. We recently chatted about Two Trees Make a Forest, the forms histories and stories take, and the need to reimagine what writing and writers can be.
Allisen Lichtenstein: What did your journey to becoming a writer look like?
Jessica J. Lee: I was in academia originally and saw myself on that track. I was like, I’m going to get my PhD, become a professor, do the postdoc, do the tenure-track job thing. I got a job working at The Guardian. They run creative writing courses, and I got a job as an events assistant. And by virtue of the job, I ended up sitting in for about six months on different creative writing courses. It was refreshing, because it was a completely different perspective from the way I had been working, which was starting to feel overly analytical and overly critical.
And then, when I moved, I came back to Berlin. I had been back and forth between London and Berlin at this point. And I decided I wanted to start swimming in lakes and blogging about it. And I found a voice that really worked for me. And then it snowballed. Three months after the column, I had an agent and a book deal.
And it wasn’t that I thought, okay, this is my great life goal. But if I’m honest, I think in that part of my heart that I would never allow to speak out loud, that is what I wanted. I didn’t think that it was something I could actually cobble together. I was still doing a PhD when I got my first book deal and ended up finding the space that really draws on my experience in academia, but is not strictly academic and allows me to play with similar kinds of work.
AL: I’m curious—how did your background as a historian inform, but also diverge from your deep dive into your family’s own history? This line from your book: “How do you corroborate a memory?” seems to allude to those tensions.
JJL: I had all the impulses as a historian to want certain verifications. And there were times when I was able to say, “Oh, this is completely accurate.” There’s a part in the book where I talk about my grandfather’s journey going to the US to train [as a pilot]. And he had mentioned that in fragments, but with the full picture I got from his letters. I wasn’t sure if what he had written was accurate because he had Alzheimer’s. And I ended up finding an oral history that had been translated into English that followed Air Force trainees in his group. So I did get to have that verification at points.
But the rest of it, like with my grandmother, for example, it didn’t matter if I could verify it often, because it was the story that was told [to me]. And it was the story that shaped so much of my family’s relationship to one another and to place both to China, to Taiwan. It pushed me as a writer and as a historian to say, I didn’t need to verify this for the story to hold a power. It doesn’t mean that it’s fiction, but it was okay to say, “well, my grandmother told me this is, and this is what she carried with her.”
AL: Can you talk about the process of writing your book?
JJL: The book was written in pieces over a very long period of time. It drew on stuff that I had wanted to write about long before, tried to fictionalize, and then couldn’t find the right space to pursue it. Once I made it into the book that it is now, it was this combination of writing around scrap—writing around scraps of like my grandparents’ lives, but also scraps of research.
It was written variously in terms of location—in the UK, in Taiwan, in Germany, and in Canada. It was always fragmentary and always responding to the sources available to me in every space. A lot of it, I wrote in the national library in Taipei. And then a lot of it was written here, in Berlin, in the library or in my local coffee shop. But there was that strange thing of trying to write about a place that was far away. And a lot of how I recreated it was through research, going to the library, pulling out books, looking at maps and photographs, and listening to bird sounds. I listened to one song on repeat for pretty much six months. You have to find the rhythm of the language, which is why I think being able to create sound spaces and enclosed replicas for myself in a distant place helps me find that text.
AL: Language and place are both so much a part of your book, and you often show how the two intertwine as “language becomes a home.” What does that home mean to you?
JJL: For me, it’s about that multiplicity. I think we often have to say, what is your home?—like your “real home.” I think for a huge amount of people on the globe, [home] is multiple places. And so for me, it’s sort of about leaving that open.
I like this idea of [home as] just a place you return to . . . so when I go back to Taiwan, I like to [go] to the same places I’ve been before, because there’s a sense of familiarity and a sense of belonging in that. Knowing you have laid your memories over those places in the past, and that you can inhabit them again.
AL: Your grandfather is a large presence in your book; in many ways he is the catalyst for it. How would you describe your relationship with him, and how did it feel to discover his letter, which was, essentially, a memoir about his life?
JLL: My grandfather was one person in my family who I don’t have a single negative memory about. Every moment that we spent together was just so full of love and affection. He was genuinely the kindest man I’ve ever known. As you know from the book, he developed Alzheimer’s, and he was alone. And I was in my early twenties, I was living abroad. I wasn’t in a position to say, “I’m going to fix this.” I mean, perhaps I should have. I think part of the reason for the book is dealing with the guilt of the fact that maybe I should have done more.
And when we found this letter he’d written, it was just this invitation to have a conversation with him ten years later after he’d already gone. And we never had a funeral for him, and I had never been able to mourn him. And I had been carrying it for a long time. And maybe spending time with this letter and writing this book is the best I can do for him.
AL: This book is so much about how landscapes are grafted onto us, and how places hold memories of the people that we love and hold their own history. How did you decide to write about all these themes in your column and in your book?
JJL: I arrived at the idea for the column out of all the things that I wanted to put in the book, but could not fit in. Working on the book broadened my scope of environmental history. My doctorate work was on British landscape history and European environmental history. And I hadn’t worked on Asia at all. I gravitated toward environmental and botanical history because that’s the area that I know best in my own field. Looking at it in Taiwan was such an eye-opener for me, in terms of thinking about colonial legacies, plant exploration, and trade.
I just can’t stop coming back to this idea of human migrations, family migrations, and plant migrations. I kept thinking about [this], particularly, in naming the column. The idea that we use such similar and problematic language for speaking about migration and species. The idea of being native to a place or not native to a place or invasive to a place, all of those were things that I wanted to explore particularly in this moment. When so much about human migration right now is really fraught, particularly in the West.
AL: You’re also the founding editor of the Willowherb Review. Can you speak about the motivation behind creating this magazine?
JJL: Since I came into nature writing, I also realized that at least in English and in the British and American nature writing traditions, there just isn’t and hasn’t historically been a strong presence or acknowledgment of the voices of people of color, voices with migration histories, et cetera. The Willowherb was about creating space to give to newer writers because I sort of carved out a space for myself in this field, and I wanted to pass on that energy. It was about being able to create this platform for new writers, but also to say these writers have always been here—maybe you haven’t been listening. It’s grown a lot into, I think, a beautiful community. We’ve got this space that’s run by us, for us.
AL: How are you approaching writing, at a time, when our access to places is limited?
JJL: At the moment, I’m in the magpie stage. I’m trying to work on a proposal for a new book. So what that looks like for me now is just collecting, which is also kind of my favorite part about writing a book—collecting sources, collecting ideas. I do think that the thing I write next is not going to be about one place. My first book was about Berlin, my second book’s about Taiwan. I want to approach whatever I’m doing now a little bit more thematically, and allow myself to explore a number of different places. [It will be] less of a memoir, and more about other things.
Right now, in lockdown, it’s taking the shape of a million tabs open on my phone or on my computer. I feel like a bird bringing things back to a nest, like, I’m going to have this and this and this. It looks like glacial algae, fungal spores, trees, birds, and horseshoe crabs. There’s all these little things that are in this strange nest I’m building right now.
AL: Have any advice for aspiring writers?
JJL: The big thing for me is to let go of expectations for what you think you have to be like or how that has to look. With regard to nature writing, I think we have this idea that’s kind of fusty, of the man in the coat with, you know, the big paper map and the binoculars. That’s not me. That has never been me. You know, I’m always just there with my iPhone, taking notes on my phone. And I guess I’d encourage a bit of forgiveness and generosity, but also reimagining what being a writer of a place, in particular, looks like.