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Author Ling Ma wearing a blue dress with a floral pattern, standing among small bushes with a sandstone wall blurred in the background. She has shoulder-length black hair.

Image: Anjali Pinto

Many of the short stories in Ling Ma’s forthcoming collection Bliss Montage (Text Publishing) were written during the first year of the pandemic. ‘It was when we were under lockdown and things felt very new, at least in the US,’ Ma tells me from her home in Chicago.

The Chinese–American writer, who also teaches at the University of Chicago, has been interested in the supernatural and secret fantasies for a long time. In Bliss Montage, this curiosity about what’s considered otherworldly runs wild.

We’re taken on tours of hyper-glamorous LA mansions filled with hundreds of loitering ex-boyfriends that takes a violent turn (‘Los Angeles’). We witness the shock of a geriatric pregnancy (‘Tomorrow’). We see how going back to your hometown as an adult can feel like a waking nightmare (‘Returning’). We navigate the constant push-and-pull of immigrating to a new country and having to prove who we are while living it (‘Peking Duck’). We cycle through the terror of stalking and surviving an abusive ex—and how publishing the details online don’t offer the closure hoped for (‘Oranges’). We follow young women navigating authority and power in academia (‘Office Hours’). Each story explores the slipperiness between real life and fantasy, refusing to pick a side.

Writing through lockdown surfaced a strange coincidence, too: As Ma was editing this new collection, her debut novel, the apocalyptic thriller Severance (Text Publishing), was also receiving a second wave of attention for its spooky similarity to the COVID-19 pandemic. The novel follows a young office worker living in a world overtaken by a fast-moving flu-like virus called Shen Fever. (Ma spoke to KYD in 2019 about the novel).

But for Bliss Montage, Ma turned inward. ‘Often after a day of writing, I’ll watch five hours of TV, then collapse into bed, and not know where I am,’ Ma shares. References to films and the film industry are a constant presence in the collection, inspired by the author’s love of cinema: people work as production assistants; teach film studies at university; were named after characters in movies; carry the slight paranoia of wondering if their lives are being filmed for a prank show.

Many subconscious influences from film and television seeped into this collection: reality television like The Hills and The Real Housewives; Freud’s The Uncanny; Mad Men; Brian de Palma films; Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Stalker. By shifting perspectives and time periods, Ma challenges who the narrative actually belongs to, and how we make sense of the world around us.

Ma doesn’t shy away from absurdity in any of these stories, either. Things get weird (for example, there’s an inter-species romance). But there’s also a tenderness to even the most uncomfortable moments. ‘I actually think our fantasies are sort of absurd,’ Ma reflects. ‘The things that we want, to be able to reach them to the fullest degree, you have to enter into absurdity in some way.’


Could we talk about the process of writing this collection? I read that many of these stories started as dreams and were written during the early years of the pandemic. What felt different about writing these stories for you?

I think my instinct was to turn inward a bit more. These stories seem to be a lot more introspective, a little more dreamlike.

I imagine that when ideas or imagery are coming to you in dreams, maybe there’s a sense of censoring yourself less?

Dreams don’t adhere to narrative logic very much. Part of it was just taking the most arresting images or interesting conceits from the dream. For example, there was an airport dream which ended up forming part of the short story ‘Tomorrow’. But then the fictionalised versions ended up being quite different from the dream versions.

What was your airport dream about?

I was taking a flight to New York. And then I got off the flight, and I was in a different country, and I couldn’t figure out what country I was in. I was too embarrassed to ask anyone because I didn’t want to come off like a dumb American. But I couldn’t recognise the language!

So I felt very out of context. I was trying to piece together in the dream, what country I was in. By the end of the dream, I wanted to leave the airport and explore where I was—there was a sense of waiting. So I was trying to replicate that sensation: What is this person waiting for? How do you find context for yourself?

My recurring nightmare as a kid living back in China was waking up in the Victorian era. I think it has something to do with being out of context; being a fish out of water; out of your culture or maybe out of your time—just kind of mismatched somehow. Eventually, that story became ‘Returning’.

It’s almost like, who do we become when we’re in a place where we’re not comfortable?

I was trying to replicate that feeling of being out of context. I find it very terrifying, it’s almost like a physical sensation. But in ‘Returning’, I was going more for a sense of waiting. Of being out of time. I think it’s also about a midlife crisis.

‘I was trying to replicate that feeling of being out of context. I find it very terrifying, it’s almost like a physical sensation.’

You’ve mentioned previously in other interviews that you tend to start from a place of fantasy. But the fantasy might go something like, how can someone collapse the capitalist system? It’s not that far away from real life. When you are writing about memory and place—which so often in writing can force people into cliches—how do you write about things that challenge what people tend to expect from you?

I don’t know if I always have the answer for that! I do think that as people, we have an impulse to abstract our memories when we speak about them. Like saying someone is a spark of light, or eulogising them, in a way. Because the event has already happened. And you’re relying on poetic language. Maybe try and resist that if you can. Because people from the past are much weirder. They’re more specific and strange than a sentiment like ‘she was a ray of light’. I try to look for small gestures or specific turns of phrase.

It makes me think of how the characters speak to each other in the short story ‘Los Angeles’. The husband speaks in dollar signs. The wife responds ‘Lol’, instead of actually laughing when they go out to eat. It feels like a rejection of reality. It feels like you’re embracing absurdity, and having fun with not making sense all the time.

In my twenties, I was dating a bunch of dudes who were all creative artistic types. Everyone wanted more time to work on their art. I was thinking about the concept of being a trophy wife married to a wealthy man.

It’s as if the greatest artist residency ever takes place in their own home: all your ex-boyfriends live at your house and make their art. Our fantasies—the things that we want—can be inherently absurd. To not have to worry about working a job and being able to focus on your art, you’d have to be in an exceptional situation to be able to have the opportunity. A lot of people have trust funds. But for me, it seems exceptional.

‘Our fantasies—the things that we want—can be inherently absurd.’

I love the idea of an ex-boyfriend art residency.

Some of my exes don’t deserve that! It’s a very magnanimous dream.

‘Los Angeles’ also came from binging a lot of Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. I was thinking of spaces that don’t fully exist. I was reading somewhere that some of these reality TV shows bring in sets. What that means is that instead of filming in the actual homes of the cast, they film at a separate, second location brought in by production.

I was also thinking about sound stages. That was the idea for ‘Los Angeles’: an alternate space created from a mishmash of reality shows and advertisements. It can only exist in one’s mind through secondhand sources but doesn’t exist in real life.

I wanted to ask you about the burden of writing ‘the immigrant novel’. It’s something I was thinking about as I was reading Bliss Montage. That thing of having to explain yourself or write about where you come from. How did you feel like you could arrive at a place where you could write about the immigrant experience on your own terms, rather than for someone or for an imagined audience?

I think ‘Peking Duck’ is the story that struggles the most with the idea of the immigrant experience and intergenerational trauma. Something I’ve always struggled with is: how am I supposed to understand this piece of text from this first-generation immigrant’s perspective, about their story, but they’re not fluent in English, but the text is written in perfect English?

I still think narratives like that can be very immersive. And I think ‘Peking Duck’ is trying to grapple with that a little bit. What is this final piece of text in this last section? Is it the daughter’s story? Is it a rendering of the mother’s experience?

That reminds me of a specific line in ‘Tomorrow’ that says, ‘When the déjà vu comes, it feels like drowning’. It makes me think of how your collective family memories become your own memories. Not because you were actually there when things are happening, but because different members of your family are telling the same stories over and over again, in such vivid detail. You feel like you were there. And when you actually investigate it further, you realise you weren’t actually born yet. It’s just that people know the story so well that you feel like you’re included as a result.

I guess it depends on the family. We don’t have that tradition of oral storytelling in mine. My ideas of the past, where I come from in China, and what my relatives must have gone through— most of it comes from secondhand sources like Zhang Yimou’s movies, [the 1994 Chinese drama] To Live, or even [Mark Salzman’s 1986 autobiographical novel, describing his experiences of teaching in China as an American] Iron and Silk, which I read when I was a kid. I was like, Oh, this, this must have been what China was like in the 80s. Even though it’s written from an American’s perspective.

Culturally, there’s not a strong tradition of oral storytelling within my family. And I wonder if that’s true with a lot of Chinese families. You know, especially coming through the Cultural Revolution. Something that was imparted to me when I was young was not to kick up the dust or say too much or to show your cards or your political affiliations. I didn’t even know what communism was until I was in my teens. I remember asking my dad once, ‘what is communism’? He gave me this very obscure, shrouded answer that I couldn’t make heads or tails of.

Two of the things that came through to me in this collection were the idea of validation and violence. I loved how direct some of the characters were about their feelings: The urge to barf on your husband ‘and coat him in my stinging acids’, which I think was from ‘Los Angeles’. The abusive ex-boyfriends who leave out details from stories to make themselves look better. I’m pretty sure there was a husband who refused to stand up for his wife because he wanted to please everyone. They’re maybe not the most honourable people that we might come across in day-to-day life.

When you’re writing about heavy topics, particularly about violence, and the way that people treat each other, how do you protect yourself, when you’re going to a dark place and imagining bad people doing bad things?

You kind of…can’t really protect yourself, or it tends to be a secondary concern. I really did not like writing ‘Oranges’. It was not fun for me to write. I sort of did it piecemeal. And slowly, it actually took many years. I had a few paragraphs of something written. Then in the first year of the pandemic, I returned to it and looked at it again, and thought, Okay, let me try to work this into a story.

‘Oranges’ is filled with disclosures. As in, no matter how many times the main character discloses what happens, it doesn’t absolve what happens. She’s compelled to keep talking. She’s destined to just keep chasing and retell the same story multiple times.

I saw ‘Los Angeles’ and ‘Oranges’ as two different approaches to the topic of violence. ‘Los Angeles’ is sort of the fantastical version. And then ‘Oranges’ is the realist version. But ‘Los Angeles’ was fun to write because of the fantastical elements. Whereas ‘Oranges’, the realist version was very difficult to write, in part, because I wasn’t sure what was going to happen with this encounter that the story was headed towards. But I did want to write that story.

In previous interviews, you’ve spoken about the false promise of publishing. I think a lot of people are driven to publish work or put work out there because they want to be seen or understood. But maybe, in reality, it’s just a distortion of reality. When it happens you realise the grand reveal wasn’t the thing that you had to work towards—it was maybe something else. Outside of your writing life, what helps make you feel seen?

For me, it’s more about being around my friends and my family.

I don’t think most of us fully understand ourselves. And this sounds very corny, but sometimes writing a story or doing anything creative is partly about seeing yourself. I write as a way to search and figure out what I actually think or feel about something. And sometimes, that’s obscured, even to me. So I don’t even see myself sometimes. I don’t even fully see how I feel or what I know.

‘I don’t think most of us fully understand ourselves. And this sounds very corny, but sometimes writing a story or doing anything creative is partly about seeing yourself.’

Trying to write a story is kind of a processing mechanism. That’s why certain stories take years. Because you’re processing what’s going on before you can actually come to write the story to finish it.

Like developing your self-awareness and empathy muscles. When we understand others better, we can understand ourselves better, too.

I wouldn’t say that everyone has the impulse to push themselves to understand. There are people who journal for like 50 years, and it’s literally just a litany of what they did every day. I feel like in my stories, I’m circling around some kind of mystery or some kind of question. The story helps me figure out what I’m trying to figure out.

I wanted to ask you about the story ‘Office Hours’. That story in particular stayed with me because of how it explored relationships with authority figures. How the main character’s professor code-switches with her: one minute, she’s treated as a peer and feels understood. Other times, she’s a student and is given generic advice. But then she becomes a teacher. So she has to start managing how she comes across to her students. I know you’ve spent time teaching—and in academia—yourself. How do you grapple with that power to make an impression on someone in an environment that’s new to them?

I teach creative writing. And I think a good teacher helps you write like yourself. It can be really fun to teach. But sometimes you have to be careful because the things that you say could really set someone off and make them not want to write for a long time. I mostly teach undergrads, so I’m trying to mirror back to them what they’re doing well, and their best inclinations as writers that are buried in the drafts they’ve turned in.

It’s a very vulnerable thing, especially when you’re starting out as a young writer, to bring your work out to a room full of strangers, or people you don’t know super well. I don’t believe in just treating a workshop submission as we would treat any piece of text in an English class or something.

I do think that sometimes students often have very high expectations for themselves. And I think it doesn’t always help when you’re just starting out as a writer to have specific ideas of what the piece of what you’re supposed to be writing about. Most of the time, what you think you’re writing about, and what the piece is doing are two different things.

Most of my work is trying to excavate the initial drafts before I get to what the story is actually about. And I would say with most of these stories, I started off not knowing what they’d really be about. But if I knew everything about a story starting out, then I feel like the story is dead. If I already know it, why am I writing it?

‘If I knew everything about a story starting out, then I feel like the story is dead. If I already know it, why am I writing it?’

What advice do you have for people who are starting out in their creative careers—or maybe even stuck in a creative rut—that might have stories stuck in their heads, waiting to be told, and are being held back from telling those stories for whatever reason?

I have published two books now. But once it’s out there, I’m still back to myself. I’m still kind of trying to start something new and getting stuck. So the struggle is still there, in terms of where I am and where they might be. We’re trying to juggle our career and family, trying to find time to write, trying to find the structure of what we’re writing, trying to find the characters.

We’re all on the same plane. But I think the one difference, possibly, between where I am now compared to where I was before Severance, is that I think there’s less fear. Having done it feels less like a big deal now than it did before I published a book.

I think when you’re unpublished, in some way, you have a lot more freedom because nobody has any expectations of what you’re going to produce. Once you’re published, everyone is comparing your work against other people’s and against your past works. So you’re constantly up against expectations.

But I would maybe take that freedom of being unknown and of not being this quantified entity. I would kind of take that freedom and run with it, and try to feel exhilarated by that.

Ling Ma will be appearing in an online in-conversation event with Chloe Wilson for Melbourne Writers Festival from 8 September.

Bliss Montage is available from 20 September at your local independent bookseller.