Tom Cho: a ‘responsive’ interview
Tom Cho's surprising, funny, sexy, postmodern short story collection
Jun 18, 2009
Tom Cho's surprising, funny, sexy, postmodern short story collection
Tom Cho’s surprising, funny, sexy, postmodern short story collection Look Who’s Morphing is out now with Giramondo, ISBN: 9781920882549.
Answers: Tom Cho
Of the many impulses that the act of reading evokes, there are two that are especially irresistible. These are: 1) equating a text’s narrator with its author, and 2) equating the narrator’s aunties with the author’s aunties. So it’s no wonder that people sometimes ask me, ‘Tom, how true to life are your stories? The narrator in your book – is that you? And what about the family characters – are they your real family?’
I often discuss such issues of literary interpretation with my Auntie Ling. You may be interested to know that my Auntie Ling is very pleased with how she is depicted in my book. In fact, she says that my story ‘Dinner with Auntie Ling and Uncle Wang’ is her favourite piece in the book. She says that I did a very good job of rendering the real-life dinner that she and I had in 1988, in which an army of orcs entered the house and attacked us.
The apron with breasts attached: novelty gift or sexy outfit – or something else entirely?
In Kate Bornstein’s My Gender Workbook, Bornstein describes genderfuck as ‘the intentional crossing, mixing, and blending of gender-specific signals all at once’ (p. 19). She also describes passing as ‘the opposite of genderfuck. Passing is getting as many signals as possible all lined up’ (p. 20). So the above picture demonstrates an interesting fact: that the apron with breasts attached is a greatly under-rated piece of attire for genderfuck.
In my story ‘The Exorcist’, the character of Auntie Wei buys an apron with breasts attached:
‘I warn my auntie that the breasts on the apron will look very fake on her because the breasts look so obviously made out of plastic. However, Auntie Wei is more concerned that the breasts on the apron will look very fake on her because they are of Caucasian skin tone.’
As shown in that excerpt, the apron with breasts attached can skew many kinds of signals; its ability to ‘fuck with the signals’ isn’t limited to the realm of gender. In this respect, as a writer, I found the apron with breasts attached to be the novelty gift that keeps on giving.
Blah, blah, blah and yada, yada, yada.
We’re still in the same territory of the apron with breasts attached: we’re still fucking with signals. It’s probably best to illustrate this by quoting the instance in which the use of ‘blah blah blah’, ‘yada yada yada’ occurs – the beginning of my piece ‘Learning English’:
‘When I first arrived in Australia, I did not know a word of English. I began English lessons through a migrant settlement program soon after I arrived, but I found it all very difficult. Yet things did improve a little once I learnt the trick of replacing words I did not know with phrases like “blah blah blah”, “yada yada yada”, “whatever”, or the name of a celebrity. Australia is very different from my homeland. I was born and raised in a town called Rod Stewart.’
So, rather than neatly lining up the ‘linguistic signals’, we’re disrupting established relationships of meaning.
Why my interest in fucking with signals? Well, it’s fun. And, as a writer, I have an interest in signals. But there are other motivations at work too. In this case, via the use of ‘blah blah blah’, ‘yada yada yada’, etc, linguistic signals are shown to be mutable in some way (i.e. you can change a message via the technique of substitution). If the signals are shown to be mutable, the attitudes and behaviours associated with these signals are also suggested as being mutable (or ‘morph-able’).
So what does this amount to? Well, firstly: we don’t have to make the signals line up neatly in accordance with established beliefs. And, secondly: in fucking with the signals, we have the possibility of morphing these established beliefs.
When I used to do a lot of work in producing community arts projects, I once entertained the idea that the community arts projects of the future would involve doing artistic collaborations with robot communities. (As someone with a fetish for writing funding applications, I probably also entertained the fantasy of being the person to write the funding applications for these projects.)
These digressions aside, I really enjoyed my adventures in sci-fi when I wrote the story ‘I, Robot’. As reflected in that story, I was intrigued by the character of C-3PO – specifically, the fact that a highly competent, protocol-driven robot would nonetheless be prone to vexation and anxiety. I soon discovered anxious robots – or moments of anxiety from robots – in many other pop cultural texts. To give just one example:
What really intrigued me, though, was the idea that these robot anxieties ultimately reflected human anxieties. Cyborgs, being part-human, seemed especially suggestive of this.
Pop Gulliver: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h5KAJw4y8wE
In being rendered as a ‘Pop Gulliver’, Michael Jackson is – literally and perhaps egotistically – being ‘writ large’ in this clip. In fact, Michael Jackson extended this idea via the cover and promotion of his HIStory album. When the HIStory album was released, Michael Jackson was accused of egotism for the fact that his album cover depicted a giant statue of himself. Sony’s promotion of the album also involved the actual use of nine giant statues of Michael Jackson. Here’s the DVD cover:
What kind of artist depicts a monument of himself – someone who is making it all about themselves, perhaps?
And yet it’s possible to read my own book as containing egotism and other supposed excesses of self-involvement. Maybe we should start at the cover. What kind of author puts a photo of himself on the cover – someone who is making it all about themselves, perhaps? And, in terms of the actual stories in my book, what should we make of the excesses to be found there, particularly those in the final piece ‘Cock Rock’? In this piece, the narrator is literally writ large in the text – he becomes a 55 metre tall cock rock star who is tied down with ropes and pleasured by twenty adoring fans in what might be read as a kinky version of Gulliver’s Travels. Again, what kind of author writes a piece like that – someone who is making it all about themselves, perhaps? So maybe Michael Jackson has his ‘Pop Gulliver’ and I have my ‘Cock Rock Gulliver’.
Given all of this, here’s an interesting and fun question to consider: can my Cock Rock Gulliver be read as being a Mary Sue?
Writing as endurance
It took me 9 years to write my book. One of the reasons why it took so long is that the book kept morphing (as did I). I also incorporated the writing of the book into a PhD, which added a few years onto the process. So writing my book was as much a test of endurance as, say, a test of artistic ability.
During those 9 years, I did have a period of a few years where I couldn’t and didn’t work on the book. At the time, I felt some guilt for this but, as I’ve told myself at various times in my life: sometimes writing has to make way for living.
Paradoxically, writing has also seemed pretty essential to my way of living. I’ve always been suspicious of strict demarcations between ‘professional writers’ and those who are deemed artistically inferior for deriving ‘therapeutic benefits’ from their writing. At the very least, the state of my writing has usually been a pretty good barometer for how I’m doing in general. Writing well has been quite important to me living well.
In a sense, then, writing has been a test of endurance for me and yet also an act that has enabled me to ‘endure’.
Let’s play Chinese Whispers. Listen carefully and repeat what I say. (Here)
Gender, like my book’s broader theme of identity, is underpinned by so many absurd assumptions and instances of false logic that it offers great opportunities for play.
At the same time, despite all that is assumed and claimed about gender, it ultimately holds great mystery. On the one hand, this has been daunting for me as an artist and also as a human being. At times, gender has seemed somewhat impenetrable and unknowable to me. As an artist, how can I possibly describe it? As a human being (and someone who used to go by a different gender), how can I possibly embody and ‘live it’?
On the other hand, the allure and richness of these mysteries can lend itself to good art – and, as I’ve discovered, good living too.
See Tom Cho’s website and blog here.