I confess to feeling some trepidation when asked to interview New York Times staff writer Jay Caspian Kang about his new book, The Loneliest Americans. This is, after all, someone who has called himself a “troll at heart”—at least when it comes to Twitter—in an interview about Time to Say Goodbye, the podcast he co-hosts with E. Tammy Kim and Andy B. Liu.
Like many readers, I began to follow Kang’s writing more closely after his 2017 feature in the New York Times Magazine on the hazing death of Michael Deng. Though I may not always agree with his conclusions, I appreciate Kang’s care in constructing beautiful sentences as well as the way his pieces spark rigorous debate. I’m grateful that this interview gave me the opportunity not only to peruse his latest book but also to dip into the breadth of his decade-plus of published writing on topics as varied as gambling addiction, Black Lives Matter, parenting, Jeremy Lin, and—in a piece I found to be particularly moving—the 2012 Oikos University shooting. The Loneliest Americans, like Kang’s 2012 novel The Dead Do Not Improve, contains mentions of Buddhism. Though worried that I might be belaboring a peripheral concern, I chose to focus my interview questions on his relationship to its teachings and traditions. Kang was glad to engage these topics, which were a change from the questions about politics and identity that he’s used to fielding. It turns out I needn’t have worried. Our interview repeatedly circled back to a formative Buddhist phase in Kang’s life that has been a bedrock for his thinking and writing. My enduring memory of the conversation is of our many outbursts of (decidedly un-troll-like) laughter.
In your introduction to The Loneliest Americans, you mention being a Buddhist in your early twenties. In the MRAzns [Asian Men’s Rights Activists] chapter, we get a glimpse into that incense-lighting, tree-planting, meditation-intensive period of your life. I should add that readers who are looking for it will find traces of this Buddhist phase in your earlier writing—one of the main characters in The Dead Do Not Improve is named Siddhartha, after all. Can you tell us more about how these spiritual explorations influenced your thinking and writing? No one has ever asked me that before. When I went off to college, my mother gave me a bunch of books—Chuang-tzu, Lao-tzu, Wang Wei, other Daoist poets. Through that, I started reading American imitators of this type of poetry: Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouac, the Beat generation. I took a course on Buddhism and East Asian art and a Hinduism class where we read the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads. It was all extremely intellectually interesting to me. I realized that I believed the core tenets of all three, whether Lao-tzu, or the Bhagavad Gita, or this naturalistic Dharma Bums type of thing. I started thinking differently about the passage of time, about ambition, about performing our duty without attachment to the result.
So I dropped out and spent a year in Seattle as a tree planter. By luck, my best friend on the crew was studying to become a Zen monk. We would plant trees and have these long conversations. He was very perceptive in a way that was exciting to me. For two or three years, this became my life: meditation, trying to understand myself and the world. It wasn’t always ritualistic, and it wasn’t always as dedicated as I wanted it to be. Then I went back to college. Some form of the last twenty years has been trying to figure out how to get back to that type of state.
[After college] for four to five years, I went surfing every day in San Francisco. I wasn’t particularly good at it, but surfing in the cold water was also a form of repetitive meditation. Out there I would feel much differently than I did on land. And then the last ten years it’s been my career. Maybe I care less about my success than other writers because of the years that I spent thinking about Buddhism, about the Gita. I feel very detached from my career. Yet it’s almost impossible for me to do my work without it interfering with what I still find to be, intellectually and spiritually, what I have been most attracted to in my life. It’s always a push and pull.
During those two to three years in Seattle, were you practicing alone or with a sangha? Mostly alone, or with my friend. I wish I’d had somebody who was a bit more traditional to talk to. I read a ton of books, but it was usually through the context of Westerners who had discovered this stuff. And that’s partially because I was raised in this country. The Western version of this is more of an idea than a practice, right?
I interviewed Ocean Vuong on his thoughts about Buddhism. He’s pretty devout, he has a more ritual-based relationship with the religion. For me it was purely, how do I end the suffering by thinking and reading through it? I asked Ocean: How do you manage to be a writer and also a Buddhist? As a writer, so much of my life is attached to my own ego, which I find anathema to Buddhism. Ocean said that one day he will stop writing because of this.
You describe your Buddhist phase as a “spiritual rebellion” in the book, and it seems to have been an avenue for grappling with identity and Asian American selfhood. At the time, were you thinking about the racialized dimensions of this spiritual rebellion? At the time I would’ve said: Chuang-tzu, Lao-tzu, Wang Wei—these are writers, and I want to be a writer. Their poems influenced what I thought writing should be. But I was probably also gravitating toward things that were Asian. I grew up very isolated from other Asian people. Subconsciously, I do think there was some sort of racialized element.
Your book cites a beautiful journal entry from your mother’s blog, Gyopo Woman [a term for Koreans who have lived abroad], that opens with a reference to the Korean Buddhist monk Bopjong. I was thinking about the interest you and your mother share in Buddhist literature. My mother’s understanding is much deeper because she grew up in Korea. Members of her family are Buddhist. If you live in Korea, you walk by temples every day. It’s not the same here—not in North Carolina, certainly. Where I am now in Berkeley, sure, I drive by a Buddhist temple almost every day. But that’s even more true in Korea. My mother’s relationship is much more organic.
I’ve heard this criticism that my relationship to my work is detached. There is a distance between me and the subject, which is made more strange because I am always present in a work in a way that is unusual for a journalist. I think that’s true. I do feel a sense of detachment from the world in many ways; it comes from that period of time. I’m trying to figure out what to do next. I would like to explore that period of my life more. It was only a couple of years, and the intense part was really only a year and a half, and yet I think about it all the time. Maybe I’ll write another novel about it at some point.
You may have abandoned those forms of meditation, but it doesn’t sound like you’ve abandoned that spiritual path. I haven’t really abandoned it. But I do feel distant from it because of my career. I don’t know if Ocean is actually going to quit writing, but I hope he does, because then maybe I’ll quit writing, too. It’s very difficult to be a writer and not to place a lot of importance on your ego.
“If you think about writing the way some of these Daoist people talk about painting, you’re in the moment, and you’re creating something. You should pay attention to the demands of the work at the time of writing as opposed to how it will be received.”
You seem to really enjoy writing. Wouldn’t it be hard to give up? The act of writing itself is fine. I’m very happy to sit down and type for five hours straight. When I talk to young writers or journalists, I say it’s important to try to enjoy the writing part of it.
I don’t need to be like J. D. Salinger and disappear, but I do understand what he was talking about. Sometimes I wonder, What if I just publish for free on a blog? This would be bad for me financially, but would it be different? I don’t think so. When you’re trying to get attention and change people’s minds, when you’re trying to operate within social media, it’s all the same thing.
So it’s not just about publishing in an American literary space that’s 95 percent white? Right. It’s the attention part. I do have a pretty detached relationship with my career. I mean, I’ve worked at a lot of places, I’ve left a lot of places. If you think about writing the way some of these Daoist people talk about painting, you’re in the moment, and you’re creating something. You should pay attention to the demands of the work at the time of writing as opposed to how it will be received. Of course, there are still bills to pay, and it must be important to me in some ways, because I keep existing in this space. But sometimes people close to me will ask, did you celebrate this publication? You know, I never have.
My wife started to collect the magazine stories that I write in print, especially the ones where I’m the cover story. I didn’t have any of them, no clippings or anything. Not even the first story I wrote for the New York Times Magazine. It never occurred to me to keep the physical copy or even go back and look at it. That’s my attitude toward it, derived from my time when I was reading a lot of Buddhist texts.
There’s this anti-nostalgic strain in your writing, but you also seem to live it in your own life. Maybe this is inhuman of me to say, but it’s hard to think back on one’s own life and feel a sense of accomplishment. Objectively I’ve been very successful. I don’t particularly feel very successful, but I think that’s normal—most people don’t. I don’t think backward. It’s almost like there’s a blockage in my brain, where it’s very hard for me to think “This is a big moment.” Maybe that’s why it’s so easy for me to leave some of these places. For me, it’s just, OK, write the piece.
What you describe as detachment, some Buddhists might call equanimity. You seem not particularly blown by the winds of praise or blame. I do get very mad about very specific things. I try not to, and I’ve never understood why certain things set me off. The Asian American culture elite—professionals, the media, and Hollywood people: It doesn’t bother me when they criticize me. It’s the dismissal that bothers me. I wanted to be a writer starting at the age of 8, but I didn’t publish anything until I was 30. It wasn’t out of lack of trying. During that period of struggling, these people were dismissive of what I wrote in the same way. Then I broke through, yet it’s the same dismissal. I guess it goes back to that sense of being 27 and getting constant rejection letters. There’s still some resentment there. So I wouldn’t say full equanimity. I would just say partial.
Your mother writes about her relationship to English as an “impoverished new language”—a limitation that many first-generation immigrants can relate to. You speak of your kindergarten-level Korean—a limitation that many second-generation Asian Americans can relate to. Your mother’s journal entry is an evocative rumination on language and loneliness, and loneliness is, of course, central to the thesis of your book. How does your loneliness differ from your mother’s loneliness? For us second-generation kids, there’s no identification with anything. I watched this 18-year-old from San Jose on TikTok. He was talking obliquely about the book, which I found very surprising, that a young kid would’ve read The Loneliest Americans. He was talking on a very basic level, saying that what people don’t understand is, I don’t feel at home in America, and I can’t go to Korea because my parents said I’d be a gyopo—no one would accept me. He laid it out in the most basic emotional terms possible. That was very affecting to me. If I didn’t feel the need to dress it up in literature or politics, that’s what I would say. At the core is just what this kid is saying.
When she goes back to Korea now, my mother says she feels alienated. But she could go back and just blend in within six months. She speaks Korean. I do in a very poor way. After six months maybe I could be functionally fluent, but I would have an accent, and everyone would know I was an American.
The other part of it is, you feel desperate to belong to a minority coalition, right? You understand you’re different, so you want narratives of difference in this country to apply to you, but they don’t. They’re never talking about you. If anything, you are the antagonist in those stories. That’s a profoundly alienating experience.
I was struck by multiple moments throughout the book where you’re stricken by intense emotions in an embodied—and not just cerebral—sense. I’m curious to hear your reflections on these affects of panic, embarrassment, shame, and anxiety that weave throughout your book. Are these the “minor feelings” that [the Korean American poet] Cathy Park Hong writes about, or something else? Earlier in my life, I was very embarrassed to be raced. I didn’t want to be identified as being anything except me. That is obviously a form of deep ego, a delusion and denial of one’s reality. Every time somebody would bring it up, I would downplay it. I think it’s a generational thing, for Asian Americans who were born around when I was born. This is something I talk to Andrew Yang about. The kids growing up now are not going to have this strange upbringing where they’re always around white people and their parents give them no instruction on how to deal with it. The place where we grew up is much more Asian now. We’re relics in a way, me and Andrew.
In my early twenties, I became much more interested in understanding what it meant to be Korean, to be Asian. And yet you can’t really erase that type of trauma. The embarrassment for being different as a child. I still feel it viscerally, at times, but I don’t act on it. I don’t suppress it. I try to let it work through. People can say they’ve conquered it or that they never feel it, but I don’t believe them.
In many ways, your book highlights the connection between absence and Asian American identity. There’s the absence of speech, of coherence: “what we really want to say has to be left unsaid,” “quiet thoughts metastasize,” “I cannot even name my chains,” “we are something else.” You point us to these absences without telling us how to fill them in. Do you think this kind of absence has to be a lack, or can it be generative? I hope it’s generative. It’s a lot of what I’ve spent my career trying to explore. What happens when you have a certain type of upwardly mobile pathway? There’s something that you can’t quite describe that is not going to feel fulfilled in a way that you think other people might feel fulfilled. The person I see in the public sphere who most openly grapples with this is David Chang [founder of Momofuku, author and podcaster]. I read his interviews, and I sense there’s something very dissatisfying about it. Maybe it’s just because we’re both Korean and we’re about the same age. Part of it is, I can be this successful, and people will still think of me as the Asian guy. Do I think this is the biggest problem in the world? No. Does David? No. But I do think it’s generative.
When I was writing the story about the Asian American fraternity kids who killed one of their pledges—these rituals they did, like reenacting the murder of Vincent Chin—I kept thinking, why are they doing this? Some people might otherize them as stupid bros who don’t know their history well enough, but it’s very difficult for me to judge people, especially Asian Americans. This comes from the time when I was very immersed in those texts. Now that doesn’t mean I always feel a great deal of sympathy or empathy toward them, but I have a hard time dismissing them.
“We should think more capaciously about who is suffering. We should think beyond ourselves. My problems, while deeply felt by me, are trivial. We should really try to figure out who is suffering the most, and we should try to help them.”
If you think about it, everybody is trying their best to do something. These kids are trying to do their best to do something, to the point where they’ve created this entire ritualized history. Almost like a religion. That comes entirely out of a feeling of lack. For them, it was generative. For me it’s generative thinking about why they felt that way.
That piece is probably the one that has been engaged with the most. There was a performance artist who did a whole dance performance based on it. He understood the core of this: what do you build when you have nothing? Those are the things that interest me, not just in Asian America, but everywhere. I feel like I’m done writing about Asian America. But the topics that interest me now are still about people within certain impossible situations. I’m very interested in how well-meaning people are trying to deal with California’s homelessness problem, for instance.
The four noble truths were on my mind as I was reading your book: there is suffering, a cause of suffering, an end to suffering, and a path to the end of suffering. I see The Loneliest Americans as offering a close analysis of the first and second truths with regard to the existence of Asian American suffering and its origins. This led me to wonder about the third and fourth truths. Do you think it’s possible to end this suffering? If so, where should we look to find the path to the end of Asian American suffering? I do. There’s a lot of ways that I can answer this politically—but do you have a duty to ease the suffering of others? Who are the people who are suffering? Those are questions that I think all Buddhists think about. What is the duty that you have? What is the daily work that you have?
We should think more capaciously about who is suffering. We should think beyond ourselves. My problems, while deeply felt by me, are relatively trivial. We should really try to figure out who is suffering the most, and we should try and help them. If we can build an Asian America through these two truths—and I will say, some people are doing this already; it’s just not as mainstream—maybe that is a pathway out. I don’t think that we can think and debate our way out of it.
Your mother’s journal entry ends on this incredibly compassionate note, where her loneliness has led her to become a kind of chaplain to the lonely. For all your skepticism about the viability of Asian American identity, I sense an impulse to alleviate the loneliness of Asian Americans. I have found in my own reading and thinking that when people are very honest, I tend to gravitate toward them regardless what race they are. I was trying to write a book that felt very honest in the same way that Notes of a Native Son did when I read it in my late teens. James Baldwin talking about the relationship he had with his father, the backdrop of the 1943 Harlem riot: Even though it was a foreign life to me, I felt a real sense of identification with all of it. That essay has been very formative in my writing. It’s very beautifully written. It did make me feel less isolated. It gave me hope that there would be this world of people that would understand things on this very deep level. The Loneliest Americans was an attempt to do that. To try to be as honest as possible.
My mother’s relationship to writing is very different. She is uninterested in being any more public than she is. Which I guess is a much more Buddhist way to think about things.
Read the complete interview here.