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Interview with Khanh Ha, author of The Demon Who Peddled Longing

You might remember my review of Khanh Ha’s Flesh in 2012.  Ha’s prose is highly stylistic and transports readers into a dark world full of mythology, and I called Flesh a “stunning debut.”

He’s got a second novel coming out called The Demon Who Peddled Longing, which is likely to look at the dark side of humanity as well, and I’ll be reviewing that in December.

Today, I’ve got an interview treat for you.  Khanh Ha has agreed to answer some questions about his writing and his books.

Please give him a warm welcome.

What myths/legends of the Vietnamese culture appeal to you most and which do make you apprehensive?

As a child growing up in Vietnam, I had an indelible belief in animism. An unseen presence dwelling in an odd-looking rock by the roadside where people placed a bowl of rice grains and a stick of incense long gone cold. Those anthropomorphic images sown in a child’s mind began with the legendary origin of Vietnam when a teacher read a textbook story to the class: “The Dragon and the Immortal,” or Tiên Rồng, from whom the Vietnamese claim their lineage.

As a child, I lived in Huế, the former ancient capital of Vietnam, living in its mysterious atmosphere, half real, half magic. I used to walk home under the shade of the Indian almond trees, the poon trees. At the base of these ancient trees I would pass a shrine. If I went with my grandmother, she would push my head down. “Don’t stare at it,” grandmother said. “That’s disrespect to the genies.” Yet the one practice I deem mindless is the spirit medium-ship when a trance-induced medium lets herself be possessed by a spirit who claims himself a demigod, a deity, a medieval lord marshal; and the audience then make offerings to such spirit, asking for blessings, for their fortune foretold.

Your novels, Flesh and The Demon Who Peddled Longing, bring forth the darker sides of the humanity. What about those desires and dark secrets fascinates you as a writer?

I write dark fiction because of the dystopian world around me. But I want to come out of it alive and atoned for. My main character is like that. He is impetuous, single-minded and yet tender-hearted and loyal.

He hides his dark secrets of the love he has for his cousin, of his longing for the untouchable girl who is married to the overlord triple her age and sexually impotent. Writers are those who know how to fictionalize their dark secrets and desires, and allow readers to experience them secondhand.

If you were to offer one seed of advice to novice writers looking to get published, what would it be?

Find your own writerly voice! When you do, write as the only writer that exists, none before you, none after you. But write something, even if it’s just a suicide note. Somewhere I remember Toni Morrison once said, “I wrote my first novel because I wanted to read it.”

What was the best piece of advice you ever received as a writer?

None. Like every self-made man, I worship my creator. Because I taught myself how to write, I found it dreadful to sit and listen to someone trying to teach techniques in fiction writing. I always consider writing a private business, like lovemaking—you don’t learn how to do it, do you?

Do you read poetry?  Why or why not?  And if you do, who are some of your favorite poets or some of your favorite poems?

I love poetry. It’s the cadence and imagery in poetry that live in me when I write. I must have them to induce moods. I love poetry that’s down-to-earth, simple and sincere, crisp and elegant. For that, I love Charles Bukowski’s You Get So Alone at Times That it Just Makes Sense, and Maya Angelou’s Passing Time, which was used as the epigraph of my novel The Demon Who Peddled Longing.

Thank you, Khahn Ha, for answering my questions.  I look forward to reading your next novel.