In conversation with the writer Larissa Pham, who judged the ORB’s TT21 Short Fiction Competition.
Your latest book, Pop Song, is a collection of lyrical essays on ‘adventures in art and intimacy’. I’d love to talk a little more about your choice of title.
It had two original titles: first it was “Somewhere Away from Here”, which was a bit weepy, I now think. The second title was “How to Run Away”; that was really just playing off of the popularity of How to Do Nothing, which is a great book. But I thought that title made my book seem like a manual, which isn’t what it actually is.
“Pop Song” doesn’t really synthesise or combine everything; it’s more about a feeling, about wanting the book to feel more relatable or accessible in the hopes that people would have a relationship to the text that felt similar to a relationship to a piece of pop music. It was also very important to me that the art I discussed was accessible. I wanted it to be art that I had had an authentic experience with, but at the same time, I wanted all the artists to be people you could look up and have a relationship with. I also did intend for it to feel like a song, like a kind of outpouring. It’s the opposite of a swan song, in a way.
What in particular drew you towards the essay form as the most apt mode of expression for this book?
Since it’s a work of nonfiction, it was pretty clear what kind of form the book could take. But it’s not intended to be an argumentative piece in any way. I think of the chapters as iterative, because they accumulate: the story does kind of move through the chapters, and there’s an accretion of meaning. I like the flexibility of the essay, how it allows you to do different things. The essays in this book are also very experimental, so I really pushed the form in a number of ways. There’s even a chapter that’s kind of a poem and kind of a list. I didn’t want to feel that I had to confine everything into one condensed mass.
Your book is scattered with so many cultural references, from Agnes Martin and Louise Bourgeois to Roland Barthes and Anne Carson, yet it’s difficult to actually glean a sense of who your main writerly influences have been — your style feels so completely your own. Are there any writers you’d cite as influences at the moment?
When I was writing, I was reading a lot alongside it. I read a lot of Kate Zambreno, I reread The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson, of course — it has it’s problems as a text, but I still think that formally it’s very interesting. I was reading Sarah Manguso; I’ve been really into the criticism of Teju Cole, who has this piece about Caravaggio which is really, really beautiful.
There’s actually this great Sarah Manguso talk about finding your style, and she says you really have to put a lot of things into your system, and if you think too hard about creating a style, you’re just going to end up imitating. It takes so much to develop your own voice. So I can name who I was reading, but it’s hard to actually name any influences.
Your essays across the board — but particularly in Pop Song — are so intimately connected to personal experience. There’s none of that detachment that characerises a lot of contemporary writing; your writing is all about what moves you and thrills you, what’s made a lasting impact on you. Can you describe how writing in such a raw and honest way in Pop Song has been for you?
I don’t know any other way to be. It’s kind of like this baked-in vulnerability that I bring to the work. It is a little scary, not at the point of writing — it’s the way I kind of think in the world — but it is scary after the point of writing, when it’s in the world and I have to reckon with the fact that I’ve laid so much bare. I’ve never been able to be detached about work; I would much rather write about things that have moved me. I know it’s a little fashionable to be detached and represent that feeling of alienation, but I think that we are alienated probably 80% of our waking hours. I don’t feel the need to replicate that in order to have an authentic experience of literature.
Do you think it’s possible to ever fully extricate the self in writing nonfiction, or writing anything, for that matter?
I don’t think it’s possible. Even in terms of journalistic integrity, when someone reports a story there’s always a story that’s not being told. There are the facts that someone chooses to omit; there’s the interview that gets cut or only has certain quotes pulled from it. I’ve done more “hard reporting” in my life, and I’ve also done critical essays. Obviously, there is an “I” in the critical essay, the argumentative “I” but also the perceptive “I” — Pop Song is a book that’s written in the perceptive “I” — but even in journalism which claims to be objective, there’s always going to be a shadow narrative or a narrative that doesn’t come through. There’s a lot of responsibility in telling people’s stories, and I think we would be very remiss to think that we can write something that doesn’t contain an ounce of the self.
You write so viscerally about bodies in your book; I’m thinking in particular, of course, of the essay ‘Body of Work’. That is also your main essay where you talk about race. As a writer, have you ever felt that the body you inhabit — as a woman, or as an Asian woman — has impacted the reception of your writing?
I’m certain it has. Positively as well: there are lots of communities that I’ve been able to be a part of, or that have found me or reached out to me because of my identity, and I think that is a really lovely place to end up. I feel very fortunate for that.
I do think that in the early ’10s there was a lot of writing that was being commercialised around identity politics, and the chapter deals with that, of course. My answer is kind of linked to your earlier question: I can only write this way because I am who I am, especially because I’m a writer who writes about my life and experiences. Everything is shaped by the same things.
Do you think you’ve ever felt you have to write about certain things because of your racial identity?
More so in the past. When I was younger, I certainly felt that pressure. I think there was also less diversity in the writing voices when I was younger, so that push to speak for a member of your group felt more urgent, and now I feel very liberated when I can just sit back and say, I’m actually not going to comment on this, or: I’m only going to talk to my friends about this, but I don’t feel the need to write an op-ed about something. Because I know someone else will do it, and they will probably do it better than me, and that is very, very liberating.
Starting out as a writer is a daunting prospect to everyone, but you’ve been a formidable presence on the literary scene since you graduated from Yale in 2014. What has it been like to wend your way as a freelance writer?
I don’t think I would call myself a formidable presence in any way. I think what I’ve done is that I have established that I’m good at doing a couple of things, and then I just keep doing them. I’ve never had a staff writing job; I’ve always been a freelancer. I have worked at agencies and nonprofits in order to supplement my income and to survive, which I would definitely recommend to anyone trying to get into writing: if you can work at a nonprofit, it’s great because you can save a little bit of your brain space.
I think I just found something I could do, and it was this particular kind of essay form and this particular point of view which is this very vulnerable, intimate thing. People understood that I could do that, and if they were into it, then they’d ask me to do it. I don’t know if I have any real advice, just that I think it’s very important to stay true to yourself so you can figure out what you sound like. Having a point of view is very important, and so is acknowledging that you have a particular way of doing things. No one else can see the world from our perspective, and that’s what’s so exciting and special.
The obvious final question to any interview, I suppose: what’s coming next?
I don’t think I will write another book that is set in college — my first novella was also set in college — so after this, I can move on.
I’m getting my MFA at Bennington at the moment. I’m in their fiction programme because I want to learn how to write a novel — I don’t know how to do that yet. I’m currently working on a pretty long, multi-perspective, multi-generational historical novel, loosely inspired by my family. The main thread and impetus for it is that I wanted to write about the inheritance of trauma, and mental illness as it runs through a family line: how our mothers are shaped by our grandmothers, who are shaped by their own experiences, and how that gets passed down. A lot of the themes are the same as the ones in my previous work, but that’s liberating, too: realising you can write about the same thing any number of ways.
LARISSA PHAM is an artist and writer in Brooklyn. She has written for the Paris Review, Guernica, The Nation, and The Believer, and taught at the Asian American Writers Workshop. Her second book, Pop Song, was published by Catapult in 2021.
Interview by Julia Merican.
Art by Tara Kelly