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!