Agency, Voice, and Casually Radical Acts of Art-Making

An Interview with Author Mimi Lok
February 26, 2020

Interviewed by Joyce Chen, TSW staff

The first step to creating actionable change within the structures and institutions that constitute our lived experiences? Make a mess. Mimi Lok, the author of Last of Her Name, a collection of stories about women of the Chinese diaspora, is a big believer in allowing emotions to seep into and through the page to build empathy with readers who might not otherwise see themselves in those stories. Step two: Use aforementioned empathy to question the ways in which we think we understand one another. Get uncomfortable. Dig deeper. Repeat. 

Lok’s approach to fiction is not dissimilar to her approach to her activism: allow for the messiness of emotions and experience to dictate the final form. In Last of Her Name, Lok gives readers snapshot glimpses into the lives of characters as wide-ranging as a homeless grandmother, a disillusioned fiancé, and a teenager resentful of her overbearing stepmother. In each of the book’s eight stories, Lok exposes the complexity of the human condition and creates worlds in which her characters’ actions lead with emotion.

Here, Lok tells The Seventh Wave about how her work off the page, as the executive editor of human rights organization Voice of Witness, has helped to inform her fiction, and how world-building in fiction has helped her to interrogate the world we live in today. We’ll be chatting with Lok at the Elliott Bay Book Company on Wednesday, Feb. 26 at 7 p.m., and can’t wait to keep the conversation going then.

Joyce Chen: If you were to describe your book, Last of Her Name, in one or two sentences, what would it be?

Mimi Lok: It’s a collection of stories about women of the Chinese diaspora, and it’s about the histories that diasporic Chinese women are born into and what they do with those histories. The stories encompass female desire, longing, resilience, and possibility.

 

Joyce: It’s so hard to distill, I imagine, because you’ve been thinking about this for the last 10 years.

Mimi: The thing with collections is that it’s not like a novel, where you have this vision, and even though a novel can take so many shapes and directions, it’s always cohesive. With a collection, you don’t always know the thread, as was the case with this collection.

I didn’t know what the connective thread was until I started thinking of it as a collection, because the stories represent about a 10-year span: some were written more recently, and some were earlier versions of stories that were written about 10 years ago. And also, if you start a story or a version of a story and the final version is so radically different, does it still count as the same story? I don’t know. I don’t have the answer to that.

 

Joyce: With each story, where do you begin? Is it a different process?

Mimi: There’s no usual, really. While there is definitely a connective tissue throughout the collection — of diaspora, longing and yearning, and feeling out of place or out of one’s place, the internal and the external diaspora — there was quite a lot of variety with all the stories, not only in terms of what they’re about but also formally, from the very long to the very short. Some were a bit more poetic and lyrical, like “Wedding Night,” and some were a bit more literary realism, like “I Have Never Put My Hope.”

Sometimes, it starts with an image, and sometimes, it starts with a kind of dynamic that I’m interested in exploring. An example is “Bad Influence,” with Mayling and Nelson. I’m interested in the dynamic that I’ve seen a lot between siblings, especially within Southeast Asian siblings, where the son is expected to carry a lot of the family’s expectations, and also just what I’ve seen across generations: often the daughter or the sister bearing a lot of that kind of responsibility and burden. Being the sensible one, and the toll that that takes. And so it wasn’t as if I had made Mayling and Nelson fully formed, but I knew that that kind of dynamic and those kind of people felt very familiar to me. It’s really about finding the specificity within that story that made it feel like less of an archetype.

For “Last of Her Name,” it started with this image of two sisters painting the family house and it was a very, very different story initially. It started out by being a story about ritual, and about this Chinese family in a British suburb; the setting was the same but the story was really different. The parents had no role in it. The mom didn’t have much of a role, she just made a cameo. The one thing that remained from that original story that ended up in the final was the moment where Jean forgets sometimes what her English name is so when someone says her English name at school, it takes her a moment for her to realize that they’re talking about her. And so that’s an example of a story that ended up being really different. But it started with this idea of ritual. So something of the original story DNA did come through, but I didn’t know it was going to be about what it ended up being about. There were a lot of false starts and dead-ends, and originally, there was a lot more kung fu in there but I cut it out.

With “The Woman in the Closet,” that was inspired by actual headlines. About 10 or so years ago, there was a story about an elderly Japanese woman who was discovered in a man’s closet undetected for a year, and I was just obsessed with that story. At that time, I looked online for more information and I kept finding the same recycled wire story, but I kept thinking about the woman and what led her to this extreme circumstance. Then I started researching homelessness in Japan and tent villages and so a lot of where that story came from was really just my intense curiosity about the life of this woman. I wanted to give her more than just a few inches of column space, and even though Granny Ng is this completely fictitious rendering, it’s rooted in the same idea of trying to give this person their due. She has the highest page count of any character in the novel, and she’s also the kind of person who, in reality, tends to be invisible, or reduced to “oh isn’t she cute” and “oh isn’t she adorable.”

So those three examples show that I don’t have a “usual.” It would be nice to have a usual but as a writer and as someone who creates, it’s really about just having your antennae on and able to receive inspiration in whatever shape or form it comes. And then hopefully, not falling asleep at the wheel and being alert enough to say “Okay, yep, that’s interesting.”

 

Joyce: It’s fascinating to talk about beginnings, because the more you ask creatives about how they start, the more you realize there’s no one way. You just do.

Mimi: You just do! Yes. I think with my favorite pieces of works of art, whether it’s visual or writing or music, you can really feel the emotion. Even if it’s sort of manufactured, and very intentionally structured in the way it’s supposed to engender a certain effect, it’s still something that contains that kind of emotion explicitly coursing through it. That’s the sort of work that I respond to the most. I don’t care if it’s a bit messy or imperfect, as long as it’s something that really dislodges you as well. I think the opposite of that is to start with an intellectual idea. You just end up being so determined to explore that idea that you almost end up writing a sort of thesis in a way. Then there’s not as much room for play.

 

Joyce: Play is a very big part of the creative process. You mentioned that in writing these different stories, there wasn’t originally the intention for them to all live together. Was there a moment when you realized that these could all go together, or when did you start seeing the threads?

Mimi: The first impetus for me was literally just, “Oh, I have to finish these stories and get them out into the world.” It was on my bucket list to publish them, and I didn’t care whether it was a pamphlet or with an actual publisher — I knew I just had to get this done. And it wasn’t because I felt like I saw these clear connection points, it was more like the feeling that they could belong together somehow. But I have to admit, the first version of the collection was like an overstuffed supermarket trolley with everything in there. One of my first readers was an editor I worked with, and she helped me see that certain stories didn’t need to be there, didn’t quite belong, and I needed to take some out and just think more about order and how that can inform tone.

But I think what helped me really think about the stories that ended up in the collection was through conversations with my editor at Kaya Press, Sunyoung Lee. She wasn’t giving me any concrete feedback on the manuscript for a really long time, and instead, she was asking me to send her work that wasn’t in the collection, or even unfinished work, and not because she wanted to see what else was there that could be swapped out, necessarily, but so that she could try to understand what drove me to write, what were some of the currents throughout my work as a writer. So that was when I really started to understand my own writing more, to be honest. I mean, I think most fiction writers don’t think, “Hmm what are my obsessions?” You basically just channel those obsessions through what you need to write. Some people are very, very cognizant that they keep writing the same story, because they have the same obsessions and they’re just different versions of the same story. Some writers have built entire careers out of that.

But I don’t think that’s what I was doing. My obsessions actually emerged as I was forced to talk about the collection. Other people have asked me that same question that you’ve just asked me in terms of what connects the stories together, and I’ve said, “I don’t know, they’re all Chinese?” and then there’s the question, “Well, why did you make them all Chinese?” and my thought was “Well, Jhumpa Lahiri makes all of her characters Indian by default in the Interpreter of Maladies,” and I love that. There’s no discussion, it’s just the default. And not every single story is about people talking about their heritage or identity. Some of it is just woven into the fabric, and sometimes it’s more explicit. And it made me realize that the only story that we have to tell, our obsession, is woven into the fabric of all our other stories. You write about what you feel compelled to write about. But even now that I can articulate what I’m writing about with a slightly more eloquent lens, it doesn’t change the way I write. It’s still a mess. It’s still messy and mysterious.

 

Joyce: “Messy” is a word that’s always top of mind, because that’s what makes writing compelling. I’m curious about having all the characters in your stories be Chinese, as you mentioned earlier. Have you found that it feels liberating to be able to write solely Chinese characters?

Mimi: I’m going to mention Jhumpa Lahiri again, and Interpreter of Maladies. It wasn’t until I read that collection that I could see how casually radical it was to encounter a collection of stories that decenters white characters. I think that was the shift for me, like, “Well, I’m just going to make all my characters Chinese because why not?” And by doing so, I was asked a question that so many minority writers have had in writing courses and even amongst friends: “Well, why don’t you write about something that’s more universal?” I love to interrogate that question, because it comes from a place of presumption that white equals universal. What’s universal to me in these stories is all these emotions of wanting to be loved, to feel a sense of belonging, to feel a sense of one’s place in the world, and making it very specifically rooted in this Chinese diasporic experience, because that’s something that I feel I can tune into or that I need to tune into, rather. I don’t know whether liberating is the world, but I do know that it feels very necessary for myself as a writer.

 

Joyce: I’m curious to know more about your work with Voice of Witness, and how that relates to the idea of who gets to tell the story?

Mimi: In terms of Voice of Witness, the mission is to fight for human rights by not just amplifying, but centering marginalized voices. I think that we should always question the default perspective, which has historically been white and male and straight. And anytime you do that, in whatever way you do it, you’re imbuing what are often othered, marginalized perspectives with inherent authority. And that’s powerful.

The Voice of Witness series are anthologies, collections that focus on a special set of issues. The most recent title is called Solito, Solita, and it’s about these refugees from Central America. Every narrative is a different person’s perspective. It’s almost like a portrait of a person from birth to now that includes these human rights violations that each person has experienced, but not in a way that assumes that that’s what defines them. The most important thing is just treating and recognizing that people who have direct experience in justice are voices of authority. You can’t claim that you understand sexism or racial discrimination or the criminal justice system without having heard from someone directly impacted by it. And — this is getting into the idea of actionable storytelling — I think there’s something incredibly powerful about taking this literary approach to human rights storytelling, through oral history.

What we do is we take in this oral history, it’s all recorded verbatim, and then we take these transcripts and condense it into 20 pages. The narrator has final approval over the draft to make sure we got their voice correct and their facts correct, but ultimately, it’s constructed in a way that’s engaging and compelling. Because obviously, not everyone tells a story chronologically or with all the details intact the first time around. It can be messy. And so we want them to read almost like monologues. Then, readers will approach these narratives in the same way that they might approach a work of fiction: there is an unspoken contract between the reader and the writer that the reader is going to exercise empathy in imagining the lives of these protagonists.

So by imagining yourself in this person’s shoes, even if just for a moment, you’re practicing empathy. And the empathy that comes from this experience isn’t an end in itself, it’s a starting point of complicating your own way of thinking about this issue or this community, and hopefully this will make you a better activist. Also, by complicating your own thinking about something, you’re interrogating your biases and your assumptions, and hopefully, that empathy catalyzes into action in a way that’s informed and not just lukewarm, like, “Well, I’m doing something because I went on this march, or I signed this petition.” No, now it’s more like, “I need to read more, or now I need to listen to more perspectives that sound like this to inform my understanding of this issue and to become a better advocate and a better ally.”

 

Joyce: Tell me more about the process of how a narrative goes from oral storytelling to printed matter.

Mimi: Usually, each final oral history involves several rounds of interviews and several drafts. So what we’ll do is we’ll do one interview at a time, and it might be an hour, an hour and a half, and it might be all about the person’s childhood, it might not even touch upon the human rights violation that would be anchoring it. Then it will be transcribed, it will be roughly edited adhering as closely as possible to the transcript, only changing chronology or tidying up the language so repeated words and redundancies get tweaked. And then usually we’ll have another reader who will just highlight things like questions what they want to know more about — it might be a factual gap, or it might be more emotional or textural or sensory detail that’s missing. It’s basically this additive process. The narrator’s role is just to tell whatever story they feel moved to tell. And then the editor’s role, and our role is supporting the editor, is to shape this cohesive narrative out of it that the narrator feels is an accurate reflection of their experience in a way that honors that intention of their story, even if it’s cut down from 100 pages to 20 pages.

We know that we’ve done our job when the narrator, after the book’s come out, talks about the narrative like, “Oh yeah, the story that I wrote.” Even though they told that story orally, the fact that they feel enough agency and ownership of that story to claim authorship, even though it’s not technically accurate, that’s what we want. We want our narrators to feel agency and ownership over their story, because usually the communities of the narrators that we work with, they’re not used to being asked at all about their experiences, or they’re used to having their stories told for them.

 

Joyce: That’s so powerful. What was the original impetus for starting Voice of Witness back in 2005?

Mimi: It really started with Dave Eggers when he started working on What Is the What, telling Valentino Achak Deng’s story. When he was in Sudan in Valentino’s hometown, he met women from Valentino’s village who had recently returned after years of being abducted to the north. Some of them returned with children from their captors. At the time, there was a lot of things being written about the Lost Boys of Sudan, but next to nothing about the so-called Lost Girls/Women, and so that was the impetus of finding a way to tell their stories. He and Valentino had sat down and interviewed some of these women with the goal of putting together a collection of their voices and finding a platform. Dave had founded McSweeney’s Publishing back in 1998, because at the time there was nothing that fit this sort of story, and what he wanted to do was to start an imprint that would be a platform for these kinds of voices. Maybe a year later, he met Lola Vollen, who was working with people who had been exonerated after being wrongfully convicted, and so that became the first book in the series, Survival Justice. There were a couple of books, about three books that were developed as an imprint of McSweeney’s, and I was drafted to by my former MFA professor to work on Underground America, about the experiences of undocumented workers in the US. So I was a part of this task force of lawyers, documentary filmmakers, writers; we spent a year working on that book. And it was transformative.

I have a past life as a semi-journalist and also as a teacher, and I kept thinking, “Wow, this is one of the most meaningful experiences of my life, just to sit down and interview these undocumented Chinese people in the States and get their oral histories.” And it was just so life-altering for me. It was just really done on a shoestring. There was no budget, there were 15 of us working on the book, fighting over the tape recorders and having to use air miles to fly to interviews and stay on friends’ couches. I remember thinking, “Oh this really needs funding in order to survive.” Dave and Lola were thinking the same thing, so they asked me to come on as founding executive director, and this was 10 years ago. So I gave it a shot. And somehow, we managed to become a real nonprofit and get funding. And this last fall, we celebrated 10 years.

 

Joyce: Congratulations! That is no easy feat. I’m curious to hear more of your thoughts about oral storytelling and the power of it as a form.

Mimi: With oral history, the final iteration can take so many forms. It can be spoken word, it can be a visual photo essay, and in our case, it’s the written word. It finds its final iteration as written text. And even though we have supplementary material and video and audio, the main form it takes is as written text, but in terms of its status alongside, say, written scholarly text, it’s only in recent years that people are recognizing, I think, the value of having oral history. Folks who are not always the victors of history haven’t been allowed to share their histories for so long. Imagine how our knowledge or our understanding of the pyramids would have altered if we had any record of the experiences of one of the people who was responsible for building them. The victors, the emperors, have always been afforded these recordings. The reason [oral storytelling] has not always had as credible a status as so-called official scholarly work or history is because people just assume that when you talk to individual people about their experiences, that memory can be faulty. It’s flawed. And you must fact-check someone’s experience, especially if they’re a “nobody,” right? But the fact is that with Voice of Witness, our books are fact-checked and our interviews are fact-checked. What’s heartening, though, is I believe there’s more emphasis on using primary source material about contemporary history, and so oral history is being used more in common core curriculums now.

 

Joyce: What are the bigger social issues that are at the forefront in your mind these days?

Mimi: I can’t remember the last time someone’s asked me that question, honestly. I would say that the reason why I feel so at home with and so aligned with Voice of Witness is we consider ourselves human rights generalists, not a single issue or double-issue organization. And not to say that there isn’t a very important place for that focus, but I think that my answer is going to be annoying because even though as a woman and as a person of color, obviously racism and sexism are very high up there, I do try as much as possible to take an intersectional approach to thinking about social justice and human rights issues. I’ve had conversations in the past with folks who’ve been too focused on one issue that they lose the big picture — I’m thinking here about white folks who might be really down with LGBTQ rights but not have much of a passion when it comes to racism, for example. And failing to see why that’s an issue.

In our circles, an intersectional way of thinking is more common, but I do remember in the first few years of Voice of Witness of it being a real struggle, especially with funders, or even with very open-minded, well-intentioned readers or constituents to say, “Don’t only care about Issue X. Do you see how it connects to Issue Y even if it’s happening in a community or country that’s different from yours?” It’s all connected, so I’m glad that people are moving more toward intersectional ways of looking at issues. Obviously I’m directly affected by, I’m more acutely affected on a daily basis by the effects of racism and sexism and xenophobia, but those aren’t the only things I care about.

 

Joyce: I think that’s a very honest and very true answer, because it is true that everything is so interconnected. Folks talking about worrying about global warming but not caring about farming or land issues doesn’t make sense, for instance, because it’s all connected whether in direct or abstract ways.

Mimi: Yeah, and sometimes the flip side is that when you’re looking at things through such a holistic and intersectional lens, it can sometimes feel paralyzing, like, “Wow, it’s so complex and interwoven. Where do I start? How can I be of use?” And I always say, especially when I’m talking to young people when we go into campuses and classrooms, the same thing, which is, “Start small and start local, but whatever you do, just do it really passionately and with thoughtfulness.” Because you can’t do everything and you can’t be everywhere, so you just need to figure out how you can be of the most service in your own particular way.

 

Joyce: Most impact, least harm, something like that.

Mimi: Yeah! Certainly.

 

Joyce: I also wanted to bring it back to what you said about complicating perspectives or complicating people’s thinking of their roles. That feels like what really effective fiction, really effective art does, because it kind of nudges you off track in a really impactful way.

Mimi: I think any writer that moves you or that makes an impact on you is because they shake you up in some way or unsettle you. There’s feel-good writing like there is feel-good cinema, and there’s a place for that because we all need balms, but I think you can also have that sort of balm within a complicated, textured, nuanced story. I don’t think it has to be one or the other. I don’t write to make myself feel good. That’s what chocolate chip cookies are for. I write because I want to get into uncomfortable places and explore and try and figure out what the heck is going on. I mean, it’s fun, too, but it’s almost a form of hypnosis, in a way, especially when you have characters that take on a life of their own, and they go and they dictate the story as opposed to you moving them along this story map that you set out. And you can only let that happen if you’re seeing this character or set of characters clearly. This is a huge practice of empathy as well. It’s not about someone as a reader saying, “Well, that’s not what I would do!” It doesn’t matter what you would do, it matters what the characters will do. You have to let them act in a way that feels true to them, and then the story goes into unexpected places.

Headshot of Mimi Lok

Mimi Lok is the author of the story collection Last Of Her Name, published October 2019 by Kaya Press. Last of Her Name was recently shortlisted for the 2020 PEN/Robert W. Bingham prize for debut short story collection, and a 2020 Northern California Book Award. Mimi is the recipient of a Smithsonian Ingenuity Award and an Ylvisaker Award for Fiction, and is a 2020 National Magazine Award finalist. Her work can be found in McSweeney’s, Electric Literature, LitHub, Nimrod, Lucky Peach, Hyphen, the South China Morning Post, and elsewhere. She is currently working on a novel. Mimi is also the founding director and executive editor of Voice of Witness, an award-winning human rights/oral history nonprofit that amplifies marginalized voices through a book series and a national education program.

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