Author photo: David Noles. Book image: Harper Collins.

Once upon a time, before I became a dreamy English major and a grown-up who writes for work, I was the daughter of a demanding Korean immigrant mother, raised from an early age on five sheets a day of Kumon. Instead of playing with other children, I became extremely good at math. This was a huge part of my identity—I was a mathlete; like, my main extracurricular activity was math—until I left home for college.

So when I met Catherine Chung and read her first book, Forgotten Country, in 2014, I knew—or rather, hoped—that we would become friends. Here was another Korean American woman who had lived and breathed math, then turned around and done the obsessive work of writing a novel. And not just any novel, but a novel about family and history and Korean American identity, a novel rich with gorgeous prose and deep emotional resonance. It spoke to me on every level.

In her exquisite second novel, The Tenth Muse, Catherine tells the story of a female mathematician who must untangle her personal history to solve the legendary Riemann hypothesis. With elegant language, Catherine reveals the narrative beauty of math. “We were at the heights, from which we imagined we could see everything—not just what we knew, but all the possibilities as well—a universal theory of everything, and its inverse: the collapse of science, of language itself,” she writes. “We were on the brink of understanding God, or killing him forever, we didn’t know which. Exhilaration and dread came together, and the knowledge that no great discovery can come without bringing an equivalent terror.”

I read this book with awe and emotion, and when I was done, I had some questions.

—Steph Cha for Guernica

Guernica: The Tenth Muse is a book framed by both storytelling and math. Math problems become parables; the story of a theorem becomes the story of several lives. I’m interested in how you use these two methods of describing the world, and how you see them playing off of and interacting with each other.

Catherine Chung: The physicist Freeman Dyson once famously (among mathematicians at least) compared mathematicians to birds and frogs. He said the mathematicians who are birds survey everything from up above, and delight in mapping far vistas and getting a sense of the big picture, whereas frogs live in the mud and see the objects around them in all their tiny, complex details, and that is their understanding of the world. I’ve always thought that’s a good description of writers as well, and that the metaphor can probably extend to any field of study or kind of person. We’re all trying to understand the world from our different perspectives, from where we stand and how we look at the world—whether it’s grand and sweeping, or intimate, detailed, and granular. It’s good to remember that our individual ways of seeing the world are never the whole picture, and that, taken together, they give us a richer, more comprehensive sense of not even what the world is, but how we might apprehend it.

So I just wanted to give some sense of that in this book, to play with how the vast and the intricate are always at play in any moment. To view a life in terms of the sweep of history that encompasses it, but also at the personal level. And the ways different points of view—the mathematical and the scientific, but also the literary and narrative—can be in conversation.

Guernica: What was it like for you being a math-y Asian American girl? Do you feel like you were ever pushed or pulled toward or away from math or literature?

Chung: The truth is that studying both math and literature felt intensely private to me, and unrelated to my Asian American “identity” as defined by the outside world. That may have been part of what I loved about each of them: the way the trappings of the external world and my exterior “identity” dissolved and fell away when I was doing either, and I could sort of burrow inward but also look outward without all the usual limitations of the self.

When I’m reading a book or writing a story, I can feel my consciousness melt into the consciousness of the story or voice that I’m entering, and I love that feeling of being borne up and giving myself over to it. And in math, too—I mean in pure mathematics, not the story problems about trains traveling at different speeds, but the realm where you’re talking about sizes of infinity, transcendence, what it means for a number to be real—that’s a realm where “who you are” in the world becomes irrelevant. I was really hungry for that when I was growing up, because in a lot of ways my relationship to my identity was quite fraught: I felt I was constantly being told by the outside world who I was and what my value was, and I didn’t agree with the constraints.

Both math and literature are things that have the power to break pre-existing constraints, to open new doors in your mind to new places that didn’t exist before. Math can take you past three or four dimensions; stories can take you into other times and places. Both exist in the imagination, and both can remain safely hidden in your mind until you’re willing to share. And if you read a story or you read a proof, while you can guess who wrote it, that’s the least important thing in some ways. All the surface-level things we see when we first meet a person—how they look, what gender or race they belong to—all of that falls away. I guess to me that feels an awful lot like freedom.

Of course, once you start sharing the work, once you start trying to publish or trying to succeed in academia—anything that requires you leave the realm of the mind to engage with other people— your identity comes back into play. The real world reasserts itself, with all its prejudices and hierarchies and systems of oppression. Mathematics is famously hard to break into as a woman or person of color. There was recently that really devastating New York Times profile of Erdray Goins, about racial exclusion and the dearth of black mathematicians. It’s obviously a problem that extends beyond the literary and mathematical worlds, but on a purely personal level I find it really sad that people can be arbitrarily turned away from these disciplines by people who hold the keys to the gate for all the wrong reasons, and how rejection or difficulty can infiltrate the private sanctuary of the mind, and the way someone can internalize that discouragement to doubt themselves or corrupt their relationship to the joy they found in their work.

And the thing is, actually, it begins at quite a young age, and is often so insidious we don’t even see it while it’s happening. We don’t expect girls to be good at math, we don’t think of it as particularly feminine, we make fun of nerdy girls who do it. I can’t tell you how many really brilliant women I know who have told me, almost with a kind of pride, that they just have a “block” when it comes to math, that they’re really stupid at it. And all these studies have shown that actually, how good you are at math is directly proportional to how much time you put into it. And that in elementary school, girls are actually better at math than boys are, but there’s a huge drop-off that happens later, maybe in middle school. And that girls feel tons of “math anxiety.” Well, where do blocks come from? Where does anxiety come from? Amy Brill has written about this, as have others, but of course it’s all in the mind. Until college, I felt very resistant to math myself, and then when I was in college majoring in it, I was told the only girls who do math are trolls—not the internet kind, the ugly kind who live under bridges.

And not to be a math evangelist, but I think it’s really important that girls learn math. It forms the backbone of so many sciences, like physics and chemistry, but it’s also the foundation of logic and statistics and economics. We need math to manage our finances, our households, and our companies—but also to make complicated decisions about how we want to run our society and government. We need to understand the details in order to make big-picture decisions about the economy, or about immigration or climate change. It matters that we are literate in math, so that we can check things out for ourselves rather than believing what people tell us (which is so often wrong)! Numbers can be manipulated, so it also helps to be able to assess the underlying argument of how those numbers are in use. This is true for everyone, but if women are disproportionately less literate when it comes to math, it means women are disproportionately less confident about some of the basic arguments that are the foundation of these really large decisions we make, on both the personal and the collective level.

Guernica: I love the way you write about math. I almost wish I’d stuck with it and gotten to the point where I could see the world like a mathematician, through this Terminator-style lens that shows the underlying logic and beauty of the universe. How do you approach complex mathematics as a fiction writer, knowing you have to write about it for people without any expertise?

Chung: I actually think math is really exciting at the most basic levels. Like, what is zero, anyway? And what is infinity? And what are all the crazy mathematical patterns that exist in nature? I learned about the Fibonacci sequence in elementary school, but by the time we learned about sequences in high school math, they had been completely sucked dry of the wonder. You can understand these concepts and patterns way before you get to trigonometry or calculus. And the thing is, if we learned these things in elementary school, math would be more appealing and exciting the farther along we got, because it would actually mean something! So, as a fiction writer, I go straight for the parts I find most beautiful and most fascinating—the things that made me fall in love with math starting out—and I approach it with a beginner’s mind.

Guernica: In The Tenth Muse, we meet Katherine when she’s in her seventies, with a long, storied career behind her. She’s a half-Chinese female mathematician, who came up surrounded by white men who consistently underestimated her. Was she based on any real mathematicians? How much of your own experience went into her creation? Her name made me especially curious here.

Chung: Naming my narrator Katherine began as an inside joke, with myself. With my first book, no one seemed to believe that it wasn’t autobiographical, no matter how often I told them it wasn’t. Now that I was writing about someone who shared no biographical details with me, I decided to give her a version of my name just for fun. But I’ve also always wondered about these Katherines whose names begin with a K, ever since I read Anne of Green Gables. Anne broke my heart by declaring, “Katherine with a K is so much more alluring than Catherine with a C. A C always looks so smug.” So it was partly my way of getting to inhabit one of these mythical, superior Katherines. One of the things I really didn’t anticipate, and of course should have seen coming, is that when people say the name “Katherine” I can’t tell whether they’re talking about her or talking about me. How embarrassing!

Anyway, the Katherine of my book is entirely herself, and I came to be glad we (sort of) shared a name because she’s so different from me. It came to feel like the one link connecting us, at times. She’s not based on anyone in real life, but I read a zillion biographies while I was writing the book, and met a number of real-life mathematicians and scientists and grilled them for information about what it was like for them studying math and science growing up, and to get a feel for how they approach the world.

What I read about women mathematicians and scientists of the past—women like Noether, Kovalevskaya, Germain, and Mayer—was so inspiring. I did try to infuse Katherine with their grit and integrity, and after I met Karen Uhlenbeck—who just won the Abel Prize, and is one of the great mathematicians of our time—I tried to give Katherine her expansiveness and honesty.

And while I don’t think Katherine and I share too many experiences or biographical details, certainly her life is a way of exploring my own preoccupations with ambition, the cost of love, the limitations put on you by identity, what legacy means, what genealogy is, who and what you can claim as your own, and what you can make of yourself.

Guernica: She’s a pretty inspiring female character, as are many of the other female mathematicians mentioned in your book. I’m curious about how you approach writing a smart, forceful female character who is clearly exceptional, as opposed to a more relatable everywoman.

Chung: You know, the majority of women in my life are smart and forceful. I don’t know this other kind of relatable everywoman you speak of!

Guernica: Early in the book, you write, “I suppose I should warn you that I tell a story like a woman: looping into myself, interrupting.” It strikes me as definitional, like the first line of a proof.

Chung: I’m a very associative thinker. I don’t think in straight lines. I go around and around, and that’s always been true, whether I was writing a story or a proof. And the feeling of things coming right—of circling and circling until, suddenly, all that circling illuminates whatever I’ve been searching for—feels the same when I’m writing as it did when I was doing math. It’s another thing I loved about both. But yes, with both writing and with mathematics, it seems to me that it’s always a matter of figuring out what the question or the approach is, and until then I can’t begin. For me the question is always foundational: what is it I’m trying to solve? And then I can begin—though, often, I find I was wrong and have to pull all the way back and start again.

That line is also in there because my conversations with my women friends are often circular. When we tell each other stories we check back in, bring in other stories, relate our stories to each other’s. I wanted to bring some of that into the way Katherine tells her story.

Guernica: One of the central relationships in the novel is between Katherine and Peter, a romantic partner and collaborator she meets when he’s her grad school professor. There are red flags all over when we look at it from a contemporary point of view, but Katherine treats it as a peer relationship. I’m interested in your thoughts on the power dynamics between Katherine and Peter.

Chung: The power dynamics between Katherine and Peter are so tragic because they shouldn’t be insurmountable. If they understood them better, or had the language to negotiate around them, maybe they could figured it out. But the dynamics are invisible to Peter. He takes his power for granted: as far as he is concerned, this is just how things are. And Katherine can’t make him see the ways that diminishes and erases her. The dynamics are a challenge, for sure, but what ultimately dooms them is their inability to approach that challenge as a team, and to dismantle it together.

What I wonder, and what I think is most maddening not to know, is whether there could have been a way for them to work it out. There could have been a path, but what’s not clear to me is if Peter could have walked that path with Katherine—if he would have been willing to. Or if, once Katherine was more established on her own, that would have balanced their relationship enough to allow them to be together. The truth is, I suppose, it doesn’t really matter. He did what he did with the power he had, and really missed who she was, fundamentally. So their relationship ended for good reason, and her life was better for it; she was freer for it. And that’s one of the things I admire about Katherine. She possesses much more clarity than I do. I’d probably have waffled over a guy like Peter forever, thinking, if only he were different in this one way—which would involve him being an entirely different person, and the world being a totally different place—it could work out. Katherine saw to the heart of the situation, and chose to extract herself from something that diminished her, even though it broke her heart. Good for her!

Guernica: Another major concern of this novel is ownership, and the connection between ownership and identity. Katherine is uncertain of her own story. She’s also, of course, protective of her own work, and she has to fight to get credit for it several times over the course of the book. Katherine is someone who has been largely defined by her work, her contributions to the field of mathematics. Can you talk about this connection between work and identity? Can losing ownership of your work or your story warp your identity?

Chung: Katherine is constantly struggling with what identity even means: Is it the thing people tell you that you are? Is it something you can define and claim for yourself? Or is it some complicated negotiation of the two? You get at the heart of it with your question, when you say Katherine is uncertain of her own story. Personal family history is so important to the formation of identity, in ways that are so taken for granted. I mean, if you come from a wealthy family that has historically had a lot of influence, the way you move in the world and the way the world makes way for you is going to be completely different from someone who doesn’t have that experience and advantage.

I come from a culture that reveres its ancestors, and I do think we derive a lot of our personal strength from our family histories. It ties us to a legacy; it shores us up. And not for nothing, but the people whose family histories are robust and recorded and known tend to be the families with power. And also not for nothing, when people wage war, one of the things they do is destroy the history of the opposing side: they destroy artifacts, important buildings, books, and artwork. History is often rewritten, and certain histories forbidden from being told. Part of the power of language, of writing stories, is the power to record history from your own perspective.

When I first started school, I went to a private Christian school in New York. I didn’t speak English, and I remember being shocked that all the other kids did. I learned very quickly, as kids do, but part of that learning took the form of my class praying for me and my family before naptime every day, because my teacher had discovered my family was Buddhist. So I’d sit at the front of the class, and everyone would earnestly pray for my family, because we were going to Hell. I’d go home and pray before bedtime that if I were to die in my sleep, I’d go straight to Hell, because spending eternity in heaven surrounded by strangers while my family burned in Hell was the absolute worst thing I could imagine. That was a story that was thrust upon me, which I guess I have spent my whole life rejecting. I wonder if that’s how and why I became a writer, actually—to take control of my own story, because the one I was being given wasn’t working for me.

For Katherine, I think it’s incredibly hard that she doesn’t know where she’s from, or her parents’ history—that these things are kept hidden from her. She’s adrift because of it. She doesn’t know who she belongs to, where she can sink her roots. Her work roots her to a discipline, to the history of mathematics, and to other mathematicians. When her authority over that work is disputed, it’s devastating, because her right to be there is called into question. Who she is and what she has contributed is not just being denied, it’s being stolen and used against her. So Katherine’s quest, in large part, is to sink her roots deeper, to gain mastery over her subject so that no one can deny her rightful place in the world and in history. To lay claim to her own intellectual ancestors, and say: I come from this place and this history, whether it claims me back or not.

Steph Cha

Steph Cha is the author of the Juniper Song crime trilogy. Her fourth novel, Your House Will Pay, will be published this October.

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One Comment on “Catherine Chung: The Vast and the Intricate

  1. The interview with Catherine is beautifully done. She’s so sensitive about her identities, yet those have spurred her on to become powerfully transcendent through her twin fields of literature and mathematics.

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