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An Interview with Bonnie Chau

[Writer]
by Liza St. James
November 23rd, 2018

“Bodies don’t really trifle with such questions.”

What Bonnie Chau Thinks About Often:
Conceptual Erotica
Lenticular Pictures
Chaparral
Word Banks
Love Letters

I could see Bonnie Chau from the corner as I walked up to China Blue. She was leaning against the wall, smoking. A downpour had just slowed, breaking up the humid August day. We walked inside the restaurant together, Chau leading the way to a private side room she’d arranged for us to use. The space was palatial, with bookshelves lining the entrance, and when we stopped at the bar, I noticed all the cocktails on the menu were named after films by Wong Kar-wai. His films also come up in Chau’s debut collection, All Roads Lead to Blood, with one narrator saying, “Those movies were all about love, how it was never aligning quite right, even though we’ve been trying for eons.”

The young women of Chau’s collection have also been trying for eons, and for them, too, love doesn’t align quite right. In these sixteen stories, women encounter and confront ghosts, wolves, jellyfish, men, history, family, themselves. They myth-make and they fight to avoid the traps of myths made for them by others. Chau’s stories thrive on the level of the sentence, swerving and escalating and brimming as she wills them. In her hands, even the typically clichéd language around romance—such as, “crush,” “breakup,” “fling,”  “do it,” “dream of”—becomes a new site for not aligning quite right, for riffing, as assistants are caught “mingling their fucking hearts out” and a narrator insists that “settling down is what pilgrims and pioneers do.” 

Chau talks as she writes, doubling back, adding to her thoughts, negating and then reaffirming in the same breath, her deadpan delivery often undercut by laughter. She describes herself here as both “very loyal and very contrarian,” and this was what drew me to her from our very first conversation—a conversation that played a key role in my decision to move from California to New York. Our interview went on into the night and was interrupted only by the owners of the restaurant, Xian Zhang and Yiming Wang, who seemed to want to make sure I understood I was in the company of a legend. They told me stories of Chau saving the night by recognizing Salman Rushdie dining at their sister restaurant where she worked, and of her writing the script for the ghost story episode of the restaurant’s SinoVision TV show. As we prepared to walk toward the subway, just about the last ones in the restaurant, Chau suggested the owners use the room we’d been speaking in as a writer’s residency of sorts. Yiming Wang replied that anything Bonnie wants is okay by her.

Liza St. James

I. Jobs

THE BELIEVER: This is the sister restaurant of Cafe China, where you used to work. How did you end up as a server there?

BONNIE CHAU: I’d worked in restaurants a lot, but I’d never worked in a Chinese restaurant before, and the ad intrigued me; it was a new restaurant and the interior looked super cool, and there was this strange little story on their website, and it looked very atmospheric. I emailed them the day after I arrived in New York, and started working there maybe a week or two later. I was the only female server there. I was always trying to convince the female hosts to ask to become servers. I guess it maybe seemed like too strenuous or unglamorous of a job.

BLVR: You’ve also worked for a horoscope company. Can you tell me about that?

BC: I was looking for something that would also be an interesting story. It was at Twelve Signs, the horoscope scroll company, they’ve been around since the late 70s, I think, and I was an editorial assistant, but on the masthead of every little scroll, my name was under “International Editions.” They were very popular back in the day, so they had editions in Italian, German, Spanish, maybe other languages, and I would do proofing for all of them.

BLVR: You proofed horoscope scrolls in other languages?

BC: For the ones that were in other languages, I could only proof the ephemera or whatever it’s called with horoscopes—the numbers, for instance.

BLVR: And in your stories, a character might mention being a Pisces or that Mercury is in retrograde…

BC: I choose jobs where I have some vested interest already. There are a lot of stories where a character’s job is barely mentioned, and for many people your job’s the majority of your life, and that’s what I’m interested in hearing people talk about. I like hearing about where they’re from and where they’ve lived and what jobs they’ve done—and often people are like, Oh, that’s such a New York thing, or that’s such an LA thing, like it’s this gross networking urban-striver-capitalist thing, that the first thing you ask is, “What do you do?,” but if your job is what you spend most of your time doing—and if it’s not then that’s awesome—like, I wish I could be more like that, but—

BLVR: Really?! It seems like if you didn’t have to work, you’d probably still work…

BC: [Laughs.] Yeah, I would actually never want to be writing full-time. Maybe at some point in my life my ultimate dream was just to be able to write all the time. I definitely don’t feel that way now. I could never write forty hours a week, much less thirty or even twenty hours a week. I mean, outside of residencies, I’ve never even worked on my writing more than two or three times a week. I think I would want some kind of job.

BLVR: When you say that you took the horoscope job because it would make a good story, I can’t help but be reminded of the opening lines of “Newfangled Creature”: “She is filling in as a pole fluffer again. The pay is bad. The street cred is okay-good. The story is pretty good.” Is that a job you know intimately?

BC: I knew someone who did that. She was an intern at one of my previous jobs. She had many part-time jobs, as many people have. It’s something I think about maybe because I didn’t talk to her that much about it. It wasn’t something I was thinking about a lot, sex work. I guess I’d gone to strip clubs sometimes in LA. For a long time I’ve thought I was a late bloomer.

BLVR: What makes you think you’re late?

BC: All of conventional media and society. I never made out with anyone in high school. I never dated anyone in high school. I think at some point I figured out that I’m about six years behind.

YIMING WANG: Sorry if I’m interrupting. I just wanted to see if you wanted to have a glass of wine, on me. Because you’re the best.

BLVR: She has a book coming out! And I’m interviewing her.

YW: [Laughs] I know!

BC: [Laughs] She knows!

II. “That’s the point of a love letter—it’s going to kill someone.”

BLVR: Let’s talk about process. I’m interested in your Google Docs method.

BC: I used to set out to, like, write a story, and then I would write a story. I still do that sometimes, but it’s rare. So I write in these Google Docs. I’ll write diary shit in it, and I’ll be like, “Oh I’ve been kind of vaguely working on a short story idea,” and then the next paragraph after my diaristic shit is like, “Oh I’m going to write the next paragraph of this short story.” And then the next paragraph will just be whatever I feel like writing, whether that’s what happened today or what I’m thinking about, or a fictional piece that I’m working on, all of it goes in the same document.

After a while, I’ll go through the last however many months worth of stuff and I’ll cull pieces, and a lot of that will be the short story parts, but some of that will be other parts as well, because oftentimes the short story I’m writing will have some sort of relevance or connection with what I’ve been thinking about in my personal life. A lot of it is mixed up that way—and sometimes I actually can’t tell which is which!

BLVR: And some of your stories have diaristic or epistolary formal components mixed in—like in “Triptych Portrait with Doors in Closed Position,” there’s a love letter. How do you feel about love letters?

BC: I love this idea of freewriting a love letter. Because that’s the point of a love letter—it’s going to kill someone. They’re going to be thinking about it forever. But the love letter you received years ago, maybe a year later you’re thinking about it and have one version in your head, and then five years later you’re thinking about it—but not constantly—and what you’re thinking is just an angle off. And then another few years, you might be another angle off, and then years later who knows how many angles off? This is still the story you’re telling yourself, but it’s evolved in accordance with how you’ve changed. It’s constant layering of stories every time we try to remember something, or look back upon some memory. I think this is also where obsession sometimes comes in, in conjunction with memory, because it’s never really over, not if you don’t want it to be.

BLVR: So what, then, does revision look like for you?

BC: We spend all this energy pedestaling editing. It’s like you’re not doing the intellectual work of it if you’re not prioritizing the revising and editing. There are pieces that I’ve edited a lot and pieces that I’ve hardly edited. Actually, because of the translation that I do, I’m more inclined to do multiple versions of things. I’ll write a sentence and then do three versions of it.

BLVR: “Somebody Else in the Room” ends with a powerful re-wording. Was that an instance of your work as a translator making it into the story?

BC: My translator brain at the time of writing must have been just a baby. I do think that my translator brain prevents me from deleting as much as I’m used to deleting while typing, and instead I’ve found myself more and more just tacking on alternate option words separated by slashes. I always have had this very strong feeling that you move a little this way, or shift just one thing, or one way, just slightly, or alter the angle just a tiny bit, and everything changes. This is maybe also tied in with my indecisiveness, with being a Pisces, with living in-between languages, in-between cultures, but I feel like I have a very slippery hold on things most of the time. Like lenticular pictures—it’s all a difference of degrees. You move one degree over and the whole picture changes.

BLVR: You were a travel fellow at the American Literary Translators Association conference last year, and in your book, there are flights of characters talking about language, deictic words come up, for instance. How do you think your translation work relates to your writing?

BC: Literary fiction uses a very specific type of language. I don’t feel like I know how this will manifest in my writing but it’s something I think about a lot, especially when I’m thinking about translation—literature that doesn’t have the same word bank. I think about word banks a lot.

BLVR: What do you mean by word bank?

BC: It’s like from grade school worksheets, where these are the words that are available to you. These are your universe, at least for the length of the worksheet or whatever. And, maybe naturally and logically so, that’s how we operate. It’s like code. You switch back and forth, and you expect this type of language to be here and this type of language to be here. And mainstream publishing is pretty narrow. So something I think about when I think about reading untranslated literature that uses multiple languages or multiple Englishes, is what you do in translation. When you’re translating into English, what English are you translating into? Literary fiction English?

BLVR: What might we gain or allow for by broadening the word bank?

BC: What is that thing about how straightforward language can only produce straightforward ideas? I mean, I don’t know if I wholly agree, but it’s something I think about. Broadening the word bank allows, ideally, for the writer to construct something new, something unknown. At least for me, it’s a way to negotiate with something I myself don’t really understand. And when you as a reader encounter something you don’t entirely understand, I think there’s more potential for thinking something new, maybe not new in the world, but new for you. Something you might be surprised to find yourself thinking, or thinking about.

BLVR: In “Medusa Jellyfish” you use Chinese characters in a sentence and sort of stealth gloss (or explain) it, as Susan Bernofsky might put it; in “I See My Eye in Your Eye” you use romanized Chinese and provide a translation within the text—what are your thoughts as you make these kinds of choices?

BC: This is an interesting question because both of these are earlier stories, especially in the sense that they were written before my descent into translation. I think more recently if I’m incorporating Chinese characters or pinyin (as in “Chinatown of My Dreams” and “Thirteen Ways of Looking,”), I’ve been less inclined to provide translation within the text or stealth gloss, and I think this is directly a response to thinking more deeply about translation, about what kind of English I’m translating into, about using a bumpier English.

BLVR: While angry with her mother, the narrator of “I See My Eye in Your Eye” makes direct literal translations of things her mother says in order to “make her sound stupid” (e.g. “Are you wanting to harm me to death”). In the same story, the narrator is angry that a teen receptionist speaks perfect Chinese. Does any of this relate to your own experiences?

BC: Certainly there’s something true about the feeling of it, of wanting to try to defang language in some way, language that has come to represent something very painful. I think as a kid, I was always aware of other Chinese kids who spoke perfect Chinese. Ones out in the world, or family friends, or other kids in Chinese school. We kind of were like, oh man, those fucking goody-goody nerds. But I think it was a condescension mixed with some sort of anger and envy, like my Chinese would never be like that, but on some level that was a marker of an ideal, but also the reasons for never being able to be like that were somehow ingrained in me, were my fault, self-perpetuating, like a refusal to aim for that kind of ideal. It was very confusing.

BLVR: An attention to these kinds of confusing communication barriers, among other barriers—those of the body, for instance—runs throughout your work.

BC: I realized that a lot of what I think about when I think about sex and erotica and writing and translation is that it’s about the barriers and what you do when you encounter them. It’s something separate or other, or something that you’re separated from, or an otherness, or a distance, and I think that’s also related to my ultimate goals, and my relationship as a writer to the reader… It’s not just about bridging a distance, but about encountering it. And all of that is why I love translation, because it’s very explicitly throwing yourself up against something that you can’t really be or know.

BLVR: Can we ever know anyone, Bonnie?

BC: I mean, I guess we can know anyone as much as we want to, to the extent that we are willing to. But I don’t know that I believe in having complete knowledge of someone else, or of ourselves. What does that even mean? Probably, we always overestimate our knowledge. But I say these things all the time: someone asks me how I know something, and I’m like because I know you! Or someone I’m quite close to says something, and I’m like, you don’t know me… I say it as kind of a joke but maybe that sums things up, like I think I know other people, and that nobody really knows me, which, of course, I fight both for and against. Fatal flaw!

III. The Junk of It All

BLVR: It seems to me that one of the truest romances in many of these stories is between their narrators and language itself. Could you fall in love with words or language separate from a body? Have you fallen in love with a voice or an email? With books?

BC: Sometimes I think the only way I can stand thinking of lost or secret or past love or romance is through how I have articulated the story in writing. If I can just get a few phrases, or a very specific image in a couple of dead-on sentences, then the language has the ability to pierce through the past, and also the person, and also me, and through time, and through the junk of it all, and then yes, the romance is with the language itself somehow. I suppose I do fall in love with words or language separate from a body with authors I read who are not around, for example, the words of Duras, or John Berger, or David Wojnarowicz, or Annie Dillard (who is around, but not really for my purposes), Angela Carter, etc., I can do that. But if it’s someone from my life, like some guy?, and their words get to me? There have been definitely a number of them, not writers for the most part, but people whose language resonates with me, or whose use of language I really dig. And in those cases, no. In those cases I’ll probably just be tormented by the combined deadliness of their words and their bodies for the rest of time. Other people can take their bodies away from you at will, and you might very well end up with the ghosts of their words and sounds haunting you.

BLVR: “Ghosts” was the first story from the book I heard you read aloud. Everyone laughed so hard in that fairy-lit backyard. Have you ever felt like a ghost yourself?

BC: Oh, all the time. Maybe most obviously, as a person of color, as a woman of color, there’s this duality of always being hyper-invisible and hyper-visible, right? And then there are all the other things that make me feel ghostly. Being a younger sibling. Being very shy. Etc.

BLVR: Being shy makes me think of speed dating, which comes up in your collection. Have you speed dated?

BC: Yeah, I did it once. I had a Year of Dating. I can’t remember which year it was, might have been 2012? I’m pretty into New Year’s resolutions.

BLVR: I am, too! Which New Year’s?

BC: Well, I give myself a grace period. I try to get my resolutions done by the 1st but I give myself until the Lunar New Year. And that year I was talking to a friend of mine about the disaster of my romantic life and maybe my late bloomer stuff. I think it started out as a joke, and I played along with it. I was like, “Okay this year, I’m going to go on twelve dates,” which maybe for a normal person is not that many, but for me it would’ve been my first twelve ever.

BLVR: You’d never been on a date before your Year of Dating?

BC: I’d never been on what I considered a real date, so we came up with twelve different dates, one a month, and each one would be procured by a different method. What are twelve different ways for me to meet people? One is I would meet someone in a bar and ask them on a date. Another one is I would be set up on a blind date by a friend or relative, another one is I would go speed dating… that was in February, and there were speed dating events because of Valentine’s Day. This one was at Housing Works bookstore and it was the first year they did it. It was called Literary Speed Dating, the nerdiest thing, and to sign up you had to register with the name of a book you really loved.

BLVR: What was your book?

BC: The Sheltering Sky

BLVR: Did you stop after your Year of Dating?

BC: I think I only ever made it through, like, March or April. I went on two or three dates and was so unmoved. I say I write about failure, but I don’t think I really thought about it enough. Maybe it’s more accurate to say I write about failed love, because that’s a major issue in my own life.

BLVR: You also write about the expectations that go along with that. About what it means to feel like you’ve failed at love, to be a self in the face of a lack of this particular kind of love.

BC: I’m writing to try to figure stuff out in the essayistic sense. My characters are, in some sense me, but they’re independent also. So I’m trying to figure out, for them, how they’re dealing with these experiences, but also against whatever social expectations and pressures.

BLVR: That’s one of my favorite qualities of your stories. They have this archness to them. They let the reader in on this laugh at the world.

BC: I don’t want to keep anything from the reader. Maybe that’s just my own desperation, or why I’m writing in the first place. It’s like, come, if you’re reading this, come see what I see and be on my side. And maybe that’s too much of how I feel like it’s me against the world. But the point is, that’s why I’m writing. Someone will read this and they will be pulled in and think, okay that’s something I can be a part of.

BLVR: Various characters in these stories seem to believe they can merge with a partner during sex, or switch places, or disappear, or reach… something. In an ideal sex act for you, what transpires?

BC: Wow. Maybe in an ideal sex act, the idea that you can’t ever know anyone is negated—either because you feel like, at least in that moment, you can or maybe do know someone; or because your mind is being so blown, and your bodies don’t really trifle with such questions. Do you know that Buñuel film That Obscure Object of Desire? I watched that when I was nineteen or twenty, and I haven’t watched it since, but I think about it all the time. It’s about sex and desire, but the main female character’s role is played by two completely different actresses throughout. It’s interesting to think about sex as potentially transformative.

BLVR: Yes! The Conchita character reminds me of how we see some of your narrators at different points in time, often with sex as a connector between their various selves. What do you think you can learn from sex that you can’t learn otherwise?

BC: Something I take pleasure from is that a lot of it seems beyond language to me. And that’s part of the challenge but also part of the pleasure of it. I don’t want to defeat the unlanguage-ness of it by trying to put it into language, but also there are times when there are things that I do want to put into language. To test my hand and see what I can do. How can I render it?

BLVR: Can you speak to the construction of the following sentence? “He flipped me over slightly so I was on my stomach, moved over me, found a condom somewhere without going anywhere, pushed himself inside of me from behind, I moaned, a long and deep, wanton, want, want, wanting, keeling, keening sound, low and wet, this was sex, this was it, sex—God, society, humanity, flesh—it all made sense, or at least it all was okay, or it was okay that none of it made sense.”

BC: [Laughs] Oh god, I feel like this is a nice exemplary sentence of mine, pretty stream of consciousness, a lot of commas, associative. I like the use of “flipped” with “slightly,” because it doesn’t quite make sense, right? But well I’m like, “Hey I’m depending on you, reader, figure out a way to allow for it!” Yeah? Is there a way that it could make sense? A lot of it is just writing instinctively for rhythm, sound, pacing, the feeling of it. I like the kind of dumb (mute) solidity of the word “condom” in there. I like the shadowy vagueness of “moved over me” and “somewhere without going anywhere” and I like the way the sentence and the sentiment of it kind of goes up way too high and then just falls down, ends with these fumbling permutations.

BLVR: Who are some writers you think of when you think of writing about sex?

BC: I’ve read a good number of “trashy romance” novels. I don’t know what the better term is for them. Sexy romance novels? From the beginning of the internet, in college, there was a time when I was getting sample trashy romance novels in the mail, that I had not paid for or asked for. These were grocery store checkout lane romance novels. And in my twenties I read a handful of them…

I love Tamara Faith Berger’s work. I went to see Kate Zambreno read at Bluestockings in 2012 and she was reading, too, for the launch of her novel Maidenhead, which is kind of nuts. And then I just had to read all her stuff. Her sex writing is pretty graphic and hardcore, she used to write for porn magazines, but it’s super interesting, a lot of it feels very conceptual which I dig. I also like Nicholson Baker, who writes some crazy sex. And Jun’ichirō Tanizaki. He writes these domestic stories where there are perversions involved. A lot of it is very secretive in a way that is the opposite of what this trashy romance stuff is.

BLVR: I know from our conversations that you think about the restrictions that people put on erotica journals, on housing erotic works…

BC: In my job now, where I manage an online database of literary journals [at Poets & Writers], I’m looking every day at tons of lit mag websites and their submissions guidelines—and I’ve looked at thousands of these in the last couple of years—and there are a lot of journals that are just like, “We don’t publish erotica.” And sometimes it’s, “We don’t publish this, this, this, this, and erotica.” And sometimes it’s just erotica. Sometimes it’s graphic violence. No graphic violence or erotica. Which makes me think of what’s censored and not censored in films, I think about this all the time, especially with American films, how this much violence is allowed, how this much sex is not allowed. “We don’t publish sci-fi, fantasy, or erotica.” [Laughs]

BLVR: And what do you think they mean by erotica?

BC: I don’t know, I mean I think if there was a journal I really wanted to submit to and I ended up on their submission guidelines page and it said no erotica, would I stop and think about the sex in the story I’m submitting and question whether I should submit? I think they’re talking about trashy romance erotica.

BLVR: But your characters have orgasms for entire paragraphs. They bleed everywhere. They have half-page sexual epiphanies.

BC: I think it’s fucked up. But I’m sure that for many of these journal editors it might not be a morality thing, there’s a practical reason for the restrictions. Maybe just cutting down on the amount of stuff they have to wade through, their amount of work.

As a writer, if I’m thinking critically and at length about death, or sex, or dreams, etc., at the same capacity that I’m thinking about eating or relationships or whatever else stories are about, why should I not write about that?

IV. “As much as people think about this idea of fake Hollywood, I feel like the East Coast often feels like a fake movie version of something.”

BLVR: When did you first realize the “curved hanging penis shape of Manhattan”? Was it from the subway map?

BC: “The Closing Doors” was a turning point for me. I wrote it a few months after moving to New York, and I was just staring at that map all the fucking time. I was lost all the time, going the wrong direction on the subway. And I was always staring at this shape, and always weirded out by how close people were to each other in the subway, like I would be sitting, and some guy would be standing right in front of me, crotch not only at my eye level, but like five inches away from my face. This is not a position you find yourself so often in in LA, unless it’s on purpose.

BLVR: What is it about malls for you? About peach-colored stucco?

BC: I hold malls very close to my heart. As you know, I grew up in ultra suburbs in Orange County, California, and I feel like I spent so much of my childhood in malls. South Coast Plaza mainly, and also Fashion Island, and occasionally a couple others. Aside from really solidifying some mega consumerist tendencies at a very young age, I feel like malls were the only place I (or we, my sister and me) had any early independence. The Spectrum, a sort of multi-cinema-shoppertainment-plex, opened around when I was in high school, so my friends and I would hang out there on weekends.

BLVR: Did I ever tell you I saw my first 3D movie at the Irvine Spectrum?

BC: What’d you see?

BLVR: I have no idea. I just remember the goggles… I was with my grandpa. My grandparents lived in Laguna Woods and I definitely went to most of those malls.

BC: Sometimes you find the best stuff in these most generic of places. I also am both very loyal and very contrarian, so the more people hate on this stuff, the more likely I’m going to defend it and grow some sort of pride out of it. The working title of my novel is Strip Mall Series. It takes place in the middle of nowhere between Vegas and LA, in a strip mall, and a large part of it is a Chinese restaurant in the strip mall. How many novels can I set in different malls?!

BLVR: In “A Golden State” the narrator says, “I hadn’t known that in a new city, on a new coast, that my body would be different, would feel like somebody else’s object, a horror movie alien.” Is this a feeling you’ve experienced?

BC: As much as people think about this idea of fake Hollywood, I feel like the East Coast often feels like a fake movie version of something; because for all my formative years, it was only as real as what I saw on TV or in movies, and so out of that, sometimes I feel like I’m in some sort of movie. A horror movie, I guess, if I’m having that kind of day.

The bartender came into the room and exclaimed, “Hello, gorgeous!” stroking the large leafy plant on the opposite wall.

BLVR: We haven’t even talked about plants! There are instances in the book where rooms turn into forests, where housing complexes and even cities seem to have forests flickering within them, where characters think about sinking deep into brown soil. Your apartment is filled with plants, far more than I could count. How do plants affect you? Are there forests within the city, for you?

BC: In California, being close to the ocean, and the mountains, and the dry hills and all of the chaparral yes, that feels very integral to who I am, as a writer, as a person, as a body. And it’s something I’ve been paying much more attention to living in the city, how much it can change quality of life, and perspective, to be closer to plant life. I get so much pleasure out of taking care of plants, touching them, watering them, gazing at new growth. Sometimes a new leaf is all I’ve got, like, “Fuck my life is in shambles, but my plant has a new leaf,” and that’s something right? That counts for a lot.

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