DE: Your characters often have this sense of upheaval/being uprooted. They're struggling to make sense of their situation against a weight of memories that contradict where they are now. Is that fair to say?
ST: I don’t know if I could say that my characters’ struggles are necessarily rooted in a past/present dichotomy. You are right in that I have written many stories about characters struggling against the worst – a terrible situation, sometimes a trauma, that has happened. They are trying to move forward, and either manage to, or fail. Dolly in “Demolition”,[i] for example. What does it mean to have had to share your husband for decades with a stranger you refuse to know about? Should one construe such accommodation as love and patience, and therefore admirable? Or is it a character flaw, a failed feminism, a willingness to be trampled on? Dolly – elderly and conservative, defensive, heartbroken – is constantly in dialogue with this past. One could say she lives partially in memories.
But I have likely written as many stories about characters to whom the worst is about to happen. One of my favourites, “Independence Day”,[ii] is about a foster child whose fate is in the hands of a rural farming woman. So the future, and not the past, is a character’s tragedy. I think writing such stories is actually more exciting. One’s characters are moving inexorably toward a single, frenzied howl.
To the extent that I keep writing both kinds of stories, I would say no. No, the characters’ main struggle is not against the weight of their memories. If we must look for a common theme, I would suggest that it’s fairer to say that “the worst” features in some way or form in all my stories. And no, I don’t write the happiest stories.
DE: The transitory settings in which they interact also seem to feed into this: An empty swimming pool, a house that's about to be demolished, a tent set up by frat boys on a lawn. When you're writing, which comes to you first, the settings or the people that will inhabit them?
ST: With the singular exception of “Swimming Pool”, I think my stories come first from their characters. I didn’t even notice the transitory nature of many of the settings until you pointed them out! So almost always, first the characters and their desires, and then what they look like, where they’re from. It becomes much easier to figure out what settings they would likely – or unlikely – be in thereafter, and where I could put them.
DE: How directly are your stories based on lives of real people?
ST: I write motivated by circumstances, issues or emotions I am familiar with, and this almost always involves both places and people I know. But it’s never so direct. I don’t read something in the news or listen to a story from a friend, and want to mimic life. Sometimes, I think, “Hey, that’s an interesting relationship to write about”, or “I want to write about a similar situation”. But the stories often proceed to take a life of their own.
DE: Can you talk a little about the guerrilla writing project?
ST: Sure! Guerrilla Fiction is a series of five stories set in five direct municipalities/provinces in China, broken up into micro-stories and printed on postcards. The stories’ common theme is migration. On the other side of the postcard is a space for the audience to respond to pre-printed questions on where home is, when they left, and why they left. The postcards – both the English and Chinese language editions – are currently housed in a number of cafés in Beijing,[iii] and are open for responses. I collect these responses, and scan them up on the project website. I also work with the Spittoon Literary Collective. We encourage creative responses, which will be published regularly on Spittoon’s WeChat account page.
I have always been interested in the issue of access to art, not just in terms of who gets to create art, but who gets to consume art and under what circumstances art is made available to us. Guerrilla Fiction is free for the taking; its content was not subject to the whims of a publishing house; it tries to raise questions about how stories can be presented and where and when they can be consumed. Anyone can also write their own fiction (or non-fiction) in response and have the chance to be published writers. In that sense, it tries to democratise “art”. Of course, the literary arts is in itself is arguably non-democratic, because it is inaccessible to the illiterate, and restricts access by the virtue of its tool – language. But those are huge questions. We can talk about them separately!
DE: Did the 中文 and English responses differ? If so, how?
ST: Yes, although I admit that I’m short on Chinese language responses, and my opinion may be skewed because of the smaller sample size. My impression was that the Chinese language responses were a lot more literal and formal, whereas the English language responses involved fiction, drawings, scribbles and were generally more chaotic in presentation. There was a response, for example, written from the perspective of Alfred the Butler (from Batman), which cracks me up every time.
I wonder if this is a result of cultural difference – since most responses in Chinese were written by people who grew up in China – or a function of the medium. Perhaps a combination of[iv] both. In general, so few people use pen and paper anymore, so writing a response on a postcard feels like an assignment, or some equivalent high-inertia task that needs to be approached with formality. This could be further compounded by the high position of the written language in traditional Chinese culture, and its scholarly connotations. For comparison purposes, the Gongchanghuoyang (弓长火羊) WeChat cultural feed[v] featured Guerrilla Fiction in early March, and I found the discussion within the community much more free-flowing and personal. Hopefully, I will be able to collect more Chinese language responses in the next year, and gain more insight into these differences.
DE: You also do some painting and photography. Do you see your writing and visual work informing each other, or are they totally separate things?
ST: I don’t think I would go so far as to say that they inform each other. Fiction, at least, comes from a different place. Stories form rather discrete worlds of imagined people, each with her or his own system of beliefs and desires. Because characters spend so much time speaking to each other, I find it difficult to conceive of stories that I write informing or being informed by anything outside the world of that particular story. Photography is an equally separate endeavour, driven by an obsession with cataloguing, a neurotic fear of forgetting, and the drive to push myself to keep seeing the world differently.
In contrast, painting and poetry come from similar places, in the sense that they arise from images, emotions and visual balance. My poems and paintings also often have similar themes, rooted in pet social and environmental concerns. Because they occupy common spaces, I think it easier to place them in dialogue. In “Rothko for Brokes”, for example, I used really crap material to try to achieve mini Rothko replicas, and priced each painting based on a liveable wage per hour. (My views on Rothko’s merits/lack of being a totally separate matter.) I’m sure I have previously written poetry about brokeassedness and desperation. That said, I don’t make art with any intention of putting art in dialogue with poetry. I just do what interests me.
DE: Are you working on anything new?
ST: Yes, always. I am usually working on a poem or story. I am currently writing a poem that can be rapped, with the same rhyme and rhythm scheme taken from a professional album rap (I am riffing off Raury’s “NEVERALONE”). Come April 2017, I will be writing a month’s worth of Twitter poems (poems that fit into 141 characters). I am working on a series of Chinese ink paintings. On the backburner is a long-term visual/writing project using found text from art gallery write-ups, which are collaged, then cancelled out with marker to leave words that form blocks of poems or poetic text. I continue with my Beijing photography project, which catalogues buildings and people in this wonderful city. I’m planning my next photography project, which involves fashion photography using only second hand clothes and/or fearsomely unwearable things. Yah, I’m looking for models, if anyone’s keen to look good in an ugly sweater.
By Samantha Toh
"So this is where you live now," she said, looking over the barrier through the smog. They were on the twentieth floor, at the very top of Jack's apartment block. Down below, the city, in patches of brown and green and grey, stuttered with the sound of cars jammed close.
"I'm a lot happier here," Jack said, then climbed into the empty swimming pool.
She remembered getting off the plane that afternoon. She saw the big words that said KARGO in dark blue. The tropical air seemed to obstruct any possibility of a breeze, and it was worse on the people-lined streets. But she had flown in to see him and say a proper goodbye.
"So you have a date set?" she said.
"No, but it'll be early next year," his voice said.
"I guess she's been waiting for a long time."
She peered into the swimming pool. The tiles were off-green, and with the absence of water she could see the scum clearly, growing in the gaps between them. Jack, standing by the edge of the deep-water drop, looked small. He waved his arms.
"Come in," he said. "It's cleaner down here."
She hesitated for a moment, then climbed down the ladder. Jack was right. There was less scum on the bottom. The tiles were a darker shade past the shallow end and sloped like a baby hill. When she looked up, all she could see was clouds stained with dusk, a purplish blue. Deep in the pool, she felt disconnected from everything, as though they were not part of a building, and there was no need for a difference between ground and sky. She wrapped her jacket closer around her, sweating.
"I like this," she said.
He walked away from her, stepping carefully on each tile. He hopped over every other one, then turned to face her.
"You look like a little boy doing that," she said.
"I can do this now that I feel free."
But his comment was not pointed, so she was not angry. In the back of her mind, she was glad they were no longer fighting and that they did not have to use words like "betrayed." She said, across the hollow expanse of the pool, "Where does she live?"
"Is that far?"
"Nothing's too far with a taxi," he said. He sounded rich, taxi, although he lived in this old grey building with the leaking bathroom and one incontinent neighbour. He had told her, on the way up to the roof. She wondered if he was giving up too much to be here, but she did not voice it. He said again, "She's been waiting."
"I know," she said. "Four years is a while."
He sat down in the middle of the pool and motioned for her to come over. She did, and as she approached, observed that his shoes were new, a russet leather with coffee laces. He had never used to wear such fancy designs before.
"I'm slightly worried about you," she said.
"That's sweet," Jack said, looking up. In the sky, a sheet of birds flapped back to where they made their home. "You know, I've got savings. I sold the cars."
"We used to fight about the cars."
"They were stupid fights," he said.
Jack sat cross-legged in the middle of the pool. She looked at the top of his head, the skin showing at the crown where he combed his hair forward. Patches of white showed at the roots. They were in their 50s now.
"You know, I'm glad you found someone," she said, looking down at him.
"You didn't fly in just to tell me this."
"No," she said. "I just thought of it, just now. I flew in to see what your life would be like. I've never been here before. You know this."
"So you've been here for how long again?"
"Just today. Short flight from Thailand. I was there four days, just travelling."
"So you know my life will be humid," he joked.
"But what else?" she said, looking into his face. He did not answer.
She thought hard, but could not imagine him in this exciting city, standing out with his thinning blonde hair. She thought of them living in the Menlo Park suburbs. It was different - the air was dry and it was quiet save for the passing Caltrains. When she shouted at him, her shouting had felt particularly loud, as though they were the only people in the world. Here, she saw the people crammed on buses and heard the deafening sounds of cars and horns. The street markets had people jostling. There were long lines for food. But he must prefer the weight of the noise here, distributed among other people. A lightened burden was bearable. Only their glances would brush him, rest curiously, then fall away.
So she was happy for him. The disgust she had so often associated with him came away like dust. She felt relieved. She remembered looking at him from the patio, her fingers digging into a magazine. He was always pottering about the yard, poking about the koi pond, and skimming rocks on a weekend afternoon, aimlessly. Without direction, he had been unattractive to her, and he had been aimless for a long time. She did not know where they were going, why they were unhappy all the time, and even after the girl, it had never been about the girl. Now it would be over. Now her mother would not call her up on the phone, spitting at her. Nobody would stare at him, secretly thinking him a loser. "What is Jack planning to do?" Overweight, ageing, jobless. The talk had been hard to bear. She had really loved him once.
She stood right by him, feeling the warmth rise off his body. A layer of fine sweat covered his skin. She realised with a pang that the girl had known him in his current state and liked him for it.
"I really am happy for you," she said suddenly.
"Oh," Jack said.
"Don't look so shocked. I'm not going to kiss and make up."
"No," Jack said. "I'm sick of infidelity movies, you know that right? That's never how it ends."
"I know," she said, then turned, so her feet were on the edge where the slope started to bend downward. They were both staring down into the deep end.
Taking his hand, she quietly said, "We've both been there."
The walls of the swimming pool loomed above their heads. In her hand, his felt big and clumsy. The night grunted with the remnants of cars. In a few hours she would be flying back home. It would be improbable that she would see him again. They had been together for 19 years.
"What now?" she said.
"Are you scared?" Jack said.
"No," she said, closing her eyes. She felt the slope of the deep end with her feet, the edge where the floor fell steeply. "No, I don't think so."
First published in QLRS Vol. 11 No. 2 Apr 2012.
[i] Spittoon Literary Magazine Issue 1 (Autumn 2016).
[ii] Literary Laundry Vol 1.1 (http://web.literarylaundry.com/journal/volume-1-issue-1/prose-fiction/independence-day).
[iii] Living Room Coffee (碳儿胡同23号); Rager Pie (分司厅胡同10号); Ball House (鼓楼中楼湾胡同40号); Metal Hands (五道营胡同61号)； 好食好色 (菊儿胡同7号院内).
[v] Available here: http://mp.weixin.qq.com/s/nwBxlnRpZpCSqn3physozg