Q&A: Kim Fu, novelist, poet, and author of Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century
“It’s taken from a story about a woman who’s escaping an abusive partner. And she ends up renting a house, and the house is infested with bugs…. She’s sort of alone in this nightmare that no one else believes…. In all the stories in the collection, I’m trying to make more concrete and manifest certain emotions and experiences that are more nebulous by giving them a shape, or a form, as a monster. In this case, it’s the bugs.”
— Kim Fu, speaking about a story in her new collection Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century
Kim Fu's short story collection Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century, published in February, received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, Foreword, Booklist, Shelf Awareness, and Quill & Quire. The New York Times Book Review wrote: "The strange and wonderful define Kim Fu’s story collection, where the line between fantasy and reality fades in and out, elusive and beckoning."
From the publisher, Tin House Books:
In the twelve unforgettable tales of Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century, the strange is made familiar and the familiar strange, such that a girl growing wings on her legs feels like an ordinary rite of passage, while a bug-infested house becomes an impossible, Kafkaesque nightmare. Each story builds a new world all its own: a group of children steal a haunted doll; a runaway bride encounters a sea monster; a vendor sells toy boxes that seemingly control the passage of time; an insomniac is seduced by the Sandman. These visions of modern life wrestle with themes of death and technological consequence, guilt and sexuality, and unmask the contradictions that exist within all of us.
The strange and wonderful define Kim Fu’s story collection, where the line between fantasy and reality fades in and out, elusive and beckoning. —The New York Times Book Review
Inventive and mesmerizing. . . . Vivid and surreal, readers of Carmen Maria Machado will enjoy this collection. —BuzzFeed
A lovely, new collection of eclectic tales. —The Washington Post
Wildly imaginative. . . . Truly addictive reading. This collection cements Fu as one of the most exciting short story writers in contemporary literature. —NPR Books
Fu’s first novel, For Today I Am a Boy, won the Edmund White Award for Debut Fiction and was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award, as well as a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice. Her second novel, The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore, was a finalist for the Washington State Book Awards.
More at https://kim-fu.com/
Congratulations on the publication of Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century. How do you see this book fitting into the body of work you’ve published so far?
Thank you! I think it’s difficult for any writer to see their body of work as an objective whole. Every book represents a specific period in my life, who I was as a writer, what themes interested me, who my influences were, my subconscious questions and obsessions. Monsters is my first short story collection, and while I’ve always loved short stories, there was a period of about three years where they became, rather suddenly, all that I wanted to write.
I published a poetry collection in 2016, and I can see within the stories in Monsters a similar structural logic and use of overarching metaphors. I can see that my interest in the social structures of adolescence and the uncanny has continued from my more realist 2018 novel The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore. But when I’m first conceiving and writing new work, I’m mostly just following impulses in the moment. My interests as a writer are constantly changing in ways that I don’t feel like I control.
Many of the stories in the collection have fantastical and/or speculative elements. What interests you in these kinds of non-realistic writing?
One of the things I like most about reading—and plays, movies, video games, narrative and experiential art in general—is getting to experience the world beyond myself, the limitations of my one life and body. Fantastical and speculative works go even further, beyond what is strictly possible in our universe, the laws of physics, to what can only be imagined.
Many of the stories in this collection focus on real-world issues, such as intimate partner violence, suicide, transgressive desire, etc. Why did you want to explore these issues through a fantastical and/or speculative lens?
I find that an unreal element can sometimes give a murky emotion a more concrete shape, a way of looking at it more clearly. Or sometimes a feeling is so big, so intense, that it feels more accurate, more emotionally true, to describe it in fantastical terms or amplify it to an impossible degree. Grief is sometimes better described by a scene with a monster or an imagined machine than a scene at a funeral. I also admire a lot of other writers who do this well, like [UAlbany alumnus] Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, Karen Russell, or Carmen Maria Machado.
There’s a short story by Meghan Bell, “Erase and Rewind,” that I often think of when I’m asked about this, where a woman realizes she has the power to go backwards in time immediately after being sexually assaulted, and she relives in reverse her assault and the preceding days to try and find the moment where she can prevent it from happening. It’s a fantastical scenario that feels more real than reality, in depicting how that situation feels.
I just read a story by N.K. Jemisin titled “The Storyteller’s Replacement,” a tale of dragons and princesses, that somehow felt like a chilling distillation of my own doom-scrolling rage fantasies in 2022.
What role, if any, do you see fantastical and/or speculative fiction playing in political transformation? Can fantastical and/or speculative fiction help create a more just, egalitarian world?
I recently saw Chelsea Vowel speak on Indigenous and Métis futurisms, as indebted to Afrofuturism, and she highlighted the specific power of speculative fiction as a means to imagine the kind of world we want to live in, to think beyond incrementalism and survival. And I do think fiction writers shouldn’t pretend that their work doesn’t reflect their worldview, or doesn’t have moral meanings, or that those moral meanings can’t have material consequences.
But I don’t think political transformation is or must be the primary goal of fiction, speculative or otherwise, and I especially dislike the way this gets put upon marginalized writers in particular. I hate it when people say they read a novel to “improve themselves” or “understand the experience” of a marginalized group. It implies that we must always write to win the hearts and minds of a dominant culture entitled to their ignorance, rather than writing for our own communities, or to express a complex, flawed, messy humanity, or to work through unresolved questions, or to entertain or for aesthetic experimentation or any other artistic impulse.
I think I’m more likely to move us towards a more just and egalitarian world by donating money than by writing, frankly. But art makes life worth living in a million other ways.
Has working on Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century changed you as a writer at all? Has it sparked any interests that you want to pursue in the future? I was surprised when I saw Monsters referred to or categorized as horror, but I’ve since become increasingly interested in infusing horror elements into my work, especially as I’m turning now to my next novel. A friend recently lent me Bitter Orange by Claire Fuller, and the simmering unease and slow-building, gothic macabre was extremely inspiring, definitely something I want to try.
As for how I’ve changed, I feel like my own process came into clearer focus while working on Monsters. I learned that I need to read to write—not in the obvious filling-the-well way, but more immediately and literally, like I need to read at least a few paragraphs of something that inspires me before I can get started each day. Right now, I’m finding Kevin Brockmeier’s The Ghost Variations: One Hundred Stories perfect for this—I can read one super short ghost story at the beginning of each session, and there’s just something about Brockmeier’s voice that has always spoken to what I’m trying to do.
I also learned that I actually work best around other people who are also writing, especially when I’m starting something new or feeling blocked or burned out. Many of these stories began by meeting up with writer friends in a coffee shop or at someone’s dining table, or at a drop-in writing group that used to meet in the basement of my neighborhood library. We don’t have to share work or even know each other—I just get so much energy from knowing the people around me are also devoting this time, taking their writing seriously, hearing their keyboards clack or their pen scritch across the page. It’s harder to apply this lesson now, in the pandemic, but every time I do, I’m amazed at how much more productive I am than when I’m alone at home, dirty dishes and distractions in reach.
For someone interested in fantastical and/or speculative fiction, what books would you recommend?
I’ve mentioned quite a number of other books and writers already, but I would also add Ted Chiang, Louise Erdrich, Ellen Klages, Indra Das, Leni Zumas, Han Kang, Matt Bell, Erin Swan.
I find the Levar Burton Reads podcast and the Selected Shorts podcast are great ways to find new writers and consume short fiction, in part because the performances and productions are especially compelling; Levar Burton Reads has more of a focus on science fiction and fantasy, but fantastical and speculative stories crop up quite a bit on Selected Shorts as well.
More at https://kim-fu.com/
Her books are available at your favorite local, independent bookseller, including The Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza.
By Moriah Hampton, PhD, an instructor in the University at Albany's Program in Writing and Critical Inquiry (WCI) Her fiction and photography have appeared in Hamilton Stone Review, Rune Literary Collection, The Sonder Review and elsewhere.