“Myth is the only way I have to self-identify”: An Interview with Matthew Salesses -The Toast

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The first time I read Matthew Salesses’ work was five years ago, when we were published together in a (now-defunct) online literary journal, Pindeldyboz. Matt’s flash fiction story, one of several that would eventually form his chapbook collection Our Island of Epidemics, blew me away for its mingling of lyricism, surprise, myth, and human longing. After I reached out to tell him I admired his work, we became friends, and since then I’ve followed his career closely, as he’s published the chapbook, a novella (The Last Repatriate), a novel-in-flash (I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying), an ebook of essays (Different Racisms), and now, his first full-length novel, The Hundred Year Flood.

What I admire about Matt is how he is able to tackle different genres, different aesthetics, and different forms, all with the same insight and empathy that first captured me in that first piece of flash I encountered. His new novel is no exception, juxtaposing large tragedies outside of the characters’ control with the small tensions in their lives. I was happy to be able to chat with him about the evolution of the book, his teaching, his versatility, and how his identity as a Korean adoptee, and now a father, have informed and changed his writing.

Karissa Chen: I’d like to start off by talking a little bit about the genesis of this book. The Hundred Year Flood weaves a lot of places, events, myths, and identities into its tapestry. What was the kernel that sparked what would eventually become this book? How did that evolve over the years you took to write it?

Matthew Salesses: I lived in Prague in 2004 during the Bush/Kerry race. I used to wear a shirt around that said “Canada,” so that people would see me as different than I was. Which of course was stupid, since as an adoptee, people already saw me as different than I was. But that kind of alienation from America and what America seemed to stand for was probably the kernel. The first scene I wrote in Prague (I’m pretty sure) is now the only scene from that draft that remains in the final book. It’s a page or two, very altered, of two Czechs giving their cafe an English name and then running into a group of abusive American tourists. Everything else is different. I was trying things out. I completely rehauled the book several times. The first draft had no flood, Tee was not adopted, each chapter was in a different style. Most of the characters in that draft are now gone.

The Hundred Year Flood is a book of big events: aside from the titular one, there’s also 9/11, which happens off stage right before the book begins, several deaths and serious medical traumas, and a revolution that’s already happened, but whose effects hang over the characters. While your book very much character-driven, the prevalence of big events gives your otherwise quietly-paced novel a relentless movement and weight, and forces your characters to wade in things outside of their control. Did you know many of these events would happen from the outset or did they arise (much like they do for your characters) unexpectedly? 

I didn’t know anything that would happen in the beginning. Answering this question is actually making me remember some very embarrassing things. I remember now that the reason the cafe was called “The Heavenly Cafe” was because it never gets finished and I wanted to imply a state of endless purgatory. I think the chapter was actually called, “Coffee Purgatory.” All I knew was that I wanted to write about an artist who gets his wrists broken.

Interesting! I would have guessed that Tee would have been the character whose story you first wanted to tell, not Pavel’s. Tee’s search for identity and the myth of his making is so central to this story. At what point did Pavel’s story converge with Tee’s, and at what point did it become clear to you that part of Tee’s story was the fact that he was adopted?

Tee was always the main character, but he wasn’t where I started. Tee as he is in the final book is kind of a combination of two characters from the first draft, one white and one Asian.

The year after I lived in Prague, I went to Korea, telling myself that I wasn’t going there to seek out anything about my adoption. Yet that trip changed everything, as of course it was always going to. Fiction-wise, I had been writing about the white American experience—as my reading taught me to value whiteness as both Important and “universal.” After that trip, I started to write about my own, real experience. When I threw out my draft for the first time, that was when Tee became an adoptee and a combination of the two characters. That was a year or two after Korea. It really took me until my very final edits, though, to figure out just how much Tee’s adoption factored into the novel.

I’m interested in this conversation—that there was a period where you had been writing about the “universal” white experience, as I now largely think of you as someone who is very thoughtful and conscious in their writing about the non-white experience (regardless of whether or not the work explicitly deals with being Korean and/or an adoptee). Can you talk a little bit about that evolution for you? And specifically, since you mentioned this began happening after your trip, was there a turning point during or after your trip where you felt that transformation?

I remember there was a specific point where I thought: why not try this? I was in Korea, and I wrote a story about an adoptee left by a Korean wife, really letting the narrator’s insecurities onto the page. It’s still probably my favorite story of mine. That didn’t mean, however, that I then wrote story after story with Asian protagonists. There was another point in my MFA where I was getting feedback that my characters seemed underdeveloped, and seeing other people write versions of themselves, I wondered if what my characters were missing was the part of me that makes me most vulnerable. Each time I was able to access that vulnerability and see my stories and essays get better, I think I was able to learn that my experience was actually a worthwhile thing to write. That all of our experiences are and that some are simply underrepresented. As I learned more about that underrepresentation, and then especially when I became a father to an Asian American daughter, I felt more and more responsibility to fight it. I’ve written more about this in a couple of Rumpus essays.

I remember reading somewhere that this novel became clearer to you after you had your daughter. What was it about becoming a father that changed the way you approached this book?

Everything became both clearer and more confused once my daughter was born. For one, I had to confront my adoption in ways I hadn’t done before. My daughter has taught me so much about myself—much of it through a strange kind of subtraction. We see her doing things that we do, and things that aren’t from my wife’s family are likely from my biological family. I both get some insight into them and have to think about them when sometimes I would rather not to. For example, you need to give the doctor your medical history when you have a kid—I don’t know mine, so I don’t know what my daughter might face from my genes. She has these sensory issues already (if there is too much sensory input around, too many people or things happening, it really stresses her out) and I realized that I also obviously have sensory issues. The therapy my daughter did—like putting her hands in whipped cream—stressed me out to no end. I tried doing them with her and would break down. My parents used to get so angry when I refused to mow the lawn. I couldn’t explain to them what was happening to me. All of this has informed my fiction. Maybe I wouldn’t have been able to figure out how much of my novel is about adoption without seeing how much of my daughter is made up of genes I know nothing about.

Salesses-HUNDRED-YEAR-FLOOD-20201-CV-FT-R4Let’s switch gears a little here. The Hundred Year Flood is your first full-length novel, but you’ve also published in many other forms, including a forthcoming serialized graphic novel, non-fiction, and flash. Do any of the forms feel more organic to you than the others, or any more challenging? What’s it like to move between the forms?

I wrote a lot of other things as side projects while working on The Hundred Year Flood. To work on a novel for that long can be to question your ability to finish anything. I really wondered if maybe I couldn’t do this writing thing. On some level with The Hundred-Year Flood, I was trying to figure out my natural breath, on the page. The other stories and essays and books really helped with that. I remember, the first time I wrote narrative nonfiction, thinking that maybe I should switch genres. It came much more naturally, at first. One thing that helped me to get a handle on my voice was not to have to worry about characters or plot, since in nonfiction those things are set and only need to be described and given meaning. I wrote I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying as one-page stories, one after the other, specifically so that I could finish something while I revised THYF. The very short form came very. I wish more people read flash fiction. As far as what is challenging, I like to challenge myself and the novel is what I find most challenging. Having other forms to turn to is a way of giving my brain a break while also keeping it active.

The first stories I ever read of yours were from your chapbook Our Island of Epidemics, a chapbook of flash where each story was an epidemic the same imaginary island community faced. The epidemics were all somewhat mythical, and had a magical realism quality, and I really loved that about the stories. The Hundred Year Flood is much more grounded in reality, and yet, there are elements of myth in the book as well, from an almost biblical storm hitting the city down to a ghost leg Tee sees. How did you see myth operating in this novel? What is your relationship to myth, both as a writer and in your own life? 

Myth is the only way I really have to self-identify. For a long time, the myth was who I told myself I was, despite the evidence to the contrary—I mean thinking of myself as my parents’ son (like other kids do) versus looking in the mirror and seeing myself the way other people saw me. Then there was also the myth of where I came from, since I didn’t know anything about my birth parents or culture. Myth became a way of rethinking who I could be, both in life and in writing. There’s a way in which you form an idea of a better self in your head and it’s the first step toward becoming that self, at least sometimes. All of that gets into my writing. I’m drawn to the power of myth in writing because I’m drawn to the idea that stories might represent reality better than what we see in the mirror.

Are there writers or particular works that helped you see reality better in that sense? 

I’ve written before about reading Don Lee’s collection Yellow and how amazing it was to read about Asian American characters for whom race was a part of their lives but not the focus. Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior was huge for me. Jane Jeong Trenka’s memoir, The Language of Blood. As a kid I read a lot of fantasy, with the similar idea that a child could be more herself in a world made fuller by all that could be imagined but not seen. One of my favorite series from then was The Dark Is Rising, by Susan Cooper.

You’re both an editor at several great publications and a teacher who’s taught at everything from classroom workshops and online venues. How have your experiences and interests shaped what you look for in writing or how you teach? Are there particular trends or movements you see in emerging writers and where do you hope we’re headed in literature?

Like many teachers, the foremost thing on my mind is to consider the position of my students. My concerns are not necessarily their concerns. I’m trying to help writers represent and make effective and affective their intentions on the page. I think that’s working in all of our favors, and it’s connected to what I hope for from literature, which is a sort of diverse diversity. Or, in other words: I would like to see the value of diversity change from something people feel like they can accomplish—like they’ve achieved it or not—to a representation of the truths of people’s lives, which cannot be achieved or authorized, only made.

Karissa Chen is the author of Of Birds and Lovers, a chapbook of short fiction. She is the fiction & poetry editor at Hyphen magazine, and her work has appeared in Guernica, PEN America, PANK, VIDA, and other publications. She is a currently a Fulbright Scholar in Taiwan and is at work on a novel.

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