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Friday, August 15, 2008

Interview with Lily Hoang, author of PARABOLA

The simple act of a butterfly flapping its wings, and our journey begins. A tracing of modern day mythologies, PARABOLA weaves through genres, mathematical formulas, and photographs, all while following the curve of a parabola, stopping at various points to pick up strands of intersections or stories. Lily Hoang's debut novel offers readers tender snapshots of an Asian-American girl coming-of-age juxtaposed with the Pythagorean belief in numerology placed right beside a physical manifestation of dark matter contrasted with interactive IQ, personality, and psychological tests. Smart, challenging, sad, and kind, by the end of Parabola, you will have moved through every emotion, and you will end right where you began, with that simple act of a butterfly flapping its wings.

Your novel is quite visual. Do you have some background in the visual arts?

I have no experience in visual arts. I was a musician all through high school & college. A violinist. My father is a painter though. I have a romanticized view of the arts. I think it's because I wish I could be a painter or visual artist that my book has such a strong visual component. It's also the way my mind works. I would love to write something long & continuous, but I'm stuck with writing these small pieces that I hope connect. I think that as I create these small pieces, bits of other things fall in too. I do my best to create a dialogue with these strands of things as they fall into place, which hopefully, they do. 

While reading the book I was fascinated by the juxtapositions between histories of astronomy, first person narratives, and seemingly private voices that we may find in a journal (among others). Am I correct in observing that you are playing with the similarities and differences between the close and the distant? 

Yes and no. I don't necessarily see a difference between the two. I consciously chose the subject for each chapter more as things I considered to be mythologies than questions of distance and closeness. 

(See above for the parabola that serves to form the plot of the book.) Many of my favorite authors use geometric shapes as the basis for plots. The Brazilian Osman Lins, for instance, works with a spiral in his novel AVALOVARA. What interests you in the geometric shape of parabolas? Is this related to your interest in various 'scientific' tests that purport to measure intelligence, personality, and so on?

I first conceived of this novel as one that would explore the occult & religion as mythologies, but as I started researching, I found a lot about numerology and mathematics. Since I was little, I wanted to be a scientist or a mathematician (I'm not quite sure why I'm not, to be completely honest!) so I decided to use the superficial constraint of the form of a parabola to shape this text. Again, while researching, I came to understand that there were so many more mythologies out there than just the occult & religion. As such, I expanded the scope of my novel. I wanted to create a work that dialogued within itself.  As for the shape of the text, I wanted to mimic the traditional triangular structure of a novel, but I wanted to invert it. A parabola was a perfect fit!  I love interactive novels. I think the various tests that appear throughout the text add a new level of interactivity. Ideally, readers would actually take some of the tests. Additionally, I know many people (myself included) who put a great deal of weight on personality tests, IQ, and psychology. I see these as modern-day myths, a new form of "religion" and a method of categorization. To me, IQ seems to be especially troubling, particularly because of the mass sterilization in the early to mid 20th century based on the Army Beta IQ test. I based some of the questions on my test on that original test. 

At each point of the 'X' axis, there are two different stories, one as we come down the left side of the parabola and one when we go up the right. Many of the two points are in direct dialogue, most particularly number 5, which is a continuation of the same story. Sometimes, however, there does not seem to be as much dialogue. For instance 9 juxtaposes a history of astronomy with what appears to be an actual intelligence test. How do you see the interaction of the 'X' and 'Y'?

As for Chapter 9, personal equation is one of those really fantastic scientific truths that has a whole mythology to it. First off, I should explain what it is for your readers who haven't read my book. Personal equation essentially says that everyone sees things slightly differently because of our reaction time to light. The whole myth or story to it is that an Astronomer Royal fired one of his assistants because his data was incorrect. Quite a while later, it was discovered that the assistant's data was, in fact, correct. The slight aberration in numbers came only because he had a different reaction time to light.  Then, as I was researching personal equation, I found a great scientific article that tied reaction time to a person's IQ. I came up with the thesis that IQ then has something to do with reaction time, which is almost arbitrary, if that makes any sense. So both chapter 9's are in fact related. I actually thought that the chapter 9's had more of a correlation than some of the others.  I did my best to have each chapter reflect its opposite chapter. Some of the reflections are harder to see than others, which I can readily admit is my fault. 

I was charmed by the many places where you worked stories into stories, almost like the wooden Russian dolls. I am thinking most specifically of the second Chapter 3. Is this related in any way to your interest in layering text (scene here to the right)?

I'm not quite sure I understand about stories within stories. I can say, though, that I work best with little pieces. Especially now, I feel like I have a hard time writing anything more than 500 words long. But when writing Parabola, I was working on my MFA, and it was expected that you would produce "short stories," as one would traditionally think of short stories. Most of the chapters in here are my attempt to "cheat" the system by putting little pieces next to each other & seeing what that juxtaposition does.   As for the layering of the text, I used it twice, well, three times technically. The first two instances, with short shorts inside geometric shapes, were my attempt to show how easily truths are covered & to mirror the jumbled nature of this world. It's hard to distinguish what is what. I simply wanted to reflect that feeling of almost helplessness. The third instance--the dark matter story--should be fairly obvious. I tried to have as much fun as possible with this chapter, once I came up with the basic conceit. I have to give all the credit to Tom Philips's A Humument though. It was his idea to create a new text by highlighting an original text. What I found, however, was that by covering 95% of my original Chapter 6 did create an entirely new text. Again though, I was just having some fun!

There are obvious connections between your biography and portions of the book. How biographical is it?

Well, there are many autobiographical bits in here. It's undeniable that many of the narrators are Vietnamese American & so am I. My father did have a stroke. My mother did have colon cancer. There are bites of truths in here, but it's fiction. There are exaggerations and just as many understatements. I suppose that like so many young writers, this book reveals my autobiographical angst, but it's not all real, if that's what you're asking. There are many things I added for the sake of "good" fiction, things that simply could not have happened.  Funny story actually. A friend of mine called me after she'd read the book & asked me if I really tried to lay an egg. I laughed because yes, I really did try to lay an egg & not only did I try, I did! What didn't happen was that I didn't figure it out until I was quite a bit older. I must have been in high school before I realized that I couldn't really lay eggs. I'm quite naive in many ways. 

I appreciated how demanding and challenging this book is. It places demands on readers that a 'normal' book does not. Who is your ideal reader in terms of biography, education, and so on?

You.  No really though, I think most anyone can find something worth reading in this book, even if they don't like the whole thing. At the very minimum, I think there's value in at least some of the chapters. I know, for instance, that many people have really enjoyed my Asian American coming-of-age story-chapters. Those, in fact, may have been my strongest catering to the "market" and/or MFA workshops. Those were good for me to write & again, it seems as though those are the most popular. For the more adventurous readers, I have tests that you can fill in as you read. For the middle-of-the-road readers, I've got chapters that straddle that line. & if you're bored by my writing & the book in general, you can take a break & do a word search, which is conveniently placed as Chapter 2 on one side of the parabola. I joke about it, but I really did take time to think about reader enjoyability while I was writing this. A lot of experimental/conceptual/whatever word you want to use fiction is easily dismissed as heady, pretentious, or trickery. I've heard a lot of that criticism. I wanted to write a book that wasn't that. Whereas I can acknowledge that perhaps the overall constraint was "heady," there is something in this novel for everybody. 

This is the big question, but your book I think demands it: Some will probably claim that your book does not cohere. How would you answer such a criticism?

I could go into all the small way this novel coheres (please do keep in mind that this book won the Chiasmus Press Un-Doing the Novel Contest), but I'm not sure it's really necessary. There are themes that tie this together, and the mathematical structure of it makes coherence a lot easier to achieve.  I think the more interesting question would be why it's a novel & why I've chosen to call it a novel. & I suppose I'll turn it back over to you now, readers. Do you think it's a novel? Does it cohere? Should it cohere? & finally, what exactly is coherence & should that be a function of a novel? 

Could you say something about your family life (siblings, parents, etc.), where you were born, and your early relationship with language and/or literature?

Family. Wow. What a place to start! I've been trying to deal with the issue of family since as long as I can remember. My first two books chronicle the basic struggles of growing up Asian American, with overbearing — but loving — parents. Instead of speaking about my family, I'll tell you a couple anecdotes that should give you an idea of my family. 1) While I was doing my graduate work at Notre Dame, my mother asked me to go some place better for my PhD because Notre Dame doesn't have the same cache as Harvard or Yale in Vietnam. In Vietnam, people haven't necessarily heard of Notre Dame. (This was after, of course, I explained to my mother that I don't need a PhD.) 2) My mother, to this day, reminds me that I would make a great ambassador. Besides, a lot of people who study English are ambassadors. 3) My father reminds me, to this day, that I could still go to medical school, if I really wanted to make them happy. This makes my parents seem like horrible people though, which they aren't. They're simply not acclimated to American life. They want for me to be the best parts of American & the full part of Vietnamese. It's an impossible task, but they don't seem to understand that. They don't understand my writing, nor do they really respect it. (I'm sure this is something many writers deal with.) They do, however, understand the value of my name in print. This is getting depressing so I'll move on to the other parts of this question. I was born in San Antonio, TX. Because both of my parents worked when I was growing up, I spent most of my time at a family friend's house. (In many immigrant communities, there will be a place where children are cared for. For me, that was Me Thu's house. She was a second mother to me. Me in Vietnamese is Mother.) I was the youngest under her care. As such, I grew up truly bilingual, since the other kids were already in school. I didn't know the difference between languages, and when I started school, I actually spoke a Vietnamese-English hybrid. It wasn't a great way to make friends, let me tell you. So growing up, I didn't have a strong bond to language. It was more of something to be embarrassed about than anything resembling the love that many writers have experienced.

What were some of your favorite activities as a child?

My parents tell this great fairy tale about me. When I was little, I had these storybooks that were in both English & Vietnamese. My mother would read them to me. One day, as she was reading, I read along. It was a trick I'd learned. So they showed me off to all their friends — a two-year-old who could read! Of course, I couldn't read. I'd simply memorized it, but I learned from a very young age that precociousness gets you far in life. But really, I didn't have many friends. I had the whole language barrier, but aside from that, I was an awkward little kid who was a show off. My parents instilled this fear in me that I had to be better than everyone else in order for anyone at all to like me. (Again, I'm painting my parents in a less than favorable light here, but they're not that bad. Really.) As a little kid, I read the dictionary & did long division. For fun! I watched a lot of Chinese movies (something akin to telenovellas). I also loved Potato Head Kids, not Mr. Potato Head!

What do you remember in terms of your early relationship to the written word, both as writer and as reader?

Again, growing up, my relationship to the written word was more one of reward than anything else. I understood the basic formula that if I said things that adults considered "smart," I would be rewarded with attention. I should clarify that I only started writing because my roommate in college was a writer. She was cool & I wanted to be cool so I followed her lead. Before then, I'd never written a word creatively. I'd written plenty of things for school, but up until then, I was sure I would fulfill my parents' dream of my being a doctor. I do wish I had a better story as to how I became a writer, but that's the truth of it. I should also mention that she's a fantastic poet, much better than I could ever be.

I also want to take the time to thank you, Jeff, for putting this whole shebang together! I hope you & your readers enjoy!

[Bio: Lily Hoang's Parabola won the Chiasmus Press Un-Doing the Novel Contest. She's also the author of the forthcoming novels Changing (Fairy Tale Review Press, December 2008) and The Evolutionary Revolution: A Real History (Les Figues Press, 2009-10). Her eBook Woman Down the Hall was recently released by Lamination Colony. She currently teaches & lives in South Bend, Indiana.]

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