This is me, Karen Kao, circa age three. I am the eldest of three children born in Los Angeles, California to Chinese immigrants who settled in the US in the 1950s.
There were no other Chinese at the primary school my brothers and attended. Nor were there, for a long time, any other Chinese families in our neighborhood. I grew up thinking I was Mexican-American like all the other kids in my class. It took a visit to my maternal grandfather in Taiwan to open my eyes. We had just landed. It was nighttime. People crowded the airport. I assumed that they were waiting to greet the other passengers on our plane. When the luggage finally appeared and we could leave the airport, the whole crowd came too. It turned out that all of them were relatives.
My father was born in Shanghai. Though his name in the Shanghai dialect means first son born in Shanghai (申伯), my father was not the eldest child. There were three other children in his generation of the Kao family: Robert, Ruth and Victor, plus Dorothy who died at the age of two. They grew up in a house on Avenue Haig, at the edge of the French Concession.
My mother is from the south of China and is an only child. She’s lived all over China, as well as Taiwan and Hong Kong. She gave me my obsession with food, a love of gambling and a sense of style.
In the West, my name is Karen Kao. In China, I’m called Gao Minghui (高銘慧). My family name means high or tall, which is ironic since I’m not quite five feet tall. My personal name means clear wisdom.
Wise or not, I’ve been writing since high school. I started out with plays that mocked my poor teachers. Luckily, none of those works has survived. My time at Ramona Convent, an all-girl Catholic high school, was a happy one. It was okay to be smart and get good grades.
At the University of California Irvine, I had the tremendous good fortune of meeting Charles Wright, a poet, a teacher in the UCI graduate program in fine arts and a gentle soul. He taught me how to write. That once you’ve got the plane up in the air, you can take away the ladder. He said,
Writing is a calling. Do it only if you can’t help yourself.
Upon graduation, my path was clear. I would become a poet. Of course, I didn’t expect to earn a living with my poetry, at least not at first. Instead, I would learn how to cut hair. That way, I could move to the south of France, cut hair by day and write by night.
My father thought this was a spectacularly bad idea.
So I went to law school and ended up practicing law for over 25 years, both in the US and in the Netherlands. If you need all the gruesome details, you can look here for the LinkedIn profile of Karen Kao, the ex-lawyer. You can also read my interview in the alumni magazine of Georgetown University or with femflection.com to learn more about the various twists and turns of my career.
For purposes of who Karen Kao is now, there’s only one thing you need to know about my legal career. For a long time, I didn’t write.
My debut novel
Since 2011, I have the good fortune to write full-time from my home in Amsterdam. I work all day with the characters I’ve created and learned to love. If I get lucky, they sit up and tell me their stories. I work with language – no longer to convince or badger or corner – but to paint a picture. I belong to a community of writers with whom I can share my work and make it better.
Success has come slowly this second time around. After four years of hard work, I managed to get my first short story published. That was Words Fly By, published in 2015 by Jabberwock Review. In June 2016, Moon Cakes was published by Cha: An Asian Literary Journal.
In the meantime, I attended two writing workshops, each led by novelists I admire. The first was the Paris Writers Workshop (2014), taught by Lan Samantha Chang. Then, in the summer of 2016, I attended the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference for a novel writing workshop taught by Yiyun Li.
Finally, in October 2016, it happened. Linen Press agreed to publish my first novel, The Dancing Girl and the Turtle. The book launched in April 2017 in Amsterdam. You can read more about the labor pains of transforming a manuscript into a book, the festive launch and the lovely reviews of my novel.
Check out my publications page for the short stories, feature articles, and lyric essays that have been published in literary journals around the world. Think Canada, the United States, Singapore, Hong Kong, the Netherlands, and China.
In 2022, I won the Kenyon Review Short Nonfiction Contest. I’ve also been nominated for Best of the Net, the VERA and the Pushcart Prize.
In 2018, I started teaching creative writing at the International Writers’ Collective. In that role, I’ve had the great fortune to give a Master Class on the art of writing historical fiction and facilitate Master Classes given respectively by Irish writer Caoilinn Hughes and Singaporean writer Jing-Jing Lee. I also get to write craft essays for publication on the IWC blog. But my main act is to teach the Level 1 core workshops. Starting in 2021, I’ve been teaching the lyric essay as well.
Outside the IWC context, I’ve given guest lectures for the Amsterdam University College, Leiden University College, and Expanded Field Journal. VERSO had me guest curate their spring edition on mass: formulae. I’ve even been known to offer a private writing workshop upon request.
Meet & Greet Karen Kao?
For interviews in print, podcast or video form, check out this page.
Still not enough Karen Kao for you? You can contact me here.
Last updated 23.04.2022.