Interviewed by Anastasia Kozak
What’s been harder for you: finding good Peruvian food in Beijing or good Chinese food in Lima?
Amazing timing! Just a few days ago I turned in an article on this very topic for a Peruvian magazine called Etiqueta Negra, the meat of which was:
Finding genuine Chinese food in Lima was a lot harder than I’d thought it would be. A substantial chunk of the Peruvian population—10% is the number you hear most often—has Chinese blood. And there are literally thousands of restaurants here called chifas, which are basically Cantonese restaurants that have had 90 years, give or take, to evolve toward Peruvian tastebuds.
So it’s easy to get good Cantonese food at most of the upscale chifas, and lots of the downscale ones too. The challenge for the article became finding good, authentic, non-Cantonese Chinese restaurants. In a couple of months of looking I only found five. Which is, sadly, five more than the number of Peruvian restaurants in Beijing. Aside from occasional formal meals at the embassy, we ended up begging friends and family to bring ingredients with them when they came to visit, and then cooking the dishes ourselves.
How did living in Beijing influence your writing?
Well, it let me write a story like “Scree” itself, certainly, with its particular particulate matter—nailhouses and traffic-stopping pipes and whatnot. But much of that can be desk-jockeyed, and the bigger question—what good damage does Place do to us?—is a lot harder to answer.
For starters, of course, our context bubbles up through us all the time, unstoppably. How’s this for an example: my sweat smelled different in Beijing. Peanuttier, I think. Just a question of cooking oil, probably, but if the context is doing that to my body, what’s it doing to my brain? My brainsweat, too, surely got peanuttier. What else.?Access to a language done in characters rather than lettery words was a fun thing to get, and it’s healthy, I think, this business of being handed from time to time a shiny new set of public tropes (swapping out “Freedom!,” say, and swapping in “Social harmony!”). And so the list grows. And lots of it will show up in my fiction at some point, I’m sure, though I don’t imagine I’ll be able to discuss the new patterns in any systematic way until I’m looking back at them from a certain distance.
Can you talk more about this notion of “distance”—whether chronological or geographical? Does moving around so much make it harder or easier?
I mostly meant chronological, but geographical distance helps too—these two, combined with the simple act of sitting down with the manuscripts, are what enable you to chart past courses. And it’s in the course of that charting that you realize, say, “Okay, time to stop writing so many stories with first person damaged liminal over-read blue-collar-job narrators with fish fetishes” or, say, “Do so many secondary characters really have to die? And so gorily?” or, say, “Wow, I’ve used the word ‘then’ an average of nine times per page for the past half-decade.”
I’m not sure the moving around affects that process much. Maybe it makes it slightly easier to divide past time into clean units, and maybe it makes it slightly harder in the sense that there are that many more trending variables to think about…. Call it a wash.
Where did you first learn about the muyu legend that features so prominently in “Scree,” and what about it inspired you?
Actually, I didn’t know anything about any of those three legends until after I started the story. I was working on the set piece with the bottle caps that is now there near the beginning, and I knew that those bouncing caps sounded exactly like a musical instrument I’d heard before, but I had no idea which instrument. So I called a couple of friends…and one of them suggested that I go poke around in this music store he knew of near the Drum Tower. So I went, and talked with the owner and with the half dozen or so musicians who were there…. The owner walked around with me for a bit, playing one instrument after another, and none of them was anywhere near right. Then other customers started coming in, and she handed me a little dried gourd as a partners-in-failure gift, and went to take care of people who actually knew what they wanted….
By that point I was pretty much out of ideas. Partly as a last-gasp attempt and partly out of frustration…I went over to the percussion section and just started smacking things. And lo and behold, about ten minutes later I smacked this beautiful bulbous hollow piece of datewood, and heard exactly the sound I’d been looking for. Which caused me to turn around and look at the store owner with the kind of crazed grin you usually associate with serial killers.
But, I don’t know, maybe music store people see that grin a lot, because she just came over and nodded and laughed because now it was totally clear: of course, that was exactly the sound I’d described so badly. And I asked her what the instrument was called, and she told me: mùyú, wooden fish. And it wasn’t shaped at all like a fish, but I bought it anyway, and went home and hit the books, and was thrilled to find not just one but three mythical beginnings for the instrument, all of them mutually exclusive. So the final trick was figuring out how to get all of them into the story without choking the rest of the narrative to death, and without letting the three versions get in each other’s way.
Do you consider yourself an “expat writer” and, if so, what does that mean to you?
Sure. Aren’t we all? I don’t mean that glibly. The minute you pick up a pen, you’ve positioned yourself outside. And to the limited extent one might think of oneself as inside for certain kinds of writing—some types of memoir, say—you’re there more as spy than as local. This is true, I’m convinced, even for writers we might think of as tied more tightly than others to a given region—Chris Offut, say, or Benjamin Percy. The only difference between the Brit living in and writing from Japan and the cousin living in and writing from his attic is Frequent Flyer miles.
Roy Kesey’s story “Scree” appears in Subtropics 10. His story “Stump” appears in Subtropics 5.