Rona Wang ’21 talks identity, art, and writing the heroes of your own story
Publishing the short fiction collection ‘Cranesong’
Last week, The Tech reviewed Rona Wang ’21’s short fiction collection Cranesong. Its short stories explore the Chinese and Chinese American experience. She spoke to The Tech about her writing process, the road to publication, and the importance of diversity being represented in media.
The Tech: I was wondering where you get your inspiration for your writing style and how your thought process works when you write stories.
Rona Wang ’21: It’s definitely been a process of many years. When I was in seventh grade, I did the whole thing where I would wake up at 3 a.m. and write anime fanfiction and post it online. I spent many, many years writing before I got to a point where I’m getting this short story collection published. I think a lot of it was reading other people’s works and seeing what I liked about them. I realized that I was really drawn to imagery. There were passages that were infused with imagery within even the Percy Jackson books that I would come back to. That [imagery] was definitely something that I wanted to create in my own work as well.
TT: In the collection, the story that stood out to me was “The Art of Acceptance,” because I never thought about this time period in the U.S [of anti-Japanese discrimination during WWII]. This is specific to this story since most of the other stories are set in modern times but I was wondering if you did research?
Wang: The story was written after I read a book in the 21W.770 Advanced Fiction Workshop in Spring 2017 with Professor Helen Elaine Lee. She assigned The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka. It’s really interesting because it uses “we” as a narrative perspective. It’s all about these Japanese women who migrate over to America right before WWII. They’re in this era where there’s a lot of anti-Asian sentiment. Near the climax of the book, there’s the bombing and people start vanishing because of Japanese internment. I was really inspired by that book. But I’m not Japanese American — I’m Chinese American — so I thought it would be closer to my roots and more authentic if I wrote from the perspective of a Chinese American. And even now there’s a lot of anti-Japanese sentiment within Chinese culture and the Chinese community, where I grew up hearing about how terrible the Japanese were because of WWII. That was something I really wanted to explore within the story.
There was this scene in The Buddha in the Attic where these Japanese American boys wore “I Am Chinese” pins just to joke around because they thought it was funny that people couldn't even tell the difference between Japanese and Chinese people. But Chinese Americans also wore these pins to protect themselves from hate crimes. It was a moment that stood out to me, and that’s what created the opening scene in “The Art of Acceptance” where the narrator goes over to this boy’s house, and even though she’s in Chinatown where it’s supposed to be a safe space for Chinese Americans, she still has to wear this pin when she goes outside.
TT: Since we’re talking about race and ethnicity, do you think your own identity informs your perspective when you write stories?
Wang: I’m pretty sure all the narrators are of Chinese descent. That was really important to me. When I first started out seriously writing at 9 or 10 years old, my main characters were always white, because everyone in the books I was reading was white. I didn’t know that Asian Americans or people who looked like me could be heroes of the story. That was something that was really important to me, to write stories in which Chinese or Chinese American people could be the heroes of their own stories.
TT: Was there a choice to have a recurring theme throughout all the stories? Discomfort with identity seemed to be a running theme, but how did you view your work?
Wang: I didn’t write any of these stories except for “Style” intending that they would be part of any collection. Most of the stories I wrote in 2017 or 2018 in a fiction writing class at MIT, or while doing this workshop with a literary magazine, or for myself for fun. I do think there are similar themes throughout the stories because I feel like I end up writing about whatever’s on my mind at the moment.
For example, in “The Evolution of Wings,” we have this character who is in arrested development. She can’t grow up, and all the people around her were turning into birds. I wrote that in January 2017, right after my freshman fall semester at MIT. I felt pretty lost and I felt like everyone around me was blooming and growing and turning into these people that college is supposed to be about, and I felt like I wasn’t getting there.
TT: There was also a story about painting called “Wu Daozi Dreaming” where you brought in mythology. I was wondering how you decided to pick this story.
Wang: When I was reading [about Wu Daozi], as an artist, I really liked the idea of creating something that breaks the fourth wall or closes the distance between fiction and reality. It was super fun to write about and I thought there was a lot of beauty in the idea.
In the story that I write, he’s forced to paint this magical place but then when he paints it, he is sort of physically abused, and he’s forced to do it. I really like that comeuppance and the idea of how we can never really imitate reality, and I feel like in writing and in poetry and in painting — all of these are ways of us trying to understand who we are and translate our mind into something others can understand. There’s always this chasm where it’s never truly possible, and I wanted to communicate that through a story.
TT: Do you have any writers or books that inspire you?
Wang: There’s so many because technically everything I’ve ever read fed into it. “The Evolution of Wings” was inspired by this other story called "Town of Birds" which was published in the Kenyon Review. It’s similar in some ways in that there’s this motif of kids turning into birds, but it’s also very different because the theme of that story is much more maternal.
“The Girl in the Rice Paddies” was inspired by “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. He’s an amazing writer — he won the Nobel Prize.
But I think that a lot of inspiration came from random stuff that happened. For example, I really liked K-pop when I was in 9th grade, so that came through in “Style.”
TT: Do you feel that writing in general — and your writing — is capable of enacting change?
I’ve received messages from people who said, “Your writing really helped me,” and, “It was the first time I got to see a story about a queer, Asian American girl.” I definitely grew up in a time where there was not a lot of writing about queer Asian American people, and that was really hard for me when I was trying to figure out my identity. It helps people feel sane, and I think that’s a valid way in which it enacts change.
I’m also hoping that people who might not be queer or might not be Asian American can read these stories and understand that those people can be the heroes of those stories as well. And I also hope people will have fun reading. I think it’s a pretty fun collection. There are a few dark moments, but on the whole, it’s fun.
Editor’s note: Rona Wang ’21 has written for The Tech but was not involved in creating this review except for being interviewed as the novelist. The interview has been edited and cut for clarity and length.