By Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé
Let’s get down to brass tacks. Why do you write?
I can’t say it’s because I must. I’m privileged in that I have been trained to do many things (making spreadsheets, balancing budgets, editing, organising), and some of those things keep me housed and fed, happy even. I write (on the side, obsessively, as a career) because it makes me feel more satisfied than pretty much anything else I know how to do. I get intense pleasure from both the process and the end game. It took me a while to understand that liking to do something was important, more important than being good at something else. It’s definitely not an Asian immigrant thing to follow the joyous light but I’m a bit of a hedonist, so I got there eventually J.
Tell us about your most recent book or writing project. What were you trying to say or achieve with it?
My earlier work had to do with a kind of recording. My memoir, “Olive Witch,” is experiential, about what it was like for me as a Bangladeshi girl in Nigeria, a Nigerian born teenager in America, an American woman in Bangladesh. My linked stories collection, “The Lovers and the Leavers,” is loosely based on my own diasporic experiences and the stories of those I met while living in Bangladesh and India. My work in my latest project is a little bit different, more like trying to answer questions rather than tell stories. I just finished a draft of a novel called “Memory Alone.” In a way, it’s completely fictional, following the life of a white bisexual religious male drug addict in California. In a way, it’s the truth of what I imagine and wonder about relationships, addiction, memory, and dementia.
Describe your writing aesthetic.
I can’t say I’ve settled on one aesthetic or that I’m self aware enough to know what it is. I do know that I love beautiful writing, and will spend hours highlighting and copying down sentences and phrases in the books I read. But I hate what I call mango-breasty writing (exotified over-lyrical prose or poetry). That said, I started writing as a poet, and so the particular words matter to me, and it takes me a long time to think up and write down each sentence.
Who are your favorite authors?
I deeply admire authors who can combine good writing at the sentence level with story and driving narrative. For shining examples, see Toni Morrison (I just reread and was re-wrecked by The Bluest Eye), David Mitchell (his book, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, is epic poetic storytelling), Katherine Boo (I was blown away by her stunning book on the Mumbai slums, Beyond the Beautiful Forevers), Taiye Selasi (whose debut novel, Ghana Must Go, reads like rhyming and tells a rip roaring story as well), Molly Crabapple (her graphic memoir, Drawing Blood, combines drippingly gorgeous art with sharp and lovely writing), my hometown girl Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (whose Biafran war novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, is canon-worthy), and Sandip Roy (whose debut linked stories collection, Don’t Let Him Know, is assured and sprawling and so easy to read).
I found writing my latest book quite difficult, the aforementioned novel about memory loss (and it might very well not be done yet!). I’m not an outliner, or someone who knows where she’s going with something. There were times when I had no clue what the next sentence was going to be, the next piece of action, the next plot point. It was even harder when I started writing the part of the book where my main character was an older man. Not the gender part necessarily because I don’t have trouble writing from a male POV, but the idea that you could have more behind you than ahead, that an entire lifetime’s worth of memories have made you who you are. And then, what of that could fall away and still allow you personality, persondom? Part of that is the challenge of any fiction writer: world creation, history imagining, character background. Part of that is philosophy: what does it mean to be a person, and then what does it mean to lose yourself? I’m no expert in either fiction or philosophy, but I’m determined to learn.
What’s your idea of bliss?
Probably a day where I’ve spent a few hours writing something new (ideally finished a new piece), and I’ve done enough of my day job to earn some rent money, and then can take the rest of the time to hang out with friends and hopefully go dancing.
What makes you angry, and I mean all-out-smash-the-china raving mad?
On a macro level, the current election cycle in the US is an easy target. The fact that a man, who is a misogynist, racist, Islamophobic, anti-immigrant, capitalist megalomaniac, has captured half the popular vote, is just insane. On a micro level, I hate snobbery. I can’t tolerate it when someone speaks highly of himself, or can’t acknowledge her privilege. Not that I’m driven snow, but I want more woke in the world.
What books would you take with you on a three-month retreat in the boondocks?
I read e-books (she says a little shamefacedly), except for poetry. For 5 years, I even read almost exclusively on my phone until I realised it was too distracting, the internet, and so I had to force myself to use an e-reader. So I’d take my entire to-read list with me on a retreat, which list is terrifyingly long and only getting longer. However, I also read slowly, like 1-2 books a month. If I could double or triple that by taking away my social life (the boondocks would have to be internet free or limited), then the next 15 books I want to read would be (and it would be amazing amazing if I could have 3 months just to read):
– Ocean Vuong’s debut collection: Night Sky with Exit Wounds
– Chinelo Okparanta’s second book: Under the Udala Trees
– Claudia Rankine’s poetry collection about race in America: Citizen
– Tahmima Anam’s third novel in her trilogy: The Bones of Grace
– Saad Z. Hossain’s debut war comedy: Escape from Baghdad
– Omar Musa’s debut poesy novel: Here Come the Dogs
– some hereto unnamed trashy romance, probably a period piece
– Sulaiman Addonia’s debut novel: The Consequences of Love
– Sarnath Banerjees’s graphic novel: The Harappa Files
– Amy Poehler’s comedy memoir: Yes Please
– Tania de Rozario’s memoir: And the Walls Come Crumbling Down
– Tishani Doshi’s collection of stories, poems, and essays: The Adulterous Citizen
– Mahasweta Devi’s acclaimed collection: Breast Stories
– Gaiutra Bahadur’s book of colonial power & Caribbean women: Coolie Woman
– Adrienne Rich’s anti war poetry collection: Diving into the Wreck
Your house is burning down. What’s the most important thing you’d want to take with you?
Just one thing? Damnit. I was thinking my laptop, or my camera, but I’m kind of a maniac about backing things up (I have online backup as well as an extra hard drive, and some stuff on gmail), so I’d mostly only lose monetized objects, not reproducible data like photos or music or manuscripts. I think what I’d grab is a “friends book” I made for myself in 2004 and have been adding to since. I asked my friends to tell me one good memory they had with me. Some people wrote a line, others wrote pages, some illustrated and snail mailed or hand delivered their entries, others emailed text. I put it all together and bound it into a book, and when I was travelling for 7 years, I carried it with me, armour against loneliness, a talisman of the power of friendship, of found family. I should probably digitize this book now that I think about it! I would be gutted if it were lost.
Describe your life philosophy. In a sentence.
This might be cheating because it’s three things, but I believe in awe, in kindness, and in finding beauty.
Abeer Hoque is a Nigerian born Bangladeshi American writer and photographer. She likes air conditioning, kettle corn, and reading trashy romances (sometimes all at once). Her books include a travel photography and poetry monograph (The Long Way Home, 2013), a collection of linked stories, poems, and photographs (The Lovers and the Leavers, 2015), and a memoir (Olive Witch, 2017). See more at olivewitch.com.