Monday, June 17, 2024

Q&A with Wendy Chen




Wendy Chen is the author of the new novel Their Divine Fires. She also has written the poetry collection Unearthings. She is the editor of Figure 1, the associate editor-in-chief of Tupelo Quarterly, and an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.


Q: Their Divine Fires was based in part on your family history--what did you see as the right balance between history and fiction as you wrote the novel?


A: This was certainly a difficult balance to strike, and one that took many drafts to get right!


In my early drafts, I tried to be as faithful as I could to my family stories, particularly my grandmother's stories which inspired me to write this novel in the first place. However, I realized that I needed to let go of some of my anxieties about "authenticity"--a term that is often used to evaluate the work of writers of color--in order to make the story truly my own.


In later drafts, I gave myself the freedom to take creative liberties, to use my imaginative powers to tell a compelling story about the history of a family that looked like mine.  


Q: How did you research the story, and what did you learn that especially surprised you?


A: I conducted oral interviews with my family and researched countless primary and secondary sources in order to try to capture each distinctive time period.


The novel depicts four generations of women, from the early 1900s during the Chinese Revolution, through the Cultural Revolution at the height of Maoism, to modern-day China and America.


Each period has different concerns and sensibilities, ones that are carried across and impact future generations, and it was important to me to try to capture the spirit and emotions of the time as accurately as possible.


The Cultural Revolution, for example, was the most fascinating to research, as I looked at propaganda posters, movies, and songs that were produced by the government. In the chapters on the Cultural Revolution, I tried to incorporate that kind of bombastic language in propaganda pieces.


One thing I learned that was--perhaps not especially surprising, but rather especially meaningful--was how important women were to the revolutions and resistance movements in China (resistance against Western imperialism and Japanese aggression). Reading first-person accounts and testimonies of these women informed the stories I wanted to tell in Their Divine Fires.


Q: The writer Alexandra Chang said of the novel, “Their Divine Fires is a gorgeous, emotionally searing debut about the lasting and mysterious effects of the past—both political and personal—particularly on girls and women confined and defined by others in a volatile world.” What do you think of that description?


A: I'm touched by Alexandra's kind description of my novel! She captured my work quite accurately, picking up on the ways I hoped to write about the impact of history on the individual--especially on girls and women.


I hoped to write about history not in a distant, removed manner, but in terms of how it impacted individuals on an emotional level. From Alexandra's description, it looks like I may have succeeded!


Q: How was the novel’s title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: The novel's title is taken from a passage near the end of the first section of the novel. To me, the phrase signifies the divine and beautiful fires that illuminate all of us--the passion and emotions that allow us to embrace life and love and persevere through suffering and grief.


All of us are survivors of history, a fact that has always haunted me, and this novel is a homage to what my ancestors, and the ancestors of many Chinese and Chinese American families, experienced in the last century.


The phrase also refers to the stars in the heavens--the stars that stand as both witness to and signifiers of fate.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Right now, I am working on copyedits for my translations of Song-dynasty woman writer Li Qingzhao, who lived about a thousand years ago in China. She is considered the greatest woman poet in China, but is not very well known in the US. I hope my translations will bring a new audience of appreciative readers to her work.


She lived such an incredible life for a woman of her time, at a time in which women writing and publishing was seen as dishonorable and unchaste (exposing oneself and one's private thoughts to others).


By the time she was a teenager, she was already renowned for her poetry and writing. She was an avid art collector, experienced life as a refugee when her country was at war, and was even imprisoned for some time.


One of my favorite anecdotes about her is that whenever there was a snowstorm, she would go outside and climb the city walls in search of inspiration for her writing.


My translations will come out in a volume titled The Magpie at Night with Farrar, Straus & Giroux in February 2025. 


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I finished this novel at a time of intense anti-Asian--specifically anti-Chinese--sentiment in the US, and I fear that tensions between the two countries will only get worse in the future.


I hope that my novel will allow readers to better understand the history of China and its people, and see that our histories are deeply intertwined and that our hopes and dreams and fears are not so dissimilar to one another.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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