Early one Monday morning (read: about 12 p.m.) Rachel Khong ’07 enters the foyer of Commons. Coated, scarfed and smiling as if there’s already some joke between us, she says she finds the idea of being profiled a bit absurd. Then again, Khong is no stranger to absurdity.
Through her recent focus on writing short fiction, Khong has grown accustomed to taking in the world’s strange and surprising details and then twisting them further. Right away, there’s cause for wondering just how much of what Khong says is true, especially when she apologizes for not having much to say at all. A senior English Major in the Writing Concentration, Khong’s resume includes music criticism for The Village Voice and Pitchfork, while she has also racked up her fair share of writing prizes. Last year, she won both the second-place Wallace Prize for fiction and a Yale English Department Veech prize for imaginative writing. “I tried something new for me by writing in first person,” Rachel says about her Wallace-winning essay, getting a little flustered. “Although now I’m really embarrassed by that story.”
But there’s one prize most Yalies probably have not heard of. Rachel, beginning to beam with what may be pride, says that as a 10th grader she submitted an essay about genetics to a contest held by the Nobel committee. She and her mother were flown up to San Francisco where they met the princess of Sweden and Bill Nye — ”You know, the Science Guy?” Khong adds with a laugh. “I’m afraid to say that may have been the high point of my writing career,” Khong says. ”The trophy was amazing — it looked like a piece of Superman’s castle.” Khong doesn’t hesitate to disclose the quirky details of her pre-Yale life. She went to high school in Southern California in a place called Diamond Bar, not far from Snoop Dogg’s house. Before that she lived nearby in a place called Rancho Cucamonga, where, she says, she is “proud to have grown up” — because it’s called Rancho Cucamonga.
But when it comes to talking about her writing, Rachel falls back on modesty, taking a more realistic view of her work. “Fiction is the most frustrating thing to write,” she says. “I find it really hard to finish anything. Even when I’m done I’m still never really satisfied.” Most people, though, have no trouble finding satisfaction in Rachel Khong’s work. “Here writing skills are terrific,” said Denise Markonish, curator of Artspace, where Khong works as an intern. “Underneath her seemingly shy exterior she is full of humor and intelligence.” When talking about her senior project, Khong opens up about her creative obsessions: “I have some ideas, and most involve pregnancy, which is a really weird thing, if you ever stop to think about it.”
These “weird things” keep coming up in our conversation, perhaps because they figure into both her writing and life so often. “Since reading a cool story of Daniel Handler’s (aka Lemony Snicket when he writes for adults) in Zoetrope, I’ve been kind of working on a ghost story,” she says. “Roald Dahl once said they were the hardest thing to write, but that he would usually end up saving them by turning them into non-ghost stories, which is what I’ll probably wind up doing, too.” So where does this all this fascination with strange phenomena come from? “I’m often inspired by reading stories in the news and books about people more interesting than me,” Rachel said. “Right now I am obsessed with Robert Shields, keeper of the world’s longest diary.” Details like that appear to have something to do with what makes people love Khong’s writing, and Khong herself. “She invited a friend to have Bloody Marys with her at 5 a.m. in the morning for some reason,” said Dan Yao ’08, with whom Rachel plans to begin hosting concerts at the Women’s Center this spring. “I can definitely foresee her becoming one of the budding young authors on the cutting edge of American avant-avant garde fiction,” he said. Unwilling, perhaps, to divulge her highest ambitions, Khong shrugs and says she’d be happy with a “job that feeds” so she can “write on the side.”
“I can’t really do anything else,” she said. A pause, and then, “Besides, I think the real world sounds fun.”