I first came across the work of Matthew Salesses in his essay “Psy the Clown Vs. Psy the Anti-American” over at The Rumpus in which he examined racial and historical power dynamics between Korea and the West (particularly the U.S.), and the importance of understanding context outside of one’s own culture. His newest book, The Hundred-Year Flood, dropped this September, and I caught up with Matthew on its conception, the influence of Twitter (follow him @salesses) and talking those “different differences.” –Rosebud Ben-Oni
Rosebud Ben-Oni: In “Different Racisms,” you tackled race and self-contextualization both in personal history and popular culture. Are there any new “different differences” you are facing today?
Matthew Salesses: I’m interested in the idea of who wants to talk about race and who has to. I’ve been having these conversations both online and in person with white people with good intentions, who want to be better informed, and who have been taught that the way to learn is through conversation, through making mistakes and improving, who have been taught that their opinions matter. They find it very frustrating and disappointing not to be able to talk freely about issues that are very important. They think it would benefit everyone if people could agree to talk more openly about race and not criticize any hurtful mistakes made, because the intention is not to hurt. They would learn more then. They aren’t able to speak freely because they’re afraid of being called racist.
On the other side are people who aren’t able to choose to learn about race, who are afraid not of the humiliation of being called racist but of being humiliated (again) because of race. In these conversations, they are expected not only to educate, which wouldn’t be so bad on its own, but to suffer for the education of others. Not as teachers, but unpaid. When they leave the conversation, race goes with them. There is no return from experience to idea. They want their conversations with white liberals, at least, to be safe spaces.
RB: The book trailer you made for “I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying” is hauntingly beautiful. Why did you select this excerpt for the trailer?
MS: All credit goes to my friend Ken Calhoun, an excellent writer and filmmaker. It was his concept. I just bothered him until he agreed to make it. I love book trailers but people don’t seem to watch them. The one Ken made is like a beautiful little movie.
RB: You newest novel, The Hundred-Year Flood, came out this year. Can you speak a little bit about the journey in writing it?
MS: I started the book eleven years ago, when I was teaching English in Prague. I wrote a political novel about a group of American expatriates. I took the novel draft to Korea with me the year afterward, then through several workshops at Emerson College, where I did my MFA. In the course of revision, the book was moved back two years in time to when the hundred-year flood wiped out a section of Prague in 2002. A ton of characters were cut. The book became the story of a half-Korean American adoptee, who was a mix of two characters in the original draft. Then I took a year off and went to Korea and rewrote everything for what was probably the third time. I used the draft as my MFA thesis, which I worked on with Margot Livesey. I revised more, got an agent, sent it out, became a father, split with my agent, revised more. Then seemingly at random, I was contacted by an editor who saw the book in the first round. She recommended a new agent, but didn’t end up buying the book. My new agent sent the book out again, I moved to Houston for a PhD program, life changed over and over, etc. Last summer, I took a bunch of teenagers to Prague for a writing program. It was the first time I had been back in a decade. And soon after I got back to Houston, I had a message from my editor at Amazon who wanted to talk. It was a sign.
RB: What singular writer do you claim as your north star?
MS: None. I don’t know. We have to be our own north stars. I don’t want to orient myself to someone else. That said, I like to know what Roxane Gay thinks.
RB: This past May, you tweeted: “If you’re in the dominant group it’s not fighting for free speech to attack people your system oppresses, invades, & robs of free speech.” I love the candor here. Can you put this in context? Tell us more.
MS: Tweets are ephemera and should be considered as such. We change. We’re feeling things out. I want Twitter to be a place where I can feel things out. That said, I see this very strange phenomenon of white people in Western countries attacking the customs and freedoms of people in nations those Western countries invaded, colonized, deeply changed. The people who think about context least are the people whom that context has most benefited.
Here’s what I mean. It’s like we’re two kids living in two different houses, and one day I walk into your house, point a gun at you and move in, make you cook and clean for me while I go off to school, take the things in your house back to make my house look nicer, stop you from going to my school and instead teach you myself to think that I’m right and better than you are, tell you your gods are fake and put up pictures of my gods, etc etc. Then when we’re adults, I leave your house and go back to mine, and from my house, I write articles and draw cartoons about how hateful and backwards you are. When I’m questioned, I say, “Look at my house. This is what a house should be. That other person needs to take responsibility for the state her house is in. Right now. And it’s my right to ridicule that state because we’re both people, who live in houses.”
Born to a Mexican mother and Jewish father, Rosebud Ben-Oni is a recipient of the 2014 NYFA Fellowship in Poetry and a CantoMundo Fellow. She was a Rackham Merit Fellow at the University of Michigan, a Horace Goldsmith Scholar at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a graduate of the Women’s Work Lab at New Perspectives Theater in NYC. She is the author ofSOLECISM (Virtual Artists Collective, 2013) and an Editorial Advisor for VIDA: Women in Literary Arts. Her work appears inPOETRY, The American Poetry Review, Arts & Letters, Bayou, Puerto del Sol, among others. Find her Facebook, Twitter and at 7TrainLove.org
Matthew Salesses is the author of The Hundred-Year Flood (Little A/Amazon Publishing), an Amazon Best Book of September and a Kindle First pick, and a season’s best selection at Buzzfeed (twice), Refinery29, and Gawker. His other books include I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying (Civil Coping Mechanisms), Different Racisms (Thought Catalog Books), and The Last Repatriate (Nouvella). In November 2015, Gazillion Strong will serialize his illustrated Korean drama/novel, Marked, which can be supported on Patreon. Matthew was adopted from Korea and has written about adoption, race, and parenting for NPR’s Code Switch, The New York Times Motherlode, Salon, The Toast, The Millions, the Center for Asian American Media, The Rumpus, and The Good Men Project, among others. His fiction has appeared in Glimmer Train, American Short Fiction, Witness, West Branch, PEN/Guernica, and many others. He has received awards and fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Glimmer Train, Mid-American Review, [PANK], HTMLGIANT, IMPAC, Inprint, and elsewhere. He is currently a Cambor Fellow and Ph.D. candidate in Creative Writing and Literature at the University of Houston. Matthew serves as Online Fiction Editor for Gulf Coast and Fiction Editor for The Good Men Project.