Clint Burnham Interviews Kevin Chong

This interview took place following a discussion of Kevin Chong’s novel The Plague by a group of Simon Fraser University English students and faculty in November 2020. The interview was conducted with Kevin Chong over Zoom for a public audience, primarily students at SFU. Students chose the novel for a pandemic reading group, evidently, for its timeliness but also for its geographic specificity. Appropriately, the interview began with a land acknowledgement, which is embedded in the discussion below. I went on to teach the book in a plague literature course the following spring and was struck by the response of students to the novel’s specificity and relevance. Many thanks to Kevin for his time, and to Rawia Inaim for the transcription.


Clint Burnham: So we have in the audience some students who are in a reading group in November 2020 as well. We had a real battle over how Vancouver-specific the book was and whether that mattered.


Kevin Chong: I bet. I’ve seen reactions from people who are outside of the city, and I wonder whether or not I made it a “local novel.” I didn’t intend to, I just wanted to be specific. There are some references to things that I think only Vancouverites can get, like “Easter eggs,”—most locals would know that the hotel where one character stays is the Sylvia—and then there are some moments that are meant to be more general for readers unfamiliar with the city. Maybe I overdid it with the Vancouver references. Sometimes you just want to try something, and you wait for someone to pull you back. And there were times when I tried things and the editors just let me go, and I was like, “Oh, really?” I was a little surprised.


CB: I feel like the interview has already started, but we’ll come back to this. I’d like to welcome our guests and to acknowledge that this interview and this discussion is coming to you from and via servers and other digital infrastructures on unceded and stolen Indigenous territories of Turtle Island, including the traditional ancestral territories of the Coast Salish peoples, the Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), the Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh), the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), and the kʷikʷəƛ̓əm (Kwikwetlem) Nations, especially those on which SFU as an institution exists. Welcome, Kevin Chong, to this venue tonight. And since I began with a land acknowledgement, I guess that’s our first interesting thing to talk about and to ask you about your novel, as your novel begins with a land acknowledgement, not on the copyright page, but actually in the narrative; it’s embedded, and it’s mentioned a couple of other times as well, when characters give a public speech. You mention that they deliver a land acknowledgement. In some ways, and maybe we’ll get into this in a bit, it’s a very postmodern gesture to imbed performativity within the narrative itself, not outside the novel, or framing the novel, rather it’s in the novel. So I wonder—we were talking about the specificity of the novel to Vancouver—if you had some thoughts on this, Kevin?


KC: Yeah. I wanted to frame this book as a public document. I had in my mind that this book-within-a-book had to read as if written by a committee. The disembodied voice is one of those things that I borrowed pretty directly from the original by Albert Camus. I thought about what kind of document would be written to memorialize this sort of tragic time in an alternate Vancouver history. I thought about the kinds of anxieties that would go into writing it, and the kinds of boxes the committee would try to tick off. The committee would need to be conscious of their positionality, as do I, as somebody who’s trying to write a book that is a response to the Camus book. The land acknowledgement and other stuff play off the critique that Camus, in the original, writes only about the French Algerians and that he didn’t write about Algeria beyond describing the land and the light. In other words, he didn’t really write about the Arab and Berber people. And I tried to acknowledge that. While I am not writing from a Eurocentric position, I am writing from an immigrant-settler position, a privileged vantage point, one that’s not representative of the entire city. I guess I try to bake in my own anxieties about writing a book in these contemporary times. It’s definitely a very self-conscious book; there’s that vein of metafiction in a lot of things that I’ve written.


CB: I do want to get to the pandemic side of things and what it means to write a pandemic novel. But let’s talk about the postmodern aspects of the novel. That’s a through line in your own work, and you have these multiple narrators, and even the fact that it’s a redo. I think in an interview you did on the I Don’t Speak Canadian podcast, you talked about it as a concept cover album. So you write this pastiche or copy of the Camus classic, and like Camus, you have multiple narrators. Their decision-making is laid bare, so you’re making the reader think about, well, should we know about Raymond Siddhu’s infidelity, for example? What are the ethics there? So in that great postmodern kind of paradox where by showing the process of telling the story, you make it seem even more realistic because such issues of privacy are only at stake if Siddhu is a real person as opposed to being a character in a novel. You are also very much foregrounding the role of print and digital media, the decline of the newspaper, the rise of blogs. I was saying a couple of weeks ago when we were talking about your book in our reading group, that it seemed to have that—I mean Camus has a flat voice, you have that really sort of flat voice which is almost like Michel Houellebecq too. It’s as though it’s a Wikipedia voice, there is no kind of inflection going on there. So what about postmodernism as a technique or as a strategy appeals to you in this project?


KC: What I enjoyed about using that objective voice is that it allows you to be tongue-in-cheek. It’s like borrowing official language—to be able to escape from your own voice and disguise your own hang-ups and to write in a way that allows you to be more honest because you’re not writing in your own voice: you’re using this committee voice, this public document voice. Camus often said that the aspect of his writing that was most underappreciated was his humour, and if you read the original or some of his other works, you can see these little glimpses of humour. There’s the character in the original, Joseph Grand, who keeps writing the first sentence of the novel over and over again, who keeps changing it around. It’s interesting that all of Camus has been flattened these days. When you think of Camus, you think of his signature quotes that are emblazoned on Pinterest and t-shirts and things like that, about “the invincible summer,” or what-have-you. And I often like to think of my books as trying to speak to those books that I admired in the past. Toni Morrison talked about how Tolstoy never wrote to her, a little Black girl from Ohio, and how she ended up writing books in which she talks to her own people. I’ve been inspired by other writers who see an opportunity to try to expand the canon or try to write themselves into canonical works. I know that Kamel Daoud, who wrote The Meursault Investigation—another riff on Camus—is a big fan of his work, but Daoud saw Camus’ inability to write about Arab Berber people as a breach in the towering body of his work—a breach that allowed Daoud to gain an entryway. I think of these works as part homage and part critique, and I come from the perspective of somebody who sees books as being connected to other books and books talking to other books.


CB: In terms of Morrison’s notion of audience, you also made these decisions to “multiculturalize” the narrators. You have a South Asian journalist, Siddhu, you maintain the doctor’s name, Bernard Rieux, but you have him as an East Asian from Hong Kong, as well, so there’s that kind of decision, and also having more female characters involved—Meghan Tso, and Janice Grossman—as main protagonists. But in terms of those decisions, your multiculturalization and gendering of characters, I wonder how that gesture of yours helps us to think about the racism that has accompanied the pandemic, and not only in Vancouver. In your novel there’s that sort of overt politics when you stage concurrent anti-immigration and anti-racist riots. Whereas your novel stages a racist event, in Vancouver we had the spectacle, in March and April, during the early first lockdown, of racist slogans appearing on the plywood that covered storefronts on Robson Street, a main downtown shopping street. (Ofcourse we also had the xenophobe Trump with his notion of the “Kung Flu.”) Locally, on those plywood storefronts, there were all kinds of slogans blaming Premier Xi and the Chinese Communist Party, and of course anti-Asian racism in Vancouver is as old as the city, whether we want to think about its colonial roots or, as you note in your novel, the 1907 Anti-Asian Riots. So I wonder how the racialized question plays out here, in that you’re doing the utopian thing à la Morrison, where you’re saying I can write a novel that I think is not just for readers who look like me.


KC: First off, it’s funny that you mention Donald Trump. I think he was, in some ways, the inspiration for this book because the idea for it came from the spirit of defeat that surrounded people I knew after the US election four years ago. I
wanted to think about how people persisted in the face of just hopelessness. My wife was moving books around the house, and there was a copy of the original lying there—the Camus Plague—and I just flipped through it. I was thinking
about trying to rewrite it, and I obviously wanted to write something from my positionality and my background to make it my own. It’s interesting to try to fact-check the book in light of an actual quarantine and an infectious disease. I drive down Main Street, and I’ll see people lining up for the liquor store, and I think to myself that I got that right in my book. People in tough times want to really drink! I was too naive or optimistic to think that in a city that is very, very Asian that those kinds of hate crimes would not be as prevalent because there’s this strength in numbers, this familiarity with all these Asian faces there. I was disappointed that this wasn’t the case. There are some nods to racism in a kind of more oblique way, but there wasn’t an actual hate crime in my book. I also speak to some of the privilege the characters have. The bubble that I have as a university professor and the people that I hang out with, and where I am in town, allows me to escape most overt racism. It’s interesting to be a writer of colour who tries to write about other characters of colour. I’m
reminded of something that Zadie Smith said when she was writing White Teeth. I think she had South Asian characters, and she was worried that she would get them wrong. But it provides you with a bit of cover when you are writing about other people who are non-white. You might not get all the details right, but if you’re writing as a white person about a non-white culture, you’re more liable to incur criticism or maybe get it wrong in a different way. I think about Siddhu: the details of his point of view aren’t as specific as the details of the East Asian characters because that’s not my lived experience. So I’m banking on the fact I was writing about somebody who, like me, came from a non-white background who was in some ways very “Canadianized.” But as for those issues of representation, I ran up to the edges of that. I have all these middle-class characters that have media jobs. There is this doctor, which was a stretch for me. But I wondered, could I really write about drug addiction, could I write about Indigenous characters? I felt that I got to the edge. I couldn’t write beyond what I wrote in this book. I wish in some ways that I could’ve but that was the terrain that I could cover.


CB: Or consider what you do with the opera company. There is an opera company that gets trapped in Oran in Camus’ novel; then in your novel, you have it as a Cantonese opera. This scene with Rieux and his mother attending the opera becomes much more about the acculturated son. The mother has a stronger attachment to these cultural signifiers than he does, suggesting a kind of depth, a kind of ethnographic thickness that you can bring to it, perhaps as a first generation Chinese Canadian. Although you describe yourself as first and fourth generation?


KC: My great-grandfather is buried in Mountain View cemetery; he immigrated at the turn of the twentieth century and he ran a hotel. Another great-grandfather, who was a teacher, died in Toronto in the 1980s. But I was born in Hong Kong because, I think, they both raised their families in China. I have a grandfather I never met who died when my mother was a child and who was the Chinese version of a remittance man. His dad sent him money from Canada and my grandfather was kind of a drunk from what I’m told, and I think he was hit by a bus a few years after the Second World War ended. So, both of my great-grandfathers raised their families in China because of the head tax. As a result, I moved here as a child; I was an immigrant, but I’ve also got family who were here at the turn of the twentieth century. So the first and fourth generation is my way of describing my very long connection to this city while not being born in it.


CB: That’s a great illustration of the complexity of lived lives, Kevin, and how things aren’t as simple as people may guess, and how you can’t tell by just talking with somebody what their history is in this place. I want to turn back to the pandemic aspects of your book. Camus’ novel in some ways is not about the pandemic; he wrote it as an allegory for the Nazi occupation of France, for how people could get used to things, what kind of heroism could happen, and what kind of human decency could happen. You presumably did not write this novel thinking about the type of fact-checking you mentioned earlier—“Okay, if there is a novel I want to see which things I got right”—but rather to show how a pandemic brings to light already existing human inequality around class, around ethnicity, and place: the inequalities beneath our overly health-conscious, neoliberal Lululemon lifestyle. What has the pandemic as a historical event, what has it made you think about those inequalities? Or to backtrack, what was your purpose in writing about a pandemic in Vancouver?


KC: Another running theme in my writing is how when you push away a problem, and deny that it exists, it resurfaces. You deny that something exists mentally then it resurfaces physically. I’ve had that issue with certain kinds of trauma in my life. In this book, I wanted to talk about what would happen with our denial of what’s happening with people dying on the streets because of the opioid crisis, because of rampant homelessness. If you keep denying that it ever happened, it weakens our society. It’s like an illness: you can have some sort of lingering chronic health condition and ignore it, but at some point, it will just kill you. It will paralyze you. The bubonic plague is something that exists to this day but on a small scale. I used it as a metaphor to talk about what would happen if we kept denying that there is an opioid crisis, that there is a homelessness crisis. If you deny a problem, it resurfaces tenfold. I guess in my book, one of the “Easter eggs,” one of the in-jokes that I have, is that I have this imagined neighbourhood in the city that I call “the Annex,” and it’s kind of like a joke for Vancouverites because it’s very much a name I gave to the Downtown Eastside. I had this whole speculative backstory that all of the homeless people—all of the addicts—died because the city just let it go totally to seed, and only then did they clean up the Downtown Eastside. They built this sort of yuppy playground, a second Olympic Village, over it. That is something you wouldn’t get if you didn’t know Vancouver to some extent. You couldn’t really write about a metaphoric plague if it didn’t in some ways deal with the one that is actually existing in this city. So I had to connect the two. I had to take the opioid crisis and move it offstage to have this fictionalized symbolic crisis, but I had to link them. That was a solution that I engineered while writing this book.


CB: Yeah, we’re under two public health crises: the opioid crisis, which has killed over 1,500 people from overdoses since April 2019, I believe, and the COVID-19 crisis. The SparkNotes version of what you’re saying is the return of the repressed. I think you show very much in your novel how that functions.

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