Based out of Vancouver and Hong Kong, Doretta Lau, is an author of many modes. She is currently working on a screenplay and a novel. She has interviewed the likes of Tao Lin, Erica Jong, James Franco, and Godspeed You! Black Emperor (and more) for the Wall Street Journal Asia & The South China Morning Post. The title story from her debut collection How Does a Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun? (Nightwood Editions) was shortlisted for the 2013 Journey Prize. Here, she graciously tangles and unravels some of these many threads around a curiosity for khipu and an empathy for story.
- Brad de Roo
Many of your stories - such as 'Rerun,' 'Left and Leaving,' and 'Robot by the River' feature characters who have been adopted or who adopt others for love or guidance. Do characters with a sense inquiry into restless origins speak to you? Does their almost archetypal character development towards familial self-discovery (even when that family is found outside of the biological family) provide an analogy to anything greater - like particular cultural forces or the role of the modern artist? Is there a real tension in which an author is an adopter or adoptee - whether of characters, voices, or cultures? If so, does one side of an adoptive creative process win out?
"Rerun" started as a story about a biological mother and daughter, but one day a friend in New York, a filmmaker, was telling me about the audition process for her latest film. She was looking for a child actor of Asian descent. One of the children who auditioned was a transnational adoptee from China. My friend was telling me how the whole thing was incredibly uncomfortable: the mother kept talking about her child's "doll-like exotic looks" and generally treating the child like an object instead of as a human being. This dynamic seemed perfect for a story, so I began a new draft of "Rerun" and changed their relationship. A few years later I realized that the entire plot, as well as the secondary characters and the voice of the protagonist, needed to be overhauled in light of this change so I did one more drastic rewrite.
As for the question of an author as an adopter of characters, voices or cultures, the key thing for me when creating a character is empathy. Why am I writing about this person in this specific situation? Am I coming from a place of compassion or of derision? Am I treating my characters like human beings or am I acting as if I'm superior to them and coming from a place of judgment? When derision comes into play, then there's a chance that the work can be read as racist, classist, homophobic, misogynist—that's the antithesis of what literature should do.
Certain stories in this collection present direct interactions with real, historical people or actual works of art or both. 'Two-Part Intervention' imagines Glenn Gould on the dating scene. 'Days of Being Wild' recounts many classic films as the narrator tries to write a screenplay in New York. 'Writing in Light' intersperses the narrative with detailed meditations on selected photographs by Jeff Wall. 'Robot by the River' cites a Smog (Bill Callahan) lyric. The titular story is allegedly named after a quote by basketball star Yao Ming in response to a journalist. Having suited up as a journalist yourself, does a researched attention to fact play a central role in your fiction? Do you approach/present fictional and journalistic stories in comparable ways? Are there instances when certain journalistic pieces substantially inform particular stories? Have the described modes of inter-textuality ever offered any technical problems in story-writing? Is it ever difficult to integrate another artist's aesthetic into your own, for example? Or, in the case of Gould, does the glut of autobiographical material about the icon initially hinder developing the icon as a character, not to mention developing another character's opinion of the icon?
The title of the book is a translated line of Tang Dynasty poetry by Meng Jiao that Yao Ming used in an advertisement he took out in newspapers when the Shanghai Sharks retired his basketball jersey. It's about maternal love. I thought, how strange and lovely—one day I'd like to write something and use that as the title. I tend to gather phrases and ideas and images and place them in my work when things fit. In some ways, I think of my book as a salute to the Asian Canadian and Asian American writers who did the hard work and carved a space for me to write about anything. I don't need to write tragic, multigenerational sagas because that has been done. Instead, I have the freedom to expand on what I think fiction can be. In the case of "Writing in Light", that story began as a series of prose poems. Then I started to think of it as an essay that has been repurposed to be a story. I need to start with some real thing, like a text message or a work of art, and then leap from there to the fantastical.
Sometimes I think I turn to research as a form of procrastination from doing actual writing. I love the chase, the accumulation of information, uncovering the quirks of real life. In order to write "Two-Part Invention", I had to read the books the narrator reads. I wanted to look at how other writers dealt with the same character, in this case Glenn Gould, and put my own particular spin on him. The fact that there are so many works of art devoted to him made the endeavour easier rather than harder.
I've always thought of my own fiction practice as a response to other writers. My stories reflect what I was reading at the time I was writing them. I suppose they also reveal my obsessions with art, film, and music.
My journalism and fiction come from very different places. When I am profiling a person, I'm trying to present information I've been given about them directly or indirectly. For fiction, I can make everything up and shape things to serve the story. I have never had any of my journalistic work inform my fiction. I'm more likely to build a story based on an overheard conversation on a train or an absurd premise that comes to mind when I'm out drinking with friends.
Having conducted a number of interviews yourself, do you ever take issue with the way you are interviewed? Do you find yourself or your work framed or contextualized by gender or culture or age or genre in ways that unsettle you? Are there questions you are simply not asked? Are there questions you would like be asked? Is there an ideal model or style of literary interviewing you favour? Would you want this method applied to yourself?
I was talking to a friend about this the other day. He was saying that as a straight, cisgender white male, interviewers and reviewers tend to focus on craft and his work; he told me that he's found it annoying to see instances where journalists are putting my identity before my work, as if my writing doesn't merit attention on its own.
At the moment, I'm reading Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit and she puts it so well in the title essay: "Most women fight wars on two fronts, one for whatever the putative topic is and one simply for the right to speak, to have ideas, to be acknowledged to be in possession of fact and truths, to have value, to be a human being." I'm just a person, writing about the world around me.
I don't take issue with people asking what I've come to think of as "the Asian question" because a lot of the time, the journalist is under pressure from their editor to frame the story a specific way. Most of the time people are really just trying to make a connection and understand—I can't fault them for that. This, however, doesn't negate the fact that the whole thing at core presupposes that the default person is white, and anyone who is outside of this needs to be measured against this standard, which is highly problematic.
I've done interviews with writers where I've been forced to follow up after the fact with questions about Asian audiences, family reactions, that sort of thing. A novelist who had a commercial hit was telling me that the one question he's gotten in every single interview with English-language media outlets around the world has been about being Asian and choosing to write about Asian characters.
An interview is a conversation. When I conduct one in person or on the phone, I tend to ask very basic, boring questions and see where the interviewee goes with it. I listen.
In the titular story, the narrator 'The Sick Man of Asia' (as he calls himself) speaks self-defensively about reclamation. "I've taken the slang of the West and altered the meaning of my own usage, thereby exercising a certain mastery over the language of the colonizer,” he says. Do you ever find this mastery a challenge to achieve in your work? Have you ever artistically caught yourself voicing what you later felt to someone else's reclamation? In compiling this very urban and multi-culturally aware collection of stories, was it hard to limit cultural perspectives for the sake of a unified narrative voice? Or is this in-itself an undesirable or overly abstract framing of your work?
I wrote the story "How Does a Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun?" in response to the fact that some Asian Canadian and Asian American men feel alienated and alone and misrepresented in popular culture. At the time I read a lot of message boards and I was thinking about A Clockwork Orange (both the book and the film) and the Wells Tower Story "Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned." I thought it would be funny to have the Sick Man of Asia talk in a really grandiose way.
Language is a difficult thing. I want every sentence to have an urgency to it. I also want to write beautiful, searing prose. My skill level doesn't match up to the kind of sentence that I wish I could write. In many ways, my prose is a record of my attempts to deal with my linguistic shortcomings; the stories are the solutions to the various language puzzles I'm faced with in any given story.
I read in your bio that you are working on a screenplay. Do you think that short fiction is a film-friendly genre, compared to, say, novels or comics? Would you ever consider adapting any of your stories for screen? What would such a rewrite look like? What would end up on the cutting room floor, what would remain digitally untouched, what would be further developed?
There have been cases where short stories have translated into great films: "Brokeback Mountain" by Annie Proulx (directed by Ang Lee) and "The Bear Came Over the Mountain" by Alice Munro (Away from Her, directed by Sarah Polley).
The screenplay I'm working on is based on the short story "Rerun" that's in the collection. It's going to be a romantic comedy, so I've been developing additional characters and a secondary plot line. The third act of the film is going to be different from the story. I think the film version I'm working on is warmer and more inviting in many ways. I want it to be funny without being silly.
Your story 'God Damn, How Real Is This?' has the narrator Franny Siu receiving critical and directive text messages from her Future Self in a telecommunications time travel tale. Given your involvement in many forms of media, I wonder if you would share some of the text messages you are receiving from your Future Self about the state of the short story in the world to come. Do people still spill beer on borrowed copies of books? Have 'video game' and 'Haruki Murakami' become inseparable phrases? Are you, and we, archeologically surprised by some enduring story bone-structure as we decipher texts of light from tomorrow?
I'd like to think my future self still believes in the short story form. I'm in the middle of doing the research for a novel about the textiles history and its impact on our world and its post-colonial implications, but I'm working on two new short stories. I'm spending my July in Toronto, where I'm conducting research at the Textile Museum of Canada. My future self keeps telling me to write the novel instead of reading about khipu, an ancient form of record keeping that appears to be on first glance nothing more than a simple textile, but is really a mathematically complex technology. This is my latest obsession.
I've never had the problem of friends spilling beer on my books; I do think that paper books will continue to exist, because it's a superior reading experience. (I say this as someone who has been using a Kindle for the last four years.)
For me, a story is all about the emotional arc; I end stories when I think the character has reached some new emotional plane. I don't think this will change.