Power and Self Interrogation in “All Roads Lead to Blood”

Photo: Maris Hutchinson

Photo: Maris Hutchinson

by Cody Ross Romero

In All Roads Lead to Blood (Santa Fe Writers Project/2040 Books, 2018), Bonnie Chau is processing this fucked up life. The stories address some of the complexities of Asian American identity, a theme which should come as no surprise from an author for whom writing about lived experience comes as naturally as, well, writing. “As a person, I think about that [identity] constantly,” she says, “it’s something I’ll be trying to figure out my entire life.” While the book has had enormous success confronting identity, power, and the surreality of the daily, Bonnie Chau wonders, “Maybe this [writing] is just me dealing with my own shit.”

The book takes its epigraph from acclaimed author, Yoko Tawada, known for her own chilling and disorienting style. It’s an appropriate companion for a book made by Chau, where disorientation is used to propel readers toward discovery. She says, “The stories revolve around confusion about belonging and place in the world and not really knowing where or how to be. They devolve into surreal elements that are me leaning into disorientation. The instinct is to extricate yourself from that and find clarity, but my project in writing and in life has been to go full blast into the story, then default into something more straightforward.”

The book is particularly well suited for readers who delight in encountering voices that remain partly unknown; a secret life, an undisclosed disappointment, or the realities of sex. These palpable interior struggles have the effect on the writing of hyper-control. On this point, Chau clarifies, “When you say the writing seems so controlled, I think, ‘Yeah, but also, no.’ The more I feel like it’s becoming—the story, or the sentence, or the sentiment—unhinged or untethered, I’ll double down on the effort to put in that control, so it’s like a constant balancing act. For the sake of the story and for legibility, I have to allow myself to let go to a certain extent and then do the opposite, to counter. It’s like an extended metaphor for how I live my life.”

I can’t help but wonder how power comes into play, to which Chau answers: “Power dynamics are constantly at the forefront of a lot of the issues I’m interested in exploring, like writing about being a woman, a person of color, a younger sister. It’s relevant to so many things I’m always obsessing about and plays a very big role in the stories.”

Sex figures strongly into the book. At one point, during an intimate encounter, a character remarks, “This was it, sex—God, society, humanity, flesh— it all made sense, or at least it was all okay, or it was okay that none of it made sense.” This is characteristic of Chau’s acumen for writing about sexuality: profound knowing, confusion, then knowing again. For writers struggling to write sex that feels intentional and effective, she says, “So much of writing about the body is a confusing thing—trying to articulate physicality on the subconscious level—I think that’s why a lot of writing about sex, and why people are told not to do it, or avoid doing it, seems like a slippery slope that falls into cliché, because it’s confusing. We don’t know what’s going on, or we find it hard to put these things into words. I think that’s why when I write about sex I often think about figurative or metaphorical language and then let that lead me to something weirder, because through that surrealness I can access something new or different to describe feelings, or emotions, or power dynamics.” Bonnie Chau maybe (definitely) remembers a workshop in grad school in which an instructor pointed out what was wrong with her description of sex. She recalls thinking, “I don’t agree with that,” and decided to explore the subject further. “I wasn’t always interested in writing about sex. It began with the story ‘The Closing Doors’. A friend of mine was an editor looking for erotic flash fiction, which was completely not what I wrote—flash fiction, erotic fiction. It was an experiment and ‘The Closing Doors’ was a part of that.”

All Roads Lead to Blood reckons with, in part, the division of the self into fragments, splits, identities that are incongruent or unaware of the other pieces. By the end of the first story, “Monstrosity”, the speaker is literally standing outside of her body, in conversation with a second version of herself. “She had better posture, a real backbone,” Chau writes. When asked whether or not it’s important for writers to speak to experiences of dissociation and fracture, she says, “It’s important to me. In terms of storytelling, there are certain structures that we think of when we think of a story—conclusiveness, arc—and those are certainly not my lived experience, so stories that end in fracture or dissociation are a truer reflection of how it is to be alive.”

The arc of her life has occurred in places fixed in America’s psychic mind as opposites and extremes: New York and California. But these places appear in the book as part of the world in which the stories unfold naturally, restrained from glamour or the cloying, fictionalized tradition of the big city versus the spacious west. This isn’t an author writing for two polarized, coastal backdrops. These are places she knows to be home. It’s precisely when she describes the bougainvillea blowing in the hot Santa Ana wind or the sound of the train at Broadway-Lafayette that this reader trusts her most. Chau says, “California, I think is one of those things you often see quite differently when you have distance from it, so living in New York I think about the California-ness of California. And something I use a lot in writing is the landscape, so I very consciously use the vocabulary of street names and plant names as a source of inspiration. I think it’s maybe the same with New York, and has to do with feelings of dissociation or separateness, thinking of how the landscape or the New York-ness of the place can really propel, or maintain, a feeling of alienation.”

New York replaced California when Chau moved there in 2011 and then ended up earning her MFA at Columbia University. After her time in the program, she had to develop a process for writing in the world. Chau says: “The year after, I was kind of burned out, I didn’t really feel like writing much and ended up taking on all these extracurricular activities—I was taking ceramics, Chinese, I was in reading groups. I know that’s not a straightforward way of continuing with writing post MFA, but it felt relevant for my creative process, to think about the ways we make things.”

On the obligation to constantly produce writing, she tells me, “The most unproductive thing was to feel pressured to write or to feel guilty about not writing. I would stay at home and not go out, but I also wouldn’t write, which is like a lose/lose, right? If I can do it once a week, I’m pretty happy. I don’t know what kind of advice I would have aside from continuing to write in your mind and not give yourself too much shit. That can be pretty unproductive.”

I’m reminded that the pressure to work has become a hallmark of our busy American lives and is a burden felt heaviest by the many who don’t have the privilege of sitting down daily to write. Chau wonders if when we’re at work, or making ceramics, or playing out our small human dramas we’re still giving time and space to writing in a different way.

“Even when I didn’t feel like writing,” she tells me, “I still felt the impetus to make something, to be creative. I think it’s an exercise in thinking differently, which I think is important. For me, I wanted to do something where I was using my body or making something tangible with my hands and thinking about aesthetics differently. It’s very much related in the most straightforward way— you’re thinking about the shape of things when you write a story, and you’re thinking about the shape of things when you’re making something else also—and that connection is maybe tenuous, but also maybe not.”