Like many girls, Catherine Chung grew up being told she was bad at math, even though that was clearly not true. In middle school, she tested into an accelerated math program, through which she finished calculus her freshman year of high school and started early on college-level math. While she knew from childhood that she wanted to be a writer, her parents encouraged her to study something more practical, like economics. Instead, she chose to major in math, which her parents didn’t find practical either (though her dad, a mathematician himself, couldn’t oppose). “It was this weird compromise where neither of us were getting exactly what we wanted,” she said, “and as it happened I fell completely in love with math.”
Her latest novel, The Tenth Muse, follows mathematician Katherine—whose name Chung calls “an inside joke with myself,” a reference to readers’ assumption that her first novel was autobiographical. Growing up in 1940s Michigan, Katherine knows little about the life stories of her secretive parents, her dad a white veteran and her mom an immigrant from China. When she starts her career and becomes transfixed by the unsolved Riemann hypothesis, her professional and family questions begin to intertwine.
“I should warn you that I tell a story like a woman: looping into myself, interrupting,” Katherine says at the start of the first chapter. As she narrates her own story, she also tells stories of the women mathematicians who came before her, and the mythological heroines of her childhood, Kwan-Yin and the tenth muse. These women bolster her and give her perspective even as she struggles against the sexist and racist expectations of her colleagues.
In our conversation, I talked with Catherine Chung about the erasure of women’s accomplishments in mathematics, moving to Michigan amid the anti-Asian sentiment of the Japanese auto boom, and writing a biracial narrator.
HelloGiggles: You grew up hearing the message that you were bad at math even though it sounds like you weren’t at all. Was there something else that you were encouraged in, a subject more commonly associated with girls, like English?
Catherine Chung: Noo. Well, in second grade, I had a teacher who loved the stories that I wrote. I never felt that I was particularly good at writing stories or poems at that age, but I think there was an enthusiasm. She was probably my favorite teacher that I ever had, this second-grade teacher I had in New Jersey. She wasn’t like, “You’re good at writing stories,” she was just like, “Oh, I love reading about the saga of this dinosaur.” She encouraged me not by telling me that I was good but by caring about what I was writing. I don’t want to be hard on the teachers I had growing up, and it may have just been that I was an indifferent student in some ways, but I don’t feel like I was ever encouraged very much in anything that I did. I had a couple English teachers who liked some thoughts that I had, but I feel like that’s it. What about you?
HG: I think that I was lucky to always be pretty encouraged in English and writing, and I think part of it was that I was really obsessive because my family moved around a lot, so I was lonely and trying to write about the last place we lived, so I’d fill pages and pages writing about my old friends. I think they saw how much I was writing and they thought, good for you, you have this thing that you like, keep doing that.
CC: I also moved around a ton. I think we went to a new school pretty much every year until I was in fourth grade.
HG: Where did you live?
CC: I was born in Evanston, then we lived in Upstate New York, New York City, and New Jersey. And then when I was in third grade, we moved to Michigan, where we settled down for a while. When we moved to Michigan, I missed New Jersey so much because I had loved it there, and Michigan was not the most welcoming place to Asian people at the time that we lived there because it was going through the Japanese auto crisis, so it was an extremely hostile place for us to have moved. I remember being really shocked because until that point I had not really been an outcast before, and suddenly I was in this new place where it wasn’t just that I was the new girl, it was like I was the wrong kind of person.
HG: Did they assume that you were Japanese because you were Asian, or did they just decide all Asians were bad because of Japanese cars?
CC: It was a combination of the two. I don’t think there was a tremendous amount of discernment about the different kinds of Asian that you could be at the time when I was young; you were Chinese or Japanese, and the few people who had heard of Korea were like, “Are you from North Korea?” People just didn’t know. And I would always forget—I would come home and be like, “Mom, I don’t remember, are we from South Korea or North Korea?” It’s not that they were ignorant, it’s that they were children. But the bright spot in my third grade class was that after free writing time, we would get to read our stories, and the children could call on each other, and it was the only thing that I ever got picked first for.
My fellow classmates would always be like, “We want to hear Cathy’s story,” and it was wonderful to get to sit up there and share the thing that I loved most in the world with my usually completely hostile classmates who for whatever reason liked hearing what I wrote.
In fact, then, I wrote funny things, I guess, because they would laugh, and it was just the best feeling at the time. I think that that probably really solidified my commitment to being a writer at the age of, like, eight.
HG: That’s interesting that they were hostile to you except when you were reading your stories. I mean, it’s sad also, but I’m glad that you had that place where you could feel heard.
CC: It also makes sense—I mean, you read all these articles about how literature or stories are the best way of creating empathy, and I think that that is just true. I think when somebody listens to your stories, it opens them up to you. It was maybe one of my first moments that I understood the power of writing.
HG: In The Tenth Muse, you use math, mostly in the 1960s, as a lens to look at all these issues like gender inequity and racism, and also the way scholars were stealing from and appropriating each other’s work. Is that kind of appropriation something you encountered when you were in academia? How did you become aware of it happening?
CC: I think that those stories were sort of in the air, and people are still talking about the contributions of women that have been erased, right? When I was in college, there was this story that came out about Watson and Crick, who won the Nobel Prize for the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA. It came out that a woman named Rosalind Franklin had made these major contributions, but she had been taken off of the Nobel Prize. I remember hearing that story, and then once you start looking into stories like that, there are so many more, and you know that the stories that we know are just the tip of the iceberg because the rest have just been lost to us. I became very curious about that because until then I had thought of science as a very noble pursuit. From there, I discovered, oh, scientists are just people. We do all the same terrible things and we take advantage of structural imbalances so we can get what we can. I read about all these women who had made these major, major contributions, and it was on the one hand extremely frustrating the ways in which they had their work stolen from them, and at the same time it was incredibly inspiring how much they were able to contribute.
HG: Katherine in the book has all these women mathematicians whose stories are kind of a guiding force for her as she’s building her own career. Did you have people like that in writing as you were beginning to write, whether they were women or Asian American?
CC: Yes. There was just this thing that went around Twitter recently that asked, who was the first Asian American author you ever read and what did it mean to you?
HG: I remember that.
CC: So I’m curious who yours were, but while everyone was posting who their person was, I remembered reading this story in my middle school reader that was not assigned in class, but I read it on my own. It was about a Chinese girl whose family who gets invited to her friend’s house. They’ve never eaten raw celery before, and before they cook celery they always take out the strings. So they’re sitting there with her friend’s family, taking all the strings out of the celery, which makes this zipping noise, and then they look up and everyone is looking at them like they’re crazy. I read this story, and it was so funny and charming, and the narrator was so self-possessed and confident. She’s embarrassed by the way in which her family doesn’t fit in, but at the same time, she has a sort of awareness that it’s not their fault, that there’s not something wrong with them. I remember being so relieved that I could read this story in secret, that it wasn’t something that I had to share with my classmates, because I didn’t feel like I needed to represent or explain that experience. And yet it was also the first time I had read anything that sort of got at that particular kind of feeling. I just remember how much that story bolstered me up.
Then when I was in high school, Joy Luck Club came out, and I just thought that it was so beautiful. I thought the people on screen were so beautiful, and they were filled with their own passions, and I loved that the backstory of what happened in China was given this immense importance. I loved it. Then my third person that I read in my youth was Chang-Rae Lee. I read A Gesture Life, and that book is so beautiful. Those three experiences felt very formative to me. And I think that was part of what I was trying to get at with Katherine’s search for a sort of intellectual lineage in addition to a biological lineage.
I do think that as the child of immigrants, you can often feel like part of your history is lost to you because it’s not embedded in the history of the country you live in. I think I felt less grounded putting down roots in a place where my roots were new, you know?
I wanted to give that to my protagonist, that search and journey, and I wanted her to be able to find these people she could claim as her kin, to be able to sink her roots into history, not just [into] her own life, if that makes sense.
HG: Yeah, that does make sense. I love those examples. The one about the celery—that’s such a cute and positive story. I was thinking about what my first Asian American stories were. My mom would read me Japanese books, so I had that, but—
CC: It was different, right? I had that too.
HG: Yeah, I remember reading something by a Japanese American writer. It was for kids. I don’t remember who the author is, but it was about this girl whose mom is really depressed and she ends up killing herself. And I was so afraid after reading it that my mom would kill herself because she was similar to the mom in the book in many ways. I remember not wanting to share this fear with her because that might make it come true. It’s interesting how if you have such limited models, then the ones that you do have, you can take so personally.
CC: Absolutely. And I think that that’s actually very dangerous. So I like that with Katherine she can claim these people for herself. Because before that, she says in one of the early chapters that in the town that she grows up in, women don’t go to college. They all become mothers, or the number of jobs that are open to them is very limited. That’s something I’m always trying to think about and actively engage with: What are the models we’re given, the stories we’re told, and are they true? And do they liberate us and lead us toward where we want to go? Are they going to do us any good?
HG: Katherine is Chinese American and biracial, and you’re Korean American and monoracial. So what was the process like for you of preparing to inhabit her character?
CC: I didn’t necessarily “prepare” to write someone of Katherine’s background in any way, aside from reading autobiographies and essays about what the attitude and environment was toward Asians back then to get a sense of the time period she was growing up in. But beyond that, I think more than preparation, what I needed to understand Katherine’s relationship to her background was just to spend time with her while she observed, for instance, the way her Chinese mother was treated in their town versus her white, war-hero father, versus her biracial self, the daughter of these two people.
Katherine isn’t someone who, particularly as a child, feels connected to the family history of either her mother or father. They’re both equally secretive with her, and she doesn’t feel like she has a grasp on where either of them came from, because neither of them want to talk about it. In the case of her father, she knows that this secrecy has something to do with the war, but with her mother, it’s a pure mystery to her where she came from. And so there’s a way in which her sense of ethnic or racial identity is defined by displacement or not-knowing, and also by the way she’s treated as an outsider by the townspeople around her, and not being sure how much of that is her race, how much is her mother, how much comes from the fact that they’re relatively new to their town, and haven’t lived there for many generations. I think part of her journey in the book is trying to unpack that as she grows up—not just the fact of her biracialness, but of everything she is—to gain a deeper understanding of where her parents came from and where she herself fits in, and she discovers along the way how her perspective around these questions completely changes her view of what those questions even mean.
I started the book before I had a baby or knew I would have a baby. I think I started the book before I even met my husband. It took me so long to write this book. But I finished it while I was pregnant and knew I would have this half-Asian baby, so it was something that I thought about. I hope that it—I mean, I don’t know if you had a hard or easy time with it, but I hope it was easier—I feel like in California, it must have been easier.
HG: It’s been a mixed experience because I grew up in so many different places. I lived in Texas for a while, and I was reflecting on that recently, that I had kind of blocked that time period out of my memory for a long time. It wasn’t until college that I really started thinking about my mixed identity, and then it was like, wow, there are all these things I’ve been ignoring not just about my experience but my mom’s experience, my brothers’ experiences. Once you look at that, you have to think about all the people who maybe didn’t see you the way you hoped that they saw you, or the friendships that were built on shaky ground, and everything else. But your child is younger and they will have so many more people to look to who have been navigating questions of identity.
CC: And we live in New York.
CC: One reason I’m very grateful that I lived in as many places as I did—and I don’t know if you feel the same way, but—I feel like if I had grown up entirely in Michigan, I fear for what would have happened to my self-image or to who I thought I was. But because I had had friends before we moved there and because I had been treated well by people before we moved there, I didn’t think, “This is who I am and it is unchangeable.” I didn’t think, “I am unlikeable and will never have friends.” I mean, I regret the degree to which I internalized some of those things, but at the same time, its roots didn’t go all the way down. So I’m always grateful that I had that, and I sometimes think about people who don’t, who grew up all their lives being told that they don’t belong or that something about them is not right. It’s really important to have an outside perspective, which I think, actually, books can give you, even if you don’t have the experience of living in different places. But I do think that living in different places and meeting people and traveling can also change your perception of who you are in the world and what’s possible.
HG: I totally agree. Moving was hard in the moment, but I am conscious of all the ways it let me escape being nailed down as one specific thing.
CC: Yeah, exactly. And also I suppose it let me escape being like the smug one or the bully. You know, you don’t think you’re the greatest, but you also don’t think you’re the worst. You have a sense of, these are constantly shifting categories and definitions of who you are.
HG: You talked a little about your research process of having to learn more about math as you were writing this book, but there’s so much about not just math history but also German history, Chinese history. So what was the research process like? Where did the idea start and how did it develop from there?
CC: Around the time my first book came out, I read an article about the five most influential women mathematicians in history, and I just because extremely curious about these five women, in part because I had never heard of them and I was a math major. I’m kind of embarrassed to admit that even when I was a math major, I noticed that there weren’t a lot of women in my classes, but I took for granted without considering that all of the names in our textbooks were the names of men. So when I read this article, it kind of blew my mind, and I started thinking about not just the fact that women are underrepresented in mathematics today, but how it’s really sort of a historical thing that reaches back to antiquity.
I became extremely fascinated about the lives of these women. They were so badass. They weren’t even supposed to study. They certainly weren’t supposed to excel.
There was this woman named Sophie Germain who taught herself Greek and Latin. She taught herself two languages so that she could read her brother’s textbooks and teach herself math. She ended up solving a problem that until that point had been considered unsolvable. She won the French grand prize in mathematics. I mean, what nerve does that take, right? Her parents were against her studying math. They used to leave the fire out in her fireplace so that she would be too cold to study, and they stopped doing that because she would study anyway and she caught a cold and almost died. Her strength of will was stronger than her parents’ but was also stronger than all of these societal expectations that were designed to hold her down. I found that incredibly inspiring and wanted to write about women who aren’t bound by the way they’re viewed. They might feel those limitations, but then choose somehow to ignore them and live the lives that they want anyway.
HG: I can’t even imagine having that much sense of purpose.
CC: Yeah, I think that was it too. I was like, these women, I can’t even imagine being like them. So I feel like now I should try to imagine.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.