Into the Amber: An Interview with Mimi Lok on “Last of Her Name”
By Marina ManoukianDecember 8, 2019
I had the chance to talk with Mimi about her stories, writing process, and editing process. “Every writer is different,” she said, and it was a delight getting to know her difference.
MARINA MANOUKIAN: One of my questions has to do with the open-endedness of your stories: do you, as the writer, know what happens?
MIMI LOK: Well, some of my favorite stories, whether it’s short stories or novels or even movies or TV shows, end in a way where it feels satisfying and inevitable, but surprising, and also in a way where you can imagine the characters’ lives continuing. I think that’s what I try to go for with all of these stories, so they don’t feel like creations of fiction but like people who you know so you can imagine their lives continuing.
Sometimes I let myself think, “Oh, this is probably what happened,” or I know what happened but I’m not putting it down because it doesn’t quite work with the story, and then in other instances it’s as mysterious to me as it is to the reader.
I also really drew on my own experience as a reader, being conscious of what I hope will happen for the characters. I think that hope or expectation or desire for things to turn out a certain way, that’s really revealing too.
What does it mean to hope for some kind of happy ending? Why do we want that? Is it to let ourselves off the hook?
You mentioned your experience as a reader. Does that experience also extend toward the language that you use in your writing?
During the final editing stages, I’m thinking about the language on that front. I used to be this agonizing tinkerer, thinking, “Oh, this sentence has to be perfect before I go onto the next sentence,” and now I just want to get it all down, do the bad draft, and then sort it from there.
What I’m mainly thinking about during my early drafts of writing is: How do I achieve a sort of precision and specificity of thought or feeling or emotion in that moment on the page, and what words or arrangement of words will help me do that? I’m not so much thinking about the reader’s perspective. I guess I am in a way, because I want to communicate that, but really it’s me working out what’s going on in this moment, in the story, in this character’s mind, in the character’s body, what’s happening in the room, in the space in which this is taking place, and sometimes getting some kind of clarity or specificity is crucial before I can move on to the next moment.
It’s interesting that you use the word precision when talking about your writing because I feel like so many of the stories and sentences have this imprecision about them, where you’re circling these ideas but never pinning them down — a precision through imprecision.
I think I’m trying to precisely capture that character’s confusion or capturing the ambiguity of the moment, and ambiguity is such a tricky thing. I’ve sat through and read through so many movies or stories where it’s just ambiguity for ambiguity’s sake. Ambiguity does not automatically equal depth or complexity.
I don’t know many people who know exactly what is going on and what they’re feeling at all times. And I think that with any kind of storyteller, the constant thread is that there’s this compulsion to look back and excavate.
It’s a combination of archaeology and putting something under a microscope, seeing what’s at the core of it.
It’s a weird thing to be doing with your time. [Laughs.]
There’s a great line from the press release for the book where you say, “Why should any one perspective be the default?” Why do you think it’s important to show such a decentering?
I think if you scratch beneath the surface of any conventional seeming relationship, whether it’s family or romantic, there’s all kinds of stuff going on there. Even if the people within a marriage or a family are on some level adhering to prescribed norms or roles, there’s always something else going on under the surface. It’s about taking a closer look, and then decentering is a byproduct of that. It’s the process of disregarding and not quite trusting those norms, so you take a deeper look and then that decentering happens.
Your stories bring up ideas about memory in its creation of connections — can you talk about the idea that every time we remember a memory we alter it a bit?
When I think about stories, and the moments described in these stories, I keep asking: But why this particular memory? Why return to this incident, this moment, from the past? What obsession or connections does it contain that keeps the protagonist coming back to it over and over, like picking a scab or tending to a plant? The memories we keep returning to — they resurface more dominantly over others for reasons we sometimes understand, and sometimes don’t. I think it’s that heat of intense focus or recurring, compulsive focus on a memory that can end up altering or distorting the fabric of it. I’m interested in how we alter to make sense of things, but also how altering can lead to a person’s destruction or salvation.
When you ask that question about altering memory, I think that’s something that writers do in trying to understand what the truth of that memory was and how many layers you’ve built up around that over time, so that it sort of stays, like in amber.
Your relationship to your memories and to your story of your life changes as you get older, and I think I didn’t quite realize that until later. I knew it intellectually, but I didn’t feel it until I’d spent some time with my job. My daily job is running a nonprofit (Voice of Witness), and we interview people who’ve experienced deep trauma, human rights violations. And because these interviews take place over the course of several years, it’s not uncommon to see someone’s relationship to their story change — not just the traumatic part of the story, but the whole story that they’re telling, which tends to be this whole portrait of the past, from birth to now — just even in that short span of time that we’ve been talking to them. So in the beginning they might be really excited and there might be an urgency about telling their story, maybe because no one else has asked them, and then over time, they might not feel that same need anymore; they might change their mind about wanting it out there in the world. Sometimes there’s a kind of healing and catharsis through telling the story, so any reluctance and tentativeness in the beginning ends up becoming this sense of urgency and empowerment. I think it’s really true of everyone, not just those who’ve endured extreme circumstances in their lives.
Which story was your least favorite to write/edit?
Each of the stories came with their own challenges, but in terms of getting them ready for the collection I think I probably struggled the most with “Wedding Night.” It took a lot of head-on-the-wall moments before I felt like I really understood what was at the heart of the relationship between Wai Lan and Sing and what I wanted their characters to reflect. I had stalled many times with the story and didn’t even include it in the original submission because it wasn’t finished, but then my editor — Sunyoung Lee from Kaya — really liked the Wai Lan character and urged me to keep writing it. I needed to hear that. It felt like I was in a sports movie and she was my coach. While all the other stories were pretty much done, this one I was still writing and revising right down to the wire.
“Wedding Night” is also stylistically different from the other stories. Was that a result of exploring the story, or how did that difference come about?
With “Wedding Night,” it was really hard for me to write that story because I didn’t want to. [Laughs.] I can’t even say I started writing the story and then abandoned it, but I wrote these series of moments and scenes that I just thought, “Oh, I don’t really know where this is going,” and, “I don’t want to write a corny love story.”
“Wedding Night” wasn’t in the original manuscript I submitted, and when we started to get to work, she asked me to send her other stuff that I’d written — finished or unfinished. She said it wasn’t because she wanted to necessarily add things to the collection, but she wanted to understand what made me tick as a writer. She wanted to see what sort of themes or concerns kept popping up in my work, whether I was conscious or not of them, so what I really appreciated was that she wanted to understand me as a writer before she made a single edit on the manuscript.
The way she was thinking about it — she’s such a brilliant editor — she wanted to understand what the currents were that were running through my work as a whole and as a writer, see how those currents ran through the collection, and then to base those edits from that starting point. The more granular things, like changing this colon or cutting the little bit of this sentence, or rewording this somehow, she said that’s the easy part. The hard part is figuring out how the stories all work in relation to each other.
This is sort of taking the scenic route to answer your question, but with “Wedding Night” she saw these fragments about Wai Lan and the character of Sing in the past, and she wanted me to keep writing more. So I kept on writing.
We played around a lot with the order of the fragments and how to tell the story. In the end, I’d spend the whole weekend writing new scenes and send them to her and she’d be like, “No I don’t think they work.” [Laughs.] “I think you’re overthinking this scene.” So that was one of the reasons why it was hard, because it was something that I was completing with constant feedback. That was a really new process for me.
The way that you describe those two parts coming together into this coherent thing seems like such a good parallel between the relationship that you’re describing in “Wedding Night.”
Yeah, it was difficult but also quite freeing and fun to write in this way, but really complicated in terms of the number of times we changed the order of things.
I think we did the most work on that story, and it’s like putting musical notes together or colors next to each other and seeing what vibrates in a different way depending on what came before or what came after. In a story like “I Have Never Put My Hope in Any Other But Thee,” that’s really simple in terms of structure, it’s super straightforward and I didn’t have to think too much about the order of things.
So it was a fun challenge and took a lot out of me. [Laughs.]
What inspired you transform the story of “The Woman in the Closet”?
I was struck by the sadness and the extremity of her situation, the lengths she’d had to go to simply to have shelter. At the time I’d tried to find out more about her, but every piece I found recycled the same couple of paragraphs and reduced her to this pitiful oddity of a figure. I felt like she didn’t get her due, and it just it didn’t make sense to me that there wasn’t more on her or the larger story of her predicament, in terms of homelessness and the isolation and invisibility of old people. Personally, though, there was simply so much more that I wanted to know. I kept thinking, “Who is this woman?” I couldn’t get her out of my head. So in this absence I created this whole life for her and she evolved into the character of Granny Ng.
Your stories confront the motion of moving from places geographically as well as personally — do you think language also operates as a place?
Yes, the characters in these stories experience that outward, physical migration, and also migration from individual and collective histories that they’re born into, and what happens in that process — what gets lost, what gets buried, what resurfaces. I think reading and writing about these kinds of experiences are a way to thread together or juxtapose these aspects of self that can often feel like disparate islands, and allow them to speak to each other. Maybe it’s an attempt at a kind of wholeness. It’s also a place to express yearning.
Marina Manoukian is completing her master's in English Philology at Freie Universität Berlin. Find more of her words and images at marinamanoukian.com.
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