Losing My Octopus Best Friend is the Final Straw
In Gina Chung's novel "Sea Change," a 30-year-old aquarium worker finds herself unmoored and on the edge of destruction
In Gina Chung’s stunning debut novel, Sea Change, the familiar and unfamiliar mix harmoniously. A 30-year-old woman, Ro, finds herself adrift, struggling with a tense relationship with her mother, the disappearance of her father, a breakup with an ex who has left for Mars, and an unhealthy attachment to a cocktail called a “sharktini.” To cope with it all, Ro becomes attached to a very large color-changing octopus at the aquarium she works at. When the octopus, Dolores, may be taken away, all the crumbling pieces in Ro’s life come to a head.
Full disclosure: Gina is one of my closest friends. I was one of the first readers of the earliest drafts of Sea Change and remember losing myself so thoroughly in the novel that I did not notice it was raining on me through my open window. Gina and I spend most days texting each other funny, mundane things, while at the same time trying, together, to figure out this new life as emerging authors. We talked about Sea Change via email and text—discussing pandemic novel-writing and the many millennial anxieties that Gina renders so well in her novel—fraught parental relationships, frustrating breakups, uneven female friendships, and the idea that nothing is forever. This interview is a distilling of the expansive conversations we have had about this novel since Gina started writing it during the earliest, and toughest parts of the pandemic.
Vanessa Chan: What does the title, Sea Change mean?
Gina Chung: I sort of landed on the title on a whim, but over time, I realized that it did encapsulate one of the major themes in my novel. My protagonist Ro has gone through a lot of changes and upheavals, including the loss of her father and a major breakup. But change is inevitable, right? And one of the ways that we cope with change is to expand and grow alongside whatever is happening to us, sometimes without even realizing it. Transformation is evolution, ultimately, and I wanted to explore, with this novel, how change can be a source of both pain and growth.
VC: In this novel, the main character, Ro feels a persistent suspicion that everyone leaves her – her ex, her father, even her mother, and her best friend. She panics when Dolores, an octopus she has developed an attachment to at the aquarium she works at, might be sent away to a wealthy buyer. What draws you to this theme of abandonment?
GC: As the oldest child in an immigrant family that experienced periods of emotional upheaval and precarity when I was growing up, I was always both very fearful of abandonment and very desirous of my independence. When I got a little older, I remember being so excited to grow up, to become an adult who didn’t have to rely solely on my family for support or survival. So, it’s a theme that comes up a lot in my fiction, this idea of leaving or being left. My emotional problems aside, I really enjoy, as a writer, thinking about how my characters’ desires for both closeness and freedom (desires which we all have, in differing degrees) might conflict with one another at times. From a craft perspective, it helped me understand all of Ro’s unspoken fears, the anxieties she can only voice to herself. I think Ro equates attachment with abandonment, and it’s only through learning how to trust others and herself that she can unlearn that association.
VC: Ro’s touchy relationship with her Umma and her obsession with her absent Apa are some of the most emotionally resonant parts of the novel, as is Ro’s constant suspicion that she is disappointing them. As the novel progresses, we see Ro wondering if in fact, her parents were simply disappointed in each other. Can you talk to us about this realization, and about parents and children?
GC: I think Ro has internalized her parents’ disappointments and believes that she must be the root cause of them. But I wanted her, over the course of the novel, to come to understand that her parents are their own people, who had their own hopes and dreams before they ever met and had children, and that their marital problems had nothing to do with her. It’s only in understanding and accepting this that she’s able to heal herself too.
For many immigrant families, there’s so much pressure to succeed and find security, and when you’re preoccupied with trying to find a foothold in this country, it’s difficult to find time and energy to tackle the other stuff. My parents are immigrants from Korea, and as someone who also grew up in a household where we didn’t talk about our feelings and where there were a lot of expectations—both implicit and explicit—to live up to, I think it’s so important for us to understand how to break cycles of silence, to learn to live in a different way, while at the same time extending compassion and love for our parents, as much as we can, and to our younger selves.
VC: Yoonhee, Ro’s best friend who she worries is drifting away, is a source of a lot of warmth and humor throughout the novel. She’s a mirror to Ro’s perceived inadequacies, but Ro also knows Yoonhee’s deepest, saddest insecurities. Why are female friendships important, in life and in fiction writing?
GC: Female friendships are everything! I love fiction that tackles friendship in a serious, layered way, and that treats it with the same consideration that romantic relationships get everywhere else. You and I talk about this all the time, but I feel so lucky to have so many beautiful friendships with other women, where we can be vulnerable and safe and goofy, where we can talk about everything from the big emotional stuff to the small ridiculousnesses of the everyday. In terms of fiction writing, female friendship is such rich territory, especially when it comes to navigating coming-of-age. Friends are important at any age, but when you’re a young person who hasn’t really come into their own yet, your friends are literally everything to you, and, as you said, they can serve as a mirror for all your perceived inadequacies, but also your strengths. In writing Ro and Yoonhee’s friendship, I wanted to show how these two very different women can still appreciate and admire each other even when they clash, and how much they need each other.
VC: The novel takes place in a sort of parallel future—where climate change means that there is an expedition to Mars to build a human colony, where octopuses are unusually large. But this is not a dystopian novel preoccupied with alternate realities. Sea Change is focused on the familiar—millennial grief, parent-child relationships, breakups, female friendship, annoying colleagues. How did you come to this choice—to set the novel in a slightly different place, but center familiar themes?
GC: I’m always thinking about how my characters would behave in a given scenario, and I think it’s especially fascinating when you can place your characters in a situation that is ever so slightly “off” or altered from our own reality. In writing Sea Change, I knew that I wanted Dolores the giant Pacific octopus to be larger than life, and even more fantastical. I also thought having Ro and her ex Tae’s breakup center around the fact that he is leaving the planet to join a mission to colonize Mars would further raise the emotional stakes around their parting. It made me curious about what kind of person would be interested in joining such an endeavor, and what would happen to the people they had left behind.
VC: There’s a lot of humor in Sea Change which balances out the more serious elements of the book, for example when Ro thinks about how her best friend “talks like an Instagram caption.” And of course, you’ve written the Pushcart Prize-winning story “Mantis” in which a praying mantis hilariously contemplates finding love. What brings you to humor?
GC: Being able to find the humor in a situation, no matter how challenging it might be, is super important to me. It also helps to add emotional contrast to a story, when you have what’s otherwise a sad or difficult situation, but you add something surprising to it, in the form of a joke or a funny image. It’s like when you’re making a dish and you add contrasting but complementary flavors that enhance one another. I also think humor is an important tool for winning over a reader. It’s not that I need everything that I read to be funny, but when a book makes me laugh, I’m immediately way more invested.
VC: New Jersey suburban and mall culture is one of the most prominent settings of Sea Change. What’s your relationship with NJ? Is it an ongoing preoccupation?
GC: I was born in Queens, but when I was about three, my parents moved us to the New Jersey suburbs. I never really thought about my relationship to New Jersey while growing up, and it wasn’t until I went away for college that I learned to appreciate the particular nuances of the Korean American New Jersey community that I grew up in. My family lived in a very small, very white town, but when we ran errands or went out to get Korean food on the weekends, we had access to all these Korean restaurants, grocery stores, and businesses in the towns outside of ours. Because we were also an extremely churchgoing family, we were very connected to all the other Korean American churchgoing families in the North Jersey region. It was a very insular world, in some ways. But during the other days of the week when I was at school, I was surrounded mostly by white people, many of whom were completely unfamiliar with Korea and its history at the time. That kind of cultural whiplash was something I was always navigating as a kid. I guess you could say that New Jersey, or my particular experiences of the larger Korean/Korean American New Jersey extended universe, are an enduring preoccupation in my work.
VC: Sea Change is a novel without a villain. You have skillfully made us love and recognize all the characters. Was this intentional? Why?
GC: I don’t think I was consciously thinking about this while writing the novel, but I did want all of my characters, even the minor ones, to feel fully considered and textured. I wanted to depict a world in which everyday people are ultimately trying their best, even when they hurt one another or themselves. I love villains and villain-y in fiction, but I think I’m most interested in writing about people who, even when they do morally questionable things, are doing them for understandable reasons. I’m very interested in the question of how we can stay in relationships with one another when we’ve hurt each other or let each other down. Sometimes it’s possible; sometimes it’s not. That space in between is such a fertile and fraught place. I wanted to stay there as much as possible while writing this novel, and to write about a character who is trying to repair those places within herself.
VC: I see Sea Change as being in conversation with other novels with millennial women trying, flailing, and needing to figure things out (think Goodbye Vitamin by Rachel Khong, Luster by Raven Leilani, Pizza Girl by Jean Kyoung Frazier). The gift of those novels, and of yours, is, like real people, the characters do not solve easily. What drew you to this character archetype? Do you imagine your book narrators at parties together?
GC: I love this question and the idea of Ro hanging out with the protagonists of those novels, all of which I love and consider to be emotional touchstones for Sea Change. I sort of have a love-hate relationship with the “sad girl” archetype itself, since it’s often used to flatten or dismiss these kinds of coming-of-age stories in which the protagonists are often young, female or femme-identified, and figuring themselves out and making bad decisions along the way (so much of Western literature is devoted to “sad boy / sad man” stories, only they don’t get called that!). But I also really appreciate and gravitate to these kinds of stories because, honestly, life is sad and hard a lot of the time, and it’s important to acknowledge the hardships of being femme and female in this world (not to mention being a person of color and/or queer). At the same time, I think all of those books that you mentioned, and hopefully my own, are also funny and full of life, and the characters, as you say “do not solve easily”—the emotional ambivalence and the searching quality that their stories have is actually what leads them to an understanding of what they need and want.
VC: Who did you write this book for?
GC: I wrote this book for anybody who’s ever felt like Ro—lost, confused, unseen, and unconvinced that anything will ever happen to change that. I also wrote it for my younger self, the childhood version of me who often felt so alone and invisible and was also deeply angry and sad about it at times. I feel so joyful to be writing at a time when so many more Asian American and BIPOC voices are being championed, and the fact that Sea Change gets to exist in this world and in conversation with so many wonderful books, including the ones you mentioned above, feels like more than I could have ever dreamed of.