The writer Katherine Min’s posthumously published book, The Fetishist, explores themes of race, femininity, complicity and visibility of Asian women in a savagely funny and incisive way. Is it easy to imagine the book as the product of Covid times, but it was written in February, 2014, and left untouched until after Min’s death of breast cancer at age 60 in 2019, when the novel was discovered on a laptop by her daughter Kayla Min Andrews.
The Fetishist is the story of three people—Kyoko, a Japanese American punk-rock singer full of rage and grief; Daniel, a philandering violinist forced to confront the wreckage of his past; and Alma, the love of Daniel’s life, a Korean American cello prodigy long adored for her beauty, passion, and talent, but who spends her final days examining if she was ever, truly, loved.
After reading an excerpt of the novel at an event to celebrate a fellowship in her mother’s name at the MacDowell Writers Colony, Andrews sought the help of her mother’s friend Cathy Park Hong to pursue publication. Kayla Min Andrews shared The Fetishist journey to publication:
AUTHORLINK: The Fetishist is published posthumously after your mother’s death in 2019. Talk about your role in the process of bringing the work to readers.
“The audience reaction made me realize many readers might feel seen by and inspired by her unpublished work.”
ANDREWS: I was inspired to seek publication for Mom’s novel The Fetishist and her essay collection when I read from some of each at an event with MacDowell. The audience reaction made me realize many readers might feel seen by and inspired by her unpublished work. My stepdad, brother, and I made the decision to try, so I reached out to some of Mom’s writer friends and Cathy Park Hong helped me find the agent, PJ (Mark), who found the editor, Sally Kim. Then I worked with Sally on editing the novel manuscript, and now I’m doing bookstore events to help the novel reach readers.
AUTHORLINK: Why do you feel it is important for this book to be in the world now?
“The characters are full, contradictory, flawed, messy humans; the point is to see them in all their complexity…”
ANDREWS: I think there’s a generosity of vision in The Fetishist, and in Mom’s work generally, that is important, especially now. The characters are full, contradictory, flawed, messy humans; the point is to see them in all their complexity, not judge or condemn or skewer them. Also, this book gives voice to Asian American and female experiences in a way that seems to be missing so far in fiction – to squarely confront how it feels to be aware of being fetishized and objectified, how it feels to live in/with the reality of that awareness.
AUTHORLINK: Where did the idea for The Fetishist come from? How did the premise evolve as your mother wrote her way into the story?
ANDREWS: Early on, Mom was inspired when she learned that there was such a job as playing classical music for the dying – musicians who play in hospice centers and in the homes of dying people, to provide solace to the dying and their families. She became interested in what sort of person might do this job, and inventing a backstory for this theoretical person. She was aware that there are many Asian American women in the classical music world, and so the premise evolved to include this.
AUTHORLINK: Tell me about your mother’s journey writing the book. How long did she work on it? How did her perfectionism play into the process?
“Her process was to shape one lovely elegant interesting sentence, refining it until it shone like a gem…”
ANDREWS: Mom was working on The Fetishist from 2006-2014. She tended to write in spurts at that time, mostly in artist residencies. Her process was to shape one lovely elegant interesting sentence, refining it until it shone like a gem, then moving on to the next. She was very anti “bad first drafts.” This perfectionism made her a slow writer, and almost caused the novel to never get published. She had a full draft of the manuscript and was still in the polishing (and polishing and polishing) stage when she got diagnosed with cancer and turned to writing nonfiction instead.
AUTHORLINK: What were the greatest challenges when readying The Fetishist for publication?
“The hardest part was imagining that it [posthumous publication]was possible.”
ANDREWS: The hardest part was imagining that it was possible. I didn’t know anyone personally who had been involved in a posthumous publishing project. It didn’t even occur to me or my family for a long time. Once we dared to dream it, however, things happened quite smoothly and quickly, due to Mom’s lifetime of hard work, beautiful writing, and community of literary friendships.
AUTHORLINK: You describe The Fetishist as a complex creation born of your mother’s respect for the mostly white, male writers who made up the cannon in the past and her own fearless desire to push forward the thoughts and experiences of Asian women. Discuss how this shows up in the book’s characters.
ANDREWS: Yes! Mom loved the elegant, witty mastery of language as well as the swell of intensity of emotion that she found in Nabokov, Conrad, Flaubert, and others. She studied these authors assiduously, like Alma studies the music of Bach, Dvorak, etc. Then, like Kyoko, Mom used her skills to create original art, to give voice to her thoughts, observations, experiences, and imaginings as an Asian American woman. There’s a reverence but also a thumbing-her-nose, I think, simultaneously, in the way Mom plays with stylistic and emotional echoes of canonical white male works like fairy tales (in the Author’s Note), like Lolita (if Humbert Humbert were an Asian fetishist), like Madame Bovary (I see it in Emi’s reckless yearning for transcendence; an emotional current I know Mom personally identified with).
AUTHORLINK: Talk about the role your mother’s death played in your development as a writer?
ANDREWS: I was always an avid reader, and I wrote some fiction when I was younger, but I very decisively did not write from ages 22-32. Then, as Mom was dying, several things became clear to me. One, she was proud of how she had lived – she had lived engaged, connected, confronting what she needed to confront – which was a source of solace to her now that she was dying. Two, I was currently not proud of how I was living, wasn’t engaged or connected, and the way to change that was to start writing. I realized it was she was dying, and I became a writer in earnest after her death.
AUTHORLINK: Your mother was known as a generous teacher and skilled writer. Now, with the publication of The Fetishist, what do you think her legacy will be?
ANDREWS: I hope her legacy will be for dark exuberant humor, emotional honesty, and memorable characters. Also, boldly tackling hard topics that some people might shy away from, and doing so with a generosity of vision that helps us all see and understand and even appreciate the profound tragic beautiful absurdity of the world around us.
Katherine Min’s short stories appeared in Ploughshares, TriQuarterly, Prairie Schooner, The Three-penny Review, Glimmer Train, and others; she received an NEA grant, a Pushcart Prize, a Sherwood Anderson Foundation Fiction Award, two New Hampshire State Council on the Arts Fellowships and a North Carolina Arts Council Artist Fellowship, and attended residencies at MacDowell, Yaddo, Jentel, Ucross, Hambidge, the Millay Colony, and Ledig House. Her debut novel Secondhand World was a runner-up for the PEN-Bingham Award in 2007. The Fetishist is her first posthumous publication.