Interview with Nicola Koh
I AM (Artist in Motion) is an interview series meant to spotlight indigenous artists and artists of color in the Twin Cities. I had the privilege of working at the Loft as the fall 2019 marketing and communications intern, and when they gave me the chance to work on a project of my choosing, I AM is the first thing I thought of.
The artists in this series were people I found truly inspiring. They incorporate art into their lives in many different ways and expressions, finding time whenever or wherever they can. They show how art can be a form of healing, understanding, and moving forward. I hope you take in their words and feel that for yourself.
Nicola Koh is a Malaysian Eurasian 12 years in the American Midwest, a Christian apostate with degrees from a Calvinist seminary, and a minor god of Tetris. They hold an MFA from Hamline University and were a 2018 VONA/Voices fellow in fiction. Their work has appeared in Crab Orchard Review, Sweet: A Literary Confection, Minnesota Women's Press, Southwest Review, the Brown Orient, and others. Their hobbies include taking too many pictures of their cat and dog frenemies, crafting puns, and fixing things. See nicolakoh.com for more.
Who are you and what mode or modes of storytelling do you use?
I’m Malaysian Eurasian. I’ve been in the Midwest for like 12 years, I guess 13 years now. I went to college in Michigan and did seminary there. Then I was living here since 2014, did my MFA at Hamline. I guess I’ve always been interested in fiction. I-read-one-book-a-day kind of thing when I was younger, until I got to college and I had no time for reading. I especially like the sort of fantastical middle grade young adult or just straight up fantasy. That’s still what my heart gravitates toward. While I was in an MFA, I wrote mostly literary fiction just because it’s the easiest genre to experiment with different techniques. I wanted to really push my limits while I was in the program. But, in general, I hope I get back to writing in the fantasy world. I also do nonfiction, so I’m in the Loft Mentor Series right now for nonfiction.
How are these art forms unique ways of telling a story?
It’s interesting because people have this concept of nonfiction as you putting yourself out there and fiction as you writing other people’s stories. But I find my self seems to come out more in fiction. I always have these moments in workshop or whatever where people will be like, "wow this character is really interesting doing this," and I’ll be like, "oh shit, I didn’t realize I put myself in that." I think of nonfiction almost as the equivalent of Facebook, where the profile is you, but it’s curated. You’re thinking explicitly, "people are going to associate this with me," so you’re careful to make sure it’s what you want them to know. So in that sense, for me personally, it fills different needs.
Instead of being a place of me being more vulnerable, nonfiction is a place for me to self-explore my thoughts, my experiences, and almost step outside of myself to tell my story from another viewpoint or the viewpoint of a writer. Which helps to give insight that I didn’t/don’t have as a person living this story. Fiction gives me that ability to be myself in imagined worlds, imagined settings, in ways that I haven’t been able to do in my life. Most memoiresque creative nonfiction writers have certain things they want to question in their work and certain things they want to explore. It’s very rarely a sort of verbal diarrhea, a spilling of guts.
I was actually talking about this to one of my fellow mentees, about receiving some criticism from people in their own MFA. From people saying, "we want this to be about this kind of thing" and "we want this story to be closer to the nature of the kind of story it is." This person isn’t writing this story for an audience’s interest in the subject. They’re writing the story they want to write, and they shouldn’t have to get the kind of details people want. If you’re writing a story about traveling Europe or whatever, people may say, "this is a travel story, we want all these details," but that may not be the story you want to tell. You should be able to tell what you want to. If it’s a story about you looking for a friend, that should be the story you’re allowed to tell.
What is your process in creating and portraying your art?
I don’t have a very regimented/disciplined process. I tend to draft quickly and well, then it takes time for me to refine that. Some writers take like a year to finish a draft or a short story. And then they work on it for another year, and it gets to where it needs to be. For me, it can get to like 85 percent in a week or two, then it takes me the rest of the next two years to get it to 100 percent. It’s sort of getting a draft, getting an explosion of energy and content, then figuring out what I was trying to say. There’s this pressure in writers to submit, submit. That’s how you know it’s finished. After a while, I was getting dissatisfied with that because I would get rejections, and I’d be like, "I can’t believe they rejected me." But then I’d read the story, and I’d be like, "oh I need to change all these things."
Eventually, I was asking myself why I was sending out stuff if I keep changing it. There’s one story that got published, and I wish I changed some things. Then it becomes like, "why did I send it before I was happy with it?" So I’ve been really trying to make the ultimate arbiter of when the story’s ready to be me. That has made me more willing to slow down, revise. I now attempt to revise it, look at it again on paper, mark it up. In the next few days, I’ll revise it again, until it gets to the point where I’m just doing typos and small things.
What about sharing your work?
I do send out work, sending it to friends and all. I also occasionally do readings. A lot of us in writing will be told publishing, publishing, publishing. Literary journals, books, and all. I’ve especially got some apprehension about prestigious journals. A majority of my family never gets to read it, a majority of my friends don’t get to read it—probably the people I want to read it aren't. I’ve been really trying to think of what matters in terms of sharing my work. Who does it matter for me to have access to my work? Whether or not they want to read it. Who do I think would actually appreciate it? Or who would I appreciate appreciating it? I’ve been trying to think about what it means to be a writer in community, whether it’s local or a broader part of the community. Not just a writer in the attic.
Do you usually share your work with personal circles?
I have a few friends that I share with. One of the professors I had at Hamline, Sheila O’Connor, has a really great way of thinking about drafting. When she’s drafting, she needs to get into this dream state. The idea is that if you’re going to get readers to suspend their disbelief, you have to suspend your disbelief. You go into this state where everything is possible, you’re not questioning it, and that gives you that freedom to write what is there, not what you think should be there. But the problem with editing and revising is that it fosters that inner critic, inner editor, to the front. Then you’re not in the dream state. It’s really important, I figured out for myself, to protect that state. Especially when you’re drafting, that’s a very vulnerable state. You need to be almost unconscious subconsciously writing. The moment you allow people to criticize it, even if it’s good criticism, it breaks that. I actually had a prof in college who said if he ever shared what he was writing about, he just lost interest in writing it. He just never talked about what he was writing because he would lose his ability to write it.
I usually share once I’m in a revision state, once I feel I’ve gotten the material I need to get, and am deciding how to shape that. For particular people, for one thing, you don’t want people who are the macho assholes who think being a good editor, workshopper, is to tear it apart. You don’t want that at all. But also there’s a sense that some people aren’t good readers for you even though they’re great writers, great editors, for other people. If they’re not the kind of people who read your work, they’re not the kind of people whose editing style matches your writing style. It’s more important to find people who are good readers of my work because it’s hard to sort through feedback that isn’t helpful. Most writers, I think, are pretty humble when it comes to their work, and pretty self-conscious, so when someone says, "this isn’t working," most writers are like, "oh I have to cut that." It’s easier when you know someone’s comments are most likely not going to destroy what you’re trying to do. You don’t have to sift through a lot of crap to find the gems.
How do your stories connect to your identity? And how do they connect you to your community?
There’s that part again of being able to put myself in stories in a very unguarded way. I can access parts of myself, whether consciously or unconsciously, that I’d be leery of strangers seeing. A lot of my short stories have that idea of estrangement, loneliness, of being isolated. I think that comes from my feelings as a Eurasian Malaysian. For context, Eurasians are a very small percentage of Malaysia’s population, people descended from colonial men taking local women. It’s a community that’s always been sort of associated with that shame and humiliation and not necessarily wanted. Not persecuted, but I think people just didn’t want to be reminded of colonialism, especially as it was going on. Maybe because of that, Eurasians have always had a Western sense of identity and always wanted to think of themselves as a European diaspora, even though a lot of Eurasians are way darker than me. There’s this mentality of, "oh we’re actually European, we just happen to be living in Malaysia," that creates this, and partly also because the British would give Eurasians certain jobs over locals because we look a little bit more white, jobs like driving trains or serving, where they had to see the people who were dominating. They preferred them to be lighter skinned. That just gave a lot of Eurasians this isolation. After the British left in 1957, most Malaysians didn't even know about Eurasians. I’ve always been asked if I'm really Malaysian, so I think that sense of estrangement and isolation definitely impacts my work and comes out in my characters.
Another thing is gender. I don’t think my family’s ever marginalized me, but there’s definitely a don’t ask, don’t tell mentality, and that comes out too in terms of my characters struggling with parts of themselves that they don’t show. In my nonfiction, it definitely comes out in terms of the subjects I tend to pursue. I’ve done a lot on being Eurasian; I’ve also done stuff on coming out of Christianity. Some gender stuff too, and the ways all three of those things intersect.
I think writing gives us the opportunity to be, on one hand, unfiltered, but on the other hand, to control our narrative. You know, not be outed or put on the spot but really able to say, "this is my experience," and be unapologetic about it.
Why do you do what you do?
In a lot of arts communities, there’s a myth or unnatural burden of almost being a social justice activist, a changing-the-world kind of attitude. I definitely was falling into that. And I do have streaks of megalomania, so that didn’t help. After a while, I was just getting so frustrated: clearly a lot of writers are bad people, and even for those who are good people, the world isn’t changing because of a book, and that would get me really down. It made me question why I'm doing this, why I'm trying. But I think in the last year and a half, it’s really begun to feel good to think about writing in terms of what storytelling was before preindustrial, precapitalism—the storyteller, the bard, or whatever. No one’s talking about them like they’re prophets or visionaries, but they’re an important part of the community. Like in the village, you have the baker, the blacksmith, and you have the storyteller. It’s just the sense of what do people want, what do people need in stories.
There’s more value to people being entertained than we think. A lot of times people do need that. There’s a lot of stigma around escapist fiction, but sometimes people need to escape. Sometimes people want a sad story. Not because they need to explore their inner traumas, but because it touches on something they want to feel or want to express. After working hard, you are numb to the world. Coming to terms with that got me thinking that I want to be someone who gives people what they want, gives people whatever I am able to offer. I might not be able to do a Tom Clancy kind of series, but to be able to offer what I can do. To be that storyteller. That’s really freed up a lot of my sense of anxiety or sense of self-deprecation around writing.
So I guess my why is one because I like to do it. I think that’s also a part of that. A lot of POC are not allowed to think about doing what we enjoy, it’s like, "do what you need to do." Sometimes that’s necessary, but a lot of the time, it’s this burden of having to be better than the average person because that’s the only way you can survive kind of thing. But yeah, because I enjoy doing it, because I want to bring some enjoyment to other people, and that gives me a sense of purpose.