Image credit: One Year Performance by Tehching Hsieh / Wikimedia Commons

Lisa Hsiao Chen’s Activities of Daily Living examines the interconnections between work and life, loneliness and kinship, and the projects that occupy our time. Moving between present-day and 1980s New York City, with detours to Silicon Valley and the Venice Biennale, this is a vivid and tender examination of the timeless issues faced by us all. Public Seminar intern Shweta Nandakumar recently talked with Chen to discuss her illuminating debut novel.

Shweta Nandakumar: Activities of Daily Living is quite the pregnant title. How did you come up with it and what is its significance?

Lisa Hsiao Chen: Activities of Daily Living is a term used in healthcare to describe a set of fundamental skills that help determine whether a person can live independently at home without outside help. In the novel, Alice, whose father becomes increasingly debilitated by the effects of advancing dementia, finds herself on a steep learning curve with these types of terms. She notes that someone with a mordant sense of humor must have come up with this mnemonic for ADLs: Dressing, Eating, Ambulating, Toileting, and Hygiene—or DEATH.

ADLs seem extremely basic until you lose them, and then they become incredibly important to your sense of self and well-being. We are born into this world without ADLs and many of us will leave it the same way. One of the questions the book asks is: what are the other types of activities that keep us going—is it the drive toward a purpose, helping other people, or the making of a soul?

SN: Could you tell me about your choice to use “the Father” and “the Artist,” capitalized, as modes of references for Alice’s stepfather and Tehching Hsieh, respectively?

LHC: Instinct. In earlier versions of the novel, I didn’t even give the protagonist, Alice, a name but just called her “the Woman.” I’ve found there’s a handful of fundamental decisions like these—including whether to narrate in first or third person, to write present or past tense—that, once you lock them in, the writing flows so much easier for reasons that can’t always be explained.

But, one partial explanation is that the material in the book started out as nonfiction and then became fiction. I would argue that any “project,” anything that transforms life into art or some other form or vessel to contain it, is by definition, distanced from the experience itself. And yet, sometimes that distance can help you get closer to the experience: this is the paradox of form. That’s what I think using “Artist” and “Father” is doing.

SN: Alice, the omnipresent narrator in this book says that “to be an artist, you have to make art. But where to start?” What is your relationship with art? Or, in the words from your book: How does art serve you?

LHC: Art and I have a complicated relationship. I gave up on art when I was in my twenties, after spending two years in an MFA program in poetry, because I was impatient to be doing social justice work in the world outside the classroom. At that time, my art seemed ineffectual and too small for what I wanted to do with my life. 

It would take me more than a decade to come back full circle to my writing. I realized my younger self expected too much from art, and what it can and can’t do. These days, when thinking about the function of art and how it serves me, or how I want it to serve others, I keep coming back to this quote from the performance artist Pope.L: “I think the real question is not can art change the world, but can art be changed by the world?”

The other answer to this question is that the older I get, the more I dwell in ambiguity, the more interested I am in exploring the muddy regions of existence. Art, not politics, is good for that.

SN: Tehching Hsieh’s oeuvre is a significant subject in your book. Despite having undergone extraordinary tests of endurance in his performances, Hsieh is often excluded from major texts on conceptual and performance art and, strangely, remained relatively unknown until he quit making art altogether. What drew you to his work in the first place? Was it a sort of “Asian kinship,” as you mention in the book, or was it something more ineffable?

LHC: Like Alice, I have a childhood memory of coming across a picture of Hsieh in a magazine where he was tied to another artist by an eight-foot-long rope. The fact that he was a young Chinese man definitely caught my attention. Then, I didn’t think about him for many years.

But when time and death started to weigh more heavily in my thoughts, and as I transitioned out of a 9 to 5 job in an attempt to focus on my writing for the first time in many years, Hsieh came into focus again as an artist with ferocious commitment, with a world to say in his work about his raw material: time. I think in some ways, art is what I turn to in order to make sense of life in moments of searching and crisis because I am godless and without faith.

SN: What inspired you to tell us this story? How did the idea come about and how long has it been in the works?

I knew I wanted to write about Hsieh, but I did not know how I would do it. The context that made Hsieh feel more urgent as a possible subject was that my partner and I have aging parents on the West Coast, and the passing of time was much on our minds. It wasn’t just that our parents are getting old, we too are obviously getting old—I think in American popular culture, that’s called a midlife crisis. Although we like to imagine ourselves being so unique that we wouldn’t go buy a red sports car, we need to do something that’s the equivalent of the sports car.

For me, that was thinking about projects, ones that are “comical” to me. They’re kind of tragic, but they’re also kind of necessary. I have a lot of feelings about projects as much as I have about time—and that they’re very related.

The novel was about four to five years in the making, including multiple drafts. I was also struggling with another manuscript that wasn’t going anywhere, so I thought, in the spirit of Hsieh’s yearlong works, I would keep a daily diary for a year and make a book out of whatever happened that year. That one year turned into several years, during which my real-life father experienced a cognitive decline similar to the fictional father in the novel. 

SN: To that end, did your book undergo the smooth demarcations of a project like you read online—were there stages of initiate; plan; execute; and conclude?

LHC: The only thing I knew for sure when I started the book is that I would tackle each of Hsieh’s six major durational works and the works would provide a narrative spine. I also had other narrative strands I wanted to weave into the book: the story of Alice and her father, the various “activities” that make up Alice’s life, from her day job, to protest, to volunteering, to caregiving and hanging out with friends.

I also wanted to write about Sontag’s journals, Simone de Beauvoir’s theories about aging, Walter Benjamin’s infinite Arcades Project, Genpei Akasegawa’s urban relics, or Thomassons. The process was very messy, and, to some readers, perhaps the end product is incoherent. But like Hsieh’s work, there’s meant to be some indeterminacy and mystery involved in how the whole thing holds together, what to think of it. That’s really where the reader comes in. 

SN: You draw parallels between Alice’s own project that aims to chronicle the life and work of Hsieh, his own projects. Then there is what could count as a personal/life project, caring for her stepfather who is falling into a state of deep dementia and disability, who lives across the country, and the black hole that is the well of labor. You also mention that this is a project about looking down into that hole. It’s very meta. Did writing this book ever feel like you were looking into an endless black hole?

LHC: The image of the “black hole” appears early in the book: it’s a real-life account by the artist Tim Etchells of sitting in on a talk by Hsieh. As Hsieh presents a slide show of his year-long performance works, Etchells starts to feel a kind of vertigo, an awareness of a black hole that had been there all along, opening up beneath him. The hole to me means so many things but yes, as you suggest, it’s a terrifying void.

What is the void? The sensation of the passing of time? The loneliness of the project? Art that already knows the answer to itself is boring. We need the black hole. 

SN: In the book, Alice mulls over how “her only subject was time, and however she might construct provocations around this subject, her only real idea about time was that it passes and that this is sad.” How do you feel about the inevitable passing of time, and how do you make your peace with it?

Time feels very short to me these days, and yet I continue to waste it in spectacular fashion. I don’t know that I’ve made peace with its passing. We’re wired not to, because the end of things feels impossible until it isn’t.

I continue to think about death all the time and watch cat videos.

SN: You also have a book of poetry called Mouth that was published in 2007. How was the process of writing this novel different from writing poetry? In what ways was it easier, and in what ways was it exhausting?

LHC: I think I am always looking for a certain freedom and freefall when I write. The poet brain is a free brain, and I hold on to elements of that brain that resists orthodoxy. But my own poems started to feel constrained, so I needed to break out and be an absolute beginner again, to make new moves, fall on my face, go somewhere different. 

SN: Who are your literary influences?

LHC: My literary influences are too many to list, but I love Kazuo Ishiguro, Yasunari Kawabata, Chris Kraus, and Sigrid Nunez. The particular influences for this book are Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City, which helped me see a way to write about artists and their work that felt metabolized. There’s Margo Jefferson’s Negroland, which is a hybrid of cultural criticism and memoir that cuts to the bone. Brett Story’s A Prison in Twelve Landscapes, Laurie Jo Reynold’s Space Ghost, and “The House that Herman Built,” Jackie Summel’s 15-year collaborative project with Herman Wallace, who was imprisoned in solitary confinement for 41 years, are all touchstones for me as works of intense imagination and rigor. For brio, Jessica Hagedorn, Sesshu Foster, Viet Nguyen, Paul Beatty, John Yau, James Hannaham, and Victor Shklovosky. 

SN: Is there anything specific that you want to relay to your readers?

LHC: What I wish for is that the reader approaches the book with an open mind, to set aside their ideas of how a novel should behave and a willingness to have their signals scrambled. 

Lisa Hsiao Chen is the author of Activities of Daily Living and Mouth, which won a writing award from the Association of Asian American Studies. She has received a Writers’ Award from the Rona Jaffe Foundation, a Center for Fiction fellowship and was a resident at the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s Workspace Program.

Shweta Nandakumar is an editor and MA candidate at the New School for Social Research studying Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism.

Click here to read an excerpt from Activities of Daily Living, courtesy of Lisa Hsiao Chen and W. W. Norton and Company.