January 9, 2023• byGiannina Ong
Content warning: This article contains references to suicide. If you or someone you know needs assistance, please, contact your physician, go to your local ER, or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255), or message the Crisis Text Line at 741741. Both programs provide free, confidential support 24/7.
Katrina Kim sees things — a world beyond her kitchen door that threatens to overpower her reality with animal and mystical creature versions of people in her life. But she can’t shake fact from fiction when she sees her coworker Kurt jump off a bridge. After witnessing Kurt’s suicide, she tumbles down the rabbit hole, a hole which she had already been circling, having obsessed over Kurt for the past three years.
At the center of the newly released suspense novel “Liar, Dreamer, Thief,” Katrina is the brainchild of Maria Dong, a computer programmer and writer these days, but in past lives, an occupational therapist, property manager, and English teacher. I talked with Dong about mental illness among Asian Americans, the magical thinking behind shapes, and her riveting book.
Although one might think that the novel was inspired by the thought of letting an unhinged person’s obsessions run wild, Dong shares that it was birthed from the scene of an Asian woman seeing a person jump off a bridge and the ends that witness will go to answer why someone would do that. “I had all these questions like: What is the relationship between these people? Why is she there? And I don’t think necessarily that the obsessive component really started to emerge until the end of that first draft,” she shares.
Experiencing Mental Illness Firsthand and in Her Characters
“People in their 20s especially have breakdowns because they’re no longer able to go through this very stressful process of keeping all of these balls in the air,” Dong acknowledges. “Asian Americans feel particularly compelled to mask and perform as if they didn’t have this mental illness. I do think it affects your ability to become the best version of yourself. I’ve become a person who has learned to work with my brain instead of against my brain.”
Research shows that there is a strong stigma around mental illness in our community. Many Asian Americans hide the symptoms of a mental health problem or “mask.” Asian Americans with mental health issues can only mask reality for so long. The sad reality is that the leading cause of death among Asian American youth is suicide.
Dong herself received a diagnosis of ADHD after submitting this book’s manuscript to an editor. What transpired is a unique and authentic characterization of Katrina juggling between her attention (or lack thereof), her anxiety, and her executive functioning and planning capabilities. Throughout the novel, she makes impulsive decisions and brushes off those who are important to her, all while questioning and reckoning with her unstable mental health.
“I’ve read a lot of books with characters that have mental illness. But I think that a lot of times, you can tell that it’s from an outside perspective. [Those novels] focus a lot on how people act or behave to an outsider,” Dong says. “They don’t really delve into how things actually feel because you don’t know unless you know. And you know, [when you are in that mindset], that it is not very logical, even if you’re being logical as you’re doing it, which is the worst feeling.”
It’s important to note that Katrina remains undiagnosed in the novel. “There’s a fantasy element of her experience that doesn’t closely map onto a diagnosis, and so it would be irresponsible to assign a diagnosis,” Dong explains. “Moreover, diagnostic categories come from the DSM-V, and it doesn’t have the greatest inter-rater reliability.”
What that means is that two doctors assessing the same patient can come up with two totally different diagnoses for that patient. Fortunately, as of late, mental health diagnoses have moved away from a strict checklist to a more holistic process. (Though Americans still live in a diagnosis-driven society due to our privatized medical insurance system and the need for a diagnosis in order to bill to the third-party payers appropriately.)
Korean Mythology and Magical Thinking
The obsessive nature of Katrina is not only what draws the reader in but moves the plot along. Not just eclectic, Dong’s main character is compelled to draw sigils, collect mementos from her coworker, and pull on any loose thread — the last being metaphorical, most of the time. But sometimes art imitates life, and Dong admits that during the editing process, she “was going so deep into how it feels to really let your obsessions take over, in a way that’s not healthy” that it triggered her own obsessions. She told me, “There was a point during the first set of big line edits that I started thinking that if I didn’t finish [editing] fast enough, something really terrible was going to happen.”
While Dong’s obsession was over her manuscript, the object of Katrina’s obsession, aside from Kurt, is the book “Mi-Hee and the Mirror Man,” a children’s story about a girl pulled into a magical world to complete a quest as her real world burns around her. For this element, Dong is grateful to her editor, who saw that she was basically writing two stories and worked with her to weave them together. As such, Katrina’s hallucinations are derivative of Mi-Hee’s journey. Readers even get to read bits of the fable, which Dong created herself and modeled after Korean myths, the Redwall series, and Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials.”
“It’s pretty obvious that I wanted a daemon as a child because everyone’s [analog is an animal in the book],” Dong shares. “In those books and Korean stories, there’s always talking animals, but they have that tone in that they’re not particularly happy books.”
It’s rare to see a person with a mental illness front and center in a suspense novel, but it is just as rare to see an Asian main character in this genre. Dong says that’s no coincidence, as a key principle of mystery stories is that they must be wrapped up neatly. Historically, having a “Chinaman” in a plot would be a huge red herring. “Because the thought was that Asians were so seedy and dicey that if you included one in the story, it would be impossible for the reader to be able to determine who the real culprit was,” she says. “Although I don’t think it is preserved exactly like that in our current modern-day mystery configuration, we see a lot of stereotypes.”
Katrina Kim is no stereotype. While Asian Americans might find comfort in Katrina’s estrangement from her parents and longing to return, her rituals of drawing endekagrams — a star polygon with eleven points — on the back of doors and taking exactly 11 paces might be foreign to the average reader. A fantasy writer at heart, Dong couldn’t escape the influence of magical thinking when writing this book. Magical thinking is the idea that one’s actions or thoughts can affect reality.
“It’s actually really common with people that experience compulsions or obsessions. We tend to look for significant or magical shapes or numbers, colors, patterns. It’s very pattern-focused,” she describes. “There is some research that says that when people have a lot of anxiety, they tend to push closer to patterns because the patterning behavior makes them feel safer. And so, they start to see patterns, maybe that aren’t necessarily there.”
Some examples are when people wear the same unwashed jersey on game day so their team will win, or more extremely, if a person doesn’t circle around the block five times before leaving for the airport, the plane will crash. It’s never a cause-and-effect relationship, but it can bring comfort to certain individuals, that is, until it gets out of hand.
In “Liar, Dreamer, Thief,” even Katrina is forced to reckon with the logic of her compulsions, as some of her intuitions prove to be true and others beyond belief. It’s a page-turner that kept me hooked until the end, with subtle commentary on American society and a heart-warming conclusion.
And before you try: Nope, you cannot actually draw an endekagram. “Eleven-sided shapes, generally, are rare in nature and are rare in geometry. They’re actually impossible to draw. To which a lot of people were like, ‘Oh, did you know that? She can’t draw this.’ I’m like, yes, that’s one of the things that makes the novel feel unrealistic or like a fantasy. No human being that I know of can sit down and draw an endekagram.”
Maria Dong is the author of “Liar, Dreamer, Thief,” available at a local bookseller or online. Her short fiction, articles, and poetry have been published in dozens of magazines like Lightspeed, Augur, Nightmare, Khoreo, Fantasy, Apex, and Apparition Literary Magazine. She can be reached via Twitter at @mariadongwrites or her website, MariaDong.com.
- Giannina Ong
Giannina Ong is the Editor in Chief and Activism Editor of Mochi Magazine. During the day, she's a researcher, activist, and content creator. She holds a master's from University of Toronto's Women and Gender Studies Institute, and completed her bachelor's triple-majoring/triple-minoring at Santa Clara University. A spot-on Taurus (sun and rising), she is also a retired athlete, pasta-loving writer, and overeager editor.
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Last modified: January 15, 2023