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6.19.2010

Writers Currently Known As Starving: Angela Choi

According to writer Angela S. Choi, life began at 30. This, after graduating from Yale, because she didn't want to go to medical school. At a legal firm, she became disappointed at the life of a lawyer. "People who became lawyers for the same reason I did and found themselves trapped in a profession that didn't resemble anything they had seen on Ally McBeal or Boston Legal. No singing in the bathrooms. No senior partners with "mad cow." Just mad senior partners," she says.

In 2007, she left that firm, did a bit of soul searching, and wrote a novel. In 2008, she found an agent for Hello Kitty Must Die her debut (see review here) , and this year, it was published by Tyrus Books.

A cross of The Joy Luck Club and Fight Club, Hello Kitty Must Die introduces readers to the anti-hero Fiona Yu. Label-obsessed and a self-described "amoeba," we first meet Fiona as she takes her own virginity while listening to Nirvana. What follows is a reunion with an elementary school friend and, of course, a killing spree.

With Hello Kitty Must Die, Choi has authored a highly readable and gripping debut that is part social critique, part crime novel, part transgressive fiction--all of which makes a stunning debut.Choi, who lives in San Francisco, agreed to an interview for this first installment of "Writers Currently Known As Starving," a term I stole from erotica writer Fiona Zedde, which is another story...


YouFightLikeAnneRice: Before you wrote Hello Kitty Must Die, you were a lawyer. What made you change career paths?

Angela S. Choi: Misery. Sheer misery made me change my career path. Work hours were long; people were nasty. The only person crazier than my psycho boyfriend at the time was my lunatic boss. After many years of taking lots of shit from lots of people, I thought, to hell with the money, I need to salvage some life and to do what I've always wanted: to become a writer. So I did! I'm very glad that I did because it made such a difference in my life. I can't even remember my law life anymore. It's like finally waking up from a very bad dream.

YFLAR: Lol. Sounds fun. People have always told me to go into law because I can argue well (I have a BA in sociology, it teaches you how to argue your way into a box). But many writers have started as lawyers. For example, John Grisham, Lisa Scottoline, Scott Turow (who still does law). Did your time as a lawyer, or training as a lawyer, help you become a better writer in any way?

ASC: Not really. Legal writing and creative writing differ in many ways. One is very dry and technical. The other one is pure self-expression. Lots of lawyers become writers and other things because they are probably not very happy being lawyers. The law probably helps them gear their writing toward crime or legal thrillers. But I've loved mysteries before I went to law school. Good for Scott Turow for still doing law. I'm going to be a tour director. I'd rather make money by taking people on vacation and making their lifetime dreams come true. No 5 to 9 box for me. I felt like my life was passing me by. No, I want to be out and about in the world, being with people in beautiful destinations.

YFLAR: Is that why your first novel is crime oriented? Because of your background in law? What was the inspiration for Hello Kitty Must Die?

ASC: No, KITTY is crime oriented because I've always loved crime novels and mysteries. And I can't really see myself writing something that's not somehow related or mystery-ish. The inspiration for KITTY was just plain lots of anger. I was just really pissed off at how people kept viewing me and treating me (especially when it came to dating) because of my Asian-ness. I wanted to rip into the stereotype that Chinese women were quiet, submissive, subservient, etc. I just wanted to present a fresh, different, albeit psycho voice that said, "See? Even little yellow girls can be sick, twisted, and dark."

That and my father set me up on a lot of these blind dates with totally inappropriate people for me. They were nice, but ridiculous. A lot of things that happen in KITTY happened to me. And a lot of things happen in KITTY I wish had happened to me. :)

YFLAR: I personally think that that's the problem with a lot of Asian American lit: they're compliant with the social structures and stereotypes. Besides Gene Luen Yang's American Born Chinese (and of course your novel), I don't see many Asian American writers taking social issues such as this and exploring them with such fierceness. We have writers like Yiyun Li, who I see as not very threatening (I honestly think she's a bore); yet she's recently been named one of the best writers under 40. Do you think it's more...taboo for Asian American writers to write transgressive and "dangerous" (a Chuck Palaniuk term) fiction like yours? Do you think mainstream Asian Americans would find it offensive? And did you have any trouble publishing it because of its content?

ASC: Oh yes, definitely taboo for Asian writers to be fierce. One of the worst reviews I got for KITTY was from an Asian woman (who was an aspiring writer herself). She likes the traditional Amy Tan-like novels. I think Asians perpetuate the stereotypes a lot by living up to them, even in literature. It's almost like "oh, people want/expect me to write this struggling-to-fit-in-immigrant story. So that's what I'm going to do." And because lots of Asian writers find such success by doing that, everyone wants to do that. I don't know if Asians are going to be offended by KITTY. I haven't heard any complaints yet from readers. But sometimes, people just don't get it's a satire and start judging it solely as a mystery.

Yes, I had so many problems getting this published because it was so edgy and different and "dangerous." My poor agent had to peddle this to 30 publishers before Tyrus (then Bleak House) took it. In the UK, we couldn't get a publisher at all because it was deemed "too extreme." And all the big US publishers said the same thing. But then Germany (God bless Germany) stepped in and bought KITTY. So there will be a German version of it. I sometimes can't believe it's published at all. I'm so happy Tyrus took a chance on me. Publishers can be really skittish about edgy fiction. They like being safe. So when they get the Asian sob story of not fitting in, they love it. But this, this was much harder to accept.

YFLAR: What about the reaction of feminists to your novel? Katie Welsh from The F Word has said: "the entire novel is a manifesto for every woman who has been belittled or demeaned," yet Stephanie Nolasco of The Feminist Review calls Fiona Yu simply "a bad-ass Bridget Jones or Carrie Bradsaw," and therefore not rightfully feminist. Would you call your work feminist? Why or why not? Are you a feminist?

ASC: Well, it all depends on what they see the work as: a satire or something else. I think both Welsh and Nolasco are right. Fiona is one pissed off gal, but it's not really a chick lit novel although some have chosen to read it that way. Sure, Fiona could be seen as a naughty Bridget Jones, but she is more than that. Bridget Jones and Carrie Bradshaw are characters who are engaged in life to the fullest. Fiona is pretty alienated from the normal world because of her own nuttiness. And it is from that unusual viewpoint that we get the story. Sure, she may like designer shoes, but she's not exactly waiting around for Prince Charming and drinking cosmos with the girls.

Am I a feminist? If anything, I'd say I'm an androgynist. It's funny that we like to think of ourselves as feminine or masculine. But I think androgyny is rather appealing. So does Fiona. She describes herself as an amoeba, neither female nor male. Kind of breaking out of how we usually view ourselves. Because sometimes, we need our masculine side. And other times, we need to "get in touch with our feminine side." I think we need both to operate well in this world.

YFLAR: Androgynist! :) I wrote an essay about that once (I called it post-feminism), and Kate Bornstein (a transgender writer) said she'll publish it, but I haven't gotten word back yet. She owes me $20.00. I really thought it was interesting that in Fiona readers get the first unambiguous "asexual" character. There are characters in the past that can be classified as "asexual," such as Sherlock Holmes (but you really need to
try to argue that well). But Fiona is the first character to identify as such. Since the novel deals with an Asian American character, I think it was genius that you flipped the asexual stereotype of Asians on its head: Fiona is fierce, powerful, and she doesn't have sex--not because she can't get it necessarily--but because she's reclaimed her body as her own.

If we read into the novel, I think we see a manifesto of sorts against a culture saturated in stereotypes and labels (both designer and identities). It is a refreshing ode to individualism.

In you, Angela, I think we have a strong social thinker and writer who is unafraid, and that's why I'm so excited about you. Who and/or what are your influences?

ASC: Thank you, Eric. I would like to think of myself as unafraid, but unfortunately, when you start getting rejections from publishers saying "this is too extreme," you start to get afraid. It's not easy to be bold because the publishing world isn't. Inspiration? Chuck Palahnuik definitely. I also love Bret Easton Ellis. I like writers with strong writing styles. Anything that just rips into the voice, I love.

YFLAR: I know about rejections. It's the type of thing that make writers just want to give up; to be a writer you have to be a strong person. That and I collect all my rejections inside a notebook with a sad pug on it, so that later I can say--"In your face!"

I like Chuck Palaniuk and Bret Easton Ellis too, mainly because of the strong voices. They remind of you and once I read the Marie Mutsuki Mockett quote comparing it to Fight Club, I just had to read it. That and the first sentence really grabbed me.

What are you reading what now and do have any suggestions for "must-read" books?...Say, your top five favorite books?

ASC: Oh dear. I like a lot of quirky things. But I also love dark things.

Let's see:

1) A Clockwork Orange
2) American Psycho
3) Fight Club
4) Slaughterhouse Five
5) Catcher in the Rye (because it inspired a nobody to take out the King of Hippies)

Anything by Kurt Vonnegut I love. But lately, I've been exploring Aimee Bender novels. Magical realism hasn't ever been interesting except for in movies to me, but now I kind of like people turning into animals and having piano keys for fingers that kind of thing. So I guess I will add "Girl in Flammable Skirt" to my list. I read her books, but I don't think I can pull it off. I need something more... vicious. :)

YFLAR: Aimee Bender is a fun writer to read. Her magical realism is really something different. Maybe there is no market for "vicious" magical realism, but then again, your novel about an Asian woman gone wild was not really anything publishers expected. I think you could probably pull it off. :)

What's next for you? And what are you working on?

ASC: For me? A couple of things. The next book. I'm working on it definitely. And I'm also working on another career, alongside the writing. I'm going to be a tour director/event planner, etc. Should be interesting. I think traveling will help inspire me and give me interesting things to write about. Unfortunately, it just makes me dead tired at times. Last night, after I got back, I just fell facedown on my bed and conked right out!

YFLAR: Sounds fun. I always find it funny that as writers we always have double lives: a day job and then writing.

As a writer who has a book out already and who is already working on the next, what advice would you give other writers out there?

ASC: Simple: Keep writing and keep your day job. :)

YFLAR: Sounds like good advice.

Thank you so much, Angela, for this interview. This is the highlight of my literary/blogging career! There's nothing like talking to the author of a book you enjoy!

I'll give you the last sentence in this interview. Say whatever you want--an inspirational quote, a shout-out, a metaphorical flipping of the bird to an editor who rejected your work...anything...Just keep it one sentence! :)

ASC: Thanks, Eric. Hm... one sentence. Ok.

"Be bold, and mighty forces will come to your aid." -- Almost Famous

3 comments:

  1. Great interview. And I must agree, getting to speak to the author of one of your favorite books is kind of awesome...color me jealous. Ms. Choi is definitley one of the new voices in American literature that people are gonna have to listen too. Oh, and nice blog btw :-)

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hello,

    My name is Alice Broughton. I am a representative of SoloChicago, a Chicago based solo performance theater company, who is trying to contact Angela S. Choi as we are incredibly interested in producing Hello Kitty Must Die as a stage play. I know it has been years since your interview, but if you have any information on where we can find some contact info for her or her agent, that would be fantastic. Thank you so much, and if you have any questions I can put you in direct contact with our artistic and Founding directors. I am obviously pulling out all the stops to find this author, we are all completely enamored of her work!

    Thank you again,
    Alice Broughton
    Supporting Director
    SoloChicago

    ReplyDelete
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