Your book, Holding Pattern, is released this month! Congratulations on such a special milestone. How are you feeling about it today?
As I write this, we’re one week away from launch, so it’s safe to say I’m all over the place. I’ve been writing and growing along with this book for almost eight years now, so it’s surreal to think that soon it’ll be out in the world, and we’ll lead our separate lives, in a sense. The process has been such a slow burn—so glacial and insular for years, and now there’s all this velocity and attention. I’m grateful to my community for holding me down.
What is Holding Pattern about, and what fueled your desire to write it?
Holding Pattern follows twenty-something Kathleen Cheng after she suffers a shattering breakup, abandons her PhD program, and moves back home with her mother in Oakland. Her mom, Marissa, is wildly different from the woman she remembers—no longer drunk, depressed, and dependent on Kathleen—and is engaged to a tech entrepreneur. As she preps for her mother's wedding, Kathleen picks up a side gig as a professional cuddler, and an unexpected connection with a client helps her reimagine love and intimacy across all her relationships—and especially with her mom.
The book sprang from my desire to capture the taut love between mothers and daughters, especially in immigrant families where a cultural rupture makes it even harder to come to a place of mutual understanding.
How was the experience of writing this book compared to things you have written in the past?
This is my first book—sort of. In middle school and high school, I wrote a fantasy novel that I actually sent out to agents. Now it’s lost somewhere in the digital ether. But this is the longest work of literary fiction I’ve ever written, and it was a painstaking, exploratory process because aside from a vague framework, I wasn’t following any sort of outline. Compared to a short story, a form I was more familiar with, a novel manuscript offers so much more possibility in the editing process: so many more scenes to add and cut, themes to develop, characters to chase. So there was a huge learning curve in that sense.
“Holding pattern” refers to the state of suspension of an aircraft, or waiting to land. When coming up with a title for this book, was this term an easy recall? Why do you think there was such resonance with this idea?
Holding Pattern wasn’t the working title, but it came up when my agent, Sarah Bowlin, and I were bouncing ideas around. We liked it because the phrase encapsulates both Kathleen’s feeling of being suspended and the themes of touch and intimacy in the book.
Kathleen is 28, so she’s fully in her Saturn return. The track that she was on in terms of her life and career abruptly bucks her off, and she has to re-evaluate what she really wants. That’s an experience that people can relate to, I think—something unexpected throws you off course, and while it can be painful and bewildering to recalibrate, it gives you an opportunity to head in a new direction.
Aspects of this story explore the concept of intimacy & touch in ways we don’t always consider. How does the intimacy of clothing come into play in this story?
Kathleen confronts her relationship to touch, intimacy, and connection all throughout the book, from the way she behaves with people she loves, to how she approaches professional cuddling, to her study of haptics in academia, to her use of tech and social media. As someone who’s at a crossroads in her life, Kathleen isn’t sure how she feels about touch, and she’s also hyper-aware of clothing as the signifying layer between body and world.
Because she doesn’t fully understand herself, Kathleen is uncomfortable in her own skin—and by extension, uncomfortable in her clothes. When one of her cuddle clients asks her to wear a sweater that once belonged to his deceased wife, it changes their dynamic as well as her sense of self.
Clothing and style are used in Holding Pattern to signal identity and a personal evolution. In your own life, is there a piece of clothing that encapsulates a period of growth for you?
I have a vintage cardigan that I bought at a thrift warehouse in Baltimore around the same time I started writing Holding Pattern. It’s one of the items in my closet that has been with me the longest—it’s survived many relationships, moves, and purges. I feel totally different from the person who bought it, but it’s reassuring that I still love it and reach for it.
How did you first find out about Noihsaf Bazaar? What was your first NB purchase?
I think a friend of a friend plugged it on Instagram! I’m not sure if this was my first purchase, but an early one was a pair of Ahlem sunglasses that I wore all the time. Unfortunately, I left them in a convenience store in Venice, California about a year ago. I hope they found a good home.
Your parents emigrated from Shanghai when you were young, and resourcefulness is very much a part of the immigrant mentality. Did you grow up shopping secondhand?
We almost exclusively shopped secondhand for clothes and home goods, meaning thrift stores and yard sales. Buying something new from the store meant that it had to be deeply discounted. My parents grew up during the Cultural Revolution in China, so they were used to rationing and scarcity, and when they moved to the States, there was the intense pressure of putting money away for the future. They’re more relaxed now, but I don’t think any of us will ever shake that mindset completely.
What do you love about secondhand shopping?
It’s the unpredictability, the sense of possibility and discovery. There’s nothing better than rifling through a bin of clothes and finding something that rings a bell inside you—it can be so affirming, like: Yes, this is who I am. Beyond that, it saves items from going to the dump. The tons and tons of waste we generate in chasing cheap trends, whether it be clothing or furniture, is heartbreaking.
And, of course, I love a good deal.
What is the most treasured item in your closet? In that same vein, what is your most beloved item in your mother’s closet?
People are going to think I’m obsessed with sweaters—and maybe I am—but I adore the red oversize cardigan my mom knit for me when I was in college. It goes down to my knees. I’d told her I wanted to buy a slouchy, chunky-knit sweater when I was home during winter break, so she went out to buy the yarn to knit one and stayed up late over several nights to finish it in time. I think of her every time I put it on. I don’t actually ever leave the house with it. It’s my security blanket.
It’s funny, but my mother has a similar labor of love in her closet: a teal cardigan and midi skirt set that her aunt knit for her in the ’80s. The top has a darling white collar with little pearls stitched to it, if I’m remembering correctly. Every so often she takes it out and reminisces about being young in Shanghai, and recently I tried it on. It felt like stepping into her life.
Who or what are you drawn to these days, either in fashion, nature, books, etc? Not necessarily in terms of inspiration, but what do you enjoy learning about or find beautiful?
It’s not my everyday wear, but I’ve been loving South Korean designer Hyein Seo’s deconstructed, gorpcore-tinged aesthetic. The details are so fresh and inspiring. I’ve been going back to the office, so I’m also admiring the crisp, refined silhouettes of Toteme.
I live in Brooklyn, but I’m from California, and these days I’m intensely missing the epic landscape of the west—especially the coastal redwoods and the Sierra Nevadas. I’ll have to make a trip out there soon.
In terms of reading, there have been some new books that I can’t wait to sink my teeth into: The Forbidden Territory of a Terrifying Woman by Molly Lynch, Thrillville, USA by Taylor Koekkoek, Dykette by Jenny Fran Davis, The Sorrows of Others by Ada Zhang, and Open Throat by Henry Hoke.
Has your mother given you any particular style advice that still rings true?
Look for quality. Go for well made fabrics that will look good, feel good, and keep its integrity.
What is something that brings you hope today?
The presence of people in my life who are strong, brilliant, loving, and deeply engaged with the world.