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New novel Memory Piece imagines life in a dystopian New York

Lisa Ko speaks to Dazed about her new novel, which charts the lives of three childhood friends across six decades

Lisa Ko’s new novel, Memory Piece, follows three Asian-American women who first meet as preteens in the early 1980s. There’s Giselle Chin, a performance artist; Jackie Ong, a Silicon Alley coder; and Ellen Ng, a straight-talking activist who lives in an East Village squat.

The novel follows Ko’s debut, The Leavers, which was published in 2017. But Ko actually began writing Memory Piece well before The Leavers had hit the shelves. “I started writing it back in 2016, before my first novel came out,” she tells Dazed. “I was thinking a lot about making art under capitalism, reminiscing about a time of free creativity in childhood where I was able to make art before I even knew what art was, and the enjoyment of it before I began worrying about things like rent or my career and book deals.”

The novel is divided into three distinct sections, each told from a different character’s perspective. Giselle’s section, the first, focuses on her struggle to break into the art world as she executes elaborate performance art stunts: for one piece, she lives in a hidden room in a New Jersey mall for an entire year, relying on Jackie to bring her food and water and dispose of buckets of her excrement. Jackie’s section captures the heady days of the 1990s dot-com boom and the nefarious origins of Big Tech, as Jackie grows increasingly sceptical of what her bosses are doing with their customers’ data.

The third section, told from Ellen’s perspective, leaps forward to the 2040s. In this dystopian rendering of New York, Ellen is a septuagenarian woman forced to spend her twilight years delivering groceries. She’s surveilled while she works, shepherded through ‘checkpoints’ by brutish cops, and forced to urinate into a nappy as toilet breaks are off the cards. She continues to live with her two housemates in their communal home, but gentrification increasingly threatens to drive them out.

It’s a bleak vision of the future, made bleaker by the fact that a world where pensioners are forced to work, police and tech companies control everything, and activism is driven underground is entirely believable. But in spite of this, Memory Piece is a hopeful novel. While it’s a book about gentrification, surveillance, Big Tech, and elitism, it’s also a book about the triumph of community, friendship, and love.

Here, we speak to Ko about her writing process, how to live a ‘meaningful’ life, and hope for the future.

I wanted to start by asking you about your writing process. Memory Piece covers so much ground – in the book you discuss themes like art, technology, work, surveillance, friendship, community, memory, and so much more. How did you begin writing the story?

Lisa Ko: I started writing about these three childhood friends who were being creative together; I wanted to really look at this idea of lifelong friendships that influence you, even though you don’t see each other every day. But I also wanted to write about women who were really obsessed with their work, who were really ambitious in the different creative work they were trying to do, and all that they would do in order to figure out how to prioritise that in their lives.

I heard you speaking on a podcast where you said that in your initial drafts Ellen was a much smaller character. How did you realise that she deserved her own ‘section’ within the narrative?

Lisa Ko: She was initially a ‘nosy neighbour’ type of character who appeared in both of Giselle and Jackie’s storylines. The writing is always sort of telling me something, and I was enjoying writing her so much – she was popping up in both their sections a lot. She’s somebody that both Jackie and Giselle turn to to hold their decisions and their values up for judgement. I think because of Ellen’s personality and her work she’s idealistic and annoying in some ways, but she makes the other characters feel their own insecurities and question their decisions.

I realised she was the missing piece for how to tie all these storylines together. Her activism work in combating gentrification was the link between Jackie’s work in the tech world and Giselle’s work in the art world, and how those three things work together both in the past and in the future. So I realised she had to have her own storyline and section as well.

I’m glad she had her own section. She was my favourite character.

Lisa Ko: That’s funny. Everybody I talk to has a different favourite character. Some people are like, ‘I can’t stand her!’

The book is billed as ‘a visionary new novel that asks: what is the value of a meaningful life?’. Did you have any revelations about what it means to lead a ‘meaningful’ life while writing the book?

Lisa Ko: That was definitely one of the questions that was driving me while writing the book. How do you stay true to yourself? Is it even possible when there are so many things going on? But I think that through writing it I arrived at the value of community and connection: remembering our collective history and staying connected to friends and community. If there’s a lesson – which I don’t necessarily know if there needs to be – that’s something that all three of the characters come to realise by the end.

What were some other questions you wanted to unpack in the book?

Lisa Ko: Just, how did we get to where we’re going? The book starts in the past, in a familiar setting for me as I’m somebody who grew up in the 80s and 90s. I’m now thinking forward: where’s the world going? Where’s my home going? What’s going to happen in the next few decades? I’m also just trying to look at how we got to this point, and what that might say about the future.

“So much of the dominant narrative of capitalism is telling us that we’re alone and no one’s gonna help you and we’re all competing for the same things. But countering that is really powerful” – Lisa Ko

Writing about the future can be incredibly hard to do well, but I thought your depiction of New York in 2041 made total sense. Unfortunately I can easily envisage a future where we’re constantly surveilled by the state and forced to do gig work even in our seventies. How did you approach writing the section which is set in the future?

Lisa Ko: It’s interesting hearing people’s reactions to the future part, because it’s definitely a challenge where you have to toe the line of giving enough information, but not giving too much information. There’s always the danger it’s going to be very, very wrong! But for me, it felt like a very logical future, especially given the scenes that took place in the 80s and 90s sections of the novel, where we see where things are going with regards to the tech world that Jackie works in. 

You know, 2041 is only 17 years away, which is kind of terrifying. It’s not that far away. To me it just feels like all the things that are portrayed in the book are already happening now. We’re already experiencing surveillance, increased militarisation and police presence, scarcity of resources, it’s hard to make a living... it doesn’t seem that far from the present and the reality that we’re in.

I thought Jackie’s initial optimism about technology read as quite ironic, given that we as readers have witnessed the rise of Big Tech. How do you feel about advances in technology?

Lisa Ko: I definitely relate to some parts of Jackie’s storyline. I was also an early internet adapter in my teens. I had an early website and web journal and felt that sense of intense optimism and creativity around the time. How do I feel now? I think I have a little bit of tech pessimism, but I think it’s just mainly pessimism around the corporate forces that are owning [the tech] and operating it. I think it’s not something that exists apart from the people who build it and use it, it’s kind of inseparable from that.

But yeah, I do think there is a sense of absurdity and irony in Jackie’s section. I was actually reading something a while ago about parents who pay an astronomical amount of money to send their children to school where there are no devices [laughs]. Now that we’ve invented technology, we’re paying for the ability to be without the technology that was once promised to us as something that would solve all our problems and make things easier! But obviously, tech has complicated things in ways we couldn’t predict. But then again, also in ways that are very predictable.

I’d say the book’s ending is still pretty optimistic despite the fact that it paints quite a grim picture of the future. How do you remain hopeful for the future?

Lisa Ko: Writing the book itself was a reminder to myself that we’re not alone. So much of the dominant narrative of capitalism is telling us that we’re alone and no one’s gonna help you and we’re all competing for the same things. But countering that is really powerful. And I think that’s something that the characters also figured out: that even in times which may feel bleak and scary, we have each other. People keep creating things and surviving, throughout difficult times and joyful times. So I think that’s something that gives me a lot of sustenance.

Memory Piece by Lisa Ko is published by Dialogue Books and is available to buy now.

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