What makes you, you: an interview with Larissa Pham

sun on the bed

I normally don’t record interviews, due to the different voices involved, but I decided to give it a go here. Listen to me read the below here:

 

I met Larissa Pham through Twitter, as one does, and have been fortunate to get to know her in a few ways—she interviewed me about The Border of Paradise for the Asian American Writers’ Workshop blog, and was at my reading for the book at AAWW in New York this past June. Having subscribed to her TinyLetter for a while now, I was thrilled to find out that Badlands Unlimited was publishing Larissa’s novella, Fantasian.

fantasian About Fantasian, from the Badlands Unlimited website: A young Asian woman’s life at Yale takes a dizzying turn when she meets Dolores—her doppelgänger—at a party. As they begin to merge into each other’s social and sexual worlds, it becomes impossible to tell where one girl ends and the other begins. When Dolores’ boyfriend and his twin brother enter into this pas de deux, identities and couplings spin off into a sinister and perverse web of illusions. Fantasian is Single White Female for the dawn of a new sexual fluidity.

We had a chat about the book, Yale, writing about sex, and other matters for the Journal. I’m also happy to say that I’m giving away one copy of Fantasian—to qualify, please leave a comment that includes your name and email address (the email address, if put in the form, won’t be public). I’ll draw a winner on November 3. (Unfortunately, the giveaway is restricted to readers in the United States.) (Winner has been chosen and notified.)

 

Q. One of the things that strikes me the most about your book is what a visceral experience it was for me, as a reader, as a reminder of what it was like to be a student at Yale—which was about fifteen years ago. And I also wondered what the setting would mean to someone who wasn’t familiar with Yale, or a Yale-like place. What did the setting mean to you as you were writing it?

A. Oh, it makes me beyond happy to hear that.

I was thinking about the pros and cons of setting it in an imagined place– for example, one of the books I was reading while writing the first draft was The Secret History, and that’s set on an imagined campus, I believe, but it’s obviously supposed to be Brown, or maybe somewhere more northerly, but one of those places.

Q. I heard The Secret History was supposed to be Bennington.

A. Ah! That totally makes sense ’cause it’s Vermont. And I think that there’s a really mythic quality to universities like Yale and Brown and Harvard– those old buildings, that air of privilege, that span of time that they seem to hold. And you read a book that’s set on that campus, and immediately–it’s using all those referents, from Stover at Yale to like, I don’t know, The Marriage Plot, all of those books.

I definitely wanted to tap into that mythic, cloistered quality, and I really wanted to accurately represent my own experience of it, rather than make up something. So I set it at Yale, this place that I love, that deeply traumatized me, that is as much of a character in the book as the other characters.

Q. It felt very much to me like a character as I was reading the book. The book is so much about identity—what parts of identity are created by us, what parts are foisted upon us—and as I was reading it, I also kept thinking about how all the characters were so clearly imprinted by Yale, were Yalies. No matter how much they bickered about class or race or whatever… it’s still happening at Yale. That interested me.

A. Yes! They’re all at that place and it shapes them. It’s really heartening to me to hear you say that because I wasn’t sure if my referents would be everyone’s (and they won’t be). And they’re all in this weird place that they want to belong to, even if they don’t agree with it.

Q. Where did the seed of the book come from?

A. It honestly came from a silly idea I had about a love triangle between a girl and a pair of twin brothers. I think twins are weird and magic, at least in a literary sense, and I’ve also had the odd fortune of being close to several people who are twins. So, anyway, I wanted to play with the dynamic of a girl being involved with two people, who are also close foils to each other. And I’m really interested in the campus novel as a genre, so I set it there.

But Fantasian is actually a thorough rewrite of an earlier book, which was more conventionally novel-shaped, so the novella is also really influenced by the fact that Badlands approached me to write it, and I had the freedom of that structure, the model of the New Lovers series.

I had reviewed one of their books before, My Wet Hot Drone Summer, and they really liked my approach and felt like I really understood what they were trying to do with the series. They asked if I would consider doing a novella for the series. So I went in to talk with Paul (the founder) and Micaela (the director) and realized that this book I had been working on, this novel that was sort of… flaccid (haha) and sprawling and a little bit too… too much of what I thought a conventional novel had to be like–I realized that I could just rework it completely.

All Badlands asked me to do was write a book for their series. They gave me complete freedom aside from one structural thing—six chapters, (at least) six sex scenes.

Q. What was it like to work with those constraints?

A. It was incredible! Actually, I don’t know if I would recommend this approach to people who don’t want to write lots of sex scenes. But thinking about each sex scene as being a pivotal moment, where a relationship is changing or new information is being introduced, allowed me to plot the book in a way that was really new and exciting to me.

I had to think about what I was doing in each chapter, and what relationships I was trying to describe or change, and what interactions I wanted to create in order to make things happen. I don’t normally think in terms of plot, but when I had to think of it in terms of character relationships it became way more dynamic and interesting.

Q. The narrator has a strong reaction to seeing Dolores for the first time. Much of that is attributed to the fact that Dolores is also Asian. Can you talk a bit about that? Was it similar to experiences you’d had in college?

I want to add here that while, and after, reading your book, I couldn’t remember a single Asian peer at Yale who wasn’t in the specifically Asian-American performance group I was in (Jook Songs).

A. Wow, you went straight to the pain point—I love it. Dolores as a character comes out of a lot of anxieties I have about identity and about myself and Asian girlhood in general. She’s both a mirror and an idealized kind of representation who feels the weight of that idealization. When I was in undergrad, and even now, I found myself being put in this uncomfortable but not unwanted role of “token” Asian girl–but also, a cool, assimilated, hipster Asian girl. I was desirable in a very American sense, but… there could also only be one in each group, you know? It’s like when you walk into a party and you see someone who occupies the same space as you–when I was younger, I’d feel so threatened by other cool Asian girls. I wanted to explore that feeling, play it up.

Like: what if there’s someone out there who does you better than you do you?

lodestone

Q. Yeah. I specifically remember writing an essay that I now clearly see as self-hating—about how I disliked most other Asians, how they all wanted to be doctors, and I was “different.”

A. Oh gosh, yes! Definitely. I felt really isolated at Yale at times because I wasn’t in any Asian-affiliated groups; I didn’t feel as though I fit in.

Q. And Dolores talks about that, albeit in a very, uh, Yale-ish way. She spouts Lacan the first time they meet.

A. Ha. Yeah, the theory is in there. In the first draft, I threw it in from the narrator’s perspective. But now it’s coming from Dolores as a kind of power play.

Q. Tell me about your thought process there—about using theory in fiction.

A. Hmm. I really wanted to talk about Lacan’s mirror stage in the book. I find it really fascinating and it’s a pretty good model for how I see identity forming, and my identity forming in particular. So I wanted to speak to that.

I had a lot of trouble writing Fantasian as fiction–it took me a while to figure out what voice I wanted to use, what kind of style and shape I wanted it to have. And so to kick myself out of doubting myself, I actually decided to begin writing it as though it were a piece of creative nonfiction, like one of my TinyLetters.

I wanted the narrator to be thinking these thoughts, to be having these ideas, and if she’s in college, if she’s an art history student, she’s obviously read Lacan, it’ll be on her mind–I wanted to just put it in.

I like when fiction references history, or theory, or art–tangible stuff from our world that makes it into another one.

Also, I find it a little humorous and sweet when a character is so deeply focused on theory. It reminds me of being a student, being young and reading something and having it totally dominate your life for a time.

Q. Do you think of Fantasian as having any sibling or cousin books? Books that it’s in conversation with, or that you actively referred to while writing it?

A. Ooooo! That’s a really great question. On the surface, I think it’s probably most in dialogue with The Secret History, but maybe that’s just me being lazy. But there are other aesthetics and things that it’s referencing, like A Sport and A Pastime, in the use of the unnamed narrator. But I might not even be the best person to ask, I feel. I wonder what connections people will draw from it.

Q. And lots of sex.

A. I love the way Salter does sex though. It’s still so perfect.

Q. I think most would agree that Salter is one of the best sex writers out there. I still remember Alexander Chee’s tribute to Salter’s sex scenes in the Paris Review—I end up reading so many things online, but that stays with me.

A. Yes! I love that essay of Alex’s. Actually, his book Edinburgh was a real influence for me. I was reading it right before I started writing the new draft of Fantasian.

Q. Who do you think writes sex really well?

A. Pamela Erens, in The Virgins. Cari Luna… she has this great short story in Midnight Breakfast [“Come Make Love With Us”] that I still think about. Maggie Nelson does what I would like to do, where she takes sex and pulls everything out of it: the emotions, the theory, the narrative. A lot of good writers write about sex without really writing about it. Like Chelsea Hodson, in Pity the Animal… it’s about the things surrounding desire, without really talking about the mechanics of desire.

Q. And then this went in here, etc.

A. Yes! I find that kind of writing sort of disorienting and boring after a while.

Q. I have one last question. What would be the one thing you’d hope people would consider, or reconsider, after reading Fantasian? Alternately, what would be the one moment you’d hope would haunt the reader?

A. I’ll answer both! I hope people come away wondering about what makes them, them. I hope people think about the sex, sure, and the thriller aspect of it, or the twist ending, but I hope that they’re left with a bit of discomfort about who they are and how they’ve become who they are.

And as for haunting moments–there are a few in that book, but I wonder if people will think about the part in the book where things changed. Or maybe the first sign that it’s going to change, that it won’t quite turn out okay for everyone involved.

My friend John, he just finished it yesterday, and he was talking about the last chapter, where everything really turns to shit, and he was referencing an early line of Dolores’s: “You find out what you need to have, and then you go take it.” That line really haunted him. I hope everyone has a moment like that.

larissa_phamBio: LARISSA PHAM is a writer living in Brooklyn. She has written for AdultGuernicaThe Nation and Nerve. Pham studied painting and art history at Yale University. Find her on Twitter @lrsphm and at larissapham.com.

 

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  • This interview made me feel very recognized, both as an Asian with a similar university experience and as a human who is very concerned with identity. It’s much more pleasant to think of identity as something you build out of pieces of yourself rather than a space you fill amongst the people around you, but those are both the case, to some degree. Larissa Pham hits on that idea of being threatened by someone similar in a way I hadn’t quite heard phrased before this interview, and I will definitely have to think on it.