Examining Authenticity: An Interview with Author Rachel Khong

Khong speaks with Orion on inheritance, family, and her most recent novel, Real Americans

I first was introduced to Rachel Khong’s work when she edited Lucky Peach, a magazine about eating food and sometimes cooking it. Even back then you could tell that her eye was fixed on how we perceive and define and, sometimes, weaponize the concept of authenticity, from the relentless questioning of an ingredient’s role on the plate to the outstanding cover of her anthology, All About Eggs, whose hand-drawn question marks force readers to ask themselves what an egg actually is. She’s since become known for her novels, the most recent of which, Real Americans, continues that inquiry into the authentic, searching for meaning and lasting value in the work lives, love lives, and interior lives of its many migratory characters.

We recently asked Rachel to speak about that book and the environments in which her characters’ identities form.


Sumanth Prabhaker: Could you talk a little about how you approached the mapping of Real Americans? Your characters move with a surprising ease… Raffles are won, TVs are installed and abandoned, there’s no endless clicking for dinner reservations at fancy restaurants or the flight to Paris. But the moment money enters the picture, it becomes the reason for physical movement, and the map grows harder to cross. 

Rachel Khong: “Mapping” gives me too much credit! I write without a plan, getting to know the characters as I write. The map emerges only afterward when the characters’ movements come into focus. Several drafts in, I’ll write toward what I believe to be the map, although I’m frequently wrong about that, too. The map shifts and shifts again with my understanding of the book. The map making requires exploration, dead ends, wrong turns. 

How fascinating that you bring up the differences in how characters move from place to place! The ways in which characters travel say a lot about them. Money changes the way travel is possible. Matthew invites Lily aboard his family’s private jet; May has no choice but to travel in fear, and in secret. The epigraph of my book is from a Cameron Awkward-Rich poem called “Meditations in an Emergency,” and there’s another line in that poem that I love: “There are no borders, only wind.” My novel doesn’t purport to have answers, but it does ask questions. Among these questions: Who do borders benefit, and who gets to cross them with ease?  

SP: I’m interested in your depiction of inheritance, a concept which seems to be the engine of the story. There’s the more physical stuff, like disease and facial structure, but I also loved seeing the subtle ways in which your characters inherit intangible feelings and associations from their parents. What do you see as inevitably passing down from parent to child? What do you feel you’ve inherited?

RK: I don’t know if anything is “inevitably” passed down. The fact that what gets passed down is this unpredictable mix is both exciting and daunting for parents. (The classic example is the parent who wishes their child would love X thing that they love, but instead their child grows up to not care less; the father with baseball dreams, or whatever.) I think the intangible stuff is really interesting, and it’s also less clear: is it inherited, or does it have more to do with being in the same family, being nurtured a certain way? I don’t know. I’ve inherited my father’s long toes and bad vision; I’ve inherited my mother’s love of cooking and her tendency to always be in motion. But my parents were both more oriented toward math and science; they were engineers. And I am, of course, a writer. Was that a reaction to the way I was raised—a response to my parents’ professions? Or would I have become a writer no matter what? I don’t know, and that’s one of the big questions of this book: Why do we become who we become? 

Purchase your own copy of Real Americans here.

 

SP: There’s such an eye for authenticity in the text: ‘play jewelry,’ soap with ‘no false notes,’ a lover murmuring ‘I know you,’ and, of course, the title. (I too, like May, live far away from where my parents were born, struggled to assimilate, and then became more Asian in parenthood.) How would you characterize the relationship between place and authenticity? Are there places where you do or don’t feel more authentically yourself?

RK: This is such an interesting question. I grew up acting one way at home and a different way at school. Now we have a term for that: code switching. Even now I am one way with my parents, and another way with my husband. Which is the more authentic version of myself? I feel the most comfortable, the most myself, when I’m at home with my small family, my husband and my cat. But different contexts demand different behavior. Different relationships mean different ways of relating. I don’t think that’s inauthenticity; it’s simply the way life is. 

Novel writing is where I feel most authentically myself, if that can be counted as a place. It’s where I explore my obsessions and my interests, where I find out what I’m thinking, where I interrogate that thinking. I feel most myself in this creative space that sort of vacillates between the conscious and unconscious mind. 

Authenticity is something I’m thinking about a lot lately, especially as we move into a reality that is inevitably going to be more AI generated. Are we going to be able to know what’s real from what’s false? In all directions, we are told what to want: what to eat, where to live, what to buy, how to dress. It can be hard to listen for what we actually want amid all that noise. How can we pay attention to our actual interests, our actual needs, apart from what has been foisted on us by capitalism? Writing is where I do that. It’s how I pay attention.  

SP: I loved watching for the emotional currency of food in the story, as in the oysters, or the chocolate chip cookie that Nick eats for his mom even though he’s full. How would you describe your relationship to the food of your ancestors?

RK: Food might be the only connection I have to many of my ancestors. I was born in Malaysia but came to America when I was two years old. Whenever my family went back to visit Malaysia I would feel alienated because I couldn’t speak Malay or my family’s dialects; I never felt like I belonged. But I knew how to eat the food: assam laksa, ha mee, nasi lemak. Even if I felt estranged from my relatives, I knew how to enjoy the food, and we ate together. That was connection of a kind. 

My mother cooked dinner for our family nearly every night while I was growing up. She did it happily and generously; she loved to cook. She passed on her love of cooking and eating to me. It was her way of showing care, and this act sustained me, quite literally. So often connection happens over a meal. The connection might be the conversation that happens with the meal, or it can simply be the meal itself. 

SP: The slow creep of genetics into the narrative reminds me a little of Never Let Me Go and Klara and the Sun, both of which also are explorations of the objectification of identity — only in your case, America is the clone. Do you, or would you, describe yourself as American?

RK: I love those references and love those books. I’m so grateful that you thought of them. I do describe myself as American. It’s what I identify with the most. I think America has a lot of beautiful ideals that many of us have grown disillusioned with. It was founded in genocide, and bears a history of racism that it hasn’t fully reckoned with. And yet, I still think democracy is a worthy goal. I believe in diversity, equality, opportunity — learning from difference. We fall short of those ideals over and over again, but I don’t think that means we should stop trying. 

SP: What do you see out your window when you write?

RK: I’m in Los Angeles, so I see parked cars. I see our drought-tolerant front lawn that we planted (the plants are still small!): Mexican marigold and yarrow and Santa Barbara daisy. We have jasmine growing just outside so I’ll often see hummingbirds coming by for a sip. And just now I watched a squirrel that had discovered a bird feeder. It was swinging from the platform, enjoying a seed and nut buffet. 

Sumanth Prabhaker is Orion’s editor in chief.