Ling Ma on writers and their parents
Your story in the fictional issue, “Peking Duck,” opens with a description of the narrator’s early years in America, when her parents take her to the library to improve her English. A librarian recommends “Iron & Silk,” by Mark Salzman. When did you first discover this book? Why did you want to use it in a story?
I read these memoirs for the first time maybe in fourth grade, and I reread them over the years. Although written from the perspective of a foreigner (a Yale graduate who travels to Hunan to teach English), it gave me an idea of what life in China would have been like in the 80s, when my parents immigrated to the United States. be seen as a snapshot of a time when the country was beginning to open up economically and, with that, to westernize.
I noticed the connection between the peking duck anecdote in memoirs and Lydia Davis’ short story “Happiest Moment” years later. I started thinking about storytelling as part of immigration. It is typically the second generation, fluent in English and more assimilated, who tell the stories of their parents, and those of older generations, to Western audiences. They translate these stories, not just linguistically, but make them culturally more palatable to audiences. I wondered if the experiences of first-generation immigrants could be faithfully captured by their children.
Recalling those early years, the narrator says, “English is to me but a language of play, words bound to their meaning by the loosest and most tenuous connections. So it’s easy to lie. I tell the truth in Chinese, I make up stories in English. Do you think that’s a distinction that remains as she gets older?
Interesting question! It would depend on whether this narrator would lose her ability to speak Mandarin as she got older. If, as an adult, she is stuck in English as her only common language, she should rely on English for everything.
In the third section of the story, the setting shifts to an MFA workshop, and the story takes on a metafictional aspect. Do you want the reader to feel surprised by this change? Did you have it in mind from the start?
I broke my rule to avoid doing a workshop scene. The MFA Fiction Workshop is a niche experience that most people don’t care about. But there is an essayist quality to this story, which revolves around these issues of storytelling. The workshop seemed to be the most natural place to ask these questions.
Students discuss the idea of framing and reframing the same story and consider the issue of authorship and appropriation. There is another Asian student in the workshop who is particularly dismissive of the narrator’s work. How cruel can a workshop be? What is the use of this kind of comment?
In the story, the narrator is particularly sensitive to what the other Asian student in the studio thinks about whether her story, based on her experiences, is working for her. This is partly due to the burden of representation. Minority writers had to work under this pressure that one thing is supposed to be representative of everything. Matthew may be cruel to the narrator in this scene, but they are both trapped and constrained by the burden of representation.
In the penultimate section of the story, the narrator takes her mother to a fancy restaurant famous for its Peking duck. None of them like duck, so they don’t order it. It becomes clear that the mother has read her daughter’s stories and is not at all happy with the portrayals of mothers they contain. “They are all so miserable,” she said. Is it difficult to be the parent of a fiction writer?
Ha, well, I can’t personally answer this question, so I emailed this question to my parents. My father replied, “It’s not at all difficult to be the parent of a fiction writer, because we know your story is just fiction. I wouldn’t assume that as a parent I play a role in your stories. I think he understands what I do as a fiction writer.
The last part of the story is dedicated to the nanny and the disconcerting encounter she has with the salesman while her daughter is also at home. Do you want us to feel this is the mother story? Is this his account of what happened? Or is it the girl’s story?
Yes, thank you for mentioning it. This ambiguity is built into “Peking Duck”. The reader receives all of this information and context before encountering the final section. All of the above has a destabilizing effect on this last part. Is this the mother’s account of her experience? Is this the rendering imagined by his daughter of the experience? Is this the story she once submitted to the workshop? How should this text be situated, particularly in relation to the other sections? If all these uncertainties worry the reader, I think that’s a good thing.
You published your first novel, “Severance”, in 2018. It’s about a young woman who ends up fleeing New York after a deadly pandemic spreads. How did you experience the first months of the covid-19 pandemic and find elements of your fiction taking place in real life?
I thought about that too. For now, I’ll just say it was extremely surreal. I felt like I was dreaming.
“Peking Duck” will appear in your first collection of stories, “Bliss Montage”, in September. Were you writing these stories during the pandemic? Do you think that somehow seeped into them?
I wrote many stories in “Bliss Montage” during the first year of the pandemic. I was glued to the news, like everyone else, and, of course, the impression was of disaster creeping in from various distances. My impulse was to withdraw into myself in my writing. I worked on these stories at home almost every day, moving slowly and blindly. They ended up being surreal, introspective, and oddly shaped. Many came from my dreams, none of which were about the pandemic. Then the bubble burst. At the end of the year, I resumed my work as a teacher. ♦