By: Kaia Gallagher
Writing about family and the search for identity, Catherine Chung has published two best-selling novels. Released to great acclaim in June of 2019, her novel, The Tenth Muse, is an intricately layered story about a female mathematician who tries to unlock a mathematical theorem while investigating the mysteries surrounding her identity that were buried in Germany during World War II.
Chung’s first novel, Forgotten Country, was awarded an Honorable Mention for the PEN/Hemingway Award in 2013. It was also listed as one of Booklist’s 10 Best Debut Novels in addition to being recognized by the San Francisco Chronicle and Bookpage.
Chung’s short stories and essays have been published in The New York Times, The Rumpus and Granta. She was the recipient of the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Prize in Poetry in 2009 and received a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in Creative Writing in 2014.
While she was working on The Tenth Muse, she was appointed as a Director’s Visitor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. She currently serves as a fiction editor for Guernica Magazine and teaches creative writing at Adelphi University.
After receiving a mathematics degree from the University of Chicago, Chung worked for the RAND Corporation. She earned her MFA from Cornell University.
In this interview with The Coachella Review, Chung talks about the themes in The Tenth Muse related to female empowerment, gender bias, and the role of women in the field of mathematics.
THE COACHELLA REVIEW: The title of your book, The Tenth Muse, invokes a Greek goddess who rejects her divine heritage in order to tell stories using her own voice. Why did you select this title and how does it connect to the ways in which the female characters in your novel struggle to be recognized for their talents?
CATHERINE CHUNG: I really wanted this book to engage with and sometimes push back on the kinds of stories I grew up with. Some of the earliest stories I heard were myths and folktales—grand stories about how the world was formed and order was made, and stories about adventure and danger and what we’re allowed to do and get away with and accomplish. A lot of the female characters played the supporting character in the male’s journey: they were the romantic interest, the muse, the mother of the hero. Not always, of course: I found stories about Athena, the war-loving goddess of wisdom, and stories about Artemis the huntress who refused to take a husband and turned everyone who fell in love with her into animals absolutely enthralling. But it was clear in those stories that they were extraordinary, not just because they were immortal, but because their talents and passions were unexpected in part because of their gender.
I wanted the book to pay homage to them, to the gender-expectation-defying characters of my childhood. I wanted also to create a new story about a muse who rejects the expectations put upon her by her birth, and strikes off on her own, and for this muse to be an inspiration to my narrator. That’s why the tenth muse is there, and the book is titled after her.
TCR: In The Tenth Muse, you have incorporated stories about well-known women mathematicians with others who are fictional. How does this blending of real-life stories into your fictional account help enhance the story?
CC: I thought the real-life stories of these women mathematicians who overcame so much to pursue this totally unexpected passion of studying mathematics were fascinating. Mathematics doesn’t sound like something you’d marry to do, but Sofia Kovalevskaya married her tutor because he promised to take her to Germany to study. Sophie Germain posed as a schoolboy to get lecture notes. She taught herself languages to read math textbooks. It’s extraordinary, and important and humbling for me to remember, that before I imagined a character who would single-mindedly overcome immense obstacles to accomplish so much, that these women had already done so in real life.
TCR: Throughout The Tenth Muse, you have described the language of mathematics and the reason why mathematicians are drawn to work on still unsolved formulas. Was it your hope that more people would appreciate the beauty and mystery of mathematics?
CC: I grew up in a math family, so I’ve always been convinced of the beauty and mystery of mathematics. It’s been a bit of a shock the number of people who told me after my book came out that they’d always hated the subject. I had just sort of assumed everyone had a secret burning desire to think about and talk about how mind-blowing certain mathematical ideas are, like the idea of infinity and different sizes of infinity, or what makes a number imaginary versus real. This book was a bit of a love letter to those ideas and the people who live them.
TCR: The protagonist in The Tenth Muse faces significant gender bias as she attempts to become an academic mathematician in the late 1970s. Why did you choose to situate your novel in this time period? As someone who studied mathematics in college, do you believe the barriers for women mathematicians have improved since that time?
CC: She actually comes of age as a mathematician in the 1960s, and I think I chose that time for a number of reasons. First, she was born in America right after WWII which was important for the plot regarding how her American war veteran father and Chinese mother met, but also because I was really interested in the way that American science changed because of the tremendous exodus of European scientists and academics out of Europe and into America as a result of the war. I was also really interested in the way that education changed for women in the 1960s. Women weren’t allowed into most Ivy League schools until 1969. The Civil Rights movement and Title IX meant that was a time of such tremendous change and potential for women academics, who were given chances they’d never had. I do think the barriers for women mathematicians have changed a great deal since that time, thank God. At the same time, I think the barriers are still significant, maddeningly so.
TCR: The protagonist in The Tenth Muse, Katherine, shares your name (Catherine) albeit with a slightly different spelling. Are there other ways in which you have blended autobiographical details about your own life into the narrative?
CC: Not really! I feel like if you ask any Catherine-with-a-C they’ll tell you how different we are from the Katherines-with-a-K, and vice versa. It was partly an inside joke with myself, just because everyone assumed my first book was autobiographical, and I thought who would think this book about a math genius in her 70s would secretly be about me? It was also partly born out of another inside joke with myself. When I was a child I loved Anne of Green Gables so much, and she broke my heart by announcing in one of her books that she was glad another character was a Katherine-with-a-K because “a K is so much more alluring. A C always looks so smug.” And so I always had a lifelong fascination with these other Katherines, these alluring Katherines with their glamorous, incredible lives. So I thought why not write about one?
TCR: As the protagonist in The Tenth Muse, Katherine struggles to learn about her lost parents and to find her place in the world. Who are the other writers you admire who have also dealt with themes of “otherness” and disconnection?
CC: William Faulkner. Ray Bradbury. Alexander Chee. Virginia Woolf. James Baldwin.
TCR: In addition to your two books, Forgotten Country and The Tenth Muse, you are a poet and have also published a number of short stories and essays. What has been your experience as a writer in exploring these different narrative forms? Which of these narrative forms do you prefer?
CC: Poetry is my first true love, but it seems somehow I grew away from it as I grew older. I’m always hoping I’ll find my way back to its embrace (as a writer: I still read it, of course!). I worked on an experimental theatre project exploring the idea of Gretel from “Hansel and Gretel” with my friends the poet Lauren Alleyne, video-artist Tomiko Jones, and composer Sidney Boquiren—I don’t have a preference, I just want to always be working in a way that makes me feel the most free.
TCR: Could you share with us details about your next writing project?
CC: I’m working on a new novel I can’t say too much about, and I also just started working on a new opera “ A Girl and the Stars” with the composer Faye Chiao about a girl who, on a quest to save her home world from the ravages of an ecological disaster, finds her way to a new and dazzling, more technologically-advanced world amid the stars, where she is promptly arrested, and where she will have to make the case that humanity should be saved.
Kaia Gallagher is working on a memoir called Return to Estonia, which explores her connection to her Estonian heritage. She is an MFA graduate at the University of California–Riverside’s Low Residency program.