Q&A with Grace Tong

A square photograph of Grace Tong is set against a purple banner featuring insects and quotation marks in varying shades of purple. Grace has her hair back, wears glasses, long earrings, and is smiling. Behind her is a green plant. To the right of the photograph is written: 'Itch, an interview with Grace Tong'.

Grace Tong is a writer from Aotearoa New Zealand now living and working on the land of the Wurundjeri people. Her short fiction has been published in various places, most recently in Aniko Press and takahē magazine.

Our Associate Editor Sarah Stivens talks to Grace about her work, ‘Body Parts’, published in #29: ITCH.

There’s a visceral, unflinching quality to the way the body is explored in ‘Body Parts’ (which I adored). Where did you draw your inspiration for this piece?

When I wrote this piece, I was exploring using super zoomed-in specificity to depict a particular feeling, and I also wanted to get into the kind of grossness of the body, to explore ideas around shame and anxiety. And when I first drafted this piece, I wanted to force myself to go beyond my own comfort zone in terms of grossness or graphic descriptions. And as I was writing it, I kept escalating how detailed and intimate I wanted to get with the narrator, to describe things that I would normally cringe at describing. I also wanted to contrast the internal anxiety of the narrator against what she’s experiencing in the world around her and where there might be a disconnect between how she’s perceiving the world and how it really is.

‘Body Parts’ spans themes of bodily horror, dark humour, and deliciously awkward social interaction. How did you find balancing these elements throughout the piece? Is there a particular style of writing you’ll always come back to?

I do love writing about awkward social interactions, so this tends to be something I come back to again and again in my writing. I tend to write a lot of characters who are experiencing some kind of worry about the world. The gap between a character’s inner world and the world around them makes for a very interesting tension in fiction. The wonderful thing about short fiction is there is so much scope to be experimental and try different styles or form. In terms of humour, I often put things in my writing just because it makes me laugh, so it is always nice when that carries across to the reader as well.

I wrote ‘Body Parts’ a few years ago and it underwent a lot of edits to balance the different elements in the piece—figuring out where to turn up the volume on particular parts and where to cut things back. It probably benefitted a lot from sitting in a drawer for a while, because the most recent edit was a structural overhaul and suddenly it all fell into place quite neatly. Having the distance from when I first wrote it helped.

I was so excited to learn you might be a fellow craft fiend (your embroidery is beautiful!). How does making things with your hands help or hinder your writing practice?

Thank you! I love crafts and trying new crafts when you can be free to be a total beginner and make lots of mistakes. I find making things with my hands helps with writing because it makes me focus so much more on the process rather than the outcome. I also think crafts are good because they get you out of your head—writing is such a ‘heady’ pursuit and crafts are such an excellent counterbalance to that. Because I work full time it is always a juggling act to find time for craft and writing as well as everything else, but every creative pursuit tends to perpetuate more creativity. I haven’t done any embroidery for a while, but I’ve recently been doing some pottery, which is even more time-consuming. I’m not a very visual person so I think crafting is a good way to challenge myself to think more about colour and form and carry those physical elements into my writing too.