I’m a sucker for novels about the precarious nature of early thirties life amidst global chaos. As a person who regularly grapples with the absurdity of making art, making rent, and generally navigating how to be a person despite a constant news stream announcing an ever more perilous future, I flock to books with characters rolling their individual stones up their own metaphorical hills. Gina Chung’s debut novel, Sea Change, smartly addresses the dilemma of trying to become a person in a world that is rapidly coming undone. The book follows Ro, a mall aquarium worker whose life has entered a sort of stasis while those around her seem to be moving into adulthood just fine. Her boyfriend (now ex-boyfriend) has just left the planet to colonize Mars, her best friend from childhood is getting married, her mother is moving on since the long-ago disappearance of Ro’s father, and even her closest companion (a giant octopus named Dolores) is leaving the aquarium where Ro works. While the rest of the world spins on, Ro is stuck in the past, recounting memories of her father who disappeared while on an expedition in the Pacific when she was a teenager. Desperate to avoid further heartbreak and abandonment, she pushes away the people that love her most, but to her surprise there are some bonds that can’t be lost to sea.
I spoke with Gina via Zoom about MFAs, avoiding immigrant stereotypes in her fiction, and writing during the pandemic.
Shelby Hinte: Could you tell me a little bit about how Sea Change came to be, maybe from initial idea to publication or the part that’s most interesting to you in its progression?
Gina Chung: I tend to start with an image that comes to mind or a question — sometimes both. The Origin for Sea Change came about during my time in my MFA program at The New School where I was studying fiction. I just started writing the first line of the book, which I haven’t changed. The first line is “This morning Dolores was blue again,” and I thought to myself, who or what is Dolores? And what is this about? The first image that came to mind was the image of an octopus. I love octopuses. I’ve always found them really fascinating and just really endearing creatures even though they’re so alien from us. And one thing I definitely knew about octopuses was that they changed color. I love this idea of an octopus changing color and it being part of their biological response, but also a way of expression. So that was kind of how it started out. Then I started wondering to myself, who is telling us this? Why does Dolores matter to them? And that was kind of how the voice of Ro came to be. The more I thought about her and whatever she was going through, it just became clear that there was a world around her. I decided to make her an aquarium worker. This is how she has contact with this octopus. Then I think the decision to make the novel a sort of near future story — with the climate crisis being that much more urgent and people going off to Mars to try to make colonies in space— all of that kind of came together in the first few pages of just writing it and thinking about like who this character was and what kind of world she lived in.
SH: It’s cool to hear that you kind of start out from an inquisitive place, and one question leads to another question. At what point did you form an outline or become more structured? Or did you let those questions guide the whole process?
GC: I’m definitely an outliner. I wrote the bare bones of what would become the first chapter, but I didn’t think it was going to be a novel. I didn’t come into my MFA program with a novel idea. I was mostly writing short stories and was kind of happy doing that. Then later that summer I had a writing group with some of my friends from my program, and I brought this piece to them to say, hey, I think it’s a short story, but I don’t know how to end things or wrap stuff up. And everyone was kind of like, you know, there’s a lot of unanswered questions here. Like, you might need more space than a short story length to try and answer these questions. Then my thesis semester was coming up and I figured, if not now, when in terms of trying to write a novel for the first time. I really started work on it late summer or early fall of 2020. I made an outline and wrote the first draft of it during the fall semester of 2020, which I don’t think would’ve happened had it not been for the fact that it was 2020 and the fact that we couldn’t really go anywhere or do anything. I was just in this very concentrated bubble of working on what would become this novel.
SH: How did writing the first draft of it while in an MFA program impact your process?
GC: I think it impacted it in a very good way. The structure was definitely much appreciated. One of the reasons I decided to apply to an MFA to begin with was because I felt like I had gotten everything I could on my own and I wanted the sort of community and structure the MFA provides. I was lucky enough to be able to work with Mira Jacob, who’s such a wonderful and generous mentor. She was the first person to read those early drafts. We would have check-ins on the phone about the draft, and she would sort of ask me questions that were occurring to her as she was reading. That was really helpful because the feedback was never like, don’t do this, or we want to know more about ____. It was more coming from a place of curiosity, which is very much how she approaches writing and teaching and something that she passed on to me through working together.
SH: Sea Change doesn’t feel like a traditional mystery per se, but there’s sort of this underlying sense of something unresolved or unsolved. Of course, there’s Ro’s father who is missing, but the mystery isn’t will he be found? It’s more of an internal thing. A lot of the questions Ro is asking, and the book is asking, feels like these questions that don’t really have answers, yet there’s a tension to the book that feels similar to how a mystery novel might be plotted out. Was that intentional or something that evolved for you while writing it?
GC: I think it came about organically for me because so much of what she has gone through or how she emotionally processes is to ask herself these questions. The questions she asks don’t have answers, but in the asking of them, I think she learns a little bit more each time about who she is and how she can manage this difficult period in her life. I think that curiosity overall is important for my process as a writer. I think the fact that I was questioning a lot of things also just about the world and about writing life and life in general at the time, maybe ended up getting reflected in the book in that way.
SH: It sounds like the first draft came pretty quickly during your MFA, so I’m curious to hear what editing and revision looked like.
GC: I wrote it September through December of 2020 period and handed it in for the [thesis] submission. Then I felt like, okay, I’ve gotten down the main points of the story. I don’t think it’s going to deviate too much from this, but of course, you know, revision was super important as well. And so I kind of let it sit and marinate for a while and I didn’t really come back to it until later. Then late spring and summer I made a revising schedule for myself and just kind of went through the chapters batch by batch and then did a couple more revisions like that throughout the rest of the summer. At that point I had been in touch with some literary agents, including my agent, Danielle Bukowski. She and I had met through a meeting the MFA program set up — kind of like a speed dating thing for us to meet with different agents. She and I connected through that and kept in touch and I queried her later on that summer and she was one of the first people to get back to me with a yes, but also a note that showed how much she understood the story and got what I was trying to do.
SH: You mentioned that the novel began with Dolores, and I felt that the strongest relationship in Ro’s life is with Dolores. Her relationships to humans all feel precarious at the start of the book. Her boyfriend’s just left her, her best friend is getting married, and she’s a little bit estranged from her mother. Dolores is like the one living creature that she feels safe with. What compelled you to write about the intimacy shared between Ro and this octopus?
GC: I think that our relationships with animals say so much about our relationships with ourselves and with other human beings. For those of us who are drawn to animals, one of the reasons that happens is because in some ways they’re “easier” than other human beings might be. I find writing about and thinking about interactions with animals really grounding because an animal can’t ever really lie to you. Like they’re never going to be dishonest with you about what they want or need. So I think that’s why Ro finds her relationship with Dolores to be a safe space for her because it’s a relationship of care and mutual trust and curiosity. I think in a lot of ways she sort of envies Dolores because she’s so self-contained. She never really seems distressed and she’s this very intelligent animal who essentially is quite limited but doesn’t exhibit any kind of discomfort about that. Ro likes to see herself as this sort of self-contained, similarly isolated creature. I think she really would like to be that, but of course she can’t be because she’s a human being. I wanted to show the gradual, at times painful, but necessary process, of how she has to come out of her shell, so to speak, and learn how to need and depend on other people. I think that’s the thing that’s scariest for her — needing other people.
SH: One of the moments that touched me the most in the book is when Yoonhee, Ro’s friend who she has known forever, is depending on her as a bridesmaid and just a friend in general. Ro sort of drops the ball and isn’t there. Yet Yoonhee meets her with compassion. That is so rare to see in depictions of female friendship. Could you talk a little bit about the inspiration for writing their relationship?
GC: I really wanted to write a depiction of female friendship where you have these two very different women, with very different values and approaches to life, but who love each other and need each other and are able to give each other space to be themselves even when they have conflict. Yoonhee is based, in part, on composites of my own childhood friends and my sister who’s very different from me. I think she also represents a certain kind of Asian American ideal femininity that I always felt I was falling short of when I was growing up. Yet at the same time I really wanted to show that just because a person might want to make sure all their bridesmaids have matching dresses or they really care about the way their nails look in their proposal photo, it doesn’t mean that the person is shallow or materialistic. She sees Ro in all of her messiness and loves her for it. Ro sees Yoonhee in all her own pain and insecurities and knows that her best friend’s desire for aesthetic perfection is sort of a trauma response and comes from her own need to manage and control her view of the world.
I think friendship is just so important to write about and to depict in the arts because we live in a world that still prioritizes the couple and romantic relationships over other kinds of relationships, but friendships are truly the things that have sustained me in my darkest moments. A lot of my friends I see as platonic soulmates.
SH: Another important relationship in the book is between Ro and her father. He is missing and it seems like part of her is wondering, is this my fault? And I felt like one of the questions of the book that I kept seeing is, how do you get someone to love you enough not to leave? And there’s this moment where she has a memory of her father just before his disappearance and they’re on vacation and he leaves in the middle of the night to go and look at the ocean. Only she doesn’t know that’s where he’s going, and she follows him. At the turnaround moment, when he looks back at her, she sees that he’s happy to see her not upset that he’s been followed or caught trying to run away, and she’s overcome with relief. I was curious about your interest in writing about this dynamic — the fear of abandonment, or trying to avoid the heartbreak of people leaving, which it seems she’s often doing.
GC: I think one of the things that I really wanted to draw out in her relationship with her father is obviously the love and care that does exist between them, even though he’s also a flawed person and doesn’t always make the best choices as a parent and a husband. But I also wanted to show how her father is someone who looms so large in her memories, and he has sort of passed down his own way of looking at the world and paying attention to the small things that other people might not notice. He’s raised this incredibly observant daughter who internalizes his frequent departures, and in a way, even before he actually disappears for good, he’s been kind of leaving their family in all these little ways for a really long time, which I think is why she is not surprised even though she is devastated by the news that Tae [her boyfriend] is leaving her to go on this mission to Mars.
In that particular memory you mentioned, I wanted to show a memory of their family that was not uniformly positive, but that was full of beauty and that was a source of joy and a good reminder for her later on in life of the important lessons that her father tried to pass down to her. I wanted to be very careful with my depiction of the parents to not make them stereotypical depictions of immigrant parents, but also to show the real kind of strife that can result as part of being an immigrant family and being under all kinds of pressures to sort of make it in this country.
SH: I think one moment that stands out for me in the book is when Ro sees her mom, who is always so poised, get the news that her husband has gone missing. In Ro’s memory, her mom lets out an animal cry and Ro’s response is such fear. Could you talk a little bit about what you were trying to touch on with these parents and their relationship to the daughter?
GC: With the parents I really wanted to show how emotionally complex they were and how Ro grows up in this environment where there are so many strong undercurrents of feeling happening all around her. She’s a child, so she internalizes a lot of that and assumes that her parents fighting or her mother having a reaction must be her own fault. So to see her mother express any kind emotion in a very outright way is a sort of scary experience for her. I also wanted to show how much her mother really did need her father, despite the fact that things weren’t always great between them. Their marriage was basically on the rocks at the time that he disappeared. But he’s her anchor in a lot of ways to this country. Like there’s many versions, perhaps, of a universe where she never came to the United States if it were not for him and for his own ambition and idealization of what life in this new country could be like for them. I wanted to show too, what carrying the emotional burden of your grieving parent can look like while you yourself are grieving at the same time.
SH: I think part of Ro’s struggle in the book is being in her thirties and trying to figure it out. I think that is, to some extent, a universal experience, but it feels very tied to her experience being the daughter of immigrants and feeling like she has to become something, and she doesn’t know exactly what she wants to become. It reminded me of what’s being called “millennial novels.” I don’t want to categorize your novel in that way, but it does feel very much like there is this similar issue of asking, how do I live in this world where there’s climate change and I’m grieving so much, and it’s maybe not sustainable to live on this planet, but I’m also still somehow burdened with making my parents proud and having a job? What other books or experiences spoke to you in a way that you wanted to explore in your own work?
GC: One of my favorite books and all-time inspirations is Chemistry by Weike Wang. It’s also kind of a coming-of-age story. It’s about a young woman who leaves her chemistry PhD program because it’s just really grueling and difficult and she can’t bring herself to tell her parents. The character’s Chinese American and she knows the news will devastate her parents. There’s a line in Sea Change where Ro is reflecting on Tae’s decision to go to Mars. She is sort of wondering to herself if this is his way of trying to go beyond what his parents accomplished —if he has to leave the planet itself to make it up to them. That was an idea that was explored in Chemistry to such a poignant degree. You’re not just carrying your own individual ambitions and plans, but you’re carrying the weight of so many expectations on you, even if they’re not conscious expectations. Another book that I love and that I was thinking of at the time of drafting Sea Change was Severance by Ling Ma. It is also speculative but it’s very different. It’s like a zombie novel, but it’s about a character who is also kind of a typical millennial character in that she’s navigating sort of the strictures of working in very apocalyptic scenarios and dealing with the daily drudgery of being a person who has to go to work and pay the bills and pay rent while also dealing with these unprecedented circumstances. I think the idea of millennial literature is really funny, but I won’t deny that there are certain common themes that can come up in some of these books because for millennials we just haven’t really gotten a break over the last couple years.
SH: It makes me think back to one of the first things you were talking about, which was that you wrote this in the early pandemic days and that it was sort of your reprieve from the real world. Do you ever have moments where it is hard to write? I think specifically in that sort of existential way of what is the point of it all? If so, how do you get back to the work?
GC: I definitely feel that a lot. It’s hard. Whenever I feel sort of hopeless about the state of creating in this world, I think about the fact that so many of us during those early days of the pandemic turned to art. People were reading. People were watching movies. So it occurs to me that even though there are all these external circumstances in place that make it hard for us to gain materially from artwork, we need the arts, we need stories, we need writing. I think it’s a thing that bears repeating no matter how trite or hollow it might seem at times because it’s true. And I think we need to be reminded of it because we live in a world that likes to insist that stories don’t matter.
SH: So as a last question, what does your writing practice look like?
GC: I’m definitely not a daily writer. As much as I would like to be one of those people that wakes up every morning and drafts a certain amount, I’m not. I’ve tried that and I can’t because it feels like homework. I tend to write well at night because for whatever reason that feels like playtime in my brain where I’m just like, everyone else is asleep, I get to work on this. So for Sea Change specifically, I wrote, between the hours of like 9:30pm or 10:00pm until 1:00 or 2:00am, which is not the healthiest, especially when you have a nine to five, but because I wasn’t physically commuting during that time period, it was a little bit easier in that way just to be like immersed in that world of the novel. Recently I have started handwriting a bit and that’s actually been really helpful for freeing up anxieties about first drafts. But we’ll see. I might develop carpal tunnel at the end of this project that I’m working on.
GINA CHUNG is a Korean American writer from New Jersey currently living in Brooklyn, New York. A recipient of the Pushcart Prize, she is a 2021-2022 Center for Fiction/Susan Kamil Emerging Writer Fellow and holds an MFA in fiction from The New School. Her work appears or is forthcoming in The Kenyon Review, Catapult, Gulf Coast, Indiana Review, Idaho Review, The Rumpus, Pleiades, F(r)iction, and Wigleaf, among others, and has been recognized by several contests, including the American Short(er) Fiction Contest, the Los Angeles Review Literary Awards, and the Ploughshares Emerging Writer’s Contest.