An Asian woman in a black top and sunglasses kisses an older Asian woman in a blue top, red head wrap and sunglasses on the cheek, with houses and a blue sky in the background.

Kayla Min Andrews on how her life is imitating art

The writer on getting her late mother’s novel “The Fetishist” published and collaborating with her mother after her death

From left, author Katherine Min and her daughter Kayla Min Andrews.

Courtesy of Kayla Min Andrews

Words by Samantha Pak

Growing up in a small town in New Hampshire could have been isolating. Fortunately for Kayla Min Andrews, she had her mother, the late writer Katherine Min, who she spent a lot of time with.

Min spent most of her career writing fiction, publishing a number of short stories, as well as the novel Secondhand World (2005). She had been working on—and had almost completed—her second novel, The Fetishist, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2014. At that point, she “abandoned” (as Andrews says, her mother described it this way) the book, to focus on writing nonfiction. Min never went back to fiction and died in 2019.

But since her mother’s death, Andrews—a writer herself—has worked to get her mother’s final novel published. And that journey came to fruition earlier this month.

The Fetishist, tells the story of three protagonists: Kyoko, a young punk rock singer and grieving daughter, hellbent on avenging her mother’s death; Daniel, a violinist with a case of Yellow Fever (the fetishist in question), and the target of Kyoko’s revenge as she blames him for her what happened to her mother; and Alma, the love of Daniel’s life, who is on her deathbed and looking back on her life.

I recently spoke with the 37-year-old Andrews about the process of getting her mother’s novel published, the healing power of writing, and the parallels between her and Kyoko as grieving daughters—all while avoiding spoilers from The Fetishist.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

A dark pink book cover of "The Fetishist" by Katherine Min, with a closeup of a puffer fish.

"The Fetishist" by Katherine Min is out now.

Courtesy of Penguin Random House

Samantha Pak: How would you describe your relationship with your mom?

Kayla Min Andrews: We were always very close. We would read books together. That started when I was a child, but continued through when I was a teenager. We would read some of the “great” books together or contemporary novels that were coming out then and talk about them. She would read some of her works in progress to me. We'd chat about it.

SP: Being able to, not just read these different works along with your mom, but also to read her own work, what was that like?

KMA: I'm only fully realizing now how unusual it was and how special it was. At the time, it was normal to me because that's the only upbringing that I knew. But I really got a front row seat to see creativity and to see art being made. It really normalized for me, the effort that goes into writing and how things take time and evolve over time.

I really got a front row seat to see creativity and to see art being made.

SP: You talked about your mom inspiring you to write. Can you talk about that journey and what about her led you to start writing yourself?

KMA: As a kid, I was always scribbling stories in notebooks, and I kept it up even in high school and undergrad. But then as soon as I graduated college, I just stopped. I just felt like, “I'm an adult now. I need to do adult things.” And so I did not write at all creatively for 10 years.

It was really as Mom was dying. Obviously, we were so sad to lose her prematurely. But a source of solace within that was knowing that she had lived the way she wanted to live, that she had been brave and faced the things she wanted to face. There was a certain amount of peace she felt that came from, “I wanted to be a writer, and I struggled and I wrote my whole life. It sucks that my life is ending, but at least I did what I wanted with my life.”

I felt so proud of her. It was just a natural progression of applying that to myself and being like, “I am not doing what I want to be doing. I'm not necessarily proud of how I've been living—I haven't been brave. I've actually been hiding. How can I fix that? I should be writing.”

SP: What kind of writing do you do?

KMA: Mostly fiction, although sometimes nonfiction. I like to write literary fiction, exploring interpersonal relationships and feelings, and mixed-race identity.

I'm really excited because I have a piece coming out in March in The Massachusetts Review, and that'll be creative nonfiction about that time when Mom was in hospice, my return to writing and how that impacted me.

A closeup of two Asian women in sunglasses, one in a tan sun hat, with a railroad in the background.

After her mother writer Katherine Min (left) died, Kayla Min Andrews was inspired to start writing herself.

Courtesy of Kayla Min Andrews

SP: When I've written personal essays or written about my family, that's always been harder for me. So, with you talking about getting back into writing and how your mom was in hospice, what was that like to write?

KMA: That piece, I started working on it in January 2020 and just got it accepted recently. I was working on other things! [laughs] But I was working on it for the past four years, on and off and just revising and getting it closer to the truth because it is such a personal story.

I tend to be very private, very reserved, very shy. So it is kind of funny that I'm like, “Let me tell the most personal story about myself that I could possibly tell.” But it feels really necessary somehow. There's a magic to that time, to the effects it's had. When you feel that, there are just certain moments you're like, “I have to write about this, no matter how hard and no matter how long it takes to get it right—no matter how vulnerable you feel.”

SP: And sometimes you just write it to write it. It doesn't have to get published, doesn't have to go anywhere. Sometimes, that's all you need.

KMA: Oh yeah, there's real power in that. It's helping you to know yourself, and it's really powerful. That's something Mom always said, especially towards the end of her life because she switched from writing fiction to writing nonfiction. As soon as she got diagnosed with terminal cancer, she claims in the oncologist’s office, “I don't want to do fiction anymore. I want to get real direct. I want to figure myself out, where I’ve been and what I've been through. So, I'm gonna just completely stop working on this beautiful novel that's almost done and instead I'm gonna write personal essays.”

SP: Will you be publishing her personal essays, as well?

KMA: Yeah, that's on the horizon.

SP: You had read some chapters (of The Fetishist) before your mother was diagnosed. Did you remember that she had this piece of fiction floating around somewhere on her computer?

KMA: Yes, I definitely remembered. I had read substantial chunks of it, but not all put together as a novel. For whatever reason, I didn't immediately seek it out. She was so focused on the essays and she was like, “Yeah, whatever. That novel, I abandoned it.” I followed her lead and she was so excited about the essays. I just wanted to support her in her turn to nonfiction.

An Asian woman and young Asian man and woman hug, with a cabinet and white door in the background.

From left, Katherine Min with her son Clay Min Andrews and daughter Kayla Min Andrews.

Courtesy of Kayla Min Andrews

SP: When did you discover (The Fetishist) again and think, “We should get this published?”

KMA: My uncle Kollin came up with the idea to establish a fellowship in Mom's name at MacDowell, which is an arts residency Mom really liked to go into. We established a fellowship in Mom's name to support an Asian American writer every year. Then we decided to have a celebration of the fellowship with MacDowell in 2021.

We decided I should read some of Mom's work at that event. When I was trying to decide what to read, my stepdad Greg was like, “You know that chapter from The Fetishist that was really funny, and she would read it sometimes at university events in North Carolina.” When I read that at the event, everybody loved it so much, and was like, “Wait, when did we get to read the whole novel?” And so it really planted the initial seed that this novel was really dynamite.

There were a lot of Asian women in the audience who said, “I felt so seen by that excerpt.” Because it’s about Asian fetishism specifically. People were like, “Oh my god! She's articulating something that I've experienced so many times.”

It was so cool to see that reaction. There was so much energy in that, that we thought, “What have we been doing? We're dumb! We should be trying to get this novel out there.”

SP: I thought it was interesting that she did include all these different perspectives, like (Daniel) the fetishist with yellow fever. To have that point of view, but also feel empathy for him, I thought that was really well done. What was it like for you, as an Asian American woman specifically, to read part of a story from that perspective?

KMA: Daniel’s perspective can be very entertaining and funny. It makes sense to me. I think the book in general, it's very generous towards all of its characters. They're all flawed and damaged, kind of lost, and doing their best. I share this with Mom, the sensibility of being interested in how we're all damaged but redeemable—and just letting everyone have their complexity and their humanity. Because you might think it's gonna just totally make fun of the fetishist, but I personally am glad that it's not that.

A close up of two Asian women, one with shoulder-length black hair and one with a black head wrap and a medical breathing tube in her nose.

From left, Kayla Min Andrews and her mother Katherine Min after Min was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Courtesy of Kayla Min Andrews

SP: Yeah, I think that would make it more cartoony. And with Kyoko wanting her revenge for her mom, I think if we didn't go on that journey with Daniel, it would have taken away from Kyoko’s journey.

KMA: Yeah, totally agree.

SP: Obviously one big part of this story is Alma’s story and her being sick and in the hospital. Your mom wrote this before she got sick. What was it like to read that?

KMA: It's really haunting when you think about it—that she writes about terminal illness, mortality, facing your own death, and hospice, not knowing that all of that was waiting right around the corner for her. She has a lot of really insightful things to say about grief, about how we remember people after they die. And Kyoko is a grieving daughter on this righteous path to honor her mother's memory. Mom wrote all that not knowing that I was soon going to be grieving her. It messes with the head a little bit.

SP: I know you read things beforehand, but once you read the story as a whole, and seeing what Kyoko was experiencing, what was it like for you, being on the other side of your mother's illness and her death?

KMA: Kyoko as a character, grief is so much a part of her story. It seems to me that the grief leads to inspiration and creativity in her life. She's having breakthroughs with her music and songs, and performing them. And maybe even some of her drawings. But then there's also this impulse towards destruction, violence, a certain kind of nihilism—giving into anger.

Grief can cause great creativity and inspiration and accomplishment. It can also trigger feelings that are much darker and more disruptive. So, something of that emotional truth (in Kyoko) resonates with me.

A young Asian woman in a pink top hugs an older Asian woman in a black top and white hat.

From left, Kayla Min Andrews and her mother Katherine Min were very close and often read books together.

Courtesy of Kayla Min Andrews

SP: Kyoko’s got so much anger, and she's allowed to be angry. That was one of my favorite things about her. I really appreciated that because we don't always see that. As Asian women, we're not always allowed to be angry and have those types of emotions.

KMA: Yeah, absolutely. I totally agree.

SP: How was it going through the whole (editing) process for you because obviously, you couldn’t refer back to your mom and be like, “Oh, can you clarify…?”

KMA: The novel was very polished and very great, and so we weren't revamping anything. It was a little bit of rearranging, a little bit of cutting, but it was mostly adding.

It was really powerful and amazing. That was probably the most magical part of it for me as a writer. It was terrifying at first, to be crafting my own sentences, to make them fit in with the novel, and then inserting them. I had to get over that feeling. I had to really trust myself. And I do imagine that Mom would trust me, but she's not here. No one can ask her. But I felt her presence very strongly as I was doing it, and imagined that she was looking over my shoulder, and that we were deciding together. It was an amazing, electrifying artistic experience to do that. It just felt like, “Oh, I get to collaborate with Mom as a writer.” Even though I became a writer after she died. We were never fully adult writers at the same time together, but in this book we're both there.

Published on January 25, 2024

Words by Samantha Pak

Samantha Pak (she/her) is an award-winning Cambodian American journalist from the Seattle area and assistant editor for JoySauce. She spends more time than she’ll admit shopping for books than actually reading them, and has made it her mission to show others how amazing Southeast Asian people are. Follow her on Twitter at @iam_sammi and on Instagram at @sammi.pak.