Shih-Li Kow: The Imperfect Messiness of Life

Associate Fiction Editor Madeline DeLuca interviews author Shih-Li Kow. Read Kow’s story “Golden Boys” here.

Motherhood might be rewarding but it isn’t romantic in the Hallmark greeting-card way.

—Shih-Li Kow


A powerful scene in “Golden Boys” is when Noah sees Kentucky Chan killing the rabbit and Ti Yen calls them “savages.” Why did you choose to include this line?

Thank you for bringing this up. I wanted a pivot point in the story where differences escalate. I wrote the rabbit incident to bring home the point that these characters now have different lifestyles, and how this becomes cause for friction.

I’ve spent a large part of my life in the city, in a developing country that often announces our chase for “first world status,” although the majority of the country is far from it. It’s easy to slip into thinking that big city amenities give people better lives. By the same token, we can impose a judgment of backwardness to the way some people live. I want to be more conscious of how I’m thinking about this. For example, shopping in the sanitized environment of a supermarket reinforces the disconnect between farm and table. We conveniently forget where the animals we eat come from. Hence, Ti Yen calls them ‘savages’ when reality gets too close for comfort.

A mother’s love is beautifully written in this story, showcasing even the disappointing and shameful sides. Why did you want to write about motherhood in this way?

Motherhood is a complicated, messy thing. It’s not just mothering a young child or teenager that is so. Parenting an adult can be as difficult. Dynamics shift. There’s money involved. The adults have individual interpretations of their shared history. Both are now capable of manipulative behaviour, imposing expectations, and putting self-interest first. Even when there appears to be mutual love, the limits of responsibility of one towards the other is seldom simple. Motherhood might be rewarding but it isn’t romantic in the Hallmark greeting-card way it’s sometimes made out to be. I wanted to write a little about this imperfect messiness.

How did this story evolve as you worked on it, especially the ending?

Characters in this story are minor characters in my second book. They have grown older now, with a story of their own outside the book. I initially wrote this in a third person POV, probably because I had thought of them as belonging to a different framework. It made for a linear telling and led to a conclusive ending which was serviceable but unsatisfying.

Changing to the first person POV opened up the story for one character—the one who is most impacted—to have an internal dialogue. It gave me room to explore this narrator’s thoughts and reflections. A revised ending came with the new POV, since I was able to seed the questions and points of conflict in the story.

What is your writing routine like? Do you write every day?

I write on most days. It’s such a pleasure to be able to answer ‘Yes’ to this question, because up until last year, I had a day job that left me little time and headspace for creative work. I work best when the house is quiet, which is usually after midnight or early in the morning. I don’t have fixed hours for writing—I prefer it free-and-easy.

The one thing I’m fussy about, though, is finishing stuff regularly on a fortnightly basis. It could be a 1000-word story or a 3000-word section. I rewrite as many times as necessary until I’m satisfied enough to set it aside and stop thinking about it for a while.

What topics or themes do you find you’re most interested in exploring in your work?

I find myself circling around and coming back to generational issues, parenting, and periods of transition. Social issues, especially multi-cultural and ethical problems, have also come into my fiction because of the deteriorating situation in Malaysia.

Where do you find inspiration?

Honest observation of daily life is the most reliable source of material, coupled with curiosity and imagination of course. Perhaps I say this out of necessity since travel to exotic places and living exciting alternate lives isn’t an option for me.

I especially like chance encounters and coincidences. Synchronicity always feels like a gift, like an encouraging nudge. People are endlessly interesting. So are animals and insects and science. I collect bits of the news, books, magazines, obscure facts stumbled upon online, plus the words of other writers.

What are you currently working on?

I’m in kind of a “processing” phase. For me, this means sifting notes and ideas from notebooks, fleshing them out, and shaping them. Hopefully, I will come out of this phase with some short stories and material to form part of a longer WIP.

By Madeline DeLuca

Madeline DeLuca is fiction co-editor of Mud Season Review. She has her MFA in Fiction Writing and Publishing from Fairfield University. She currently lives in Pennsylvania and works at a bookstore. She loves language, words, and stories—especially strange ones. She has written a novel, poetry, short stories, and essays, and her words can be found in The Portland Review, Causeway Lit, Kalliope, and Hardfreight. She is honored to read your words today.