On Writing through Grief and Finding Joy with Gina Chung
Gina Chung is the author of the novel Sea Change, published earlier this year by Vintage, and the short story collection Green Frog, forthcoming from Vintage in 2024. A recipient of the Pushcart Prize and the Susan Kamil Emerging Writer Fellowship from the Center for Fiction, her work has appeared in The Kenyon Review, Literary Hub, Catapult, Electric Literature, Gulf Coast, and elsewhere.
I spoke with Gina via Zoom about Sea Change, the moving goal posts of success, and how music can be a fast track to emotion.
Liz Iversen: I knew I was going to love your novel from page one. It opens with an octopus in heat, and the narrator, a young Korean American woman named Ro, mentioning that she herself hasn’t been laid in months. How did you decide on this opening?
Gina Chung: I actually started off with the first line of the book. It hasn’t changed since its initial draft form. The first line about Dolores being blue—I wrote it and I was like, “Who is Dolores?” And I started thinking about it. I love writing about animals and nature. I write about animals as well in my short fiction, and it just occurred to me that Dolores is an octopus. Octopuses change color. I love octopuses and am fascinated by them. That was where I went initially with that image. Then I started thinking about who it was that was telling us this, who it is that’s observing this. Why is she interested in this?
LI: How would you situate this book in terms of genre? To me it feels like literary fiction with a touch of speculative fiction.
GC: Yeah, I think that’s a really good description for it. I love speculative fiction, and I especially love works of fiction that go into depth about character and setting and the choices that people are making, but also have that bit of a twist where something’s not quite right, where it’s like, “Is this our world? There’s something surreal going on.” I love works like that, like Ling Ma’s Severance. That’s such a beautiful example of both millennial coming-of-age and also literary speculative fiction. Another author whose work I really love, someone who flirts with the speculative, is Marie Helene-Bertino. I think my book is definitely on that spectrum of speculative-ness, since it’s a world where things are just cranked up ever so slightly in terms of what’s going on with the climate crisis, what’s going on with tech, what’s going on with our relationship to space travel.
LI: What inspired you to write this book?
GC: I really wanted to write the book that my younger self would have needed. She deals with a lot of loneliness and confusion and feeling like she doesn’t fit in anywhere, and that was an experience I went through as a young Korean American person growing up in my corner of New Jersey, where Ro is from. It’s not that I didn’t have access to Asian American community or Korean American community at all, but it was more that I felt like I was constantly toggling between worlds. I think this is an experience that a lot of people of color, a lot of children of immigrants, or immigrants themselves deal with. I wanted to write about those experiences and themes, but also with the backdrop of all these modern-day pressures that I imagined someone living in that kind of a time period could face.
I really wanted to write the book that my younger self would have needed. She deals with a lot of loneliness and confusion and feeling like she doesn’t fit in anywhere, and that was an experience I went through as a young Korean American person growing up in my corner of New Jersey, where Ro is from.
LI: Absence, longing, and loss are themes that resonate strongly throughout this book. Could you talk a little bit about your decision to write about those themes?
GC: I think grief was very much on my mind when I was writing the book. I was writing it in fall and winter 2020. It seemed like the world was changing and collapsing in on itself, but at the same time there was this sense of static-ness. I was going through a lot of personal changes at the time with relationships with friends and relationships with family. I was also going through a breakup, so a lot of that made its way onto the page. I think as a writer a lot of those themes have always captivated me because, as a child growing up, I didn’t often know how to articulate the feelings I was experiencing. Like realizing, for example, that me and my family didn’t really have anyone else in the States when I was growing up, whereas a lot of my white friends had grandparents, great-grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins all living in the area. So there was a sense when I was younger that we were a little bit more isolated than some of my friends’ families. When I was writing about Ro’s parents in the flashback scenes, it got me thinking about what it would have been like for my parents as young people coming from Korea to the States in the late ’80s, only really having each other; what kind of strains and pressures that would have put on not only their relationship, but also their hopes and expectations for the future. I think those are things that have always been on my mind and close to my heart.
LI: As the daughter of an Asian immigrant I really identified strongly with Ro. Her strained relationship with her mother reminded me of some of the difficulties I had as a child of an immigrant. Did any aspects of your familial relationships find their way into this book?
GC: Yeah, definitely. Ro’s story is not my own, but I always say it has emotional roots in my family and my own life experiences. I love that you mentioned her relationship with her mother, which is a strained one. I always describe it as she’s “semi-estranged” from her mother in that there hasn’t been this one big rift but a series of small misunderstandings and hurts over time. Because both Ro and her mom have suffered this immense loss, immense trauma from the loss of her father, they just haven’t been able to repair their relationship in the wake of that loss. Despite the fact that they both love each other and worry about each other in their own way, they are not really able, at least at the beginning of the novel, to reconcile those things. Those are experiences I’ve definitely had with my own mother.
My parents are both still around and they’re both very supportive of me and my career as a writer, but they have often not understood the choices I’ve made in my life. I think a lot of children of immigrants share this experience of not always feeling like they’re able to understand or be understood by their parents.
LI: So much about the Asian American experience in this book rang true to me. Like when Ro’s father, who’s a researcher, talks about how his colleagues don’t take him seriously because of his accent. He tells Ro, “It’s not enough to be as good as them, Arim. You have to be the best.” I’m wondering if you ever felt that sort of pressure to be perfect, and if so, how did it affect your career as a writer?
GC: Thank you for noticing that. I think that was definitely something I dealt with a lot as a kid. I grew up in a very small, very white town in northern New Jersey. At an early age I definitely internalized this idea that I couldn’t fail because to do so would mean to represent my family badly, represent Korean Americans badly. There was all this pressure I didn’t even realize that, as a kid, I was taking on. It definitely affected my trajectory as a child into young adulthood.
In terms of how it’s affected my career as a writer, I do still struggle with perfectionism and this idea that I’m constantly competing with my past self to achieve more. Writing is such a good—and bad—profession for someone who has baggage around that, because writing is something you can work at, but it’s also an art. There’s no way to “win writing,” for example. You can always tell yourself, “Oh if I achieve this thing—if I get the book deal, if I get an agent, etc.—I’ll be happy. I’ll be complete.” But the goal posts are always moving, especially in a creative profession. So while I do still experience those feelings of beating myself up if I don’t get to a given word count or I’m not done with the project by a given date, I’ve had to actually unlearn a lot of that and do that “reparenting” that a lot of people talk about these days, and be gentle with myself, and understand that it’s only by doing that, that the creativity can be nurtured and continue to flow.
LI: That makes me wonder about your writing practice.
I am definitely not a daily writer. I really wish I was, but I work full-time and I also like to give myself a lot of free time to think about things, especially if I’m in the middle of a creative project. I’m also not a morning person. My brain really gets activated once the sun goes down.
GC: My writing practice tends to change depending on the given project. I am definitely not a daily writer. I really wish I was, but I work full-time and I also like to give myself a lot of free time to think about things, especially if I’m in the middle of a creative project. I’m also not a morning person. My brain really gets activated once the sun goes down. So when I was working on the novel, I would get on my computer at around 9 p.m. and write until 1 a.m. It’s not sustainable to do that. It was really fun, but I definitely can’t keep that pace up for everything I do. When I get really into the thick of something, it’s not unheard of for me to bang out a couple thousand words in a sitting. That doesn’t mean that it’s good. I always have to go back and rewrite. That’s always a huge part of the process. I’ve learned over the years to really love revision and to get past that initial cringe-y feeling of, “Oh god, everything I’m writing is terrible. No one’s going to want to read this.”
LI: The way that time unfolds in this novel is so beautiful. There are a lot of extended flashbacks, and we flip back and forth from the past to the present with motion that’s reminiscent of the movement of waves. I’m wondering how you thought about time when you were crafting the novel?
GC: Oh that’s so beautiful, the idea of waves. I really wanted to be able to explain how Ro came to be. The father is absent from the present day—he’s sort of ever-present in her thoughts and her feelings but he’s not there to interact with her—so I wanted to show over the years what her relationship with her father had been like, as well as what the relationship between her parents had been like, and how we can go from them as very hopeful, idealistic young people to eventually having a disintegrating marriage and being unable to admit that to themselves. So that was why I decided to tell the story in alternating past-present.
Another novel that I was thinking about when I outlined it originally was Mostly Dead Things by Kristen Arnett, which is one of my favorite books. It’s so brilliant. It’s also about family dysfunction and coming-of-age for someone who’s not necessarily a teen. There are lots of books that do the alternating past-present thing really well, but that one was such a clear touchstone as I was drafting. I took this amazing class at my MFA program with Marie Helene-Bertino called “Magic and Time.” It was such a good education on how using different tenses in your stories, using leaps forward or leaps backward, could really advance the emotional content of your story. I think I was carrying those lessons with me as I was drafting the novel.
LI: As I read your book, I felt myself experiencing emotions that were so in tune with Ro and that stayed with me long after I put the book down. How do you approach emotion when you write, and how do you elicit it so well in your readers?
It helps that I’m a very emotional person, like a lot of writers and artists. Obviously when you’re writing fiction, you want to be able to channel what your character is feeling. I really love writing conflict scenes for this reason, because they’re juicy. There’s so much simmering emotion and tension between the characters on a page when they’re going through conflict.
GC: It helps that I’m a very emotional person, like a lot of writers and artists. Obviously when you’re writing fiction, you want to be able to channel what your character is feeling. I really love writing conflict scenes for this reason, because they’re juicy. There’s so much simmering emotion and tension between the characters on a page when they’re going through conflict. Then, depending on how you see your character reacting to it, you make choices: Are they actually going to say what’s on their mind? Are they going to do something really weird? Are they going to even be able to make eye contact with the person they’re talking to? I had a lot of fun with that when I was writing the more interpersonal scenes between Ro and some of the other characters. She also spends a lot of time on her own in the novel just thinking about things and observing the world. I wanted to be able to inhabit her as much as I could while writing this novel. I made this very long, elaborate playlist and it includes some of the songs that get mentioned in the book. It felt like I was soundtracking my own novel and that really helped. I’m a big fan of music. I think music is one of the fastest shortcuts to feeling an emotion. I can’t always listen to music when I’m drafting, but sometimes it really helps. Back then the only real form of daily outdoor activity I got was walking through the park. I lived very near Prospect Park at the time in Brooklyn, and I would just put on my playlist and then go for long walks in the park. Even if I wasn’t necessarily thinking about the book, it helped me feel very immersed in it, which really helped later when I got back to my desk. I could just channel all those feelings.
LI: When I first saw the title for the book, I thought of Beck’s album. Are you a Beck fan? If not, who are some of your favorite artists?
GC: I’m not a huge Beck fan, but I did really like him growing up. I am aware of that album, which I had forgotten about when I titled the book, and then someone else was like, “Oh, is it like the Beck album?” I’m a huge music fan. I love Mitski. She’s like an Asian American girl icon. She made her way a lot onto the playlist. Growing up, one of my favorite artists ever was Fiona Apple. I loved the singer/songwriter tradition, especially whenever it’s a woman who gets to tell that story. It still feels so radical to me because for so long there just hasn’t been as much of an avenue for women. I love a lot of ’80s music. New Order is a really big favorite of mine. I love The Magnetic Fields. I always joke with friends that my favorite genre is music that sounds really upbeat, but when you listen closely, there’s something going on with the lyrics, like there’s something sad going on or something kind of obscured.
LI: Ro’s character is infused with sort of an aching longing. She says of happiness, “You never know when it might disappear, leaving you with nothing but questions and an unending ache.” I’m curious, what brings you happiness? What are some ways that you seek lasting joy?
GC: I think a lot of times in American or Western society, we often think of happiness as this goal that you work hard to achieve. We usually conflate material achievement with finding happiness. When I was coming of age and growing up, I just felt—again it’s that achievement thing—if I get to this level with my career, if I make this level of money in my job, I’ll be happy. But as we know, that line always keeps moving. One day I had a breakthrough with my therapist where I was like, “Is happiness just a byproduct of doing the things you want to do?” She said yeah, and I was like, “Whoa!” to the idea that it’s not a destination. It’s a thing that happens when you’re trying to be true to yourself and doing what it is you want to do, while also taking care of yourself. I think now my relationship to happiness is mostly made up of the small things. It sounds like such a cliché to say that, but it is really true for me. It’s so nice to just be reminded that it’s not this big milestone that you have to run towards. It’s more in the day-to-day things, like: I had a really good cup of coffee in the morning, or the sun is shining and I call a friend and while I’m talking I’m realizing how lucky I am to have this friend in my life. It’s nice to remind myself that I can anchor myself in these moments and find little happinesses throughout the day.
Liz Iversen was born in the Philippines and grew up in South Dakota. A Tin House Scholar, Ashley Bryan Fellow, and Aspen Words Emerging Writer Fellow, her work has appeared in Creative Nonfiction, Fourteen Hills, Passages North, Room, and elsewhere. She lives in Maine, where she is at work on a novel. Find her online at liziversen.com.