Doretta Lau’s short story collection How Does a Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun? provides a feeling of homecoming. The stories take place between Vancouver, New York, and Hong Kong, as the characters try to find a sense of belonging that is beyond physical geography. The book was shortlisted for the City of Vancouver Book Award, longlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, and was named by The Atlantic as one of the best books of 2014. In 2013, she was a finalist for the Writers’ Trust of Canada / McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize. Below, Doretta and I discuss representation, pop-culture, and self-care in relation to the creative process.
Stephanie Chou: The stories in How Does a Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun? focus on young Asian characters navigating adulthood in North America. Did you feel like you had to subvert the mainstream coming-of-age story to fully capture a modern diasporic identity?
Doretta Lau: It took me ten years to write this slim volume of stories. Along the way I read so many books and tried so many different ways to tell stories that by the end, writing my version of the modern diasporic identity no longer had to be an act of subversion. Rather, I grew into the writer I needed to be in order to counter the established narratives surrounding women of Asian descent growing up in North America.
SC: Many of your stories are voice-driven and cover a range of first-person narratives from aging child actors to future selves. What is your creative process in developing compelling characters, such as the Sick Man of Asia in the book’s eponymous story? How do aspects of identity fit into each character’s narrative? Is it something you consider before the story takes form, or does the story inform the character?
DL: For me a story doesn’t click until I get the voice right, so the character very much informs the story. I used to labour from beginning to end, trying to make perfect sentences in the correct tone. Then I realized it would be a lot easier to just write whatever came to mind and then refine the voice after I achieved a draft. So now if I don’t know how to craft a scene I’ll just write something like “insert awkward moment here” and go back to it later.
If I can’t figure out a character, I make detailed logs including Chinese zodiac sign and family members who don’t appear in the narrative. To make a story like “How Does a Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun?” work, I imagined what the dragoons wore and the kind of music they listened to and the movies they liked so that the characters had petty things to argue about while they figure out what they should really be fighting. I made an iTunes playlist for “The Boy Next Door” so I could remember what that time period sounded like for someone like Kent as I wrote.
SC: Going further, is there a responsibility of representation that factors into the creative process for you? One of your characters in “Robot by the River” speaks about the dissonance of appearance, and it’s a thought I return to often in conversations about proprietary in fiction.
I made a political decision to make all the protagonists in this book of Asian descent and to remove them from the context of the multigenerational immigrant story that is privileged by mainstream publishing. Everyone single one of them comes from a city or a suburb because that’s what I know. It’s like how in a Jane Austen novel there is never a scene without a woman in it–she didn’t know how to capture two men alone. How would they act? What would they say?
Also, to be very honest, I was tired of seeing Asian men demonised in English language fiction under the misguided idea that this is feminism. Let’s call it what it is: white supremacy grinding us down, making us fight each other so that we never get anywhere.
As an undergrad I once had a workshop where the other students withheld praise until I wrote a story about a girl with a secret white boyfriend–I cringe that I had to do that in order to stop all the negative feedback. So for this collection I set out to write the stories I wanted to read, where people who share experiences similar to my own get to live fully as human beings.
SC: I love all the pop-culture references in your stories from celebrity gossip, to indie music, to contemporary art. It was fun to follow these breadcrumbs (Wong Kar-Wai, Hard Boiled (!!), Murakami, Jeff Wall) and think about how they functioned in the landscape of the stories. What compels you to use the references that you do when you are writing?
DL: I’m glad you enjoyed these breadcrumbs! There are writers who know about flora and fauna, but that’s not me. I might survive a night in the woods because I was a Girl Guide (find a sheltered spot and wrap yourself in dry pine boughs), but I know more about The Fast and the Furious than I do about tide tables or which berries to avoid in the wilderness. My use of these references is my way of world building, a sort of shorthand to situate a reader. My strength is not in describing the physical, but rather in investigating the mental and the emotional. The downside is that some people may feel alienated when confronting a list of things they’ve never heard of before, but we live in an age where it takes a second to look up a name or an idea so there’s really no excuse.
SC: I am a huge Wong Kar-Wai fan, and out of curiosity I have to ask, which of his movies has influenced you the most? Why?
DL: I’ve watched Chungking Express more than any of his other movies (I have the Kino boxset), though Happy Together is my favourite. There’s a lightness and a sense of humour to Chungking Express–it doesn’t feel laboured and it has an exuberance I associate with youth that I wanted to capture in my collection. Also for three years I lived near the apartment that’s featured in the second half of the film–I passed it every single day on the way to work or the MTR station.
SC: The sense of place in your stories really resonated with me (and not just because I grew up in East Vancouver, and am now living in a third floor bachelor in the exact neighbourhood that the story “Robot by The River” is set in!). The astute construction of place in the narratives really served to highlight a sense of displacement felt by the characters. At times I felt like place was either an homage, a love letter, or a somewhat political act (in particular I think about “Left and Leaving”). What was important to you in choosing the setting of your stories?
DL: The setting of each story is absolutely important–these characters are of these places, or are strangers encountering a strange place. I wrote the first draft of most of the stories while living in New York and did almost all of the editing in Hong Kong. Something about the distance made it easier to examine Vancouver while feeling the freedom to fictionalise it. I have a vivid image of myself sitting in bed in Morningside Heights, working on “Left and Leaving”, and thinking about the Downtown Eastside.
SC: I have been thinking lately about code-switching in relation to the writing of fiction. The concept has evolved from its linguistic origins to encompass how our intersectional identities interact. How do you think this applies to storytelling? Are there different access points that help you delve into a particular story?
DL: For me, I tell the story I want to tell, using language that comes from the core of who I am, but I’m still mindful of providing a structure that is readily understandable for a reader educated in a western context. This is the one place where I don’t have to pander to anyone, but still I can’t get away from the fact that I can only write in English or that my major literary influences can be traced directly to writers who worked with Gordon Lish. I use emotional connections to create the access points and hope that this can cut through any barriers to understanding my words.
SC: I’ve read in previous interviews that you view your work as entering a conversation, a fantasy of what fiction should be. I love this. What works do you have in mind during this dialogue?
DL: Right now I’m thinking a lot about Ed Park’s Personal Days because I’ve started a narrative that’s set in an office. I’m also thinking about Claudia Rankine’s Citizen. Her keynote address at AWP gave me the thing I was missing as a writer–to be able to have the vocabulary to address race and racism. Souvankham Thammavongsa has been writing the most devastating short stories–the level of feeling in them is unparalleled. For the collection, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline by George Saunders, Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto, Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote, A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, In Transit by Mavis Gallant, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower, Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson, and the stories of Lydia Davis.
SC: The title of your book, How Does a Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun? comes from a line of poetry written in the Tang Dynasty on maternal love. It was also used by basketball player Yao Ming when he was thanking his team, the Shanghai Sharks. The connection of filial piety to modernity is so poetic, whimsical and thematically fitting. Can you explain how you came upon this choice?
Years ago, when I read the sports story about Yao Ming taking out full-page ads with with the line “How does a single blade of grass thank the sun?” I thought, that’s complete magic and someday I’ll write a story and that will be what I call it. The decision to make it the title of the collection itself is a nod to the Asian Canadian writers before me who kicked down the doors so I can be myself instead of a pale imitation of Maxine Hong Kingston.
SC: I love your blog and check it weekly for your thoughts on self care in relation to the writing process. Is there something in particular you’d like to share with the readers of Cosmonauts Avenue on self care and creativity?
DL: Thank you for reading the blog! I think one of the most important things that we have to remember is that we are not our work. Our worth is not tied to our creative output. It’s okay if we do nothing but survive and be healthy contributors to our communities. We need to be well in order to make things.
Doretta Lau is the author of the short story collection How Does a Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun? (Nightwood Editions, 2014). The book was shortlisted for the City of Vancouver Book Award, longlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, and was named by The Atlantic as one of the best books of 2014. In 2013, she was a finalist for the Writers’ Trust of Canada / McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize. She has written on arts and culture for Artforum International, South China Morning Post, The Wall Street Journal Asia, ArtReview, and LEAP. She completed an MFA in Writing at Columbia University. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in Day One, Event, Grain Magazine, Prairie Fire, PRISM International, Ricepaper, Room Magazine, sub-TERRAIN, and Zen Monster. She splits her time between Vancouver and Hong Kong, where she is at work on a novel and a screenplay.
Stephanie Chou is a writer and artist from Vancouver, BC. She is finishing a book of non-fiction. Find her @choustephanie.