American novelist, poet, and artist, Tao Lin, explores nuclear radiation, religion, change and recovery, Çatalhöyük, Daoism, and more in his autobiographical novel, Leave Society.
Tao Lin is an American novelist, poet, essayist, short-story writer, and artist. His published works include three novels, a novella, two books of poetry, a collection of short stories, and a memoir. He’s also published extensively online. Since his arrival on the scene in the mid-aughts, he has been something of a controversial figure.
Critics who once panned his work, and him, later became some of his most prominent cheerleaders. In 2008, Lin founded the independent press Muumuu House. He has lectured on writing at many institutions including Vassar and Columbia Colleges and the Museum of Modern Art. He also taught a graduate course on the contemporary short story at Sarah Lawrence College.
S&H: How would you describe Leave Society to a stranger who is unfamiliar with your work?
Tao Lin: Leave Society is an openly autobiographical novel about my life from 2014 to 2018. It’s set in Taipei, Florida, New York City, and Hawaii. Topics in it include nuclear radiation, electromagnetic radiation, mercury fillings, yoga, parents, cosmology, the microbiome, autism, MKULTRA, LSD, cannabis, loneliness, the mystery, the end of history, Çatalhöyük, the Goddess religion, nature, Zhuangzi, Daoism, recovery, and change.
In the book, Li sees human history as “a twenty-millennia release from matter into the imagination, a place that was to the universe as life was to a book: larger, realer, more complicated” and feels that this worldview asks him “not to worry or panic but to stay calm, like a midwife, and try to facilitate the birthlike, surreal, and probably cosmic process.” Because human history is a natural process, he’s able to trust in however it unfolds. I feel like this perfectly describes a mindstate that, if it could be achieved by enough people, would solve many problems. I guess the question is: do you think Li will be able to sustain this restful, generative worldview beyond the borders of the novel?
Even though it requires focused effort to sustain that worldview because it clashes with the worldview of the global dominator culture, I think he will be able to sustain it because of how many enjoyable and exciting and compelling resources he has found that support it—authors that promote optimism and productivity instead of panic and despair (Riane Eisler, Terence McKenna, bell hooks), techniques for reducing worry (meditation, note-taking, writing), calming activities (gardening, playing with cats), encouraging and loving people (partner, friends, family).
In the novel, Li has many other interesting views about the connection of life to literature, such as: “Novels crystallized dreams into prose, made them shareable through matter ... Like dreams, they could be disruptive and unhelpful, fomenting fear and bitterness and confusion, or calming and uplifting, connecting disparate elements from history and memory into holistic stories with natural resonance.” I love this theory of the novel. Do you feel like your own work has undergone a shift from the disruptive towards the more uplifting?
I’m glad that theory on novels and dreams resonated with you. I’m not sure if my work has gone from disruptive to uplifting. I think it depends on the reader. When I was severely depressed and had a bleak worldview, books with depressed characters experiencing loneliness and confusion without redemption calmed and uplifted me.
Now, it’s novels and nonfiction books that convincingly show me how my previous worldview was wrong—how I’ve been lied to by mainstream culture, how it’s dominator society and not life itself that is painful and meaningless—that calm and uplift me.
As you go about your day, are you always thinking a little bit about how whatever is occurring might translate into a novel?
Now that I’m not writing a novel, no, I’m not. And, during the time I was writing Leave Society, I only rarely—and undeliberately—thought about how my life might translate into fiction, because I had a mindset of wanting to put life first and the novel second. I wanted to write about my life after it occurred, instead of think about my novel while living my life. I recorded voice memos of my parents and I talking—I recorded like 50 hours of audio—but while recording I wouldn’t think about the novel. I would just know that I could use the recording later on for the novel.
During the time I was writing Leave Society, I only rarely—and undeliberately—thought about how my life might translate into fiction, because I had a mindset of wanting to put life first and the novel second.
One of the most understated yet significant moments in Leave Society is Li’s turning away from the concept that conflict is necessary for art or, for that matter, culture. I am, of course, assuming this might be a realization you yourself have had. If so, do you think stories propelled by awe and curiosity are somehow not as marketable as stories about conflict?
I don’t think they’re less marketable, but more just that it’s easier to maintain a reader or listener’s interest when one is telling a story that has conflict. Conflict leads to plot, and it’s a challenge to tell a story that doesn’t have a plot, though I think that plot can also be built out of awe and curiosity.
My favorite part of the book is when Li goes to Hawaii and decides he could actually live there. How has living in Hawaii for almost a year and a half affected you?
I think it has benefitted my physical and mental health a lot, compared to when I lived in Manhattan, due to air quality and the amount of trees and birds and other animals here, and that people here seem more laid back and friendly. Everything was so rushed and crazed in Manhattan.
Other than yourself, I can’t think of too many contemporary writers who, while not masking their racial, sexual, or economic background, at the same time seem completely uninterested in those things as cornerstones of their identity and/or a foundation for creative work. Can you speak to this at all?
As a kid, I related more to other kids who were shy and socially awkward and who shared my interests than I did to other Asians, other Taiwanese people, or other males. Today, I still relate more to other people based on their ideas and personalities than their race or sex or sexual orientation, or economic background.
I want to feel more aligned with the whole human species instead of just specific groups. I want to underscore—to myself and others—that I’m a human instead of underscoring that my parents were born in Taiwan.
Read our review of Leave Society by Tao Lin in the July/August 2021 issue.