“Through writing this book, I’ve come to decide that I’m no longer a foreigner in this land”: A Conversation with Ye Chun
“Although my main characters find themselves in difficult circumstances, they are not passive. They resist, confront, and sometimes arrive at moments of transcendence.”
, her beautiful debut story collection out now from Catapult, might take shape as a book of poems about her experience as a mother. But as she began to write, she felt “a craving to build community . . . to connect and merge with other women and mothers, imagined or semi-imagined.” As her characters and stories developed, “the form shifted,” she says: She found that she was writing in a new-to-her genre, creating a collection of short fiction.
In envisioning and bringing her characters to life on the page, Ye intentionally wrote against “stereotypes”; her protagonists are Chinese or Chinese American women, who, she notes, are too often “typecast as passive victims, or dragon ladies, or tiger moms.” Ye was determined that none of her characters be “reducible” to type, and labored to give them strong voices and determination to define their own experiences, even as they are forced to grapple with the racism, misogyny, and violence of their time—and ours. “Although my main characters find themselves in difficult circumstances, in systems that do not often have their interests in mind,” Ye says, “they are not passive. They resist, confront, and sometimes arrive at moments of transcendence.”
Ye is the author of two books of poetry, Travel Over Water and Lantern Puzzle; a novel in Chinese,《海上的桃树》(Peach Tree in the Sea); and four volumes of translations. A recipient of an NEA Literature Fellowship, a Sustainable Arts Foundation Award, and three Pushcart Prizes, she teaches at Providence College.
Nicole Chung: Before Hao, you wrote a novel and two books of poetry, and you have also published several translated works. How did you first become a writer, and how have you approached writing across genres? Does your poetry inform your prose, for example? Does your translation work have an impact on how you write fiction?
Ye Chun: I had always kept a journal, but did not consider myself a writer until I was in my mid-twenties. That was when I quit a full-time newspaper job in China and got into a writing program here in America. I tried a couple of fiction workshops before switching to poetry, which I discovered to be a more forgiving medium for non-native speakers, as it involves fewer words and has a higher tolerance of non-standard English. I was able to work out a self-translation process that benefited from my bilingualism.
After two collections of poetry, I tried fiction again. I wrote a novel set in China, in Chinese—living away from my home country seemed to have afforded me a more panoramic view of it, and the novel was the best medium for that kind of sustained attention. Then, when I went back to school for a PhD, I had to use English so intensively I found myself writing directly in English. And Hao is the result of that.
My previous practice in poetry and novel did inform my writing of the book. Like poetry, short fiction draws energy from compression, and like a novel, it allows characters to be known in concrete terms. The challenge is to make the characters come alive with sparse yet resonant details and render the details with precise, pared-down language. I found much of my revision process had to do with trimming and sharpening, with the hope that every word I kept in the final draft would matter.
My practice in translation perhaps helped me to make the language of the book more exact. Much of my poetry writing had to do with self-translation: I translated drafts of a poem back and forth between Chinese and English to arrive at a draft that I believed to be the finest in terms of sense and sound. Even though I wrote this book directly in English, that habitual seeking for a kind of interlingual resonance and precision was probably still at work.
NC: What is the process like when creating your characters? What, if anything, helps you understand them and unlock their voices?
YC: Each of the characters in the book embodied some perplexities or predicaments I couldn’t turn away from. To take “Anchor Baby” as an example, I started the story soon after Trump was elected. His outrageous display of racism and sexism prompted me to imagine a situation like the one in the story: A Chinese woman with certain ideals about America comes to give birth to her child in this country, while an American man attempts to reduce her to a mere idea and reduce the child she carries to a dehumanizing term. I put the woman right in the middle of the conflict because the urgency and precarity of the situation doesn’t allow for circumventing.
As to unlocking a character’s voice, I depended much on the stage of writing I think of as “wuwei state.” I use the Daoist idea of wuwei to describe it because writing at this stage is an action free from strivings or conceptions or expectations. It’s just focusing on a moment and writing down whatever comes to mind.
NC: Which story in this collection did you write first? Which came last? How did you decide how to organize these stories for publication?
YC: “A Drawer” is the first story I wrote. It’s set in the 1940s, in wartime China, and based on my maternal grandmother. My daughter cried so much when she was a newborn. There’s the theory that in their preverbal stage, a baby carries memories of all their forebears or past lives. I felt as if my daughter was remembering and lamenting something with her inexplicable crying. I started to think about my maternal grandmother, who had passed away when I was a child.
“I use the Daoist idea of wuwei to describe it because writing at this stage is an action free from strivings or conceptions or expectations.”
“Gold Mountain” is among the last pieces I completed for the book. My paternal great-great-grandfather had come to the American West to build the Transcontinental Railroad across the Sierra in the 1860s. He stayed for two decades before returning to China. Though I don’t know much about his life except for a few basic facts, he was more than likely in San Francisco when the 1877 anti-Chinese riot took place. This story, not really based on my own ancestor, is a homage to a precursor immigrant mother who has to find courage to claim a space in this country, something many of us continue to do.
Structurally, I had a few considerations when organizing the book. First of all, I wanted to find a kind of symmetry for the book, where the Chinese stories and American stories could intertwine and complement each other. I also knew that the “Wenchuan” story, told in the pronoun “we,” would come in the middle of the collection, and the sister pieces, “A Drawer” and “To Say,” would be set apart and echo each other. I had originally placed “Signs” at the beginning of the book to contextualize the oracle bone signs co-titling each piece, and placed the title story, “Hao,” at the end. My agent, Caroline Eisenmann, wisely suggested that I switch their places so that “Signs” would serve as the finale of the book. Later, my editor, Megha Majumdar, suggested that I place “Stars”—which, along with “Gold Mountain,” was the last piece I finished writing—at the beginning of the collection, because of its contemporary relevance and its direct reference to the title word “hao.” Their input really helped shape the organization of the book.
NC: The stories you’ve written are beautiful and would be relevant in any moment. When I read “Gold Mountain,” I did think of the scapegoating and violence Chinese and Asian people in the US have faced during the pandemic, and how it is both an inheritance and continuation of this history. I’m wondering whether these events—and earlier, you also mentioned Trump’s election leading to “Anchor Baby”—have had an impact on how you think about some of the stories, or perhaps just what it means to you to be able to publish this collection?
YC: Living amid the recent violence against Asian and Asian American people, I saw many parallels between the past and the present. The violence against Asians and Asian Americans is devastating, but not surprising. I have always felt a sense of precarity living in this country as an immigrant. With the onset of the pandemic, I knew scapegoating and harassment would happen, as they have throughout the over one-and-a-half centuries since the first wave of Asian immigrants arrived in this country.
It seems to me that one positive thing coming out of this latest surge of racism is our collective reckoning. We’ve become more vocal, more informed and unified as a community. For myself, through writing this book and bringing it out there, I’ve come to decide that I’m no longer a foreigner in this land.
NC: You must have done a great deal of research while working on this book. Can you talk about that process, and perhaps share something you learned that particularly surprised or inspired you?
YC: I did research for most of the stories, extensively in some cases. A few of the stories would not have existed without research. For example, the title story, “Hao,” had its genesis in a passage from Peter Hessler’s Oracle Bones. A woman was asked to copy slogans during the Cultural Revolution and wrote one character wrong—万岁to无岁 (ten thousand years to zero years). As a result, she was held in custody for five years. The episode haunted me until I had to face it and write the story.
Another example is “Stars.” For a few years, I had attempted to write about a bilingual person losing her language function. During my research on stroke recovery, I came across the book, Identity Theft, by Debra E. Meyerson with Danny Zuckerman, in which Meyerson discusses her own experience as a stroke survivor. She describes how, immediately after her stroke, the only word she was able to say was “no.” That particular detail prompted me to think if my character had only one word left, what it would be.
NC: Who are some authors you really love and perhaps took some inspiration from, if any?
YC: Toni Morrison is my beloved author of all time. While writing Hao, however, I was mostly reading short fiction so as to be immersed in the genre. A book I returned to often was The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis. I especially admired “Liminal: The Little Man.” For a while, I kept trying to figure out how the story was made, even though I knew it must have been made, first of all, in the kind of wuwei state I described earlier. The story was not reproducible, and I did not attempt to write something just like it. But the spontaneity, the fun and freedom that emanate from the writing, would get me excited about writing all over again. Stories in Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine and Denis Johnson’s Jesus’s Son had a similar effect on me. When I felt stuck, I reread my favorite pieces or passages and the joy of writing would come back again.
NC: Do you have any advice for aspiring authors working on short story collections?
YC: What I wished to have while working on the book was a sustained writing community. Because of my background in poetry, most of the writers I knew were poets rather than fiction writers. It wasn’t as easy to find someone to swap works with and receive feedback as I had done with my poetry writing. So one piece of advice I have is to form a literary community when you can—it might make the whole process less lonely.