Enjoy this interview with creative writer, Tommy Kim.
Do you consider yourself “creative?” How do you express that creativity?
Depending on the crowd, the word “creative” could either be a flattering comment on one’s unique view of the world, or it could be meant as a pejorative, as if one is unmoored from reality and doesn’t have the awareness to tie one’s shoes. I’m a mixture of both extremes. I do consider myself creative but not in my aesthetic exceptionalism—swiftness of mind, vastness of artistic knowledge, etc.—but through my willingness to make connections between ideas no matter how strange and unexpected. If you listen to Wu-Tang Clan, you expect a certain brash, rumbling poetry, but how wonderful was it in “Can It Be All So Simple” to hear, amid the narrative of drive-by shootings and urban despair, the beautiful, achingly-nostalgic voice of Gladys Knight haunting the background. These startling connections, to me, are what creative people have an aptitude for. I don’t even know if it’s aptitude, on second thought. I think creative people can’t help make these connections. They’ve been inured by the demands of conformity from childhood on, and many have been called “weird” or “awkward” because of their inability to make the easy and obvious connections many other people are so willing to make. What’s wrong with plaid mixed with polka dots? Also many creative people have had torturous childhoods with wedgies and taunts brutalizing them for being a way they could not help.
This willingness to make connections, sometimes in the face of social pressure, is what I define as “creativity.” My expression of this concept comes through in my day-to day-life, from parenting to cooking eggs. It’s a more cohesive experience when you don’t partition your profession and your creative pursuits. Since I’m a writer, the same enthusiasm and willingness to listen and feel when writing a scene also plays into the relationships I have with my students.
Was creative practice and pursuit a big part of your upbringing? Was your family interested in creativity?
For me, creative practice was regimented into typical Asian stereotype pursuits like studying violin and piano. I was horrible at these instruments. I once persuaded my piano teacher to skip the lesson and watch the 80s BMX movie, RAD. It wasn’t until I discovered drawing that my mother took my creative life seriously. I came home after elementary school and flipped open my sketchbook, copying Spiderman and X-Men for hours until I had to go to sleep. This love for drawing carried me into middle school, when I had to ride my bike five miles to get to my drawing lessons.
My mother has the exuberance of an an artist and she took that impulse and imbued it to her spiritual life as a missionary. I inherited her ecstatic view of life, and I also inherited the quiet, studied silence of my father, whose own lineage is filled with village ceramicists and philosophical makkoli sippers. Being a first generation American, my family’s expectations for me were typical: to study medicine or law. I had zero ability in either. I was surprised at my mother’s indifference when I announced that I was abandoning my medical studies and flinging myself into the frightening world of business. “I’m proud of my son. He’s handsome and went to UCLA.” If only she knew about my academic probation and absence of forethought (I once spent money on a new hockey stick instead of groceries…I had to flip couch cushions to buy dinner—a bean and cheese burrito).
When I graduated with an MFA in creative writing my mother and father, who were divorced by then, both came out to the ceremony in Asheville, North Carolina. I’m not sure how much they understood my relationship with writing, but in the end, they loved me and wanted to support me.
How have your nationality, ethnicity, or location influenced your creative work?
I’m a first-generation Korean American, although the way I grew up, the sequence should actually be American Korean. I hated the Koreans at my school, not because they had any hostility toward me, but because they were indifferent to me. I was not of their group, and I wasn’t truly settled into the white group. This resentment provides a fruitful energy in my work. There is a hint of self-loathing in my writing, especially when it comes to being the arbiter of the “Korean American Experience.”
I read Asian American literature, and it felt like high school all over again with its rebellious little squads against white hegemony. There are cliques that alienate other Asian American writers who don’t share the same over-educated Millennial aesthetic of characters pitying their sad lives inhabited in G-Chat and kale juice. These writers are indignant when they are marginalized onto the distant shelf of Asian American Lit, yet they fall into the same pattern of exclusion when they deem their writing the authoritative source about the Asian American experience.
And there is a certain Asian American aesthetic used to depict the first generation experience, an aesthetic that I find pandering, one that is refined with Latinate words and mellifluous sentences describing the scent of kimchee. I have a greater affinity with Jewish American writers like Philip Roth.
Literary styles styles in Los Angeles are as vast as the number of neighborhoods in it. I grew up in the South Bay, while my cousins grew up in the San Fernando Valley. Both experiences were Korean American, with the recognizable struggle of disavowing one’s culture in order to assimilate. And of course there is the guilt of not fulfilling your parents’ expectations of inhabiting one’s cultural traditions. It’s a mess.
Where do you “find” your ideas? How do you decide if an idea is viable? Do you act on all your creative ideas?
These days my ideas find me. I trust in the ineffable. When I went to my cousin’s wedding last summer, I noticed how my aunts, who are in their 70s, still held on to their childhood grievances. And the matriarchal hierarchy that played out was clearly on display, as my most assertive aunt was holding a palm frond to shade her face while the other aunts helplessly looked on, a little bit embarrassed at this dinosaur leaf blocking the view for those behind us. But arguing with her would certainly draw attention away from the real reason we were there–the connubial bliss about to ensue.
This image of a waning generation, of timeless sibling complexity, was charged with life as the afternoon sun set on us. Their gloriously dyed perms had a golden sheen in the waning sunlight. I knew I wouldn’t have many more of these moments with them. There was a novel in that image. Once I’m finished with my current projects, I will start this one, using the point of view of a Korean matriarch.
My main current project started with a single line, “Joseph Kim spent all day reconciling numbers with the aim of arriving at nothing.” This first sentence somehow had the entire saga of this man’s life embedded in the diction; the helplessness of balancing one’s life against the cosmic backdrop of meaninglessness. Or was it meaningless? This sort of existential argument at the beginning of the story begs for evidence, and you can enact that evidence through the playing out of conflict within the character’s life.
I’m obsessed with relationships of siblings (I have none), and I wanted to see what would happen if a prodigal daughter suddenly showed up (and, with a baby) after three years of silence. This story would allow me to write about a man taking care of his grandmother after his parents die, a story of inherited guilt that I always wanted to explore.
I’m looking for an explosion. I’m using metaphors about combustion because you want the conflicts, pre-craft, to be volatile. Should I be the one telling this story? What will this story reveal about me as a human being, as an artist? Are the questions driving the story about family, love, suffering, existence, profound enough to carry me to the end of the project? All of these questions guide me to the decision to act on the creative idea.
Does working as a teacher help you access creative energy for your own personal projects? Or is teaching a creative practice in its own right?
There is a preachy doctrinaire in me that almost dares students to defy me. I tell them that failure and suffering are necessities to an authentic life. Think of me as a softer version of Tony Robbins. Just last week in class, I showed a video of a skateboarder trying to clear a flight of stairs, a task that would certainly break bones if the skater landed incorrectly. The man falls once, twice, and finally, after snapping his board and screaming at the universe, he lands it. Imagine if he quit after the first painful fall.
The population I teach has had their own painful falls. Many of them are undocumented or have had difficult lives of poverty and family instability (over 80% are “Title I,” meaning they get free lunches). Mostly they are Latino.
One way to practice creativity with my students is to offer them alternative narratives from the awful mess they see all around them, in the media and their own families. How will they disavow, sometimes painfully, the tyranny of their past without losing the integrity of their culture? For instance, a student from my school who gets accepted to a “UC” will have pretty shitty odds of finishing college. The lack of academic, financial, and emotional support and the isolation they experience in an all white/Asian environment can be overwhelming. Partly this difficulty is driven by a certain kind of narrative of assimilation-as-white-wash that all first generation folks struggle with. The complex code switching and, at times, the inherent shame that comes from disavowing your culture in order to fit into the academic world can be a struggle. Say a student writes an outstanding dissertation that gets accepted for publication. Can her abuelita read the thing?
I ask my students, “How can you choose the proper narrative to incorporate into your own complex story?” Like my students, I am struggling to craft the proper narrative to match my sense of reality, allowing the contradicting desires of confluence and separateness to bring forth a story annealed by that pre-writing conflict.
Do you consider yourself an artist? What makes one person an artist and another, not? Do you think artists should starve? (i.e., inherently?) Do you think our society supports artists, and should it?
Artists give. This is not a new idea. The Gift by Lewis Hyde explores this perspective about art. Considering art not as a commodity that is used to exchange one good for another, but as an expression of generosity that can help us engage in dialogue, and make a connection that is timeless and somewhat spiritual. I think those who create in this spirit of generosity are artists.
I’m not immune to the vanity and self-aggrandizement that artists need for some sort of external validation. (But during these moments of egoism, the need to share and communicate act as a corrective so that I crawl out of my selfish space and engage with the world. This engagement through the work is what defines someone as an artist but I don’t think starving validates you as one. Deprivation of some sort can help an artist, but so can having supportive friends and a stable home life. I would rather not starve.
There are residencies and grants that provide support for writers. There are opportunities to receive support. But like any task worthy of your efforts, one has to fight for the resources to succeed. Artists cannot shy away from this conflict.
What challenges have you faced in your creative work? How do you stick with it when the going gets tough?
Self-doubt is challenging. Again, I sometimes look for validation outside of myself. That’s a recipe for trouble in any situation whether artistic or with my relationships. Many times I feel like a fraud, but mainly because of Rene Girard’s idea of mimetic desire. I see friends wildly succeeding, and I ask the pernicious question of “why them and not me?” I begin to twitch with desire for their consuming ambition and seriousness. My friends are publishing and selling books.
The irony is that I get out of this bind by reading novels that seem to champion my tastes, which are a combination of absurd humor and vicious tragedy. I turn to art that asserts a legitimacy to my tastes (works by Fyodor Dostoevsky and Philip Roth) when I’m doubting myself. I turn to other artists to help me out of my own limitations.
Are there any ideas you wish you had time to act on but haven’t yet? Do you think it will become possible to act on them in the future?
All artists will bemoan their scarcity of time. Unless you’ve severed yourself from human connections, this struggle for time will always exist. I’m happy that I have the need and will to write. I can always make the time to work.
What are you working on currently?
I’m working on finishing a draft of a novel that takes place in Los Angeles and Seoul. Currently, I’m working on line edits for it. Also, I’m a quarter of the way into the first draft of another novel. There is a third novel in a drawer somewhere that takes place during the Korean War. An excerpt will be published in The St. Petersburg Review next month.
Tell us something we don’t know about you yet:
My students want to print a T-shirt for me with the following print: “It doesn’t matter. We’re all going to die.”
Tommy Kim graduated with an MFA in creative writing from Warren Wilson College, and is working on a novel set in the Korean War years. He lives in Highland Park with his wife and daughter and teaches high school English in Glassell Park. He loves cooking French toast using King’s Hawaiian Rolls for his wife and can’t wait until his daughter can eat solids so she can enjoy his cooking.
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Past installments of “How you do dat dere?”
Source: New Stuff