Leave a comment

When writing fiction hurts the people you love

(From The Literary Hub. Link to the complete article given below)

I was sitting in the Science Center Library, reading Paradise Lost. This was in the late 1970s, when I was an English major at Harvard. There are famously gorgeous libraries at Harvard, but I preferred to sit in one of the uglier spaces, beneath buzzing fluorescent lights, with calculators clicking all around me. I was unlikely to run into anyone I knew in the Science Center, though there was no reason for me to be so furtive. It’s just the way I am, habitually keeping to myself. Private and solitary.

I came to the end of the poem. Adam and Eve, our guilty parents, cast out of the garden. But then: “The world was all before them, where to choose / Their place of rest. . . They, hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow, / Through Eden took their solitary way.” The lines hit a nerve and I burst into tears. Loud, gulpy, snot-filled sobs. In the middle of the Science Center, for everyone to hear. I could not stop. I sat in that cubicle and wept and wept.

Guilt has always moved me. I imagine the pain someone must have been in to do whatever awful thing he did and want him to have another chance. Such possibly kind, possibly stupid empathy is useful for a writer, but it’s not the whole story. My mother was a war survivor and I inherited her unspoken guilt at having made it out alive, but that doesn’t fully explain it, either. I feel guilty for being a fiction writer. I’m not referring to the self-doubt many of us feel about making up stories while the world burns. I’m talking about the suffering we cause by writing.

Read more at the Lit Hub link here

Advertisements


Leave a comment

Subverting the Chinese immigrant story

(From The Paris Review. Link to the complete article given below)

The first time my parents read my fiction, my mother had just one comment about the short story, which featured a server at a Chinatown restaurant: “Chinese can be more than waitresses.”

On a visit home, in my early thirties, I’d given them a copy of the literary magazine that had published my story. I’d recently quit my newspaper reporting job, taken the leap into an M.F.A. program, and for the first time, I was showing them the result of my labors. Of all the reactions I might have anticipated—pride or excitement or maybe boredom or disappointment—I hadn’t foreseen that one. My mother seemed to feel that I should portray Chinese Americans only as model minorities, highly educated engineers and doctors who live the American Dream.

She didn’t know that for a time, I’d stopped writing about Chinese Americans at all. For a year or two in college, I had convinced myself that if I wanted to be considered a real author, all my characters had to be white—as if those were the only worthy stories to be told. After all, that’s what I’d grown up with and what I’d studied in school.

Even though we didn’t share the same race or place, I’d recognized myself in feisty aspiring writers in children’s literature: Jo March in Little Women, Laura Ingalls of the Little House series, and the titular Anne of Green Gables. As a girl, I also read and reread Laurence Yep’s Dragonwings—published the year I was born—about the Chinese immigrant son of a master kite maker in San Francisco’s Chinatown in the early twentieth century. But I didn’t identify with the main character, even though we were both of Chinese descent; he was a boy, and he spoke often of demons, which my scientist mother and engineer father never mentioned. 

I was still in middle school when Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club was published. I don’t remember exactly when or how I got a copy, but I cherished the interlocking stories about mothers and their daughters, their secrets and their struggles, in China and the San Francisco Bay Area. I related to the push and pull of homelands adopted and ancestral, and the unspoken expectations that passed between parents and their children. Our parents had given up their language and culture and family to make a life here. We, their children, owed them a debt we felt we could never repay.

Read more at the Paris Review link here


Leave a comment

Fragments from a war-torn childhood

(From Guernica. Link to the complete article given below)

I spent the first eight years of my life in a war zone. Eight years of deafening noise: the staccato scream of anti-aircrafts, the whiz of military jets, the rattle of Kalashnikovs, the successive booming of landing mortars. Eight years of blinding lights: the dark orange cloud of fire after explosion rolling over and onto itself, the thin red thread of bullets shooting out of gun barrels, burning cigarettes shining in the streets like lighthouses in nights of total blackout.

In September 1980, several days short of my first birthday, the Iran-Iraq war began. At the time my parents lived in Ahvaz, Iran, seventy miles east of the frontline. Ahvaz is an expansive, flat urban area home to more than one million people and known for the Karun River, fertile palms, and flames that leap out of burning oil wells. A few months into the war it became clear that Saddam was seeking to annex the state of Khuzestan and nothing less, and that all the Western superpowers supported him. The people of Ahvaz began to leave. Neighbors and friends crammed their most precious belongings into cars and hit the road, transforming overnight from well-off southern oil families to internal refugees.

My parents stayed. My dad had a sensitive position at the oil company. My mom was a nurse. The gravity of their tasks, combined with their desire to fight for home and the disappointing reception of refugees elsewhere in the country, compelled them to remain there through the war. The war went on, uninterrupted, for eight years. It claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and scorched vast swaths of land on both sides of the border.

I am thirty-eight now. The war that made me who I am ended thirty years ago. I don’t talk about it much, if at all, though the tentacles of my mind frequently slip into the bag of memories I’ve been hauling around. Like many people with PTSD, I am a minimizer. I recall my life at six years old and think, Sure, it’s horrific that you saw that man looking at the hole a piece of shrapnel burned through his stomach before he fell to the ground. Yes, it’s traumatizing to wait with five hundred other kids in a small concrete bunker without ventilation for hours for Iraqi jets to get the bombing done. It is indeed depressing to think of your seven-year-old self stalking around rubble to collect shrapnel pieces and bullet jackets to expand his collection with the intention of arousing the envy of other kids in the neighborhood. But, I tell myself, look at the Iraqis and the Afghanis. They have lived this way for generations. Extend your eight years of war outward so that they fill a lifetime, multiply the amount of horror several times over, and you wouldn’t even approach the experience of the average Iraqi. The average Iraqi would laugh at your “war memories.”

Read more at The Guernica link here


Leave a comment

How writing a short story collection is like starting a zoo

(From Lit Hub. Link to the complete article given below)

People are always saying, “I have an idea for a story.” But if a story starts in an idea it might as well give up and be a novel. I think ransacking your mind for story ideas builds up an immunity to the mysterious form itself. At some point you have to bow to the story’s elusiveness and refusal of paraphrase, that is, of expression as an idea. As Lucia Berlin said, “Thank God I don’t write with my brain.”

You saw something—even a word in somebody else’s story misread at first. You heard something. For a moment an awareness was yours, and you want it again, you want the words for it. It’s a kind of apparition.

Walter Benjamin says, “It is half the art of storytelling to keep a story from explanation as one reproduces it.” Reproduces!  Perfect word. Somewhere, the story already exists. You glimpsed it, you have to find it.

And then—it’s in the door like a stray cat. Then, for me, comes an occasional deceiving fondness, followed by the wish, in the middle of cooking or talking to somebody, to go get the story and grab it by the neck and be rid of it. This is after weeks, months. It’s my cat by then.

The very short ones are what I’m most interested in now—or most pressed to do. My stories have always been long, and now I want compression. The short shorts in my new book Terrarium (Counterpoint, August 2018) aren’t what I’d call flash fiction, maybe because the word “flash” is too—bright. Also, in our moment, it seems to be at the fingertips of anyone who write stories or wants to. I think readers believe it’s easy. Instead, like any short story, it requires concentration from the reader. And it’s not an invention of our period. I consider what’s now called flash fiction to be one manifestation of an art that goes back as far as we can see. Always, stories have been short and they’ve been long, depending on what overtook the storyteller and/or what the audience cried out for.

Read more at the Lit Hub link here


Leave a comment

Priceless history, intangible richness: The Millions interviews Lillian Li

(From The Millions. Link to the complete interview given below)

Lillian Li uses her past as a server for inspiration in her debut novel, Number One Chinese Restaurant. “I got a taste of the physical and emotional toll that kind of work takes; a taste of the isolation of working six days a week, 12 hours a day serving other people; an understanding of the necessary camaraderie that forms between waiters and other staff to counter that isolation,” she said.

Her debut follows the Hans family and various staff members at the Beijing Duck House, a well-known Peking duck restaurant in Rockville, Md. Food is, of course, a big part of Number One Chinese Restaurant. While praising Ann Hood’s food writing (and “especially her essay on tomato pie”), Li also cites Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential and Eddie Huang’s Fresh off the Boat as books about food that have impacted her life.

The Millions: I’d like to begin by asking you about your writing process in regards to creating a family saga. You balance characters as they age; you weave plots; you create entire histories that extend far into the past and point toward various futures. It all sounds incredibly difficult to me. Some writers like to draw their characters to create some kind of tangible connection. Others use charts and different kinds of sorting tools. There are probably even a few out there who wing it. I’m curious to know what your outlining process was like for Number One Chinese Restaurant.

Lillian Li: When I look back at how I wrote this book, I’m just amazed. I had no idea what I was doing, and I had no idea that I had no idea. For the first four months, there was no outline. There was no plot! There were only characters, their relationships to one another, and the restaurant. But I also knew that the relationships, more than even the restaurant, were where my interest in writing the book began (though maybe it’s better to say that I was interested in the kinds of relationships that could only exist in a restaurant like the Beijing Duck House). I think that’s why even though I threw out so many pages in the revision process, I didn’t end up cutting a single character.

To read more, go to this link


Leave a comment

The truth about literary translations

(From The Hindu)

After the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC, when the king of Persia sent his interpreter with a message to the Greeks asking for earth and water as a sign of their submission, Themistocles had the visitor put to death for presuming to announce the barbarian message in Greek. A thousand years later in 1536, William Tyndale was strangled and burned because his English translation of The Bible displeased Henry VIII. Ten years later, Étienne Dolet, an advocate of the Bible-for-all, was burned at the stake because his French translations carried a few words that were not in the Church-endorsed Latin version.

Compared to these terminal terrors, literary translation today is not difficult at all. Because, really, you can do what you like and more often than not get away with it. It isn’t, for instance, like scientific or technical or medical translations where a mistake might cause serious damage to an experiment or a building or a life.

Linguistic choices

While there is little or no money in literary translation, there could be some glory if you listen to your publisher. The more people there are in the chain of desks leading to the printer, the safer you are because every cliché-slayer will work on your writing before passing you on to the next and the next.

Read more at this link


Leave a comment

Who will buy your book?

1.
“Nobody else is here,” the elderly woman said into her phone. “It’s embarrassing!”  

She was the first one to arrive at my reading at the Philadelphia Library, a week after the release of my third novel, and two weeks after the pinnacle of my writing life, when that novel was praised in both The New Yorker and The Washington Post, two articles that I had assumed would create something like buzz around me or my writing. It was 6:58, and the reading started at 7:00.  

Earlier that day, I had gotten messages from nine different friends, all saying they’d planned on attending but something had come up and they couldn’t make it. Each of their explanations was understandable—sick children, stuck at work, car troubles—but also it seemed cruel that every one of them would have an emergency on the same night. My wife was there, in the second row and I sent her a text from the front of the room: can we just leave? Will anyone notice? 

I did not leave. I had promised to do an event, and the library had made space for me, and even if only one person was in the audience, I had a responsibility to deliver. But in those next two minutes—as I kept hoping for, say, a bus full of book critics to break down outside—I was thinking grim thoughts about the creative life.

2.
I have been very fortunate as a writer: since 2010, I have had three books picked up by three different publishers. I have gotten coverage in major publications and been invited to do events in many bookstores along the east coast. I made enough money on my first book contract to buy a pretty nice couch.  

Before I ever published anything, I’d assumed that if I ever finished a book, there would be so much demand from family and friends alone that we’d have to go into a second printing before the release date. But I am here to tell you: most people in your family will never buy your book. Most of your friends won’t either.  

Read More


Leave a comment

How I learned to claim space as a multilingual author

One of the very first questions I wrestled with as a writer was this: Why write in English, the colonizer’s language, when I have others at my disposal? I grew up acquainted with three languages; my grandparents immigrated from southern China to Malaya, which was a British imperial territory. So if I didn’t write in Malay, didn’t that make me unpatriotic? And if I didn’t write in Chinese, didn’t that make me a “race traitor?” Why English?

English is intricately woven into my family history. When my grandparents first came to occupied Malaya, they worked for the British. For some time they lived apart, my grandfather cooking meals for colonial officers while my grandmother worked as a nanny for British children in a different part of the country. I never heard either of them speak English, but in my imagination, the few English phrases they did know formed the language of intimate care: Please enjoy the food. Are you warm enough? Have another helping. Did you sleep well? Don’t cry. I’m here.

I suppose they learned as much English as allowed them to forge new lives. It was both a choice and not, just as it was and was not for me as I haltingly attempted to piece together a self through literature. I did not see myself in my Malay textbooks about boys who formed interracial friendships. Neither could I find myself in the Tang poems my parents encouraged me to memorize, which featured ancient men in long-sleeved robes drinking alcohol and being sorrowful (only later in life would I come to relate to that). It was in English books that I saw a sense of adventure and escape that I identified with, as embodied by British children daringly solving mysteries or circumventing adult cruelty.

Read More


1 Comment

Essay: Words — A Love Story by Varsha Tiwary

Very early on, my eight-year-old self understood that spoken words were not the same as those written. Spoken words hurt, made noise, sounded ugly, were sometimes false. Written words, when spoken aloud, sounded beautiful; even when improbable, like the antics of the ‘vanar sena’ from Ramcharitmanas recited aloud by my nani, they rang true. What makes words on paper different? Perhaps their ability to be of life, from life, while simultaneously being away from it. Maybe the reflection and thought that goes into it. I can articulate this at forty-seven. But I always knew it.

As I saw it, words, stories, poetry, writing, made up one big stew pot. You chose beautiful, sparkling words. You stirred the pot. You strung them together. They made beauty, made sense, made happiness. All the things that I thought my life lacked: grace and culture, glamour, laughter, excitement, fun, could be picked and savoured from assorted jars of words: books. Reading and writing were ideal pastimes for a lonely small-town girl like me. It let me be at once docile and dutiful; rebellious and willful. My mother and father would peep in to see me furiously scribbling or poring over a book, and feel comforted that I was a good, studious child, even if I was penning mean tirades about them or hiding yet another Agatha Christie inside my physics textbook.

Writing words cleansed me. After I wrote about what people did or said in my diary, it ceased to matter. I could smile serenely and move on.

Continue reading


Leave a comment

The moon is beautiful tonight: On East Asian narratives

1.
Once a conversation with an Australian friend surprised me; she told me that Haruki Murakami, the world-famous Japanese novelist, struck her as “very Japanese.” “But why?” I puzzled, thinking of the Western pop culture references sprinkled throughout his works and his Englishized prose style.

“Many of his stories don’t have a real conflict,” she said. “Like in 1Q84, you feel all those surreal elements are built up for something, but in the end, nothing really happens. Even the romance between Tengo and Aomame ends up half-baked.”

That day, we were talking about story structure. I told her that very often my workshop friends comment that my stories don’t contain conflict. Their critique reminds me of the East Asian story-telling convention—at the risk of generalization, we tend to generate a plot without using conflict. As opposed to the West’s five-act or three-act, the term Kishōtenketsu is often used to describe the development of a classic East Asian narrative. It includes four different acts: introduction (ki), development (shō), twist (ten), and conclusion (ketsu). Introduction and development are comparable, though only slightly, to exposition and rising action, and conclusion to denouement. There’s not a climax that determines the character’s fate one way or the other in this setup. In fact, the present story in many East Asian narrative remains largely unaffected by the turbulent emotions roiling inside the characters.

Then, you may wonder, what’s the point of storytelling? Isn’t that boring?

It’s still intriguing. Take the great Japanese writer, Junichiro Tanizaki’s The Key. Written in diary form, the novel grapples with the sexual fantasies an elderly man harbors towards his wife, 11 years his junior, and his wife’s towards their daughter’s boyfriend. Both the husband and the wife lock their diaries in drawers, leaving the keys out purposefully—they hope the other will peek. The story is saturated with the couples’ intense suspicions of one another. Reading the book for a third time, I still found myself hooked till the very last page. However, Tanizaki’s work doesn’t involve a conflict in the Western sense.

Read More