Photo credit Bettina Volke.
We recently had the pleasure of reading Berlin-based writer May-Lan Tan's short story collection Things to Make and Break (2014). We fell in love with the shadowy, hypnotic world her stories create and with the raw aches and passions they tell of – those rare flashes of feeling that make you come alive in this dull world, if only for a moment.
May-Lan Tan is the author of the short story collection Things to Make and Break and the chapbook Girly. She is a recipient of the 2021 Berlin Senate grant for non-German literature. Her fiction has appeared in Zoetrope: All-Story, the Atlas Review, the Reader, and Areté.
1. You're an artist whose work seems to shift between different mediums, from fine art to performance to writing... What are the impulses that make you express yourself creatively?
The creative process has always been this accompanying presence, a tiger sleeping beside me that I can wake up and play with. For me, the core impulse is my relationship with that animal, and the ambient impulses are communicative and social. I make things to be in communion with art that moves me and to be in conversation with other makers.
If we’re talking specifically about writing, the engine is a desire to break up language and remake it to be more immediate and inclusive. If we can find the language to identify and organize ourselves and describe the ways we really live, instead of trying to fit them to the language that exists, I believe this can change the way we experience our lives.
2. What keeps you busy these days? Are you working on anything in particular?
I’m reading a lot and working on a few different things: a story collection set in space, a short novel about a teenage psychopath on her summer vacation, and a secret project.
3. Having lived in so many places around the world, how did you end up in Berlin? What has the city offered you creatively?
My father had lived and worked here before I was born and my parents both speak German, so I grew up listening to it. I never learned it then, but I could always feel it at the cellular level. When I came to Berlin and took a German course, it felt like something I had been waiting for without knowing it.
I think I’m a chill perfectionist, and I feel like that describes Berlin and a lot of people in it, too. It has that city focus, structure, rhythm and ambition, balanced by soft fun dreamy energy. For me, that’s the ideal environment for producing work.
4. I loved the stories in Things to Make and Break so much. They’re all emotionally intense, honest, and vulnerable. I feel that every story trusted me with a bittersweet personal secret that I now carry with me. A lot of them offer insight into teenage years or childhood feelings and observations. What is your relationship with this period, does it have a special meaning for you?
Childhood and adolescence can be seen as liminal states intersecting animal and human, wildness and civilization, spirit and material worlds, nature and culture, and I definitely experienced them that way. It made sense to populate this collection with liminal beings, who were likely to be in contact with its themes.
5. Another important part of your stories are the dreamlike sequences many of them contain, beautiful memories of moments where daily hardships, though looming in the background, can be briefly escaped. How do you cope with the brutal nature of reality?
When things feel too intense, I reach out to my friends and family. They always have amazing insight and whatever’s awful in the world is probably on their minds too.
6. What was the last book you read that moved you in unexpected ways?
A philosophy-sports-autofiction novel about endurance: So Many Olympic Exertions by Anelise Chen. Her writing is beautiful, with a quality of stillness, and she asks intense questions about life, death, and art. Reading it is like watching an eclipse through a pinhole.
I’m pretending you also asked me to recommend 10 short story collections:
Back Talk — Danielle Lazarin
The Office of Historical Corrections — Danielle Evans
Parallel Hells — Leon Craig
You Will Never Be Forgotten — Mary South
How to Pronounce Knife — Souvankham Thammavongsa
Afterparties — Anthony Veasna So
Milk Blood Heat — Dantiel W. Moniz
The Dangers of Smoking in Bed — Mariana Enriquez
100 Boyfriends — Brontez Purnell
Inheritors — Asako Serizawa