In her 2019 interview with the editors of Advice to Writers, writer Xuan Juliana Wang shared, “Live an interesting life, walk around, notice things and people and be open to them. Don’t be afraid to be different. Write to what is aching from you at this very moment.” From the fires that raged across the west to quarantine and beyond, there have been countless moments over the last year that have certainly left us reeling, searching for words to describe the unspeakable. In May, she beautifully brought her experience to the pages of Northwest Review, sharing about what it’s like to be a writer living in LA, new motherhood, adapting her short story collection, Home Remedies (Penguin/Random House, 2019) for television, and how she believes in the power of stories to inspire real progress and change.
- Northwest Review
- In a tweet in the fall of 2020, you wrote, “The air quality in LA right now brings me back to summers in China, makes me miss my grandma, and cigarettes, and sneaking out to go clubbing with my cousin.” Tell us more.
- Xuan Juliana Wang
- Ah, pollution nostalgia, one of my favorite types of feelings! What I was trying to get at, with that orange glow and scent of burning sticks in the air, is that it reminded me of my youth. When I had a miniscule sense of mortality and endless summer nights to spend at my Grandma’s house. My nights in LA are now spent reading student stories and trying to write my own, so I really seize every moment to feel young and free.
- You were born in Heilongjiang, China, and moved to Los Angeles when you were seven years old. Your book, Home Remedies, in abbreviated terms, explores the lives of Chinese-American millennials. In response to ongoing news of racism and violence against Asian Americans in the U.S., Home Remedies has been included in many lists of required reading, alongside older works like The Woman Warrior and recent works like Minor Feelings. How might literature mount real change to anti-Asian sentiment in the U.S.?
- My book has some Chinese-American characters, but I don’t think it is specific to the Chinese-American experience. They are interesting in so many other ways. I still remember when I received the first review of my book, and it said ‘Chinese’ in it five times. There were only like eight sentences. I checked to see if they did this for all short story collections, reducing them down to a place or a people, but they did not have to. Asian-American is not a monolith and neither is Asian-American writing. Jay Caspian Kang, Hua Hsu, and Cathy Park Hong write about this topic at length.
When I first read Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong, I knew it would change the American discourse forever. It became my mission to put it in front of as many people as possible, even though it made me feel like I was reading with Cathy’s knife to my throat. When I read Interior Chinatown, I thought Charles Yu was arriving at similar incendiary conclusions about race in America in very different ways.
Now more than ever, I believe in the power of stories to inspire real progress in culture, slow as it may be to get there one reader at a time. I hope when readers read my book alongside these texts, they will feel as if they’ve lived the experiences that weren’t theirs and empathize with people they’ve never thought to consider as one of their own.
- Your stories are currently taking on new life, with new possibilities for inspiring empathy, as you adapt Home Remedies for television. What has writing for TV taught you about your work?
- Things have to happen in the present! As a person, I tend to cater to nostalgia. Even pollution is beautiful when filtered through that lens. On a screen, the viewer can only see what the characters are doing, and not what they’ve done, what they regret, and what they remember. It has changed my writing in that it forces me to move characters along in the world, no matter how their past may affect them.
- Your book is, of course, a collection of short stories. In some ways, television episodes also operate like short stories — but within a larger series arc. How have you connected and synthesized your short stories to build toward that ongoing narrative?
- I chose four characters in the book, set them in one city and made them fight and fall in love with each other.
- Let’s return for a moment to your very writerly observation of LA air quality conjuring what you love in China. This seems to say everything about the complications of defining home: it’s personal and global, sweet and miserable, and so tenuously tied together by these moments of attentiveness and connection. Covid has famously changed our relationships to our homes, our expectations of them, and our connections to the places where we live. Has your own understanding of home changed?
- This is an excellent question I just don’t know how to answer it.
- Here we are now on the cusp of another fire season, with LA about to lift major Covid restrictions and reopen. You’ve said you’re working on a love story, which feels hopeful and perhaps a little mischievous in your hands; what’s next for you?
- I’ve always found the debut the most fascinating work a writer can write; it’s like the first album. It’s everything you’ve been obsessed with. It’s filled with answers to a question you’re dying to ask and you feel hasn’t been asked yet. I think the only way I can make my second book as exciting to myself as the first is to write something I am terrified of writing, which is a love story. So that’s what I am doing.