An Interview with Tao Lin - Believer Magazine
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An Interview with Tao Lin

by David Fishkind
August 10th, 2021

I met Tao online in 2008. In 2009, we met in New York, where we became friends, and where we both lived for a number of years before moving away for separate—though not remarkably different—reasons. His new novel describes some of those reasons.

Leave Society is a story of catharsis without resolution, a story of transfiguration without beginning or end. It’s a story of physical and mental alteration, through drugs, sobriety, exercise, and education. At a time when so much media is set on dichotomizing, there are no hard lines drawn by Lin. Though his book will undoubtedly be categorized as autofiction, it is as much a retreat into the imagination as a reflection of lived events.

Confusion, bickering, chronic pain, disease, deformation, and denaturing are all characters in the narrative. They follow Tao’s protagonist, Li, and Li’s friends and family members, living and dead, through the metros of Taipei, the sidewalks of Manhattan, the highways of Florida, the tourist centers of Barcelona, and the shores of Hawaii, alongside inspirations and dead ends of technology, geopolitics, corporatism, even information.

It feels like a haunting, this ghost of bodily and environmental trauma. But it is also a lucid and luminous guide toward self-examination, outward expansion, and an ongoing, wavelike temper of transformative depth.

At the beginning of the novel, Li’s mother asks, “How is DMT beneficial to humans?”

In the middle of the novel, Li reflects on this, considering how it “didn’t seem good for stably working on books.” In that same paragraph he thinks about microfireflies—a term and concept he coins as “the semi-translucent dots. . . in every area of empty space but. . . only visible against sky”—and how maybe they “would coalesce into a holographic overlay cognizable into 3D meaning.”

At the end of Leave Society, Li is still forming an answer to his mother’s question. His awareness has broadened, his perspective has turned toward a pursuit of constant enlightenment, yet the text remains saturated in mystery. To Li—and to me, a great admirer of the novel—that’s okay. Over email, over the course of two months, Tao and I discussed his latest work. We edited our conversation to focus on partnership, animals, autobiographical fiction, new words, and glibness.

—David Fishkind

I. Partnership

THE BELIEVER: At the end of the first chapter of Leave Society, Li “remind[s] himself to merge with nature’s experimental creation of portentously ambitious art,” then thinks, “Nature isn’t mute,” while lying in bed waiting to sleep.

Leave Society presents a kind of conflict between material reality and the imagination, with nature—astronomical, existential, immediate, literal, personal—expressing itself as a bridge between the two. Nature is dynamic, and loud, revealing itself at the front of the narrative throughout your novel. Is “bridge” an accurate metaphor? 

TAO LIN: Yes. I think I nature (everything not made by humans) can be viewed as a bridge from concrete reality to the immaterial world (which I think is also natural because it seems to exist independent of humans), but in Leave Society I view nature more as a different kind of bridge.

BLVR: What kind of bridge?

TL: A bridge away from the dominator model that modern society operates on, toward the partnership model which nature exemplifies and which humans, I’ve learned, once exemplified. 

BLVR: The narrative fluctuates from states of alienation to sincere efforts at communication, accountability, and mediation to significant steps toward a realization of this partnership model by which Li is increasingly inspired. Just as society, or humanity’s “brief, failable transition called history,” has been influenced by violent, individualistic standards for understanding science, civilization, and social behavior, I’ve been seeing more nuanced, inclusive frameworks for studying our universe: grassroots collectivist movements, the complex symbioses of the microbiome, the fungal-bacterial-plant-animal alliances inherent to ecological survival. Can you elaborate on the partnership/dominator dichotomy? 

TL: I got the terms “partnership” and “dominator” from Riane Eisler, who coined them in her book The Chalice and the Blade (1987) to describe the two underlying models of social organization. Humans, Eisler argued, went by the partnership model for hundreds of thousands of years, living in peaceful, classless, egalitarian tribes and towns and civilizations, until around 6,500 years ago, when we started—for complex reasons that researchers are still trying to understand—to overexpress the dominator model, invading and assimilating or destroying the preexisting partnership cultures, and starting the nonstop wars that continue to this day. 

Eisler viewed inequality—“beginning,” she wrote, “with the most fundamental difference in our species, between male and female”—as the main characteristic of dominator societies. Racism and other intolerances stem from sexism, since sexism can exist even within families, she argued. Others have pointed out that dominator societies are alienated from nature. A current example is with COVID-19—the mainstream global culture focuses hard on vaccines and masks—crude, human-made things—while ignoring (to everyone’s detriment, in my view) vitamins and the immune system, though there are places, like Tanzania and Madagascar, and subcultures, like those centered around Chinese medicine and Ayurveda, that aren’t ignoring herbs and other natural treatments.

BLVR: In the chapter “Machines,” you write about how Li had “been trying to resonate more with nature and other partnership teachers, like his Paleolithic and Neolithic ancestors, Daoism, ethnobotanist Kathleen Harrison, and Jesus, who seemed to have promoted the opposite of Yahweh’s values.” How can these ideas and figures serve as guides to existing under the violent, patriarchal conditions of our global dominator society?

TL: In the Paleolithic and Neolithic periods, humans went by the partnership model, according to research by archaeologist Marija Gimbutas, archaeologist James Mellaart, and others. People seem to have worshipped nature in the form of a female deity, which Gimbutas and others have termed “the Goddess.” There were no wars or weapons of war. Settlements of up to 10,000 people, like Çatalhöyük, had no defense fortifications or governmental buildings. A third of the buildings at Çatalhöyük were temples dedicated to Goddess worship, according to Mellaart, who excavated it in the early sixties. Studying Neolithic settlements like Çatalhöyük, which was urban yet sustainable, lasting for more than a thousand years, from around 9100 to 7500 years ago, could help people organize and run modern cities.

Daoism and Kathleen Harrison both promote nature. Daoism—which has its roots in the Goddess religion, according to Ellen Marie Chen—basically says “follow nature.” Kathleen Harrison, an ethnobotanist, promotes aborigines and plants. Jesus, as people know, promoted love and forgiveness. He was surprisingly, for his time, not sexist. “What Jesus was preaching was the gospel of a partnership society,” wrote Riane Eisler. “He mingled freely with women, thus openly rejecting the male-supremacist norms of his time.” When I learned that Jesus had said his word was Yahweh’s word, it made me think that maybe Yahweh had calmed down after millennia and decided to promote, through Jesus, the opposite of what he’d promoted before—irrational anger, punishment, intolerance, misogyny.

BLVR: What other partnership teachers, apart from those already mentioned, have influenced you, your writing, and your ideology to this point?

TL: My mom and bell hooks. What about you? 

BLVR: Definitely nature and my mother. Also my partner Lily, our cat Nori, and our dog George. My friends, the public library system, psychedelics. And my gut, literally. It consistently informs the relationships between my body, psyche, the environment, and the microbial universe. All of these, I think, can only thrive symbiotically.

TL: Nice. My friends and partner and libraries and my parents’ dog (Dudu), and psychedelics are partnership teachers to me too. I think anyone can be a partnership teacher, even people and entities who arguably express more dominator qualities than partnership qualities, because everyone embodies both partnership and dominator qualities. 

II. Animals

TL: Animals, being so close to nature, seem like good partnership teachers. My partner, Yuka, and I want to get a cat or two. I’ve started to like cats a lot in the past year. How do Nori and George get along?

BLVR: Nori and George have a funny relationship. I’ve been living with Nori since 2014, but we got George in 2020, and they’re still getting used to each other. George is highly social, curious, and undeterred, especially in his interactions with other animals. Nori is much more chary and restrained. George mistakes Nori’s aggression for whimsy. Nori mistakes George’s whimsy for aggression. And yet, they share food, water, and communal space in a way that never fails to surprise and amuse me. My life is richer, happier, and more nuanced the more time I spend with them, and all animals.

TL: That sounds good. At the last place where Yuka and I stayed, a rental in Oahu, three cats lived on the property—Tiger, Cali, and Whiteclaw. Tiger and Cali would visit us many times a day (our front door had a magnetized opening that cats could enter and leave by pushing it with their heads) and sometimes bring us geckos or lizards (and once a giant moth and a mouse) and show them to us and play with them (one-sidedly) before eating them. Also, our neighbor had a nonprofit that took in stray cats, and they had something like forty cats, and one of them, Argentina, would visit us, and we would feed her raw milk cheese.

BLVR: I love that. One of my and Lily’s goals is to live among more animals. In the not-distant future we’re interested in bringing chickens and goats into our fold. What animals have you interacted with recently?

TL: My main animal interaction now is with geckos. We feed geckos dates and other fruit. I’ve been surprised and delighted by how intelligent and social they seem—walking around and looking at us, making eye contact when we are near them, interacting with each other via undulating tails and click-like noises. I like how short and long and agile they are. Their ability to walk on walls and walk upside down on ceilings is impressive. 

BLVR: I agree.

TL: I feel like a big part of what is known as “evolutionary mismatch”—which Sayer Ji defines as “the collective deficiency of ancestral influences in the modern, industrialized landscape”—is a lack of lifeforms. People evolved over millions of years to be symbiotic with not just microbes, but also insects, tiny animals like geckos, small animals like birds, medium-sized animals like cats and small dogs, medium-large animals like large dogs, large animals like cows, and giant animals like elephants. 

BLVR: Dudu is one of the central characters in Leave Society. She’s appeared in your writing before, but never in so captivating and expansive a role. 

TL: Yes. Dudu was mentioned twice in Taipei, including in this sentence: “In the nearly pitch-black hallway Dudu’s wet nose softly touched the back of Paul’s leg, when they apparently moved in the same direction, toward the bathroom.” Dudu is a four-pound toy poodle born in 2007.

BLVR: I enjoyed every moment the narrative turned toward her. 

TL: I’m glad to hear this. 

BLVR: She seems to represent a distinct wisdom and detachment, though not one of remoteness or indifference. Like nature, I see her acting as a bridge, for Li and the novel, between the limitations of society and unbounded enigma. 

TL: I feel the same. I think partly why she is a good representative of nature—and a good bridge away from society—is because of how my parents treat her. They let her do what she wants, let her walk around outside without a leash (in Taiwan, it seems common for dogs to be outside without leashes—parks are big and dogs seem popular), and don’t get earnestly upset at her or punish her. This has allowed her to express the mystery, which I define in my book as nature and the imagination, in a purer form than if my parents had channeled human neuroticisms into her.

BLVR: In the chapter “Mediation,” Dudu epitomizes this mystery, appearing “on the sofa in a Sphinx position, facing no one.” And in the following chapter, we get Dudu’s foremost, and funniest, in my opinion, manifestation, when she inscrutably goes catatonic in the middle of an evening walk with Li and his parents. Time and again, Dudu leads to admiration, speculation, and imagination on the part of her human companions. What riddles and insights has Dudu introduced to your life and your writing?

TL: One insight is that animals provide an outlet for unconditional love. People have problems showing love to others—and often get upset at their loved ones—but less so if the other is an animal, maybe especially if the animal is a cute, loyal pet. Another insight (not for my life or writing, but about dogs) I’ve had is that dogs have large vocabularies. I’ve been collecting words that Dudu uses:

  • Continuous, joyous whimper when reuniting with my dad (her favorite person): eew, eew, eew.
  • Rapid yapping when excited to go out: ap! ap! ap!
  • Telling us to hurry when excited to go out: gooh, gooh.
  • Yelping bark, in quick succession; rohrohroh!
  • Quiet warning barks: ruhp. ruhp. ruhp.
  • When happy and excited: ju, ju, ju.
  • Resting after eating, intermittently: yrop! yrop!
  • Talking to me when wanting food: gnrreow. gnrreow.
  • Somewhat neutral, all-purpose bark: roh! or roh.
  • Quiet, nonchalant, slightly distracted bark: houm. houm.
  • Fiercer inflection of bark: ruar! or ruar.
  • Quiet, warning growl: ruaruaruar.
  • Low-level noise of unknown meaning: gnognogno.
  • High-pitched croak: iee! iee!
  • As I held her once while standing on rocks in water: gnrriee…gnrriee.

BLVR: I’ve noticed that even quiet animals have a dense and intricate capacity for communication. 

TL: Sometimes it seems like every noise that Dudu makes is unique—that, not having set words like humans, her vocabulary continually evolves, shifting slightly throughout her life.

III. Autobiographical Fiction

BLVR: At the end of your novel, Li views his leaving society as “a relative thing.” Is this relativism a form of compromise? He seems to get a great deal of joy out of mediating his parents’ bickering, internalizing a healthy relationship toward vacillation, in terms of physical and mental wellbeing, and finding beauty within landscapes of industrial fallout, from New York’s microfireflies to Taipei’s mountains. Compromise as an idea certainly endorses the partnership model at large. Is it the best Li, or we, can hope for?

I agree that compromise is a partnership quality, but I don’t view Li as compromising when he says he thinks of leaving society as “a relative thing,” but more that he is strategizing and being careful and realistic and positive while also trying to be accurate. To “leave society” completely would mean, I feel, to be an unknown hermit without family or friends or contacts, which he doesn’t want to do. He just wants to carefully shift his attention away from dominator society, in part because he thinks he’ll be happier if he does that, and he thinks the most sustainable and effective way to change is to change gradually, incrementally, carefully, and slowly. 

BLVR: Leave Society is overtly autobiographical. Li likes the “self-catalyzing properties” of writing autobiographical fiction, because “it made life both life and literature, imbuing both with extra meaning.” I like that too, and I enjoy how your fiction enriches and directs scaled-down chronicles from your lived experience into arcs and messages to convey the associative possibilities of literature. I reread your three most-recent books of fiction—Shoplifting from American Apparel (2009), Richard Yates (2010), and Taipei (2013)—before reading Leave Society

TL: Thank you for rereading those books. 

BLVR: To me, Leave Society seemed to have the most in common with Richard Yates. The scope of events is narrow, the cast of characters is small, goals are asserted, parents and children compete in earnest attempts at communicating their perspectives, the style is taut and precise. 

TL: Interesting. Yes, I can see that. I wanted both books to have a focused, propulsive quality.

BLVR: Besides the fun of building continuity and extending your outlook to different subjects and in new directions, how do you perceive the interplay between your books’ universes and contexts as an oeuvre?

TL: I remember talking to you about this in emails. I’ve been thinking I want each of my books, or at least my novels, to autobiographically cover a period of my life, preferably chronologically, with each book filling in some period, so that when I die people can read—in a variety of styles and forms—about my whole life, and so my novels can each be parts of something larger, like stories in a collection, or lines in a poem.

BLVR: What’s next?

TL: I don’t know. I’ve wanted to write a science-fiction novel, in which I include autobiographical elements in a collaged way, like in a dream, but I’m also interested in continuing to write strictly autobiographical fiction, due in part to what I said in my previous answer.

TL: I’ve noticed that you’ve begun, in the last two stories I’ve read by you, to collage autobiography with fantastical elements or made-up realistic stuff, whereas in the past you seem to have stuck to autobiography. How has it been doing that?

BLVR: It’s been rewarding. I was always attracted to genre fiction, but when I began writing in an intentional way, I found myself most capable of achieving, like, literary catharsis, or what felt like truth, to me, by relating and reflecting my own lived experiences. For years, I focused on realist, minimalist fiction, because it felt like an empirical means to approach the bewildering chaos of a human condition I couldn’t comprehend. A few years ago I started revisiting the horror, detective, fantasy, comic, parodic, and sci-fi media that had compelled me as a child and adolescent, from a casual, curious place, like I was studying myself. And this curiosity led to my looking into critical, journalistic, and historical texts as well. My interests seemed to counter the staid dread I’d been exploring to that point. It’s maybe similar to Li’s “relative thing.” As I’m exposed to humbling, awful, and awe-filled experiences and ideas, my practice becomes less about portraying the intimate impressions of my life and more about investigating the common mysteries and derangements of life as a rule.

TL: That seems good. I feel like I’ve had a similar recasting of my autobiographical writing since my previous book Trip—I’ve begun to incorporate research from nonfiction books and scientific papers and independent researchers into my autobiographical narratives.

BLVR: I also feel that it can be effective to address broad, ambiguous subjects, like the sociological, economic, and political issues most pertinent to my ideology, through allegory, to which genre writing and satire naturally lend themselves. What is the intention of your practice at this point in your career?

TL: I think I want, above all else, to continue doing what I tried to do with Trip and Leave Society, which is to write things that will actually help my life—help me become stabler, happier, less depressed, more productive, more informed, healthier, less grumpy, calmer, wiser, etc. in a sustainable manner. And I want this intention to synergize—rather than limit—my writing, in terms of its level of interest to readers, including myself. 

IV. New Words

BLVR: One thing that felt particularly novel about Leave Society, compared to your previous work, is its freedom and playfulness with language. You coin a lot of words in the book: “Yahwehistly,” “dustwinkling,” “singularityward,” etc. I particularly liked “quarterheartedly.” 

TL: Thanks for noticing.

BLVR: You also introduce a number of Chinese and colloquial Taiwanese phrases, like “ng,” “bù xíng le,” and “phubbing.” 

TL: Yes. “Ng” is a grunted word that means “yes,” “I see,” “right,” or “okay.” Americans and other people seem to use it too. “Bù xíng le”—literally “not able anymore”—means “fucked” or “doomed.” Phubbing is a word I’ve seen on signs in Taiwan that seems to mean “looking down at phones in public.” I just looked it up and realized it was invented, according to this site, in 2012.

BLVR: How do you view this new looseness or mutability of language, in respect to Leave Society’s aims, as well as your writing as a whole?

TL: I like that I’ve done this. It came naturally. I’ve tended in my writing to want to suppress the creation of new words (in service of readability), but with this novel’s overall theme of seeking novelty and complexity, I felt encouraged to use new words. Vocabulary partly determines what one can think; new ideas demand new words.

BLVR: Another unique word, which makes a debut, in a particular sense, in your fiction, is a far more familiar one: “love.” In neither of the two novels, nor the novella, mentioned above, all of which hinge on relationships, romance, and desire, does the word “love” appear, at least in any dialogue. In Leave Society, love is a constant: Dudu as the “beloved other,” the “unconditional love” of parents, “The Greatest Love of All” by Whitney Houston, the banning of “literary works with love as the theme,” “startlingly unambiguous love,” culminating in the reciprocal exchange of “I love you”s between Li and Kay. At one point, Li can’t “remember the last time he’d told someone in person that he loved them.” What changed? What can we take away from this powerful reintroduction to love in your writing?

TL: I think I rarely or never felt love before a certain point, say, 2013 or 2014. I felt obsession, euphoria, attraction, caring, but not love. I think cannabis, which I started using in 2013, helped me feel love.

V. Glibness

BLVR: Leave Society is preceded by a quotation from Kathleen Harrison, an ethnobotanist who featured heavily in your most-recent nonfiction book, Trip. The epigraph reads, “Nothing is as it appears to be. I’m not being glib.” In your novel, you introduce a number of alternative, speculative, and awe-inspiring views, framed by the multilayered, fractal incoherence of history, and framed beyond that by the unknowable yet poignant breachings of prehistory. Reflecting on how Trip was originally devised under the working title Beyond Existentialism, I feel that Leave Society engages in beyondness in a stirring and eloquent way. Li moves beyond existential dread, beyond solitude, and, though he does not “leave” society entirely per se, he does seem to move beyond it in an abiding manner. 

TL: Yes. Or he starts to, over the 3.25 years of the novel.

BLVR: Still, it strikes me that some readers will see your novel, in all its remarkable, unusual divergences, or you, its author, as glib.

I agree. Merriam Webster defines glib as “showing little forethought or preparation” and “lacking depth and substance.”

BLVR: That is to say, your prose is vivid, steadfast, feels effortless in its candidness, and persuasive in its integration of unfamiliar vistas, postulations, and subject matter; when nothing is as it appears to be, however, people may pounce on the results of that artistic license, especially when it engages with anomalous, offbeat ideas in opposition to the status quo, like Çatalhöyük, the Younger Dryas period, or that the Big Bang never happened.

TL: Yes. I published a list of works I referenced in writing Leave Society on my website, by the way.

BLVR: Thank you for sharing that. Li, too, has performed research. He also has his family, his partner, his friends, his dog, and his infinite creative and intellectual capacities to collaborate with, in working to parse new information and explore unfathomed territories. But Li remains a fictional character. You have written him, and you have written a novel—in so doing, you have “merge[d] with nature’s experimental creation of portentously ambitious art”—and you have released it into the public sphere, a space that grows increasingly more and less hostile, in fits and undulations, to materials unsubstantiated by the mainstream. What do you have to say to any doubter or detractor who might accuse you of glibness? 

TL: Just: I am not being glib. And that I also feel that I’m not being contrarian or a provocateur. It’s more that I’m interested in gaining a more accurate and comprehensive view of the world (what really happened on Earth, what really happened in human history, what’s really happening in the microscopic world of cells and molecules, etc.), in part because it seems like the more that I learn about the world, the better the world seems to be—the more magical, complex, mysterious, interesting, generous, loving. 

Learning about the world also includes learning about human dominator culture, though, and the more I learn about this topic, the worse dominator culture seems—the crueler, more dysfunctional, more convolutedly fucked up. Things aren’t just as bad as they seem to be based on the news; they’re much worse, it increasingly seems to me. But learning about the terribleness of dominator culture is also hope-giving, because the more I learn about it, the less hopeless things seem overall. For example, learning that humans started off as a nature-loving, partnership species before deteriorating to chronic war changes my view of contemporary human culture from “confused struggle in a grim world” to “recovery toward a former harmony.”

BLVR: Does it matter if people accuse you of glibness?

TL: I think it does. I don’t want people to think I’m just being provocative or that I’m writing stream-of-consciously or uncarefully, or that I have some other agenda besides what I say. It’s inevitable that some people misunderstand me, but it seems good to try to minimize misunderstandings.

BLVR: Will one always be questioned for questioning reality or authority? 

TL: For now, yes, I think, because the dominant reality, the dominator mainstream, has so much behind it—trillions of dollars of advertising, millennia of momentum, thousands of corporations, hundreds of militaries, unknown numbers of violent and illegal classified projects, access to kids’ minds for decades through public education and college, etc. But I can imagine a partnership world where people are encouraged to question reality and authority, and where peace and love and happiness are widespread and deep and normal.

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