Five Questions: An Interview with Matthew Salesses

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

There are several Matts at the center of Matthew Salesses’s third novel, Disappear Doppelgänger Disappear. Matt Kim, the novel’s narrator, disappoints nearly everyone in his life: his daughter, his ex-wife, and his girlfriend. He worries he is physically disappearing. Soon he learns his doppelgänger, another Matt, has vanished under mysterious, and potentially violent, circumstances. After taking a new job in the same office as his ex, Matt Kim sets out to solve the phenomena of his and the other Matt’s disappearances, as the 2016 presidential election approaches.

Throughout the journey, Salesses challenges and dismantles the model minority myth using the concepts of doubling, disappearance, visibility, and erasure, all with funny and energetic prose (and puns). In this way, Disappear Doppelgänger Disappear points to the intentional and harmful silences lurking in our society.

Matthew Salesses was adopted from Korea and is the author of two novels, The Hundred-Year Flood and I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying, and three books forthcoming: Disappear Doppelgänger Disappear: A Novel (Little A, August 2020), Craft in the Real World (Catapult Books, January 2021), and an essay collection (Little A, August 2021). In 2015, Buzzfeed named him one of thirty-two essential Asian American writers. He teaches fiction writing and Asian American literature at Coe College.

This interview has been lightly edited.

TQ: You’ve written a lot about the cultural context of craft, particularly how teaching creative writing in the United States often relies on the expectation of a white, educated American reader. One of the things I really enjoyed about Disappear Doppelgänger Disappear is that the novel seems to challenge many of the more traditional craft expectations. That is to say, the novel seems to model your academic and pedagogical research. Can you talk a little bit about how you approached craft for this book, and what you were working toward in terms structure and character?

MS: I can’t really say. It all came organically. (Kidding!)

At one time I wanted the book to be structured like a video game. It even had boss battles. I was thinking particularly of “The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time,” and how the hero goes from one world to another and back again, and how much the world changes from day to night. Of course, I found very early on that I was writing a book about living in two worlds, in two lives. My first draft started as an attempt to do the least expected thing at every turn, but what I ended up with was a lot of disappearing and reappearing, and doppelgängers. Doubling. I was also thinking about a novel very much structured like Murakami’s The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, which has a quest that leads a character into a strange version of his world, plus a parallel epic storyline, and ends with a legitimate boss battle—all to rescue a damsel in distress. I was thinking something like, what if you took Murakami and Zelda and made them Asian American? You know, minus the damsel part.

Who was in distress, then? Who had been kidnapped, taken from their world? Who was the bad guy/boss? In other words, as I left behind those early ways of structuring the book, what I had was the question: How do you solve a disappearance if the person who disappears is yourself? I had a book about the model minority myth.

I spent a few years and many, many drafts trying to figure out why a book like that should even exist, whom it was for, what it would do in the world. I was writing a lot about audience at the time, because I was decolonizing my own ideas about audience, draft after draft. I didn’t want to write some triumphant hero’s journey about the model minority. When we disappear into the model minority myth, we are often the ones disappearing ourselves. But I also didn’t want to pathologize disappearance, which I think happens sometimes when we push visibility. Making silence and invisibility the villains is especially complicated when these behaviors have been so gendered. I was thinking about all of this, and later also about Laura Mulvey’s call to destroy pleasure, and about what I want students to get out of my Asian American lit courses, and about how we often need to destroy the ways in which we are visible in order for visibility to be useful to us. I wanted to write a book like that.

TQ: Part of your research on craft also addresses the idea of silences in a text. In the first installment of your Catapult column on Asian American literature, you note: “anger gives you agency. It is a way of asserting your place in the world. Your anger says you are there. Anger makes possible love.” Doppelgänger’s protagonist, Matt Kim, is in many respects unassertive, and he refuses to get angry. I got the sense that his lack of anger was in part what leads to his invisibility. How were you imagining visibility/invisibility as both a literal part of the novel’s plot and a larger metaphor?

MS: I’m very confused about silence. The Catapult column is largely about that confusion. Asian Americans have been taught to be silent, and to silence themselves. But Americans are also taught to associate speaking up with masculinity—just look at who raises their hands in the classroom. Anger seems to me some kind of key to understanding silence without pathologizing it: if we say silence is bad, then what are we saying by associating silence with certain groups of people? Also, silence can be really powerful. The silent treatment, for example, in which a person refuses to give an expected response. Asian American literature is full of the power of silences, especially for women, but also the danger of silence.

In the silence, as with white space on the page, comes the urge to fill in the silence, and often the frustration of not being able to fill it. That frustration points to desire. If silence is some way to engender desire, if silence can lead to more productive language, then it surely has uses. I think of Audre Lorde’s “transformation of silence into action and language.” Perhaps silence is necessary in that transformation? Silence can break down speech. 

Sorry for the tangent—silence is endlessly fascinating to me, as an introvert.

Disappear Doppelgänger Disappear’s Matt Kim is angry, but denied his anger. In the essay, I mention how anger is not expected of Asian Americans, is unallowable. Without the power of his anger, which Matt is afraid could destroy his life, his inexpressible, unactivated anger has been destroying the possibility for love. In an attempt to survive, he is in a constant state of transforming language. The book is full of puns. The book is full of transformations. Inscribed in our language is unequal power. Even the language must disappear.

TQ: The contemporary literary market has shown a lot of interest in “autofiction.” I guess an easier way to put that is that it feels like many readers and critics are interested or invested in the “real” or “lived” aspects of fictional texts. One of the really innovative moves you make in Doppelgänger is messing with that sense of autobiographical material. The protagonist is a writer named Matt, and so it becomes convenient to say, “Oh, well this is a stand-in for the author,” but then a character named Matthew Salesses is introduced late in the novel. Thinking again about craft, in a book like Doppelgänger, how and why are you blurring the levels of narration?

MS: Don’t get me started on autofiction, which has long been the expected domain of women writers and writers of color, to the point that it was/is harder for a writer of color to sell a novel that is obviously not about their own life than to sell a novel that bears some marketable resemblance. Novels canonized within Asian American literature, like Carlos Bulosan’s America Is in the Heart and Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior, were even marketed as autobiography to sell them to white audiences. And now you have white men writing six volumes about themselves and they’re considered innovative.

Since my book is about doppelgängers and disappearance, it made sense to me to implicate myself in this process of self-destruction. If, for us to become the model minority, one version of ourselves is killed off for another, then for me, as an adoptee, the killer is a white version of myself. Another doppelgänger. Then there was also the idea that the person really doing the killing and disappearing and everything else is me. In the end, it mainly came down to: this is personal. I wanted to make it clear that I have some skin in the game, pun intended.

TQ: One of my favorite ideas in the novel is “When I looked backward, the only doors I could see through were the doors I’d opened.” Matt’s decision making is essential to how Doppelgänger moves forward. Again, it feels like there’s some intention in him being a passive narrator, but that passivity always has immediate consequences. Being passive is still a decision. In some sense, Matt shirks the hero’s journey. This is a long way of asking, how were you thinking about time in this novel?

MS: That’s one of the few ideas that has survived from the first drafts of the book. This theory of branching paths and doors that close behind you is Matt Kim’s life philosophy. I find it interesting and useful to give a character a kind of life philosophy. It’s one of Murakami’s tricks, too—for the narrator to have a way of living that he thinks is totally normal and that everyone else thinks is strange. Matt is afraid to close off all of the possibilities in his life just by choosing one possibility over another. That seems to me not unlike the parallel worlds theory. By making any decision, he moves to another universe. 

This is also how I felt when my daughter was born. I felt that any path I encouraged would close off another path she could have taken—and I was terrified to make the wrong decision and not realize it until she was an adult on her therapist’s couch. Suddenly, it was someone else’s life, and someone else’s trauma, on the line. Of course, this was about being adopted, and how someone else’s decision completely and irrevocably changed the entire spectrum of possibilities for me. 

There are theories about time that view time as event-based, but I guess I don’t experience it that way. I wrote an essay once about how, in grief, I often feel as if I am living in two times at once. Not necessarily concurrent times. Why would a parallel universe have the same time we have?

I was also thinking about the race Trump ran for president and his eventual win and what happened afterward. I’m interested in the way that this regime sometimes seems, to many people, like a different world, when it is the same world we have always been living in. It’s as if we are living in different times.

TQ: Doppelgänger has been described as inventive and original, both of which I agree with, but given your academic background, I’m curious if there are specific books or a certain kind of book you’re situating this novel against. Forgive the overburdened metaphor here, but how is the novel mirroring or trying to not mirror other works?

MS: I’m not writing against. Sometimes “against” is just more centering of the thing you’re against. I don’t want to pay that thing any mind at all. I’m hoping my novel is in conversation with other Asian American novels, like the ones I’ve mentioned, and also contemporary books. While I was in the early stages of revising, for instance, I was lucky to read a draft of You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine, by Alexandra Kleeman, and I thought immediately: Oh, Alex and I are thinking about the same things. I’ve also been talking to other adoptee authors, like Shannon Gibney and Sun Yung Shin, about recent doppelgängers in adoptee fiction and poetry. I like the idea of “conversation” more than “mirroring” or not mirroring. I hope I’m writing to and with my Asian American writer friends, and also Asian American literary critics and scholars.