Ling Ma on the Swampy Logic of Dreams
In "Bliss Montage," storytelling blurs the line between nightmare and pleasure
Ling Ma is one of my favorite writers. Her work is exuberantly uncanny, funny, and full of unexpected emotion. In the middle of amusement or joy or strangeness, Ma will catch you with a shock of familiar grief, a well of deep and personal feeling. Every time I read her work, I realize how insufficient our language is for describing the novel or the short story. Yes, Severance, Ma’s justifiably acclaimed debut, is a work of speculative fiction about an apocalypse. But it’s also a novel about a breakup and family and millennial ennui in the face of late capitalism.
The stories in Ma’s new collection, Bliss Montage, are just as capacious and astonishing. Like the home in “Los Angeles,” where the narrator lives with her one hundred ex-boyfriends, each piece contains what should be an impossible number of meanings, themes, and tones. “Oranges,” which the collection references with its clever cover, shows a woman seeking a way to heal from her past while confronting the limits of storytelling. “Peking Duck,” my personal favorite, shows a cross-cultural mother-daughter relationship and a terrifying encounter, but also actively questions the boundaries of memory and our ability to fully understand other people’s experiences. All of the stories are linked by a singular vision and voice, but each are distinct and wholly unexpected, offering a prime example of what a short story collection can be.
The following interview was conducted both synchronously and asynchronously by typing into the same Google document. Through this internet-enhanced textual medium, Ma and I spoke about the term “bliss montage,” the burden of representation, how free-feeling is maybe similar to small-feeling, and the swampy intelligence of dreams.
Alyssa Songsiridej: I know from your acknowledgments that the term “bliss montage” comes from Jeanine Basinger’s A Woman’s View, a book of film criticism. Besides just being a great pair of words, why did you pick this term for the title of the collection?
Ling Ma: Basinger also refers to it as the “happy interlude,” but I prefer her other term, “bliss montage.” In cinema studies, it refers to this brief edited sequence showing the character on a pleasure blitz. It’s pretty common in commercial movies. As a kid, I used to rewatch Home Alone 2: Lost in New York on VHS. There’s this sequence when, after Kevin McCallister realizes he mistakenly took the flight to New York, he’s shown living it up: riding in a cab across the bridge into Manhattan, going to the top of the Empire building, buying firecrackers in Chinatown, etc. It’s a joy spree. According to Basinger, this feature originated with this genre of film called the “women’s film” (now outdated). The bliss montage is often positioned before the complications in the plot, before the heroine’s downfall.
My entry point into writing fiction is pleasure, a kind of enjoyment that’s not always present in the surface of day-to-day life. A story sometimes begins by attempting to inhabit some kind of fantasy. What usually happens is that it turns nightmarish. But the starting point, for me as a writer, is pleasure.
AS: I love how your fiction is in conversation with TV and film. Like in “Office Hours,” how the subject of Marie’s film studies course, “The Disappearing Woman,” reflects the themes of the story itself.
I read in The New Yorker that you worked on most of the short stories during the pandemic, or the early part (since it’s still the pandemic). Do you think that affected the stories in a particular way?
LM: The events of the pandemic made me turn inward more than I normally would have during the writing process. In addition to the quarantines and lockdowns at the time, Severance saw a second wave of attention, and the book became a way for readers to think about the pandemic. I was glad the book was out there, but the attention really made me turn further inward.
I got some time off from teaching and almost every day I worked in a back room of my apartment. It wasn’t like I was totally insulated from the world (I checked the news constantly and doomscrolled like everyone else), but there was a remove. My daily routine was pretty simple and pared down. Many of the stories came from my dreams, at least the initial premises. I was trying to combine the swampy intelligence of dreams with narrative logic and trying to see where that took me … And I had wanted to write a story collection before I ever tried writing a novel.
AS: That’s really interesting that many of the stories came from your dreams. I can see that—the non-realist or strange elements feel very particular to your work. How is the “swampy intelligence of dreams” different from the narrative logic of fiction?
LM: If you were to transcribe a dream, it wouldn’t make any sense because they don’t follow narrative logic. Character motivations are often very fuzzy. So I would take maybe the mood or some elements from the dream and try to anchor this in a story. A reductive idea is that if I could find a way to inhabit the dream in prose, then I could uncover what it’s about. I’m not sure if I totally believe that … but what excited me about writing the stories was I didn’t know how the story was going to unfold. The process was very exploratory. I went into these stories pretty blindly.
There’s this whole section in the novel Homeland Elegies by Ayad Akhtar in which the narrator deciphers one dream. It’s pretty amazing to see how he translates its images and motifs into meaning. I don’t think I know how to do that, but I just took the more compelling aspects of my dreams and kept circling around them.
AS: It’s interesting to me that you describe this inward turn, because a theme I thought I saw throughout the collection was about how we represent ourselves or appear to others. Like in “G,” the appeal of the drug for the narrator is that it imparts invisibility, and Eve in “Tomorrow” works at the Image and Reputation Department of the US Government.
LM: Yes, one theme in this collection has to do with storytelling. I didn’t realize this until we were in edits, reading through the whole book again. But even in “Oranges,” the narrator tells Christine the story of this traumatic event, and she imparts it on social media, and she also tells her ex’s new girlfriend. She can’t stop telling it. Or in “Peking Duck,” that constant framing and reframing … the writer’s version of reality and her mother’s version are depicted as in conflict. I was surprised by how prevalent this theme was. I think I was working through some ideas about storytelling in this collection. I wish I could say something more concrete about it, but I’m still figuring it out.
AS: Do you think this telling and retelling, and the framing and reframing, helps the characters connect in a way they otherwise couldn’t? It’s compulsive for some of the characters, for example in “Oranges.” What do you think is driving them to do it?
LM: In “Oranges,” the narrator has this dream-memory about her ex and it becomes this key to understanding his abusive nature. Initially I had put this moment at the end, because it was supposed to put this whole past situation to rest for her, maybe give her “closure” to move on (putting that term in quotes because I don’t totally know what they mean). But actually, I realized that even with this so-called epiphany, she was still constantly telling people. It didn’t stop her from compulsively talking about what happened. I think there’s still a sense of disbelief about what happened to her, even though it occurred years ago, and she’s only able to inhabit that reality by telling it and telling it again, perhaps with new insight and ideas each time. Storytelling is a way for her to grapple with reality. It’s where she can feel herself.
Once I sensed this, I had to move the dream-memory from the end of the story to the middle. It may be an epiphany of sorts, but it doesn’t stop her from engaging in this compulsive disclosing.
AS: I know they’re different stories, but I couldn’t help but notice that the narrator in “Oranges” acts counter to the words of the mother in “Peking Duck” when she says, “Look, we’re not like Americans. We don’t need to talk about everything that gives us negative feeling.” The narrator of “Oranges” also has a husband that doesn’t want to listen to her compulsively retell these stories.
LM: Yes, totally. One argument for not revisiting the past or “don’t dwell” has to do with survival. Don’t look down if you’re scaling a giant mountain, just keep moving. As a counter, I’d say that storytelling is a way of metabolizing reality, it’s a processing mechanism. That is also a means of survival.
AS: Completely. In the case of “Peking Duck,” it seems like the narrator is trying to process her mother’s experience, through writing her story. (Correct me if I’m wrong!) It’s interesting to me, if that’s the case, the way Matthew, another Asian American writer in her workshop, reacts negatively to her work. I’ve never seen Asian American characters struggling through these questions of representation with each other in fiction.
LM: Why do you think that is? Just curious!
AS: Why we’ve never seen Asian American characters struggling through these questions?
AS: Hmmmm. Maybe a disinclination to appear to disagree with each other, or an anxiety about potentially undercutting different kinds of work? I think, or at least choose to operate, from the assumption that there is a lot of space in publishing for all different kinds of Asian American narratives—but that wasn’t always the case, and it wasn’t the case for a long time, so it makes sense that there would be a scarcity mindset around this. Does that make sense?
LM: Yes, I was also thinking along those same lines. There is a pressure to give the appearance of solidarity, partly due to the historic scarcity of representation. For a time, there was some movie interest in “G,” and I sat in on some meetings with production companies. (Long story short, it didn’t turn out.) I just remember during one meeting, an executive asked me, “What do you think this story says about women?” But that wasn’t the question she was really asking. The real question was, “What do you think this story says about Asian American women?” And of course “G,” which is about two Chinese American girls, one who sabotages the other, is not exactly a heartwarming tale of friendship. Because of the scarcity of representation, there was this pressure to put out a positive portrayal. But then you end up flattening characters and putting out a PSA.
Anyway, in “Peking Duck,” I think both the narrator and Matthew are laboring under this burden of representation. They’re both frustrated by it and, in this case, he kind of takes it out on her.
AS: Right! And it was really thrilling for me to see it in your story. Because I recognized how the burden of representation was affecting these two characters, and it resonated with my own experience in a way I hadn’t seen before. I think this is really difficult to do. It’s like, this burden is kind of omnipresent—it’s difficult to look in the face and depict, without getting subsumed by it, or enacting it unintentionally.
LM: Severance was the first time I wrote an identifiably Chinese American character. Everything else before that, the characters were vaguely white or just unidentified in terms of ethnic background. I was just starting to think around these issues of representation, and still am. I’m uncomfortable being an authority on any of this, but many questions and frustrations came from personal experience as well.
AS: It’s stressful to work in fiction, which often means working with specifics, while also dealing with this assumption that the work is going to speak for a broad group of people. Which is to say, I’m stressed out and struggling with discomfort too.
LM: Of all forms, I find fiction to be the most free space to work in. It’s a play space for unfurling anxieties. But maybe it is easier to feel “free” before you become published and a known entity. I always tell my students, “Now is the most free-feeling time you have as a writer. You might not get that back again.” They don’t always see it that way, and I definitely understand the desire to publish. But when I think back to when I enjoyed writing the most, it was probably before I attended MFA, before I published a book, all of that.
AS: That’s definitely the most free-feeling time. In some ways, the early pandemic got close to it, or at least that’s how it felt for me, because I had no idea what was going to happen.
LM: Yeah, in the context of a global health crisis, our writing projects seem small in comparison. The sensation of no one is looking, that can be a nice feeling. Maybe free-feeling is similar to small-feeling.
AS: To go back to what I was talking about with “Peking Duck,” I was wondering if you had any thoughts about your work’s relationship to the past? Sometimes, I think there’s an expectation that work by immigrants, or children of immigrants, will “go back” either in space or time. And I felt that the stories in Bliss Montage played with or challenged that expectation in ways that felt unique and significant. I’ve been trying to figure out how to articulate this since I read the collection. Beyond “Peking Duck,” both “Tomorrow” and “Returning,” feature characters “going back” in some way, but it’s fraught and also intimately connected with a kind of familial future (figuring out the future of a marriage in “Returning,” the baby in “Tomorrow,” whose arm I will never forget).
LM: Hmm, I like that takeaway, and I’ll have to think about it more. When I wrote Severance, I was thinking about how the immigrant narrative and apocalyptic narrative are similar in that they are traditionally organized by a Before and After. There is this splitting of time, which also results in a splitting of the self. (Although in Severance, that splitting is purposely not very neat or very clear.) When you have multiple selves and multiple timelines, how do you conceive of the future?
AS: Right, how? This problem of the future also emerges when a group of people tries to move as a singular entity–like a nuclear family, or the married couple in “Returning.”
Finally, is there anything we haven’t touched on yet that you’d like to talk about?
LM: I like this question but my mind always draws a blank! I’ll answer with a non sequitur, or maybe it’s not really a non sequitur since we talked about dreams … I once dreamed that I was the sole benefactor of a pop song called “Feasting on a Raindrop.” The pop star was dead, and I didn’t know them personally, but somehow I was designated to reap all royalties from that track. I felt so lucky that I was afraid to breathe, in case someone noticed and corrected what might’ve been a cosmic mistake. That dream seems to sum up something about my life since publishing a novel.