.” How important to you is this broader picture, this encompassing of the past?
SC: The full epigraph includes an alternative definition for the sankofa proverb (in addition to the one you quote above): “It is not taboo to go back… ”
MN: “It is not a taboo to return and fetch it when you forget…”
SC: Yes, right. Those subtly but distinctly different meanings were what interested me in the quote. The cut-and-dry imperative “Look to the past to understand the present” is only part of the truth, I think. Sometimes the present is a mystery, and we need to simply engage it, experience it fully, and allow it to launch us forward. I worry sometimes that Freud and psychotherapy—digging into past experience for all healing and truth—have taken all the mystery and miraculous individuality out of human existence. “It is not taboo to return and fetch it,” is more nuanced: if you need to go back to the past, don’t be concerned or hesitant about transgressing. There is freedom in this second meaning, as opposed to obligation.
MN: How much has this idea of “the freedom to transgress” entered your writing beyond The Loved Ones?
SC: I would come back to this idea of mystery—what is surprising or strange or just weird. I think what makes life interesting is threading your very own path that is like none other, that is specific and vibrant and yours. And so, when I write fiction or, say, an essay or even a book review, I think about why this is something that needs to be written by me—what insight or vantage point or experience can I, uniquely, bring to the subject or idea. And the answer to that question involves both my past—the experiences that have shaped me—as well as the mysterious individuality of my way of seeing and thinking.
MN: Mentioned in the book’s blurb and in your acknowledgements is the late, great James Salter. Can you speak about his influence on your work?
SC: I was in Paris, alone for a month doing research for my next novel, when Jim died; I had just seen one of his older novels in the display window of a bookstore in Belleville a few days before. It’s still not quite real to me that he’s gone, so I’m glad to be able to share about Jim’s influence, and the privilege of knowing him and his work.
A Sport and a Pastime, his seminal novel, is a book I picked up randomly about ten years ago. It was on our bookshelf because a friend of my partner’s had said to him, “This is the kind of writer I want to be.” John, my partner, hadn’t read it, and I had never heard of this James Salter. Once I started reading I couldn’t put the book down, and that doesn’t happen to me all that often. I had such a profound sense of the work doing something to me, shaping and speaking to me in some important way, at the same time I heard a murmuring, chastising voice telling me I “shouldn’t” be drawn in. (In my experience, that voice in itself signals something to pay attention to.) To put it bluntly, the novel depicts a lot of graphic sex, between a privileged young male and a poor young woman, along with a voyeuristic male protagonist. It’s hard to put into words, but I certainly didn’t experience the novel as porn—titillating in a getting-off way—yet it certainly was erotic, in a whole-being way: sensually, yes, but also mentally and emotionally and aesthetically. Maybe it had something to do with timing: the literature I had been reading and had been assigned to read in graduate school seemed totally bloodless by contrast— a lot of interiorized, disembodied women narrators, for instance, which I understand is a kind of literary feminism but was yet still unsatisfying for me. In Sport there were these layers of investments and intimacy, this multi-dimensional voice—the three characters: the protagonist as character, the protagonist as narrator, the author as partial narrator. They were all there, in each scene, everyone had skin in the game, so to speak. All this in a voice distinctly, potently spare.
MN: And this led you to read more of his work?
SC: Long story short, I went on to read Jim’s story collections, Dusk and Last Night, his novels Light Years and Solo Faces, and his published correspondence with the critic Robert Phelps. The latter especially revealed the man Jim Salter was—how he read and loved and lived. (Jim and Phelps had a beautiful friendship, a kind of intellectual love affair, and I think anyone who suspects Jim of regressive gender ideas should read it.) I wrote about his work at The Millions, specifically his sex writing; then he and I connected on email, then I visited him in Bridgehampton and wrote a personal essay about that for Tin House, then I had the privilege of speaking about him in the documentary James Salter: A Sport and a Pastime. We stayed in touch over the years, and he graciously read an earlier draft of The Loved Ones. His encouragement, along with his straightforward critique, meant the world to me. He was one of a kind—an autodidact through and through, former fighter pilot, martini drinker, lover of women in the best sense, avid traveler, artful dinner-party host—the real thing. He wrote and lived on his own terms. He craved recognition, but only just enough, not too much. He certainly wasn’t a saint; but he cared deeply about things like honor, courage, humility, purity, pleasure, and beauty. As both man and artist, he was somehow all physical-sensual and all aesthetic-spiritual at the same time, and maybe that will be his strongest influence on me.
MN: That’s a powerful eulogy. Which other writers have had influence on your craft, style, structure, and the themes of this novel?
SC: There was in fact a specific group of writers who influenced me while I wrote The Loved Ones, my own “village”: Hwang Sun-won and Colette (content), Marguerite Duras and Tove Jansson (style and voice), and Annie Proulx, specifically the story “Brokeback Mountain” (structure).
MN: To return to the novel, and its own sex and sensuality: Charles and Hannah’s relationship begins in the 1980s. Why did you choose to set the beginnings of their relationship in that time period?
SC: The novel is set during the time of my own adolescence. It’s a little mysterious, I think, the timing of an inner compulsion to write about a certain time in one’s past—how much temporal distance is the right amount?—but I had that sense, of wanting to mine that era and some of the concrete and ambient details of my coming-of-age in the DC suburbs. In pop culture, the 80s are often depicted as decadent and cheesy, and they were—big hair and fluorescent colors and corny family sitcoms and junk food—but real people lived their lives during that time. It was also an era of demographic flux and social disintegration in America—Reagan’s notorious War on Drugs, for example—and I wanted to both recall and render some of that.
MN: How do you think taboos around interracial love compare today?
SC: I think it depends primarily on where you live. In New York City, especially among young people, it seems almost more common than not to see interracial couples. In more socially conservative and/or racially homogeneous areas, I would think conflict and taboo still hover. I personally know more and more Asian-Black couples, which was extremely taboo when I was growing up. I just read Kathleen Collins’s story “Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?” and was struck by her disillusionment with “the melting pot” and that short window of time—the early 60s—when idealism among young people was running high and everyone thought everyone could love one another and walk hand-in-hand through the fire. She likely wrote that story in the 70s or 80s (she died in 1988), but it felt painfully present and prescient: I think overall we’re in a moment of high mistrust among the races in America today.
MN: I’m really struck by Collins’ decision to make the two protagonists of that story activists: in their context, political awareness is a necessary step toward interracial romance. They’re aware of what it means to be an interracial couple, even if this ultimately gets in the way of them connecting. Can, and should, we get to a point where Americans can enter interracial relationships without any awareness of (repercussions from, desire to discuss) the political aspect of their bond?
SC: That’s a great insight about Collins’s story and the main couple. I have a hard time imagining interracial relationships without power and/or politics coming into it. I guess it’s a question of whether one believes in post-raciality or color-blindness, and I don’t, really—not as a productive goal in my lifetime, anyway. I am wary of anyone who says “I don’t see race,” probably because that has always been the sole privilege of a white person. Racial experience is deep and pervasive; it’s always there, even for someone like me, who is middle-class and educationally privileged. What’s important is to beware of seeing only color; that’s where race-awareness becomes destructive.
MN: What about intergenerational love: how do taboos around this compare today?
SC: I am continually surprised at the conservatism I encounter regarding
intergenerational love. I find this is very specific to heterosexual people and to Americans—a marked “ew” factor when it comes to a significant age difference in romantic unions. I personally think that closing oneself off in any categorical way when it comes to connection and love is unfortunate.
MN: The Loved Ones bridges categories, walls, between people’s identities. Right now in America there’s a divide that feels so deep, and is delineated, entrenched, on a daily basis (not least through mass media news, and social media bubbles)—that between so-called liberals and so-called conservatives. Can books bridge this gap, in small moments, or large ones? What should the writer’s response be to this entrenchment?
SC: Hmm, this is a good question. I want to say that people who agree on nothing but who love the same books might be able to find common ground; however, the best books are “big” enough that it’s relatively easy for readers to take what they want and ignore what makes them uncomfortable. Then there are the books readers avoid if they appear to represent beliefs or ideas they reject. I’d like to see more authors who have broad mainstream appeal and fan bases take on the mantel of challenging their audiences—in the vein, perhaps, of what Meryl Streep did with her Lifetime Achievement speech at the Golden Globes earlier this year. If you have those moments, and a truly diverse audience politically and socially; and you have achieved a high level of creative and financial success; I think there is a new responsibility to take risks and speak up. Hollywood is already pretty much marked with a scarlet “L,” but the literary world as a whole not necessarily. And on a smaller scale… a friend recently told me she’s been recommending The Loved Ones to all her friends, whom she described as “suburban soccer moms, some of whom voted for Trump.” She loved the novel and believed that many of them would too. I was surprised, and dubious, but if it’s true and if she ever wanted to organize a book group and invite me, I’d certainly be there.
MN: An act of literary pacifism.
SC: Right. Or a chance at mutual insight, at least. I’m also keeping my eyes/ears open for online and print pieces that model real dialogue: is someone right now putting together an anthology of dialogues between conservatives and liberals who disagree in productive, respectful, transformative ways? I need those models, and that hope, so if not, maybe I should do it.
MN: This brings to mind a 2012 book written by two researchers, a “devoted conservative” and a “die-hard liberal,” titled Your Not As Crazy As I Thought (But You’re Still Wrong). The authors, Jacob Hess and Phil Neisser, run a blog whose mission is to allow Americans from both sides to rediscover their commonality. Along literary lines, I haven’t seen anything similar, though The Guardian published a study that suggested that books can bridge this gap, because literary discussions use less inflammatory language than contemporary political ones.
SC: That’s encouraging, and I hope the latter is true. I think so much has to happen interpersonally. Maybe we equip and nourish and arm ourselves with books, but stuff has to happen human to human in these times, especially if you believe that the majority of Americans have much more complex hopes, needs, experiences, and perspectives than either the current President or pollsters would have us believe. In his farewell address, President Obama was no-nonsense about this: “If you’re tired of arguing with strangers on the Internet, try talking with one of them in real life.” In my experience these kinds of intersections and conversations can be demoralizing but also surprising and illuminating.
MN: I agree. As a foreigner who’d only lived on the east coast, I was prepared to be horrified when I first traveled through the mid-west, but my experience there was one of finding commonalities, of noticing our shared interest in the outside world. We have to be careful to avoid reductive thinking—to a certain extent. This breaks down when someone is inciting violence, or using hate speech. Empathy coupled with action, something like that?
SC: Yes, we’re all figuring out what warrants our understanding and what just needs to be called out and fought. But I think if you were truly, completely surprised by the election results, and “baffled” (I hear this word a lot among liberals) by Trump support, there is some understanding-work to do. In any case, I’m not sure we have a choice but to engage—one person at a time, the people right in front of us in our daily lives: family, coworkers, neighbors. Maybe some of us need to physically put ourselves in more diverse environments. I honestly don’t think that the majority of Americans, no matter who they voted for, deserve more than one term of Donald Trump. Hunkering down in segregated enclaves while Trump and his gang depreciate public discourse and dismantle progressive gains is not an option.
Sonya Chung is the author of, most recently,The Loved Ones (2016) from Relegation Books.