Bookforum talks with Xuan Juliana Wang

Xuan Juliana Wang. Photo: Ye Rin Mok

“I wanted to evoke a certain kind of life that would be worthy of future nostalgia.” That’s a line from Xuan Juliana Wang’s story “The Art of Straying Off Course,” but it is also a way of reading all twelve stories in Home Remedies, her debut collection about Chinese millennials and their families. The book is a meditation on the nature of home, and how everything from immigration to the forward march of time precludes the possibility of ever returning there. In “The Art of Straying Off Course,” the narrator also says, “The secret to building things was listening.” Wang has listened to the world around her with an almost superhuman acuity. As a result, Home Remedieshas details on every page that shock the heart. This spring, we spoke about fate, longing, time, and space.

In the story “Future Cat,” the main character, Maggie, has purchased a new gadget: a Wine Ager. It’s the size of a record album, and when she places a bottle of wine on its surface and presses a button, the wine ages. Maggie starts using it to experiment on other things in her home. If you had a Wine Ager, what would you use it for, other than wine?

The first thing I would age is myself—that was why I wrote the story. I was at a point in my life where I really wanted to know if the decisions I’d made—especially in romantic relationships—were the right ones. I wanted to get older and wiser so I would understand the most painful and hard-to-get-over facets of life. Like me, my character wanted to have the clarity of distance, but didn’t want to physically get old. That’s why the she ends up suspended in an alternate universe.

When did you write that story?

I was living by myself in San Francisco in 2014. It was the loneliest period of my life, ever. I was going to the gym so much that they thought I was a soon-to-be bride. People kept asking me when I was getting married. I wanted to say, “It’s because I have nowhere else to go and I'm trying to procrastinate on a novel!”

So now that we’re well into our thirties, would still want to age yourself? Or would you pick something else?

I would like to age my book! Maybe now I would age a photo album of my present troubles, so they would be less hurtful.

The title of the book is also the title of one of the stories in the collection, which is a literal list of home remedies for ailments of the heart and soul. It also feels like a remedy for the idea of “home,” something the characters in your book long for but never seem to find. Do you feel the same way?

Feeling like an “other” or feeling alienated or misunderstood is a prevailing theme of my life. I remember the first year I had Halloween in school, I didn’t know what it was. My parents knew that there was a “Ghost Day” at school, so they took me to Pick ’n Save and we bought a mask with feathers on it, and then they took a towel—I remember it was a big, fringed bedspread towel-thing—and they tied it around me.

I showed up at school, and we were all lining up in front of the class and the teacher was introducing people: This is Princess Jasmine, and this is Belle from Beauty and the Beast. And I remember the feeling when she got to me. She asked me what I was, and I didn’t know I was supposed to be something! I felt doomed, and she said, “Oh, you’re a peacock!” And then I was like, “Oh, right!” She said, “Just a beautiful peacock!” But I knew it wasn’t right.

I had a cousin who I lived with, and he was wearing a Jason mask and long underwear. And I was so worried about him all day. But when I saw him at the school parade he was dancing in his non-costume and pretending to spear somebody with his fake spear. He was happy. He had no idea he didn’t belong. Meanwhile, I always know when I don’t belong. And I think that moment crystallized who I am, and I find myself always writing toward that feeling.

I wanted to ask you about yuan fen. In “For Our Children and for Ourselves,” you define it as “the fateful meeting of two people, with the possibility—the shared hope—of becoming love.” Could you talk a little bit about the feeling?

I encountered this word a lot growing up. When you would say goodbye to somebody in your old country, or meet somebody in your new country, you’d always say, “If we meet again, we’ll have yuan.” And if you meet again in your new country, or you meet a good friend, and you always say, “This is yuan fen that brought us together! What are the chances!”

Does it apply to situations beyond love and friendship?

In a way, it applies to my situation as a writer. I only started to read serious fiction in graduate school. And whenever I read, I felt like those people were meant to be writers. They had this background where their parents read, and they had these personal theses about literature and history, and I felt like I didn’t have any of that. So for me to get here—for me to even just continue writing—can be attributed to the various things fateful things that happened in the universe and, of course, to the fact that my family allowed me to do this.

Have you always written fiction in English?

I can’t write fiction in Chinese. When I lived in China I took some classes at Peking University in modern Chinese fiction and poetry with the undergrads, and it was amazing. But during lectures I would write all my notes in English. I instantly translated whatever the professor said in Mandarin into English. When I tried to write essays I realized I didn’t know how to truly think in Chinese. I had to think in English and then translate it back to Chinese.

There are three sections in the book: “Family,” “Love,” and “Time and Space.” How did you land on these divisions?

I wrote these stories throughout my twenties and a little bit into my early thirties. At the very beginning, I was most interested in the concept of family and the various tragedies that happen when a family breaks apart. I was really into thinking about the past and what I wanted for my own family in the future. In my mid-twenties I was fascinated with love. All my friends were talking about boyfriends and girlfriends. It was all consuming. And by my late twenties, I started to question everything I had taken as a fact of life. I realized I had spiritual and philosophical questions, so I started to explore the uncanny and think about the boundaries of time and space.

If I had to pick a word to describe what I felt after reading your stories, I would pick “longing.” Where does that longing come from?

My father has told me that when I was five or so, I started crying because I said he wasn’t talking to me “about the matters of my heart.” Like my character Vivian in “For Our Children and for Ourselves,” my life was filled with an “endless wanting.” It’s not from a malicious place, it’s not even from a place of desire. It’s a longing for something I will not be given, but I know is out there in the universe.

Hilary Leichter's first novel, TEMPORARY, will be published by Coffee House Press/Emily Books next year.