About Isham Cook

Thanks to Jean L. of China for permission to use her sexy photo

Seal carving by Xiao Dayuan of the characters 鸳鸯 (“love birds”), joined at the head and depicting a woman’s armpit hair

Essays and fiction from China with a “hairy” voice: like a woman’s unshaven underarm, the choice metaphor for my writing, disturbing and distressing in its alluring authenticity, exposing a primal scene in every nook and cranny, holding nothing sacred and everything with equal interest, seeking the voluptuousness in chaos.

I am an American essayist and novelist based in China since 1994. My writing philosophy: downmarket, big concept, provocative, discriminating, outrageous (every conceivable epithet has been thrown at me). Ballard, Beckett, Borges, Dick, Kafka, Hesse, Melville, Mishima, Sade are my influences.

Why I write
It’s fun. It’s art. I don’t feel I’m wasting my time. I love the sensuousness of language. It’s a form of networking and might help me get laid more often.

What sort of writing habits do you keep?
With a busy day job, I write whenever I can fit it in. Totally irregular, but it would be every day for several hours if I had the luxury of time.

Describe the physical domain of your writing space…
Cafés around Beijing.

Worst source of distraction and best source of inspiration?
Worst distraction is when they play the music too loud in cafés, especially bad pop music. Best source of inspiration is a really good erotic massage, releasing the endorphins and allowing creative ideas to bubble up. Falling in lust/love with someone also does this. Porn can help as well but only as a last resort.

Seal carving by Xiao Dayuan of the name 戴维, depicted as female pubic hair

How often do you get writers’ block and how do you overcome it?
Occasionally. The only cure for writer’s block is to sit down and force myself to write. Something always comes out.

Do you ever doubt your own ability as a writer?
No, but I am very conscious of the mismatch between intention and reception, how readers can react so utterly contrary to the way I thought they would. I see my writing as a kaleidoscopically changing Rorschach test. I’m fascinated by the capacity of writing not just to challenge conventional norms but to upset and enrage more effectively than gratuitous violence or vulgarity, the sheer power of words to grip people and instantly turn them into your friend or enemy.

When did you first know you wanted to be a writer?
In college. In high school I was too busy getting high.

How did you get started writing?
I was already doing a lot of academic writing on literature in college and my own creative writing was a natural transition, and a therapeutic one as well to assuage the boredom of so much academic drudgery.

Does writing change anything?
The act of both writing and reading exercises the brain and generates new ideas and concepts. Some ideas can change people and society as a whole (Marx, Darwin, Einstein, Freud). Books continually have ripple or “butterfly” effects coursing through networks of people and these flows can reach a critical mass of awareness and action.

Contemporary writer in any medium you always read?
I like to see what Martin Amis is up to lately, though I don’t read everything he writes.

The author with Xiao Dayuan (萧大原) in 1996

Favorite Chinese writer?
No, not yet, but that’s not to say there’s not a lot of good Chinese writing already out there that I just haven’t discovered. As for the writing I have encountered, I find much of it derivative and narrow in conception and rather bourgeois – symptomatic of an aesthetically “closed” society encumbered with a militaristic educational system and heavy-handed artistic censorship. I think things are opening though and there soon may be a creative flowering.

Favorite author overall?
Shakespeare. 

Favorite book overall?
Oh, that’s a hard one. Samuel Beckett’s Molloy/Malone Dies/The Unnamable trilogy.

The book you should have read but haven’t?
I’d like to read the Bible from cover to cover but just can’t get past those early Old Testament chapters with the interminable lists of names.

What are you working on and when is it out?
My fifth book will be titled American Rococo: Essays on the Radical (expected publication date February 2016).

The author with Qian Shaowu (钱绍武) in 1996.

My Gravatar picture courtesy of Beijing composer, poet, guitarist, pianist, chanter & reciter Deep Sleep (沉睡)

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10 replies »

  1. Dear Isham, A very smart point of view. A joy reading you. Asia has got that eroticizing effect, doesn’t it? But you consider the angles. Like I said, smart. Reminds me a little of Casanova’s memoirs. Sexy and questioning. Interesting and engaged. I’ve been here in China lots of years too. Not that I’ve taken my remedy exactly like yours, but I’ve been educated in ways I never would have been back home. Examining that (and of course other things) has stirred me to write more productively here than I ever have. Anyway, just wanted to tell you that I’ve put your site on my blog list of recommended sites. My 5 readers will be grateful. Best, Rob

  2. Is there a way to order The Exact Unknown from within China? I am new to the country and am hoping to avoid waiting weeks for delivery. — I didn’t notice contact or order info —

  3. Hi Isham, I enjoy your writing a lot. What do you look for in China fiction? What would your advice be to someone who wants to write a novel set in China?

    • Oh, these are big questions. First of all, I suggest that the author spend some time in China and develop relationships with Chinese people. After that, that depends on what the writer’s agenda is.

      • No agenda except to write a good book, I’ve been in China for years, I’m mainly just interested to hear what you look for in China fiction. Possibly an unanswerable question, but just figured I’d ask.

      • As a writer of fiction and nonfiction set in China, I have my own take on things can’t speak for others. My latest review (“The Literature of Paralysis”) shows you how I react to several recent books; I liked Barker’s The Incarnations. If you read any of my fiction (Lust & Philosophy, The Exact Unknown, and the current novel I’m working on, The Kitchens of Canton (Ch. 3 out in a couple days), you’ll understand what I like. Obviously, my books represent the kind of China fiction I envision; that’s why I’m writing them.

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