“Haunting and Hunger”: K-Ming Chang’s GODS OF WANT Reviewed by E.B. Schnepp

Highlighting the crossroads of desire at once familial and physical, K-Ming Chang’s lyrical and deliciously experimental short story collection, Gods of Want, evokes a haunting sort of hunger. This collection is riddled with ghosts; moving through the stories we are confronted first with the literal ghosts of the lost and departed and then increasingly by the living haunting themselves and each other. These ghosts are not the terrifying kind—they tend more often toward the tender and occasionally mischievous—but all of them hungry; hungry for literal sustenance, for love, for belonging. This effect is really felt in the story “A Chorus of Dead Cousins.” In this lyrical work, the speaker and their wife are plagued by dead cousins’ harmless, but annoying, hauntings. The cousins insist on sleeping between the couple, chasing the mailman, and changing the car stereo. The speaker’s wife campaigns to rid themselves of this family burden, insisting it would be better to have them be adopted by other living families, even using her career as a storm chaser to try and run them off with a tornado, but the speaker has a much harder time letting go. While the speaker watches their family pulled into the sky, it’s a tangible loss, and they yank themselves from the grasp of their wife, calling for their cousins:

Every word was spat dust, another cousin leaving my body. Their names populating my tongue into a pin cushion. I remembered the cousin who showed me the wood splintered heart of a pineapple, how most people discard it but it was our duty to digest it. I opened my mouth, touching my tongue to sweet dust.

Many of the stories in Gods of Want have ghosts like these that cling to someone in the family, sharing their stories and demise; but, while they can be a nuisance, these ghosts only grow terrifying if they become unmoored, no longer able to recognize their descendants.

In “Nüwa,” the specter of the story, who is at once woman-ghost, snake, and train, is terrifying because of a history of violences enacted upon women or which women enacted upon themselves as a last effort to protect themselves. Haunting their descendants across time and space, the ancestors, particularly female ancestors, become so separated from descendants because of the violences enacted upon them, or that they feared in life, that they can no longer recognize each other. This lack of recognition turns them into something monstrous, the Nüwa:

[T]he women of our tribe hanged themselves with their own hair to avoid being captured […] even after the bodies were cut down, their hair kept growing from the branches, vining and perming into a generation of snakes, a lineage of spines. “Don’t whistle at night,” she said. “The snakes will arrive and wreathe you. They don’t remember us anymore. They don’t answer to their names. They will fang into anyone they find.”

In trying to protect themselves the Nüwa lost themselves, becoming a multi-formed analogy of everything that disappeared young women from their families. However, while it’s easy to dismiss the Nüwa as a simple horror story or cautionary tale, the Nüwa haunts the main characters.  The story opens with our speaker being woken by her sister saying she saw its eyes, leading them to follow the Nüwa’s bloody trail to the tracks, but the blood here feels more real than when the speaker says she recognized the girl found by the train tracks, perhaps devoured by the Nüwa. Then, when Vivien, a woman the sisters worked with and who the speaker was having a bit of a romance with, also disappears, the sisters are spurred into action. While the sisters are able to technically rescue Vivien, tracking down the Nüwa and managing to carve her out of it, the rescue is never fully complete and Vivien is never the same, now a member of the Nüwa number:

Vivien wore slats on her skin, bars of shadow that pleated her cheeks, and I knew there was a new face growing beneath this one, waiting for the first to shed. […] After the lunch hour, we fell asleep twined in the backseat of her car. When I woke up her mouth was muffled against my arm, biting it to the bone. She bandaged it later […] made me promise I would never be eaten, never go back to see the train when the moon was motoring it, where the light would mosaic my skin into scales.

In the end this sort of hunger is the most terrifying the collection portrays, because it has no satiation, simply moving on to consume another person.

Hunger isn’t the only haunting in the book; other bodily desires like sex are conflated with more literal appetites throughout. These appetites mirror each other and often represent close physical or romantic relationships between women. In “Eating Pussy” the main character, Pity, rehearses for her school’s talent show where she will perform her ability to eat anything in a bid to win the attention of her classmate, Pussy. Desire for Pussy’s attention becomes conflated with a hunger that becomes almost cannibalistic: “I imagined eating her eyes one at a time, first her left, then her right, pupils like candied stones, swallow and you’ll sink.” But when Pussy volunteers to be eaten and, once offstage, regurgitated for the talent show, this desire escalates. Pity not only swallows Pussy whole, but, rather than simply regurgitating her, fully births her.

Similarly, in “Dykes,” a worker at a sushi counter is surprised by the resemblance of her co-worker, Ail, to food, how “she whipped off her shower cap and I saw for the first time how pale her scalp was, how much it resembled a seam of fat in the salmon slabs.” In the next moment, their boss demands “we should come in tomorrow wearing shorter skirts. ‘Sex and food are symmetrical appetites,’ he said. ‘The people want to be fed.'”

Another haunting is just as likely to be familial, a more tender kind of devastation. The living ghosts who drift throughout the collection, often named only by their role in relation to the speakers (aunt, widow, brother, cousin), can become as haunting as literal specters. In “Meals for Mourners” there is space for grief, even practicing grief, everyone in the family holding a part of the shared topography of lineage and family secrets:

I know the stories of the miscarriages before us, First brother knows the ones about the zippered scar on her neck, Second brother knows where the gold is kept, Third brother knows why she won’t say the word funeral, Fourth brother knows exactly whose face is in her newspaper clippings, Fifth brother knows why she keeps the cabinet under the sink locked, and none of us know what exactly Sixth brother knows. To know everything at once would drown us, so we tread at the level of fact: who, what, when.

There is hurt in this family, new hurt painted over old traumas, shaping relationships—but at the core there is love and care. The story tells us that, even when a hunger is all-consuming, it’s just as likely to drive us to connection as it is to invite destruction.

The hunger these characters have for life, for each other, is all so visceral it’s impossible to walk away from. Gods of Want is one of those collections I know I’ll find myself reaching for again and again, hungry for all the things I know it still has to tell me. A beautiful collection filled with rich characterization, a strong series of narratives, and gorgeous language, I’m pretty sure I dreamed them for a week after I finished the book. The diversity of characters, and desire—for love, physical comfort, physical needs—is a terrifyingly relatable showcase of all the ways that need can create and destroy all of us, always hungry and searching for more.

Gods of Want, by K-Ming Chang. New York, New York: One World, July 2022. 224 pages. $27.00, hardcover.

E.B. Schnepp currently resides in Indiana. Their work can also be found in Ninth LetterLongleaf, and Up the Staircase, among others.

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