Michelle Dicinoski interviews Tom Cho
Tom Cho is an artist whose fiction pieces have appeared widely. Among his 70 short fiction publications to date, he has pieces in such outlets as The Best Australian Stories series, Asia Literary Review, Meanjin and The New Quarterly. Before its release in North America and Europe, Tom’s book, Look Who’s Morphing, was originally published in Australia. It was shortlisted for three awards, including the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book, and is now in its second Australian printing. Tom has performed his work on the stages of many festivals, from Singapore Writers Festival to Sydney Mardi Gras. He has a PhD in Professional Writing and is currently writing a novel about the meaning of life. His website is at www.tomcho.com
MD: Your wonderful book Look Who’s Morphing (Giramondo Publishing 2009) was just republished by Canada’s Arsenal Pulp Press. Can you tell us about the events leading to its publication in North America and Europe?
TC: I originally wrote Look Who’s Morphing for a world audience and while writing it, I frequently felt that it could find appreciative audiences outside of Australia. But although the Australian edition did well critically and commercially, it proved a struggle to attract any interest in the book from overseas publishers and I eventually gave up on my ambition to see the book published elsewhere. Then, in late 2012, I did an artist residency at Vermont Studio Center in the US. I had to give a reading as part of my residency and I read a piece from Look Who’s Morphing. The audience response was so positive that I decided to revive my old ambition. I was about to do some overseas travel anyway, so I decided to use my forthcoming travels in North America as an opportunity to build local interest in the book.
Well before Arsenal Pulp Press published the book, I had been gradually accruing interest in my work from outside of Australia for many years, particularly through scholarly networks in the arts and humanities. This interest increased after the Australian publication of the book. One of the scholars who had come to be a great supporter of Look Who’s Morphing was Larissa Lai, also a fiction writer and poet, who is based in Vancouver. Two of Larissa’s books were published by Arsenal Pulp Press. So, last year, when I decided to go to Canada as part of my travels, Larissa arranged a reading for me in Vancouver and brought my work to the attention of this excellent publisher.
MD: You wrote and published six issues of a zine, Sweet Valley Zine, between 2000 and 2004. For those of us who might not be very familiar with zines, can you talk a little about how you came to write SVZ, and how zine culture and your involvement with it might have shaped your subsequent work?
TC: In its early days, my career was nurtured via some great support from Australia’s youth arts sector. Probably the most pivotal example of how this support changed my practice was in 1999, when the youth arts organisation Express Media included me in a contingent of young writers that was travelling to Newcastle to attend the second National Young Writers’ Festival. This festival’s vision of writing included (and was not limited to) comics, graffiti, MCing, spoken word, blogging and zines. It was through this festival that I was first exposed to zines and came to produce my own zine, Sweet Valley Zine.
Years earlier, when I had studied creative writing at university, literature was presented to me as largely comprising fiction, poetry, non-fiction and play scripts. In that vision of literature, prose and poetry were mostly to be found in literary journals and in perfect-bound books. It was a very limited horizon for me, even if I didn’t know it at the time. So it wasn’t even so much zines specifically but my experience of that entire festival in 1999 that dragged me out of my more silo-ed and purist idea of literature and helped to cultivate my cross-artform sensibilities. As a result, these days, I tend to see myself less as a writer and more as an artist whose primary practice is writing fiction. I think that kind of inter-disciplinary horizon can absolutely be seen in Look Who’s Morphing.
The zines that I most admired contained personal writing and had an explicit political orientation. This was a world away from the literary restraint that I had been drilled in as a creative writing undergraduate student. The kind of anti-didactic, impersonal restraint of “Show, don’t tell” that I’d been schooled in could never have accommodated the political rants and diaristic reflections that I found in my favourite zines. There was also collage, a staple aesthetic technique in zining that permitted a much more free-ranging and lateral use of reference and allusion than I had ever attempted in my own work at that stage of my development. Moreover, some of my favourite uses of collage in zines were those that were done for the purposes of parody. So I think zines loosened my grip as an artist in some important ways: I became less invested in an ideal of an impersonal and restrained author, and I took a more playful and, in a sense, a more promiscuous approach to textual reference.
The writing that I began to produce out of that period was not likely to attract interest from many publishers, but fortunately what I also took from the culture of zining was an interest in doing literature “otherwise” – in finding different models of disseminating writing and also in better appreciating smaller readerships where the engagement with the work often felt more personal and intimate.
MD: Many of your stories, including “Dirty Dancing” and “The Sound of Music,” re-write classic film narratives in inventive and humorous ways. How great an influence has fan fiction (including slash fiction) been on your work?
TC: There was actually a stage in the life of Look Who’s Morphing when I was asking myself if the book could itself be considered a work of fan fiction. My fiction pieces have mostly circulated in literary journals and at performances for arts festivals and other arts events. So the book is unlikely to fit a more narrow definition of “fan fiction” that rests upon participating in the kinds of critique and dissemination that exist within fanfic communities. I’ve never done any of that. Then again, we could instead drift towards a broader and more open-ended definition of “fan fiction” as involving, say, creative production by fans in response to other texts. If we do that (which is what I’m inclined to do), things get a bit more interesting. At any rate, it would be ill-advised to try to settle the matter once and for all – the whole endeavour of defining fan fiction needs to remain open to revision as new fanfics and theorisations of fanfic are produced.
There are traces of slash influences in Look Who’s Morphing (and I was also especially interested in the Mary Sue genre of fanfic while writing the book). That said, once again, I’m more inclined to drift towards a broader view. What impulses led me to incorporate a queer relationship into my response to the film “Dirty Dancing”? On one level, the answer is “an interest in slash fiction” but more broadly, the answer concerns my queer desires. It was these desires that prompted me to realise a potential for the film “Dirty Dancing” to be read and written queerly.
Incidentally, what I’ve also been thinking about lately is that all of these creative readings of books and films that I do aren’t confined to the world of texts. For example, my practice of reading queerly pertains not only to classic film narratives but also how I might read, say, the gaze of a person I might encounter on the street or at a park. What can I say? Sometimes, I have this hope that I might be able to live with as much imagination and suppleness as I try to bring to the books, films and other things that I read.
MD: Some of the stories that ended up in Look Who’s Morphing first appeared in some form in Sweet Valley Zine. Some were later published by literary journals and magazines before appearing in Look Who’s Morphing. Since the collection takes morphing as one of its main themes, I was wondering if you could comment on your writing process. How did the stories shift over their writing periods? And is this an approach that continues in your work to this day, in that you revise over a period of years?
TC: Look Who’s Morphing had a long gestation: about 9 years from its beginning to its Australian publication. And you’re right – during that time, many of the pieces materialised across various contexts: in the pages of literary journals, in my zines, at various venues as part of readings and performances that I gave, over the course of Giramondo’s editorial process, and even over the course a doctoral research process when I incorporated the book into a PhD in Professional Writing. It was a rich mix and it no doubt enriched the manuscript and it was entirely in keeping with the kind of polymorphous and poly-morphing project that Look Who’s Morphing turned out to be. Doing readings was a great way to test how the work was resonating with those whom I consider my core audiences. And one of the wonderful things about working with Prof Ivor Indyk, my publisher at Giramondo and also one of my PhD supervisors, was that he could not be so easily seduced by my popular cultural references. I remember when he saw a very early draft of the manuscript. On one of the pages for my piece “Suitmation”, he asked: “Who is Tony Danza?” I knew at that moment that I would have to work hard to impress him. He is a very astute reader. When I wrote the piece “Cock Rock”, which heavily draws on Jonathan Swift’s novel Gulliver’s Travels, he responded with his own commentary on Swift’s work. His contrasting reading tastes and academic background enmeshed very well with the project and working with him was, shall we say, a great cross-cultural experience.
Throughout my writing process, I wanted to write this open-ended work that would reward creative readers and tease them, in the best possible way, with codings (“in-jokes”, I once called them) or at least the promise of codings in the text that would speak to them and their desires. This is at least one reason why the book is so slippery and multi-layered, and why it can and has been read as Asian-Australian literature, as queer literature, as transgender literature and yet also none of these. Maybe it’s also why some readers of an academic bent have imagined that I have a background in cultural studies or gender studies, amongst other academic disciplines. Developing the project across so many different contexts enabled me to progressively cram more influences into the work and to in turn create more possibilities to tease and speak to readers and to provide the conditions for them to feel, I hope, in some way recognised and energised and even appreciated by what this text might offer them.
My novel-in-progress has longer chapters that don’t lend themselves so easily to readings and publication in journals. I no longer have a PhD process either. Nonetheless, this current project is benefitting from another long gestation and is again being enriched by a fantastic mix of influences, including my continuing and very important work with Ivor Indyk.
MD: Speaking of the writing process, would you like to talk about the novel you’re currently working on?
TC: I’m still trying to find the language for talking about my novel-in-progress (which is an issue that’s entirely in keeping with the kind of project it is). The way that I’ve been describing it lately is that it’s fiction “that is not only informed by the philosophy of religion, but fiction that might, in some small way, do some of the work of philosophy of religion”. Under the umbrella of its plot, it explores some key questions pertaining to the philosophy of religion – questions about the occurrence of suffering, about the nature and existence of God, and the like. Importantly, it has far too many robots and other anime-inspired influences in it to be as dry and boring as what that description might suggest to some. Also, the plan is to close the book with a response to the question “What is the meaning of life?”, which should also keep things interesting. Hence the working title of the book: The Meaning of Life and Other Fictions.
It’s been invigorating to work with a new set of pop cultural influences and with subject matter that departs so sharply from what I’ve written about before. It’s also been hugely intimidating because when I started this project, I’d had no prior academic engagement with the philosophy of religion and had done very little formal study of philosophy in general. When I was writing Look Who’s Morphing, it was a great challenge for me to find a corpus of language that I could use to discuss identity in fresh ways that resisted solidification. Writing about religion has proven to be perhaps even more difficult because the language comes with so much baggage and, as I once said on another occasion, words don’t grip very well when talking about divine figures such as, well, You-Know-Who. In the end, when I wrote Look Who’s Morphing, I think I found not so much a corpus of language but an array of techniques. Now that I think of it, I think this is what’s happening with my second book too. It’s been very exciting for me.
I’ve been progressively sending chapters from the second book to Ivor Indyk and have been greatly encouraged by his comments. I really do think that this next book is quite special.
MD: In the final issue of Sweet Valley Zine, you write:
At present, I am finding that I don’t really need many labels for myself…except for one that might look like this:
*subject to change without notice
Similarly, on your website you write about revising a chapter from your work-in-progress, which examines the attributes of God. You write: “The question of God’s attributes, then, is one that I’ve had to revisit a few times. But a revisable response, one that is not too sure of itself, is what this question requires.” Would you say that a revisable response is what the questions require in all your work? Is everything still morphing?
There’s an open-endedness in my work that rightly suggests that we – both myself as author, as well as my readers – should resist the urge for pat and final answers. As I have said before, fiction and life need mystery, if only to keep our sense of mastery in check. The kinds of questions that I explore in my work don’t lend themselves very easily to conclusiveness anyway. Besides, once read, any literary work is subject to being re-read. And re-readings, like re-writings, inevitably involve some level of revision.
I should add that the metaphor of morphing, when used in a more indiscriminate way, can become banal. And a state of “all-morphing, all-the-time” sounds exhausting too. Maybe it’s more the case that we can and should allow ourselves some moments of stability of knowledge, however tenuous and projected that stability is. This is also something I’ve written of before – that, in amongst those moments of apparent stability, we are trying to discern what’s knowable and what seems to work. Sometimes it’s hard to make our knowledge coalesce and the insights that we glean can be so fleeting, but perhaps that sort of piecemeal approach is not only more doable in life but to some extent inevitable.
MICHELLE DICINOSI is the author of Ghost Wife: A Memoir of Love and Defiance (Black Inc, 2013) and the poetry collection Electricity for Beginners (Clouds of Magellan, 2011). A Hedgebrook alumna and recipient of a Marten Bequest Travelling Scholarship, Michelle has a PhD in creative writing from the University of Queensland. She has taught writing at various universities over the past decade, and is the creative non-fiction editor of Mascara Literary Review.