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A weekly look at creativity, arts, and culture in southwest Michigan, hosted by Zinta Aistars.Fridays in Morning Edition at 7:50am and at 4:20pm during All Things Considered.

Art Beat: Liar, Dreamer, Thief

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Brea Oakes Photography
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Maria Dong
Maria Dong

Is it right or is it wrong? Is it real or is it all a hallucination of a woman gone mad? As the novel by Maria Dong, Liar, Dreamer, Thief (Grand Central Publishing, 2023), opens, it is hard to nail down who the character of Katrina Kim is and how her unique mind functions. It may be that she is a stalker. Or perhaps she is a visionary. One thing is clear – this is a novel that is nearly impossible to put down. Kalamazoo’s Maria Dong has long published short stories, articles, and poetry, but Liar, Dreamer, Thief, is her debut novel.

A conversation with Maria Dong

“Katrina is a Korean American 24-year-old who is experiencing some mental illness,” says Dong about the novel’s main character. “Let’s just say that was taken from some personal experiences of mine. (Katrina) has been stalking a coworker at her office as a coping method, though never crossing the line per se, but really just keeping tabs on him. Then one day she witnesses him jump off a bridge.”

Dong Cover.jpg
Grand Central Publishing
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Maria Dong
Cover of "Liar, Dreamer, Thief"

As the storyline unfolds, it isn’t clear if the reader is witnessing a fantastic reality or an expression of the character’s mental illness—which becomes a part of the intrigue of the mystery. Visions appear beyond Katrina’s kitchen door. Clues are left at her office or tucked inside a desk drawer of the coworker she is watching. To keep herself feeling safe, she exhibits obsessive compulsive behaviors, counting and drawing symbols on the doors and walls of her apartment. Is the coworker’s suicide somehow her fault?

In writing about her character’s mental illness, Dong says she felt vulnerable but validated in dealing with her own ADHD.

“There are a lot of depictions of mental illness in popular media,” Dong says. “They are always what I would call the fun, tasteful depictions, or the ones, you know, so-and-so is really sad, but not really delving into how things actually feel and the many ways in how it affects a person’s life, particularly someone who doesn’t match a more classical or typical depiction. It was a lot of really difficult work to take something that honestly doesn’t make sense, and feels like it doesn’t make sense, and translate that in such a way that somebody who doesn’t have that experience can somehow feel how that feels. It's very validating to hear people say that’s working for them and that they feel represented that way.”

Although Dong is currently a computer programmer, she has previously held a variety of diverse jobs, including property manager, English teacher, and occupational therapist. Dong will appear at Bookstore/this is a bookstore on Oakland Drive in Kalamazoo for a Q&A at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, January 10. Registration is required.

Listen to WMUK's Art Beat every Friday at 7:50 a.m. and 4:20 p.m.

Zinta Aistars is our resident book expert. She started interviewing authors and artists for our Arts & More program in 2011.
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