The Chat with Jack Wang

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This week on The Chat we’re speaking with writer Jack Wang, whose debut short story collection, We Two Alone, was recently published with House of Anansi Press.

Scotiabank Giller Prize finalist Alix Ohlin says, "This impressive and vibrant collection of stories takes the reader by the hand, leading us across the world and back in time. But they’re all unified by the gentle sensitivity of Jack Wang’s prose and his ability to inhabit characters who long for freedom, connection, and fulfillment. Deeply humane and beautifully wrought, these stories stay in the heart and the mind."

Jack Wang received a B.Sc. from the University of Toronto, an M.F.A. from the University of Arizona, and a Ph.D. in English with an emphasis in creative writing from Florida State University. In 2014–15, he held the David T. K. Wong Creative Writing Fellowship at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England. Stories in We Two Alone have been shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize and longlisted for the Journey Prize, and have appeared in PRISM International, the Malahat Review, The New Quarterly, Humber Literary Review, and Joyland. Originally from Vancouver, Jack Wang is an associate professor in the Department of Writing at Ithaca College in Ithaca, New York, where he lives with his wife, novelist Angelina Mirabella, and their two daughters.

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Trevor Corkum: The stories in We Two Alone trace the very diverse lives of folks in the Chinese diaspora over a period of about the past hundred years. Can you speak more about the conceptualization of the project? Did you imagine the stories as a collection from the outset?

Jack Wang: When I first started writing these stories—a decade ago now—I was simply following discrete interests with each story. The first story I wrote was “Allhallows,” about a washed-up Chinese American hockey player who’s still in love with his ex-wife. The next story I wrote was also about a hockey player, this time in Vancouver in the 1920s. Maybe that’s when it first occurred to me to write across a century to join up these two stories.

But it probably wasn’t until I wrote a third story, set in Vienna in 1938, that I clearly saw a larger narrative arc about the Chinese diaspora emerging. After that, each successive story became more deliberate in terms of time and place. The last story I wrote was the most deliberate of all: my editor, Janie Yoon at Anansi, asked me to add a story to the collection to fill a temporal gap, and I decided to set the story in Africa, a continent I hadn’t yet ventured to.

TC: Drilling down into the particulars of some of the stories, you explore Vienna during the rise of Hitler, South Africa during apartheid, women’s hockey in Vancouver in the 1920s. You’re able to bring the physical and sensual details of these periods to life, paying such close attention to history and politics. I’m curious about how you went about constructing historical characters, and if you had any particular concerns?

JW: Like me, all the point of view characters in the book are Chinese, but that didn’t necessarily grant me the authority to write about them. When we think about “appropriation,” we usually think about venturing outside of one’s race, gender, class, etc., but writing about distant times and places is a kind of appropriation too. So I felt an obligation to get things right, to develop the necessary authority, which is why I did a lot of research.

Usually this meant at least a few books per story, to say nothing of articles, interviews, and inveterate Google searches. Research helps me build a model of reality in my own mind—the first person I have to convince is always myself—but milieu alone is never enough.

As Hilary Mantel says, "The task of historical fiction is to take the past out of the archive and relocate it in a body." Research is useless if you don’t know what your character wants.

 

TC: One of my favourite stories is “The Valkyries,” a wholly original piece in which the two main characters develop an unlikely relationship that crosses divisions of race, class, and gender in an early women’s hockey league. What was the impetus for the story?  

JW: Chinese men in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were often limited to "feminized" forms of labour, such as cooking and cleaning—the protagonist of "The Valkyries" is a laundry boy—which made them feel emasculated, even racially "castrated." When Asian American writers such as Maxine Hong Kingston and Amy Tan enjoyed success, other writers like Frank Chin accused them of further emasculating Chinese men in their writings. While I understand the contexts that gave rise to such feelings, I wanted to complicate the male/female binary. What might be advantageous, I wondered, about being considered less than traditionally masculine? That’s what gave rise to gender-crossing in "The Valkyries."

Also, for me, race has been the lens through which to better understand the inequities of gender, class, and sexual orientation. My collection opens, then, by trying to draw connections amongst various struggles for liberation.

TC: Which of the stories was most difficult for you to write, technically or otherwise, and why?

JW: Every story was difficult in its own way, but the one that gave me the most trouble might have been "The Night of Broken Glass." The story is about Feng-Shan Ho, the consul general of China in Vienna who wrote exit visas for Jewish Austrians around the time of Kristallnacht. Fictionalizing the life of a real person was daunting. So was writing about anti-Semitism in Europe in the 1930s. I was also wary of creating a character who’s merely virtuous, which lacks complexity, which was why I had to write into his troubled marriage.

I also struggled with the point of view. At first, I tried to tell the story from the diplomat’s point of view, but that refused to work, probably because his own point of view only served to obscure his faults. It wasn’t until I adopted his son’s point of view that the story took off. I also wrote the ending many times, and my wife kept sending me back to the drawing board until I got it right. Finally, I remember working on the story in odd places—distant libraries, in my car—as I shuttled my daughter to day camps and such. Sometimes I wonder how anything ever got written when the kids were young.

TC: If you could spend an afternoon with one of your characters, who would you choose and what would you do? What would you talk about and what would you learn from each other?

JW: Wow, what an interesting question! I’d probably have the most to learn from Feng-Shan Ho, but he was a real person, so I’ll set him aside and say Fiona from "Belsize Park." We would walk around London, where the story is mostly set, maybe sit on that bench in Hampstead Heath, and I’d ask, How are you doing? Are you married? Do you have kids? Do you have any regrets about the past? I think I want her to have a kernel of regret, but I also want her to be happy.

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An Excerpt from We Too Alone

At the start of the final scene, in the middle of his speech to Cordelia, Leonard’s mind went blank. One moment his mind was full and the next it was empty, like a lake instantly drained, and the feeling was eerie. He scoured his memory, expecting words to leap to his tongue, to rush back in, but none came. Suddenly the stage lights prickled and his costume weighed like a lead apron.

Leonard Xiao had waited a decade to play Lear. As the founder, director, and lead actor of the Asian American Shakespeare Company, he alone decided what got put on every year. At a hale-looking forty-eight, he was still too young for the role, but this was the company’s tenth year, which called for a play with commemorative heft.

Leonard had always been known for his memory. Just last year, playing Henry V, he’d been flawless, even in rehearsal. Famously, he never needed scripts for table work, just recited entire plays by heart. But this year was different. At the table read, he found himself stumbling, using the prompt book. In rehearsal, he snapped impatiently for cues. He and Emily had separated after twenty years, and the strain was taking its toll. He thought Lear would finally bring her out of obscurity, but she hadn’t shown up for last night’s opening and he hadn’t seen her tonight, either. His mind was addled.

But he feared it wasn’t that, or not just that. Before she died, his mother had lost her memory. What had surprised him about her decline was not the forgetting so much as the darkening of her mood, the sudden, improbable fits of rage. Once, when his parents were in town, he took them to a Japanese restaurant, a little hole in the wall in the Bowery. After he asked for a table, his mother decided she wanted to go somewhere else. When he said they ought to stay — the waitress had already set down menus — his mother began to yell, to hurl insults, until he and his father had no choice but to whisk her out. Now that same darkness was seeping into him. The first time they rehearsed the final act of Lear, the young man who played the Captain, whose small but vital role was to show a range of feeling as Edmund orders Lear and Cordelia to be executed — the young man had put on such a ridiculous pantomime that Leonard had lost it. “Who are you? Marcel fucking Marceau?” The young man had cowered in shame, the outburst so unlikely that Leonard had surprised even himself.

When all this evidence began to mount, all he wanted was to make it through the run without going up on a line. When he made it through opening night he was buoyed, and until a moment ago, a second clean performance had seemed within reach. But now he was looking at Sophie Hsu — Cordelia — baffled as to what came next. They were holding hands, and he felt a clasp of assurance, even as her eyes quickened from worry to pity to panic. As he turned to the shrouded darkness of the house, a tiny rental on West 45th Street, he had time to think that her stricken looks could be read as Cordelia’s and his own befuddled ones as Lear’s. He kept rooting around for the rest of the line, patting the high shelf in his mind where he swore he had left it. Nothing.

Excerpted from We Two Alone by Jack Wang. Copyright © 2020 Jack Wang. Reproduced with permission from House of Anansi Press Inc., Toronto. All rights reserved. www.houseofanansi.com

October 8, 2020
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