Cancer: Rachel Khong
Here’s an interview with the magical Rachel Khong, for this New Moon in Cancer week! Rachel’s work is an inspiring expression of Cancer (through her focus on food, family, memory, the past, and domestic space / experience), Gemini (through her bringing together of so many people and ideas), and Capricorn (through her astounding work ethic and responsibility), among other things! She's created a work (Capricorn) space that feels cozy and inviting like a home (Cancer), to bring people doing all different kinds of arts and letters (Gemini) activities. Read her books and her writing, and visit the Ruby for classes and/or for co-working.
Rachel Khong is a writer and novelist living in the Mission, in San Francisco. She is the founder of The Ruby, also located in the Mission, a shared work and gathering space for women of all definitions.
1. When do you experience the most joy?
When writing is easy, when it feels like magic. Reading a good book, or watching a good movie. Cooking and eating a meal with friends who make me laugh. Being in someone’s garden (I wish I had my own!). When I’ve written or cooked something that I think is good; both the process and the result can be a joy. Maybe that’s the main thing: I like making stuff, or enjoying something that someone else has made.
2. How integrated do your various roles feel? How much does it matter if they are integrated to you?
My roles feel fairly integrated in my body though I know they’re disparate to say out loud. I write fiction and nonfiction; as of January, I’ve also run a small business. I finally feel I’m at a place of just, like, feeling fully myself — doing the things that I want and love to be doing (along with, you know, chores! But I don’t mind chores). In the past I’ve felt unhappy and just off when I was doing too much of one thing; I think often because my sense of worth would be wrapped up in whatever work I was doing. There were years I worked incredibly hard at my magazine job, and though the work itself was satisfying, I was also miserable because I felt I was failing at finishing my novel. At the same time, I’ve also been really unhappy at times in my life when I had nothing to do but write fiction. These days, I get to work on my novel, write the occasional magazine piece, eat and cook food, and do things that I love at The Ruby, like learn how to make or do things, learn things period, talk about books, and even just play mahjong (I shouldn’t say just; mahjong is serious stuff!). Working on The Ruby has been the most interesting puzzle: making this thing for other people that, for me, has been so special and so valuable, too. The Ruby has been a way to bring many of my interests and skills together, a way to engage these different aspects of myself. We are all so many things, at once. It can be frustrating to be seen only as one part of you, or to have your worth feel tied up in a specific output. With The Ruby, I especially want to acknowledge this about us, as humans: we’re multifaceted, and have many interests and needs. I want The Ruby to be a site of integration and also belonging. You are not only the work that you do; you are your interests, you are your sense of humor, you are your generosity, you are so much.
3. Do you relate to the typical Cancer problem of absorbing others' emotions, and if so, how do you manage that?
I do! As I get older I’m managing it better. I think recognizing that you do this is a first step. When I was younger I was so conflict averse I avoided conflicts altogether; I thought that even having an argument with my partner would mean that we were doomed — the relationship would fall apart — which of course wasn’t and isn’t true. I think as a Cancer and a woman and a minority I have done, in life, a lot of second-guessing myself. That problem of taking in what other people feel — not creating space for myself, and not drawing boundaries that need to exist — is so real. The way that I dealt with this tendency when I was younger was by simply retreating or running from problems — being emotionally unavailable, to not get close enough to people to let people’s emotions really impact me. Being detached and cool. Finally, now, I’m learning that really delicate balance of how to be a person in the world. I’ve had to; I’ve been forced to. I am a writer and I have books that strangers read; I’m a business owner and strangers think things about this business. Not all of the things, of course, are positive. But I’ve learned that people can say terrible things, and people can misunderstand you, and not everybody will like you, and that has to be okay. It just has to. I have had to decide not to be absorbent, but not in the way that I used to, of being emotionally unavailable. These days I’m always reminding myself: people will think what they think; I have my work — the work that I love — to do.
4. You support so many people in the food industry (who probably don't call it the 'food industry', but I don't know the official words). Will you talk about your own personal relationship to food, and how it factors into your every day?
Food has always been so personal and fascinating to me. There’s so much history and identity wrapped up in food, at the same time it does this very simple, elemental thing of nourishing us. We need it to stay alive; every person on earth eats. And, honestly, I just love eating. Food is good! I grew up with a mother who worked full-time yet cooked when she could; my diet growing up alternated between junk food and these really amazing Malaysian curries and noodle soups. When I moved to San Francisco, after college, I went to farmers’ markets for the first time and learned how to cook, and that was its own exciting discovery and joy. Probably this goes back to question number one: it brings me happiness to make things, and to eat things that other people have made. You can learn so much from both of those experiences.
I also love that food can be both public (shared with people) and private (a solitary pleasure). Anthony Bourdain was a cancer; so was MFK Fisher. They were both public and private people, and I get it. Food can be public or private, social or not. It can be a way that a private, perhaps on-guard person can exist in the world, get to know other people more intimately — over a shared meal. Food can do a lot of things at once. There’s a book I love called Home Cooking, by Laurie Colwin, and in it she writes, “For the socially timid, the kitchen is the place to be. At least, it is a place to start.” That has always resonated with me.
5. I'm astounded at the various ways you support other artists, especially at The Ruby. What do you want to be asked about that you don't get asked about enough?
I was reflecting on the fact that I sometimes feel squeamish when I get asked about the thing I’m currently writing, or about The Ruby itself as a project. I shift and I stammer and I freak out slightly inside, and I wonder, why is it so uncomfortable for me to talk about the things that I so deeply love and care about? I think part of the reason is that I’m afraid to articulate the projects incorrectly. That, if I start talking about something, it will be incorrectly received, or that something I say will lead to a misunderstanding. That’s a crazy way to think, of course, because I’m in the business of using language to communicate. And yet, misunderstandings and miscommunication are a really central part of the human experience. We communicate only in flawed ways; we do not understand one another perfectly. It’s a heartbreaking reality that I explore in my fiction, and have recently been exploring with The Ruby, too. This question of: Well, how can we connect, despite our various backgrounds, and our various baggage? I’m so interested in that question.