This year’s Cream City Review Summer Prize in Fiction will be judged by award-winning novelist and short-story writer Lucy Tan. In this micro-interview conducted by Fiction Editor Jessie Roy, Lucy weighs in on class and power in fiction, how “things” shape our relationship to place, and what she loves to see in a short story—and makes some excellent reading recommendations. Read on for the full interview.
Lucy Tan is author of the novel What We Were Promised, which was longlisted for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize and named a Best Book of 2018 by The Washington Post, Refinery 29, and Amazon. Her short fiction has been published in journals such as Ploughshares, Asia Literary Review, and McSweeney’s. A recipient of fellowships from Kundiman and the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, Lucy is originally from New Jersey and currently lives in Seattle.
Jessie Roy holds an MFA in Fiction from Syracuse University and is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where she serves as Fiction Editor for Cream City Review. Her short fiction has recently appeared in American Literary Review.
1. In your novel What We Were Promised, you write with insightful attention to the politics of class, the lasting effects of former precarity, and the intimate power dynamics that shape the relationship between domestic workers and their clients. I’d love to hear how you developed the character of Sunny, who works as a housekeeper for the Zhen family; her voice opens the first chapter and introduces us to the Zhen’s home from a backstage perspective, which keeps the reader’s eye on domestic labor for the rest of the novel. Why do you think it’s so important to focus our creative vision on class and power?
I think any kind of art that looks critically at social issues is valuable because it expands and deepens our conversations about our world. But if I’m honest, I can’t say that I set out to write my novel with the intention of focusing on dynamics of class and power. It might simply be impossible to write a novel set in modern China—especially in a city—without also writing about changing social classes.
What We Were Promised is largely inspired by my time as an ex-pat living in Shanghai from 2009-2011. As someone who is ethnically Chinese but born and raised in America, and as someone who speaks less-than-fluent Mandarin, I immediately felt like an outsider. I wonder if this made me extra-attuned to other types of outsiders—people who were from other parts of China, but who had moved to Shanghai for work; foreigners and expats; and even some locals, who were overwhelmed by the swift economic development that displaced them from their homes. I became interested in the ways these different groups interacted with or avoided one another. One of the most startling dynamics was relationships between wealthy expats (some of whom were ethnically Chinese) and their Chinese household staff. There was such a wealth and cultural gap between these groups, though they often spoke the same language, and though just a generation ago, their family members might have worked in the same fields.
I found it curious that people of different backgrounds could share the same space for hours and days and weeks on end without truly getting to know one another. I wanted to explore this, and so the character of Sunny was born. Although she’s the character furthest from me in terms of class and life experiences, she’s also the one I felt closest to when writing the book. The American in me identified with Sunny’s outsider-ness. The writer in me identified with her loneliness. Through her eyes, I was able to push back on perspectives my other main characters take for granted.
2. As we conduct this interview in May of 2020, the global coronavirus pandemic is forcing us all to think about distance differently. There are suddenly many places we can no longer go, and no certainty about when we will be able to reach them again or what they’ll be like when we get there. At the reading you gave at UWM last year, I remember being struck by how you talked about the Zhen family returning to China after decades away, and having to build a relationship on new footing with a place that used to be familiar. I’d love to hear how you approach place and distance in your fiction, which so often centers diasporic and transnational experiences.
I am a person who writes a lot about things. I don’t know why this is! My fiction is filled with material objects, which, along with natural sights and sounds, seem to make up a sense of place. I think that in each material object we handle, there is also an implied history of a place. An object is also a record of commerce, of art, of its owner. But place can also be formed by a set of cultural norms and expectations—the coffee you pour yourself in the morning, the conversation with your neighborhood fruit vendor. When our routines are suddenly changed, whether we’re confined to our homes during a pandemic or immigrating to a new country, there’s an acute sense of loss because place is rooted in our identities. When our experience of place changes, we need to discover ourselves all over again.
The concept of distance, for me, has always been about relationships. Distance can live in the space between what characters feel and what they say, what they know and what they tell themselves, what they’ve experienced in the past and what they’re experiencing right now. I’ve always thought of distance as out of sync-ness, and I think that’s what we’re all feeling right now: out of sync-ness from the world as we once knew it.
3. Your essay On Falling in Love with the Language I’ve Spoken My Entire Life for Lit Hub introduced me to the Qiaomei Tang translation of Eileen Chang’s story “Love,” which beautifully spans a whole life in just over 200 words. It’s fascinating to see Chang working in miniature, and somehow still achieving the grand scale of her novellas and long stories. Can you talk a little bit about scope in fiction? Can a short story be ‘big’? Can a novel be ‘small’?
If we’re defining scope in terms of time and place, writers like Eileen Chang (and Alice Munro, and Annie Proulx, and others) are able to accomplish “bigness” by managing jumps in time and shifts in narrative distance. These give the reader a sense of large-scale movement—even, maybe, the sense of totality we associate with novels—in spite of limited word count. It’s this movement that contributes to the feeling of grandness, I think. And it’s so hard to master! A writer has to know which details to include and which to leave out, where to employ changes in tone and point of view. For instance, “Love” begins like a folk tale in the way it sets up a non-specific village and a “beautiful girl” who could really be any girl. It then moves into realistic, emotional detail when it describes her meeting with her would-be lover. Finally, it pulls back into that same folk-tale-ish tone again. In doing so, it leaves out the factual details of the tragedies that have happened in the intervening years. It’s like Chang is playing with the lens on a camera, zooming in and out at just the right moments on just the right details, and leaving the rest to the imagination. What we are left with is a sense of both wonder and knowing.
Given this definition of scope as ground covered in time and space, a “small” novel I love is Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami. It takes place over a short amount of time in a single place, with minimal time jumps and changes in perspective and tone. There is an intimacy offered by the narration, a careful, constant feeling of closeness that allows you to live alongside the main character as if you were her. Strange Weather in Tokyo is told from the first person perspective of a woman who meets her old teacher at a bar one night and continues through a series of introspective thoughts and meetings with him. We listen to their conversations, we go home with our narrator, we are with her when she cuts fruit, hunts for mushrooms, arranges her next meeting with her lover. In this series of mini-events, we come to feel a deep knowledge of her life, of who she is as a person. I don’t think you can achieve this same type intimacy in a short story, purely because of the constraints of length. The effect requires hours of time spent reading, a steadiness of gaze, and an accumulation of details.
Of course, “scope” can be defined in numerous other ways, the most mysterious of which might pertain to topical or thematic concerns—the way a novel or short story circles questions about politics and people, the way we think, what we hope for, and the way we live our lives. But fiction that contains clear answers is usually dead on arrival. Rather, good fiction is fluid, just a journey provided to the reader. What one person will see in a story, another will not. So maybe the question of scope begins with a writer’s craft and ends with a reader’s individual experience.
4. Which books or authors do you turn to for comfort? And who do you read when you want to be challenged, or to learn?
Because I’m an American author, I read mostly American fiction, but I try to challenge myself to read outside my country of origin and genre. Elena Ferrante is a big comfort author for me. I love her Neapolitan novels. In general, I am comforted by books that evoke a strong atmosphere and take me to a specific place. Sometimes that place is not defined by a fictional world, but by an author’s voice, as in the case of Helen Oyeyemi or Lorrie Moore. Recently, I’ve been trying to alternate between reading a classic book and a contemporary one because it helps to hear many different voices as I’m writing. Together, they present a wider range of possibilities.
5. What do you love to see in short fiction? What draws you into a story, or makes you sit up and pay closer attention?
I respond strongly to a sense of honesty and authenticity in fiction—which doesn’t mean that a story must be true in any sense, but rather that it must come from a place of unguardedness within a person. A place that is private, that resists the temptation to perform for an audience, that is often searching rather than knowing.
Submissions to the 2020 Summer Prizes in Fiction & Poetry are open until August 1st. Click here for the full guidelines!
2020 Cream City Live! Reading by Marlin M. Jenkins
Even though we had to cancel our annual Cream City Live! Reading, we wish to continue this tradition by bringing the event to you in the form of online blog posts and videos featuring our brilliant cast of writers.
Our first reader is the talented Marlin M. Jenkins! Marlin M. Jenkins was born and raised in Detroit and is the author of the poetry chapbook Capable Monsters (Bull City Press, 2020). A graduate of University of Michigan’s MFA in poetry, his work has found homes through Indiana Review, The Rumpus, Waxwing, and Kenyon Review Online, among others. You can find him online at marlinmjenkins.com.
You can support him by ordering the chapbook here.
“a black poet quotes zora neale hurston’s ‘i feel most [black] when i’m thrown against a sharp white background’ at the beginning of a reading and the white people in the crowd applaud so loud i can’t hear myself” from Cream City Review, 43.1.
“Pokédex Entry #150: Mewtwo” from Capable Monsters (Bull City Press, 2020).
“Pokédex Entry #35: Clefairy” from Capable Monsters (Bull City Press, 2020).
An Excess of Grossness
by Emmy Newman
At a reading last year in Moscow, Idaho, the poet Robert Wrigley said, “Where there is mucus, there is intimacy.” He then read a gorgeous poem that got the room alternately laughing and then being still, and such an odd-sounding statement had become beautiful once again. Weeks later, I was still thinking about that idea, not just the mucus and the phlegm and the saliva, but how diseased livers or healthy triceps look when you pull away skin. What is it about these “gross” ideas that keep fascinating me and keep appearing in my writing?
In her article “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess” the film critic Linda Williams analyzes what she calls “body genres,” categories of film that are denoted as achieving success by allowing the audience to bodily identify with what the actors seem to experience on screen. I really can’t recommend the article enough to any writer concerned with the body. Williams offers an academic perspective into horror, melodrama, and porn, in a way that makes you reimagine the capabilities of excess, the goals and means to that end. As a feminist film critic, Williams writes around and through how the “spectacle of a body caught in intense sensation or emotion” can also be used to subjugate female viewers, how excess becomes indecent in women and used by men. Her perspective is razor-edged for any pop-culture consuming person.
As one of those people, I often take inspiration from strange articles or videos I come across online, sometimes by clicking incessantly through Wikipedia hyperlinks or browsing through my favorite anatomy coloring book. My excess begins with a wide range of concerns but thin on the ground, some small idea culled out of that wandering research that I try to make into a whole poem. More often than not, those poems don’t make it very far. There was a page long poem about the fleshiness of grapefruit I ended up cutting down to three lines I wanted to save. There was an extended metaphor about snails and sex that only made sense as an introductory image. In the poem CCR printed last year, there is the image of a menstrual cup filling with blood that I originally thought would push the whole poem forward, but it turned out to be just one of several pivot points around softness, sliminess, and the color red. The idea of grossness as a mindset, should be considered a place from which to go forth, instead of an oddity to be laughed at in a poem.
In the end, it always (okay, usually) makes sense. In the wider lens, I see these images as small moments, not the whole poem. I think the excess of grossness in poetry can come to make more sense as a contained moment because it presents a moment of vulnerability that can burst through the reader. Williams casts a critical eye at how these “body genres” are used as straight forward tools that manipulate the audience, often a female audience slyly quelled by the images and language on the screen. Poetry has the chance to manipulate, as anything written does, but in my case, I hope that my work does not trade in manipulation. Instead of asking the reader to bodily identify with the work, I ask the reader to re-identify with their own body and the environment it resides in. What happens to the worms on the sidewalk after a few hours of rain? How does it feel when you kiss someone; did you think it would feel differently when you were younger? What’s inside that rotting hole of green mold on the apple that’s been sitting out on your counter for too long? What does it feel like?
The modern dance phenom Rudolf Laban was interested in the moving body and the space that surrounds it. I’m interested in the moving body and the space in between, itself and everything else. That’s too many things to be interested in, you say? I never want to stop being interested in imagining what my phalanges look like under all this skin, how mushrooms grow in cow shit, what led sea cucumbers to vomit their intestines in self-defense, what brains look like under microscopes. I ask the reader to bodily identify with themselves in the end, with our own human grossness, and I ask them to recognize how amazing that is.
There’s an extensive history of so-called high-brow art being pitted against the low-brow, oil paintings against comic strips and on and on. Maybe it is something about bodily identifying with so-called “low art,” i.e. melodramatic movies, and mentally identifying with “high art,” i.e. poetry, that inclines me towards an excess of grossness in poetry. If mentally identifying with an art form includes the ability to parse subtext, allusion, metaphor, perhaps bodily identifying can do the same. How else do we learn empathy? How else do we learn to feel new, impossible feelings?
I remember my grandma rating movies as a “three-tissue movie,” as Williams says women often did in the genre known as “weepies.” Or perhaps this is not true, and it just sounds so much like something she would say in an offhand sort of way. I remember her pulling loose tissues out of her purse when I had a runny nose or tripped on the sidewalk, how she would wipe the snot and tears off my face before I got old enough to do it myself. When we cleaned the old coats out of her closet we found tissues neatly folded in most every pocket. Perhaps I am only thinking of this because today at WinCo there was a gray-haired woman buying a bulk bag of wrapped butterscotch candies and I imagined her going home, turning on a yellow-shaded lamp, and pouring the candies into a lead crystal bowl on her coffee table. The bowl hadn’t been empty—only slightly less than full. Where do we find something sweet without excess? Where is something horrible neatly contained? What is bodily writing without the grossness that asks the reader to step out of time and feel their own viscosity?
Emmy Newman is a current MFA candidate at the University of Idaho. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Poetry Northwest, New Ohio Review, CALYX: A Journal, Inverted Syntax, and elsewhere. She has been twice nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and currently serves as the poetry editor for Fugue.
*Newman’s poem “The Jellyfish and the Menstrual Cup” appears in Issue 43.1 of Cream City Review.
Thoughts from a Writing Challenge
by Lisa Low
This January, I decided to write a poem a day for a month (à la NaPoWriMo) with a couple of friends. I thought of this as exercise—something I didn’t want to do but knew would be good for me. And like exercise, I wanted instant gratification and endorphins. Instead, I experienced daily writing as another way to approach myself, both the good and bad. Some thoughts from the month:
When the month is over, I’m spent. I celebrate with boba from the newly-opened Kung Fu Tea a mile away. I haven’t taken stock of the revision ahead of me yet, the inevitable cutting and throwing away—that I can’t just throw my poems up into the air and watch them fall into place, a manuscript. Right now, the sugar and treating myself are enough like endorphins.
Lisa Low was born and raised in Maryland. Her poems have appeared in Vinyl, The Journal, Entropy, The Collagist, and elsewhere. A graduate of Indiana University’s MFA program, she is a PhD candidate and Yates Fellow at the University of Cincinnati.
*Low’s poems appear in Issue 42.1 of Cream City Review.
by Emily Townsend
My senior year of undergrad, I took a nonfiction workshop twice. I was still getting adjusted to the genre, spilling out my secrets for classmates who barely knew me. I was also exploring experimental forms in essays: Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams, Kristen Radtke’s Imagine Wanting Only This, Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts. In both semesters, we covered Jenny Boully’s The Body. I remember one student (now a great friend and editor) brilliantly attempted the form in a different way, and I admired both essays so much that I wanted to try it myself.
“Shattered Self-Portraits in the Process of Restoration” borrows Boully’s form of total footnotes, and my adjustments are the equations in every footnote that is a multiple of 7. Because I broke a mirror twice in fourteen years, the second at the tail-end of the first’s seven years of bad luck, it seemed that the number seven was cursed. It conveniently lifted when I turned 21. Hence the maze at the beginning of the essay: each multiple of seven is like a path inside a labyrinth that I cannot get out. One multiple will lead to a different multiple that isn’t in a correct sequence, enacting a step forward or a step backward. The last footnote’s equation is 70-69, which leads the reader back to footnote one. Even you can’t get out of this chaos.
This essay opens up my first collection, originally set to be a sort of unconventional table of contents like Dave Eggers’ prologue for A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, but then I read The Body and made each footnote a foreshadowing to the rest of the book. The blank text is essentially the entire book yet it is expatriated, as I felt while growing up away from my hometown during formative years. What bookends this essay is a 40-page rebuttal: written a year later, I finally understood my pessimism was because I willingly put myself through pain, not because of a delusion with broken mirrors. I assigned blame to an object rather than to myself because I didn’t want to properly deal with it.
Sometimes I believed my body and my brain were two entirely separate entities. I constantly struggled with figuring out where I belonged during those bad-lucked years: I was displaced from my hometown due to my parents’ divorce, I was purposely making everything harder for myself as punishment. So I took this superstition of broken mirrors and blamed my unhappiness on the accidents of dropping cheap glass onto my bathroom floor. My brain falsely assured me of a lot of things—“after high school, you’ll move back home;” “don’t worry, people actually like you”—and made me imagine a distinct person I wanted to have been real, but it was a figment of my imagination so desperate to have someone fill in that space. The ontology of my brain on its own seemed to be completely detached from my body.
The most interesting thing about this piece, to me, is how I realized I was wrong and selfish. Rarely do essays make me change my mind on myself, but I had gone through such a colossal shift of feeling lonely to feeling loved back to feeling lonely and then back to feeling loved that the distance I went through both physically and emotionally forced me to see I took so much for granted. A month after I finished writing this I moved to Eugene, Oregon, to see if my love for the Pacific Northwest was still real after a hiatus of not living there for sixteen years. It turned out to be extremely lonely and solipsistic. When I returned to Texas for grad school, I realized my friends and the community were what made me happy and alive. My first two years of college were rough, but that senior year was actually beautiful and involved and I felt like I finally had a place to fit in. I’m a bit terrified to leave in a couple months.
I’m eternally grateful Cream City Review nominated this essay for a Pushcart; it’s a great way to feel validated for a life story that gave me so much pain yet I wanted to share it with anyone willing to read. When I drive between my mother’s house and wherever I’m living while in school, I often think that I wouldn’t have such a story to tell if I didn’t go through what happened, if I stayed in one place after all, if I chose to be optimistic and bright instead. My material would either be a lot different or nonexistent. I enjoy writing dark stuff to help me confront my issues and reassign whatever blame I pin on something else back onto me. It humanizes me, forces my brain and body to rejoin, and make me see the world a little more clearly.
Emily Townsend is a graduate student in English at Stephen F. Austin State University. Her works have appeared in Superstition Review, Thoughtful Dog, Noble / Gas Qtrly, Santa Clara Review, cahoodaloodaling, Watershed Review, The Coachella Review, The Coil, and others. A 2017 AWP Intro Journals Award nominee, she is currently working on a collection of essays in Nacogdoches, Texas.
*Townsend’s non-fiction “Shattered Self-Portraits in the Process of Restoration” appears in Issue 42.1 of Cream City Review.