Khong talks dried seaweed, mice with fake memories, and learning to grow up by regressing a little first.
By Joanna Demkiewicz
Photo by Andria Lo
Last month, amidst the sundry “beach reads” lists and roundups published by literary influencers and book reviewers alike, Khloe Kardashian chimed in. She released her favorite summer reads on her app, Khloé, and included Rachel Khong‘s debut novel, the charming and smartly written Goodbye, Vitamin. She warned readers to “grab a tissue, honey!” while reading the book, and even though I didn’t quite need Kleenex (hey, sometimes I use my sleeve), Vitamin moved me with its tender exploration of family, identity, memory, and what happens when you move back home as an adult to make sure your dad doesn’t lose his pants again.
Written with humor and tact, Khong’s foray into fiction introduces us to Ruth, an ultrasound technician whose fiancé Joel has just left her in a new apartment that was supposed to be theirs. Her wobbly sense of self—and her father’s bizarre and Alzheimers-like behavior—leads her back to her childhood home, where she agrees to stay for a year to keep an eye on her dad while her mom works as a substitute teacher and throws out anything that could contribute to memory loss (including the contents of their fridge). Thus ensues four seasons of unexpected connections, miscommunications, and memories that Ruth had ignored while being number-one-girlfriend to Joel: her father’s past marital flubs, her mother’s resentment, her brother’s indignation. All of this is revealed in compact, journal-like prose—a form that I devoured like my favorite snack, with great and comfortable pleasure.
Khong’s characterization is brilliant, her dialogue rhythmic, perceptive, and jocular (read: LOL). Vitamin reminded me that everyone is always growing up; I’ll be keeping this book nearby for easy access. Yeah, like my favorite snack.
Joanna Demkiewicz: I read in a Refinery29 interview that Goodbye, Vitamin was borne from a breakup, that you started to write it in an effort to understand the grief that comes after a relationship ends. In the book, Ruth is broken up with, and then she moves in with her mother and father—not because of the breakup, but to take care of her father, who is recently experiencing Alzheimer’s symptoms and doing stuff like, ya know, taking his pants off in public places. How does grief manifest itself when you’re forced to become a caretaker? What surprised you about your own experience when writing Ruth’s story?
Rachel Khong: The main reason Ruth moved home was because it was a way to avoid dealing with her own shit. It was an option presented to her when she wasn’t feeling up to making decisions, because the decisions that she had made in her life weren’t particularly panning out. When I’m grieving or straight-up sad, I find making plans the hardest thing to do. I also think that grief can be pretty self-absorbed, especially when it’s breakup related, and you’re sad but you’re thinking, This is so not important in the grand scheme of things, this is not a real problem, I’m being ridiculous. Going home was a distraction from this grief that felt so inane, a way for Ruth to feel both occupied and productive. A plus was that the tasks seemed relatively easy: all she had to do at home was make sure her dad kept his pants on! That was something she could handle. Part of being home is about regressing, and taking a break from life. (Sometimes I fantasize about doing that—not moving home, but just pushing the pause button on life and vanishing for a year and returning to everything the same.) But of course, even at home, Ruth finds things more complicated than she thought they’d be, and of course you can’t ever really run from, you know, yourself. Shit must always be dealt with. *cue ominous music*
JD: I read in that same article that you consider Ruth to be an exaggerated version of yourself. What is it like writing a character that shares your attributes? How do you tread the line between autobiography and creative play?
RK: I actually don’t feel Ruth is very much like me at all. It’s true that I was, at one point, a thirty-year-old woman, and it’s true that I have experienced breakups. But I’ve never had a father with Alzheimer’s, never moved home, am not mixed race, am not an ultrasound technician, and the list goes on and on. I share an equal number of traits with the novel’s other characters.
But you’re right that it’s easy to mistake her for me, and me for her, and people often do: when a novel’s written in the first-person it’s easy to make that assumption. I’ve fallen into that trap myself. I think it’s unfortunate, though, because I firmly believe that fiction should be presumed fiction unless otherwise publicized; I don’t think writers should be worried about treading any lines between autobiography and fiction. You should write whatever you want to write. Once you label it fiction, it’s fiction, even if you give the protagonist a feeling you’ve felt, or your same hometown. All fiction is born out of some alchemy of observation, imagination, and personal experience, and when it skews too much in any one direction, the piece of fiction feels off-balance or insufficient—at least it does to me. Writing something wholly imagined would be uninteresting to me—say I wrote from the perspective of a seventy-year-old white man living in Munich, and had to make up or research his whole life, and never gave him any of my own thoughts or feelings; on the other hand, writing something wholly autobiographical has never interested me, either.
I’ve found, recently, readers and reviewers sort of yearn for novels to be autobiographical—it’s almost a way to make some sense of this magical and mysterious thing, the novel. But I worry that women writers get asked about autobiography more often than men, and I worry that it’s because men are given more credit for being capable of imagination. I don’t think the way to fight that is by NOT writing books in the first person, with female narrators, but for more of these stories to exist and to be insisted fiction, because that’s what they are.
JD: So much of this book is about memory, the brain, and interpretation. Did you do any research into the brain, memory, Alzheimer’s, and dementia? If so, what did you learn that surprised you?
RK: A lot of my research surprised me and made its way into the book, including the fact that scientists have learned to embed fake memories in mice, and that dark colors can be frightening—that if you put a black rug on the floor, someone with Alzheimer’s, in the late stages, might think that it’s a hole and be afraid to step over it. For research I also read a lot of metafilter and Reddit threads—perspectives from people who were caretakers, or who had loved ones suffering from the disease, or who were themselves suffering from the disease. But a lot of it was imagined, and it was easy to imagine: we all have memories, and our memories suck. We’re forgetting things all the time. So imagining it was a matter of taking the memory loss that I’ve experienced myself a few steps further.
JD: You’ve worked at Lucky Peach since its inception in 2011, and you are also the author of Lucky Peach’s fourth cookbook, All About Eggs, (an “utterly marvelous, often hilarious read”). Food is sort of a secondary character in Vitamin, especially in relation to Ruth’s dad’s health. Did you purposefully want food (its flavors, its effects on the body, its ability to bring people together) to be such a driving force in this story?
RK: Not a driving force, but I was interested in a few aspects of eating-as-part-of-living, for sure. Sometimes food is a way to control, too, and I think for Ruth and her mother it’s a way to exert some control over this super out-of-control situation. And I’ve also thought a lot about food as a mnemonic device, because eating involves so many senses—more senses than most of the activities we engage in. The way that perfume makes you think about a specific point in your life, or can even remind you of a feeling you felt, I was thinking about how meals could do the same, and maybe even more powerfully since they’re not just about smell, but sight and taste also. And of course alcohol plays a pretty big role in the book, too; when you drink too much, that can obliterate your memory. I wanted to explore all that.
JD: On that note, what was the difference, for you, between writing/editing a cookbook and writing fiction? Is there any crossover?
RK: Cookbook: more collaborative, more photos, more eggs. Fiction: lonelier, but sometimes in a good way; higher highs and lower lows. And still some eggs, if I’m being honest.
JD: This is wholly unoriginal, but I always write while drinking La Croix. Somehow I’ve convinced myself that the bubbles lead to results. Do you have a favorite writing snack, or a writing ritual? (I also write while drinking wine but that is also wholly original, and let’s not get into my productivity level when I try to combine the two…)
RK: Always black coffee in the morning. I also really love seasoned dried seaweed! But those little packs you get at Trader Joe’s aren’t enough for me so I have to stock up on huge printer paper–sized packets from the Korean supermarket and eat those. But there’s no civilized way to eat them, so I always wind up covered in little flecks of seaweed. I’ll also take writing breaks to eat mangos or raw cabbage kind of monstrously over the kitchen sink. And, strong agree, wine is very important to the process! You could try sparkling wine, so you get your bubbles, too.
JD: What is your favorite thing to consume right now, food, books, or otherwise?
RK: Fargo season two! Which makes me not want to consume ground meat ever again. I hope that’s not a spoiler.