Books A Conversation With PEN America Best Debut Short Stories 2018 Author Lin King
“I wanted to address old-age sexuality, which is in general completely unmentioned in Taiwanese society.”
On August 21, Catapult published PEN America Best Debut Short Stories 2018 , the second edition of an anthology celebrating outstanding new fiction writers published by literary magazines around the world. In the upcoming weeks, we’ll feature Q&As with the contributors, whose stories were selected for PEN’s Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers and for the anthology by judges Jodi Angel, Lesley Nneka Arimah, and Alexandra Kleeman. “Appetite” tells the story of Mayling, who chooses a husband after an ultimatum from her mother, and settles in the role of dutiful wife while she quietly hungers for something more.
Lin King grew up in Taipei and currently does most of her writing on the New York City subway. A global citizen, she writes about global citizens. She works for the artist Cai Guo-Qiang and is a graduate of Princeton University. See lin-king.net .
Wu Mayling never knew the pains of dieting. She had always been thin and pale. When she was a child, this had caused her nurse much anxiety, especially when other women would pinch Mayling’s spare cheeks and shake their heads in disapproval. As a teenager, her scrawny figure led her mother to accuse the nurse of undernourishing Mayling. How will she ever find a husband, she cried, with those bony hips?
The nurse was dismissed, and her paychecks used to hire a new cook, a man with a formidable waistline and a head like a monk’s. He was ordered to make pig feet stew once a week and chicken broth twice a week. But despite his best efforts, Mayling’s body remained lean. The nutrition had to go somewhere, however, and instead of cushioning her bones it seeped inside them, making her taller than her mother and, in time, even than the cook.
In the fall of 1969, Mayling left her home in the south to attend the Teachers College in Taipei. Her mother had ordered the maid to sew cotton padding into the linings of her dresses to soften Mayling’s harsh edges. By the time of her graduation, however, Mayling was wearing new, unpadded dresses that she had purchased with her allowance. A few of the dresses were even sleeveless, and these she hid in the bottoms of her suitcases, safe from parental discovery.
Still, the line had to be drawn somewhere, and despite her diploma-boosted confidence and head full of Carly Simon lyrics, Mayling did not own any denim.
Catapult: Where did you find the idea for this story?
Lin King: I was brainstorming for my undergraduate senior thesis, a collection of stories about Taiwan and its diasporas. Growing up, I knew many Taiwanese women who were educated at elite universities and became housewives soon after. Taiwan being a relative forerunner in coeducation, many of these women are of or near my grandmother’s generation—my grandmother being one of them.
In their circles, identities are mired in husbands’ former professions, children’s future whereabouts and nostalgic pride in their long-ago studies. They seem to me an ambivalent faction, caught within a society liberal enough that they were able to prove their intellect but conservative enough that they had few options thereafter. The story came from a fascination with the bifurcated inner lives of these women. I wanted to imagine who they really are and retrace how they got there.
How long did it take you to write this story?
I wrote the first draft in a few weeks, then completely rewrote it into a nonlinear timeline with interspersed flashbacks after one professor raised concerns about the story’s wide timespan and resulting lack of depth. A few months after that, Sigrid Nunez, to whom I am indebted for both the writing and publishing of this story, advised me to definitely revert to the old draft and simply add depth to the linear timeline if I thought it lacking. The original draft then underwent many substantial edits before I completed my thesis, and several more before I submitted it to Slice Magazine. I have no idea how many days that adds up to, but am very grateful to Catapult and Yuka Igarashi for the final days and finishing touches.
This story portrays with striking intricacy the contrast between Mayling’s vivid, complex inner life, and her quiet, mostly isolated, exterior life. What is meaningful to you about this contrast?
The motivation behind the story was to delve into the women I know who have always appeared so mellow and composed to me. They are so consistent in their presentation that it took much growing up before I was even cognizant that there must be internal unrest and hidden histories under the exterior—judging from both my gradual understanding of adulthood and the gossip that my parents now find age-appropriate to divulge. I also wanted to address old-age sexuality, which is in general completely unmentioned in Taiwanese society. It was this impenetrability that intrigued me about Mayling’s character, so showing the contrast between inner and outer life was integral to the story by default.
“Appetite” traces an entire life in 5000 words, and yet, captures its essence without gaps. What was your process for making this possible? Did you always know the story would span decades, or did it happen organically?
Since my goal in writing was to understand an older woman like Mayling by tracing the trajectory of her life, it made sense when drafting to begin at the beginning and work up to a culminating moment. As mentioned, it was at one point edited into a timeline told from Mayling’s old age with flashbacks, but that ended up feeling much more contrived than simply narrating the events as they unfold.
The snippets shown from these decades were chosen organically and very unoriginally: childhood, college, meeting her husband, wedding night, childbirth, meeting the man whom she most desires, losing said man, husband’s retirement, husband’s illness, husband’s betrayal. Just as in Mayling’s life, there was no particular climax or denouement. Things take their course.
How has the Robert J. Dau Prize affected you?
The Robert J. Dau Prize was announced at a time when I was barely clinging on to a writing life, taking many hours to generate drafts of very questionable value. The Prize gave me tangible hope that I may not be wholly delusional—that I may have “what it takes,” despite current efforts that seem best summarized as floundering. It has likewise been incredibly helpful in convincing others that I may not be wholly delusional, including some relatives who are wondering when I will apply to law school. (It also covered two months’ rent, for which I am very grateful.) The Prize has been a pivotal turning point in many ways, and I hope I can one day prove myself to have deserved it.
What are you working on now?
Primarily flash fiction between 500-1000 words. The short-short form forces me to think of plots that can unfold within this narrow window, which also forces me to finally put down on paper some half-fledged characters who have been lurking in my mind. Some recent ones are: a Taiwanese boy who only writes stories about White American characters; an old woman scavenging bottles in New York for government recycling refunds; a girl accused of only wanting to attend her grandfather’s funeral in order to shop at Abercrombie Kids. Given my full-time non-writing job, bitesize projects like flash fiction are incredibly helpful for a sense of progress.
I am also (surprise!) planning a novel.
Finally, where do you discover new writing?
I mostly look to online platforms committed to diversity, i.e. Hyphen, The Rumpus, Guernica, The Margins, Apogee, The Offing. I also read the Books section of the New York Times daily, if only because it’s better for my digestion than the Politics section.