I first came across May-Lan Tan in June at the London Short Story Festival. At the time, I was unfamiliar with her work, but Flight co-editor Sanya had read May-Lan’s debut collection of short stories Things to Make and Break and told me I should be excited about her. Seeing May-Lan read, as well as listening to her insightful thoughts on writing, I did get excited. There was an energy to her work I found completely irresistible. I left the festival with a copy of Things To Make and Break and became hooked. The stories are dark, intimate, funny and filmic; there’s a rhythm and a musicality to the work that makes the act of reading something felt throughout the body. More recently May-Lan published a chapbook, Girly, containing two brilliant experimental narratives of teenage girlhood: one set in the US; one in Hong Kong. I was lucky enough to meet with May-Lan for an interview in which she talked about loneliness, music, language and brutality. Unsurprisingly, she had deeply engaging things to say about all of the above — Len Lukowski
One thing that really strikes me about Things to Make and Break is the way in which the characters seek connections they can never fully achieve. Were you consciously writing stories about an unfulfilled desire for closeness?
I definitely set out to write people who were alone in the world. That was a conscious thing, and I often made them more lonely.
The act of reading makes you friends with the characters. I thought it would be interesting to create a sense of loneliness, so the only person the character is connected to is you, the reader. The characters don’t know that you exist, but they’re being very intimate with you. I suppose it was a way of forcing intimacy between the reader and the character, making the connection more important and more real.
I saw an interview where you said you listen to albums whilst writing stories, often one album for a particular story. Could you talk a bit more about the relationship between music and your writing?
Okay, so I’m completely and utterly obsessed with music, and if I can ever write anything that affects people the way music does, that would be the best thing I could do. I think you could spend your whole life trying to do that. But there are so many limits with language—that’s why rhythm and melody become very important.
I’m always aware of how much I’m influenced by what I’m taking in. The more highbrow it is, the more obviously literary, the more I’ll try to resist it. I almost put up a wall and don’t want it to affect my work. If I’m taking in anything I feel has less to do with writing, I’ll be much more open and absorbent. Music and movies, I feel that those are the main things for me.
The other way I use music is as a drug. When I write, I always write in a very dark room and I think of it almost as a cinema where I project what I want to see. I have to be able to visualise it and I can’t do that in a bright space. I’m not somebody who can work in a coffee shop. If I’m ever forced to work in a public place I wear sunglasses.
The other thing with music is everybody knows that if you listen to a song you loved when you were fourteen it all comes back to you – the brand of cigarettes your boyfriend smoked, or the laundry powder your best friend’s mum used. It’s a very efficient way to get to any kind of state. Usually when I write stories, it takes a long time. Occasionally I can write stories in a night or in a weekend, but usually it’ll take me a month to write a short story. Playing the one album is a really good way of staying in one particular space.
That’s interesting to me because I really love music but I can’t listen to it while I write because my brain will follow the music or the lyrics rather than the writing. But you don’t find the music interferes with your own cognitive process?
It does, it interferes a lot and I like it. I’m really careful about what I choose to write a story to. The temperature of the song has to fit the story I’m writing. There are usually at least three lines in the song that I feel relate to the heart or soul of the character in the story. I’m totally aware of those lyrics and they are going through my head as I write. Whatever I listen to, I know all the words to it. So it’s even worse for me because I’m not listening to world music or electronica, generally it’s very lyric-heavy guitar music or techno, but I think it works well and also helps me to resist. Whatever is the soul that’s in the lyrics, I’ll always resist that thing and stay away from it. I ask other writers if they listen to music whilst writing and they usually say, no, how can you do that? I often think I’d like to see the playlists of books.
Do you find it’s actually an essential part of writing for you?
Yes. I don’t think I could ever write in silence. I can edit in silence, but the writing process is definitely always one album, or sometimes two or three songs. I’ll listen to it really loudly on headphones and often read the piece over it. It’s completely chaotic. I don’t understand how it works but it does work. I think the texture does come through.
The other connection with music is that I took voice lessons at one point, as the thing I’m most jealous of is people who can sing. This guy would hypnotise you and make you open and relaxed enough to be able to sing and you did sound really good. But the problem was he had to hypnotise me. I couldn’t do it on my own. I started to wonder if actually he was just hypnotising me to make me think I sounded good, but we did record it sometimes and it did sound better and more open. Something he said to me was that communication is stored in the throat chakra. That’s why so many writers smoke – because they’re trying to open it. So what I do now is before I write, I always sing along at the top of my lungs to a song I know all the words to and it really helps. It’s weird.
I read a collaborative piece of work you did with Elizabeth Mikesch, ‘Five Motets’ which is in the CB Editions journal Sonofabook. It’s very experimental and quite different to your other writing. I was wondering how that came about and what the collaborative process was between the two of you.
Elizabeth’s work is very different from the writing I’m doing now, but it’s more like the writing I was doing before I published anything. Before Things to Make and Break I wrote a few novels that weren’t published and they were all quite experimental and obsessed with language.
Around the time Things to Make and Break came out, I read Elizabeth’s book, Niceties: Aural Ardor, Pardon Me, and it reminded me of what I used to try to do. She’s her own creature but it was very much driven by the same impulses and I was impressed that she’d made it work. When I was doing it, it was too obscure, but she manages to do it without being obscure. So I was very attracted to this book and I started looking up who she was and I found a picture of her on the Internet holding my book in front of her face and it was like, Okay, I’m in!
I contacted her and we started a friendship where we didn’t tell each other about our lives at all, we just began writing. I think we just wanted to impress each other. And then I realised she’s somebody I could collaborate with, and I’d always been quite frightened of that. I secretly felt that she was better than me so I wanted to work with her. I set up an account on Evernote and sent her the password, and I thought, if she doesn’t understand, we shouldn’t work together, and of course she understood. The next time I logged in, she’d already thrown down a few pages. I went in and completely vandalised it, and again I thought, well, if she’s offended by this, then we shouldn’t work together, but she understood and she went in again. And this was our whole relationship for a few months. It was really exciting, waking up, logging in, and seeing what she’d done. There came a point when I no longer knew what was mine and what was hers, every sentence had changed so much, it was really great.
Something I’ve always loved is the friendship part of any art movement. I always love it when I find out that people were hanging out together, like the Romantics or the Dadaists. It’s something I aspire to and I’ve been really lucky in the last couple of years, I’ve made a few friendships like this and it’s my favourite thing about the work.
You said that you had written novels prior to Things to Make and Break but they weren’t picked up for publication. Were you surprised it was a book of short stories that got published and also are you going back to writing novels or are you sticking solely with short stories?
It never occurred to me to write short stories. It never even occurred to me to write a novel. When I wrote the first book, I just wrote it. I’d just left art school and I was making a lot of zines, and I just wanted to draw comic strips and make animation films and things like that. The novel was never a conscious choice, I just wrote it. Then I thought, oh, that’s done better, I got an agent. With art, nothing was happening, so I thought, I guess this is what I’m supposed to do. And I just kept doing it.
Looking back now, every one of those novels was either a lot of short stories that I’d cobbled together or one short story I’d drawn out. The first time I wrote a short story, it was ‘Legendary’ and I remember that from the first three sentences, it felt like I was doing what I was supposed to do. With the novels I was always thinking, will this pass for a novel? Will it fly? With the short story I have never felt that. I just feel that whatever I do, it’s correct and it’s new.
I have actually written a novel since the short story collection, but I’m not giving it to anyone. I don’t want the next book I do to be a novel. I like short stories and I want to support them. You don’t have to publish everything you write. I have a novel and the beginning of another one and I just think, that’s my gym. Maybe one day I’ll publish a novel, but I think the real thing is short stories. So I’ll do another collection and then after that I’d like to go more and more out there. I might do a poetry collection or I might do a graphic novel and I’d like to do a cookbook.
One section of ‘Pacific’ that really jumps out at me is where the narrator is describing her sense of bewilderment starting school and wanting to fit in whilst being a migrant: ‘Be Chinese, but don’t speak Chinese. Speak Dutch at home and English at school. Panic on the first day because you don’t know what plimsolls are.’ You grew up in Hong Kong and the US then later moved to the UK. Has your own experience of migration affected your writing?
Yeah, I think in lots of ways. My parents are immigrants, they’re ethnic Chinese from Indonesia. They grew up during the colonial Dutch time, and the Japanese occupation during World War II, so they had to change school every year or every two years and they’d always have to start again. They went to Dutch school, Japanese school, Chinese school; they also went to school just in a barn when the war was on. And because of that, they speak a lot of languages. So when I was growing up, there was a different language for every purpose. When we went to market my parents would speak Chinese, but Cantonese and Mandarin are their weakest languages. At home they spoke Dutch. For business my father spoke German, and Indonesian was the language they spoke with family back there. So I was growing up listening to all these sounds. Sometimes my parents would switch language several times within a sentence. There’d be two words in one language, one word in another and, especially before I started school, I thought it was all one language. I had a long period of trying to sort out what was what. When I started school I realised that people only understood a fraction of what I was saying. I had to learn to test words and to discard the ones people didn’t understand.
My parents sent me to a British school in Hong Kong because their Chinese was so weak and English is closer to German and Dutch. I got to this British school and I was speaking a mixture of Dutch and English and I quickly learned that only a third of what I was saying was understood, so I had to become very alert and attentive to the language in an age when most kids are concentrating on other things. All this just got me tuned in from a really early age and I enjoyed it. I also felt like I’d never speak as many languages as my parents but I really liked English, so I thought, right, I’m going to nail English, and for a while I even had this moratorium on Dutch. Definitely, the migrant thing sparked a kind of romance with the English language.
In terms of being new in places and having those experiences like with the plimsolls, I actually don’t experience that because I love to be afraid and to not know what’s going on. When I was writing that story I projected that fear to make it more realistic, but in real life I’ve realised that going to a new place and being completely out of your depth, that loss of identity you have when no one’s speaking your language and they don’t know who you are, that’s my hometown, that’s the country I’m from. There’s nowhere I feel more at home than the first three weeks in a totally new place. But I just thought, that scenario wouldn’t be believable in a story where somebody’s new, you’ve got to make the character react how other people would react.
Do you also feel like coming to a new place helps with writing because you’re observing everything with new eyes?
Yeah, because it makes you pre-lingual, which is a really useful state for somebody who’s dominated by language. To be reduced to that state is really liberating. I think with any writer, your language is your weapon but it’s your prison as well.
The story ‘DD-MM-YY’ is written from the point of view of a teenage boy, Adam. I love it when Adam and his brother are insulting each other on the phone using phrases like ‘Cum face’ and ‘Soapy titjack’. My favourite line in the story is where Adam is talking about having sex with Coney and he says, ‘It’s like sticking your cock into the sun’, which is kind of horrible and misogynistic but also really funny and weirdly poetic. I was intrigued about what inspired that story and that line and the character of Adam.
I went to a private British school in Hong Kong that I suppose here you would call public school. The people who went to that school were quite privileged, so some of them were very confident and powerful, even as children. I’ve always been fascinated by this type of ruthless person, so I wanted to write a story about them. Especially the boys in that world, they terrified me and I also wanted to be them, so it was a very natural thing for me to put myself in that position. But you’ve got to torque it, you can’t just write how it exactly is, so I made them into these American boys who are going to end up being captains of industry and have this kind of dark, brutal side to them. And all of this is embedded in that sentence.
I’m very tuned into brutality in language, and the brand of violence of those kind of boys. I’m interested in the things they say about love and women and sex. I collect all the little things I hear people say, and here I use all of them in one place. It’s not actually a very violent story, but it feels really violent.
I think I would have reacted differently to the story had it been written by a male author. I don’t know if this is reductive but I felt there was something more transgressive about the story because it’s written by a woman. I don’t know what you think of that . . .
I agree. I mean when I first wrote it, I read it back and thought, I could not get away with this if I was a guy. Which isn’t fair, but I think because you know it’s a ventriloquist act it becomes interesting. Also you won’t confuse that person with the writer, which we shouldn’t do anyway, but it’s very easy to do. It’s my favourite story to perform, because people who don’t know the work see me and they never think it’s what I’m going to do. I think it was the easiest story I’ve ever written, probably because on some level I’ve been writing it since I was a kid. There are some stories you’ve been writing since you were four.
by Denis Laner