As part of my ongoing guest post series on the New Asia Now edition of the renowned Griffith Review magazine, Michele Lee, an Australian-Asian playright and author, recently appeared on Daily (w)rite. Today, I welcome the talented Jenn Chan Lyman whose work has also been featured in New Asia Now. I’ve highlighted some of her responses in blue, because they made an impression on me.
In this group we share tips, self-doubt, insecurities, and of course, discuss the act of writing. Today’s guest, Jenn Chan Lyman, makes a point of choice in writing fiction: specifically those of us who haven’t written fiction all our lives, making the choice to go into it much later. This is interesting to me, because I started writing fiction in my early 30s, and it was definitely a choice in the beginning– only in recent years has it become a necessity (can’t live without writing!). What about you: are you a writer by choice, or necessity?
Please check out Jenn’s excellent tips on writing, her reading and writing interests, and if you have any questions for her, please leave them in the comments!
1. Could you tell us something about your writing journey?
Unless you’re one of those people who have been scribbling stories since their crayon-holding days, where writing is a necessity rather than a choice, the decision to write is rather fraught. I gave myself the permission to write only when I turned 30: took myself out of the corporate rat race and decided to write a novel based on a traumatic life experience in my twenties.
I finished all 130,000 words of that groundbreaking debut novel. When I read it with fresh eyes, from page one to page 437, I realized if I really wanted to be a writer, I’d better figure out how to write better. Around the same time, I met a mentor who changed my life, Ms. Xu Xi, who was setting up a low residency MFA program in Hong Kong. I ended up joining as one of the guinea pigs in the first cohort, which improved my writing and put me in touch with wonderful faculty and peers. If I hadn’t joined that particular MFA program, I’m not sure I would have been able to sustain my writer’s journey.
2. What are your preoccupations as a writer? What themes do you find yourself writing on?
I seem to be preoccupied with seeing beyond the surface of things and discovering hidden truths, secret motivations, alternate angles, unexpected backstories. I also find myself circling around themes of homelessness, belonging, or rather, not belonging, and being in-between. I think this has a lot to do with being a third culture kid myself, born in Hong Kong, raised in California, adulthood back in Asia, always feeling like I don’t quite fit in anywhere.
3. Which authors have been your biggest influencers? Could you name a few works that you think all writers should read?
To name a few…Ishiguro’s various first person narratives, in which he deftly puts the reader in the mind of his characters, Coetzee’s Disgrace and his use of psychic distance, Alice Munro’s mastery of the long short story form and her quiet and powerful illumination of the lives of others, Junot Diaz’s bold use of voice and specificity, David Sedaris’s easy sense of humor, Edward P. Jones’ sense of place, Xu Xi’s contemplation of being an individual in between worlds, and Madeleine Thien, for her poignant narratives and lucid prose.
4. What tips would you give a writer who hasn’t been published before?
The first tip would be to not worry about publishing, and to try to be the best writer that you can be. When you honestly feel that you’re turning out quality work, then think about publishing, and be persistent. Stephen King has a great anecdote in On Writing about how he collected each rejection in a stack nailed to the wall and eventually the nail became a stake. For me, regardless of publishing success, my goal is still the same: write better.
5. Talk to us about your piece at Griffith Review: New Asia Now. What inspired it?
“Vigil” was inspired by two simultaneous events last winter, one, the protests in Hong Kong, and the other, a good friend of mine struggling with an ailing mother. There was a certain hopelessness and helplessness in both situations that resonated with me. Witnessing the death of someone/something you love and not being able to do anything about it.
6. What’s your take on challenges facing Asians writing in English today?
This is an exciting time for Asians writing in English. Now is the time to write about this side of the world in a way that doesn’t rely on stereotypes and “dumbing down” cultural references for mainstream consumption. However, I do think that there’s a limited market for publishing literary fiction, so if you’re writing literary fiction with Asian roots, it’s possible the market is even narrower. Then again, I must believe that if the work is truly spectacular, the publishing world will recognize it. The alternative would be too depressing.
Jenn Chan Lyman is a fiction and non-fiction writer based in Shanghai, with roots in Hong Kong and California. Jenn has a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Stanford University (1999) and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from City University of Hong Kong (2012). Selected publishing credits and accolades include: publication in the anthology The Queen of Statue Square (Critical, Cultural and Communications Press, 2014), finalist for Glimmer Train’s May 2012 Short Story Award for New Writers, publication in Salamander Magazine’s Winter 2012/2013 issue, and a Pushcart Prize nomination in 2013.
I’ve loved the editions of Griffith Review I’ve read before, and would encourage you to pick up a copy. The New Asia Now edition carries insightful features, essays, poetry and fiction that give an insight to emerging Asia.
I’m stunned by the amazing diversity of voices in this issue. Volume 2 of this edition is available exclusively as an eBook: Download it here!
What do you look for in a book you’re reading? Are you curious about the writer, about when he or she started writing? If you’re a writer, what spurred you to pick up the pen that first time? Have you checked out the Insecure Writer’s Support Group?