Ling Ma on writers and their parents

Her story in the Beijing Duck fiction edition begins with a description of the narrator’s early years in America, when her parents took her to the library to improve her English. A librarian recommends “Iron & Silk” by Mark Salzman. When did you first come across this book? Why did you want to use it in a story?

I first read this memoir, perhaps in fourth grade, and have read it over and over again over the years. Although written from the perspective of an outsider (a Yale graduate traveling to Hunan to teach English), it shaped my vision of what life would have been like in China in the 1980s, when my parents moved to the USA immigrated can be seen as a snapshot of a time when the country began to open up economically and thus to westernize.

Years later, I noticed the connection between the Peking duck anecdote in the memoir and the short story “Happiest Moment” by Lydia Davis. I started thinking about storytelling in an immigrant context. Typically, it is the second generation, fluent in English and better assimilated, who retell the stories of their parents and those of older generations to a Western audience. They translate these stories – not just linguistically, but make them more culturally palatable to audiences. I have thought about whether the experiences of first-generation immigrants can be faithfully reproduced by their children.

Recalling those early years, the narrator says: ‘English is just a play language to me, the words bound to their meaning by the loosest, 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 sticks as she gets older?

Interesting question! It would depend on this narrator losing her ability to speak Mandarin as she ages. As an adult, being stranded with English as her only fluent language, she would have to rely on English for everything.

In the third part of the story, the setting changes to an MFA workshop and the story takes on a metafictional aspect. Would you like the reader to feel surprised by this shift? Did you have that in mind from the start?

I broke my rule to avoid a scene in the workshop. The MFA Fiction Workshop is a niche experience that most people don’t care about. But this story has an essayistic quality that revolves around these storytelling questions. The workshop seemed the most natural place to ask these questions.

Students discuss the idea of ​​phrasing and restating the same anecdote and consider the issue of authorship and appropriation. There is another Asian student in the workshop who particularly dislikes the narrator’s work. How cruel can a workshop be? How useful is this type of comment?

In the story, the narrator pays particular attention to what the other Asian student in the workshop thinks, whether her story resonates with him based on her experiences. This is partly due to the burden of representation. Minority writers have had to work under this pressure that one thing should be representative of everything. Matthew may be cruel to the narrator in this scene, but both are 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 don’t order them. It becomes clear that the mother has read her daughter’s stories and is not too happy with the depictions of the mothers in them. “They’re all so unhappy,” she says. How hard is it to be the parent of a novelist?

Ha, well, I can’t answer that personally, so I emailed this question to my parents. My father replied, “It’s not difficult at all to be the parent of a novelist because we know your story is just fiction. I wouldn’t assume that as your parent I figure in your stories.” I think he understands what I do as a novelist.

The final section of the story revolves around the nanny and the disturbing encounter she has with the salesman while her daughter is also in the house. Are you trying to make us feel like this is the mother’s story? Is it your account of what happened? Or is it the daughter’s story?

Yes, thanks for the mention. This ambiguity is built into Peking Duck. The reader is given all of this information and context before we hit the final section. Everything before has a destabilizing effect on this last part. Is it the mother’s testimonial? Is it her daughter’s imaginary rendering of the experience? Is it the story she once submitted to the workshop? How should we locate this text, especially in relation to the other sections? If all these uncertainties unsettle the reader, I think that’s a good thing.

In 2018 you published your first novel “Severance”. It’s about a young woman who flees New York after a deadly pandemic spreads. How was it, the first few months of COVID-19 pandemic and do you find elements of your fiction that play out in real life?

I’ve thought about that too. For now, I’ll just say that it was extremely surreal. I felt like I was dreaming.

Peking Duck will appear in your first story collection, Bliss Montage, in September. Did you write these stories during the pandemic? Do you think it got into her in any way?

I wrote many of the stories in Bliss Montage during the first year of the pandemic. I, like everyone else, was hooked on the news, and of course I got the impression that disaster was creeping in from different distances. My impulse was to turn inward when 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 them about the pandemic. Then the bubble burst. At the end of the year I returned to my teaching profession. ♦

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