Asking Many, Many Questions: An Interview with Yilin Wang

Yilin Wang, poet, writer, and editor talks #RacisminCanLit, Wuxia, and writing-life balance with Invisiblog guest editor, Shazia Hafiz Ramji.

Shazia Hafiz Ramji: What are you working on right now?

Yilin Wang: I’m currently writing a fantasy novel. It’s inspired by a Chinese fiction genre known as wuxia, which is commonly translated into “martial arts fiction” or “martial chivalry fiction”. A notable example in film would be Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but you can also think of the genre as historical fantasy set in the ancient Chinese equivalent of the Wild West, with some notable differences. My novel draws on conventions of the genre and plays with them to explore themes of heroism and chivalry. Some key elements of my story include: heists, female heroes and friendships, gray morality, lots of plot twists, and allusions to folkloric tales like the Legend of the White Snake and the Butterfly Lovers. On the side, I’m also slowly working on a collection of speculative short stories and a collection of poems about my experience living in four countries, as well as translating some fiction and poetry from Mandarin into English.

SHR: How do you develop characters?

YW: I like to start with details. For example, a quirky habit, a unique voice or way of speech, a contradiction, or a personality trait I find fascinating. Then I try to get to know my characters through journaling, free writing, and asking many, many questions. Where are they from? What’s their past like and how did it shape them? Do they fit certain archetypes or go against that? What is their relationship with other characters and the world they inhabit? I have learned a ton about character building from reading books for actors, such as The Intent to Live, Directing Actors, and Actions: The Actors’ Thesaurus, even though I don’t have any experience with acting itself. Looking at how actors immerse themselves in their roles has opened my eyes to different ways of understanding the inner life of my characters.

SHR: How do you think about the concept of time in your writing?

YW: I have written a short story about time-travel, and some of my poems explore how history and narratives evolve over time, but I have not given a lot of deliberate thought to the use of time in my own writing. I have, however, reflected on this topic repeatedly when translating from Chinese to English. Mandarin is a language without any verb tenses, which means that every time I translate, I have to examine each sentence and the story as a whole for the author’s treatment of time. Is the sentence referring to the past or present? A specific situation or a universal truth? What’s the best tense for the story based on the author’s intentions? I have to read very deeply to answer these questions. It’s fascinating to think about how concepts of time can or cannot be translated across languages.

SHR: What is your favorite writing prompt?

I’m a big fan of using writing prompts when teaching (or when I want to try something new), so it’s hard to name just one favorite. One prompt I do turn to frequently is the idea of a six-word story. This prompt is inspired by the fact that Hemingway was once challenged to write a short story in six words. He wrote “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” When I am teaching in a writing workshop or classroom setting, I’ll often ask folks to try their hand at writing a six-word story. This activity encourages writers to think about conciseness and what we share versus leave out when we write. It’s very accessible to writers across different experience levels. Writers have come up with amazing stories in only six words!

SHR: What writing and craft books do you return to?

YW: I often turn to The Anatomy of Story for thinking about holistic story construction and Story Genius for plotting; these books have been invaluable resources while I work on my novel. I have also been seeking out more books on writing fantasy and science fiction specifically, as opposed to craft books that focus on literary fiction. The book Wonderbook: The Illustrative Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction is very informative in this regard. I just finished reading Writing the Other: A Practical Approach, which addresses issues of decolonization and representation in fiction, and it’s a definitely a book I want to read again. Finally, I always keep The Art of Slow Writing close by, for inspiration and insight into the writing process.

SHR: How has your education changed the way you think about writing?

YW: I’m currently finishing my Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing and have an undergraduate degree in the same field. These programs, like most degrees in creative writing, are run on a workshop model. Workshops can be very helpful in terms of offering writers feedback and training their critical reading skills. But these spaces are frequently dominated by white voices, and there is often a refusal to acknowledge that identity and politics are inseparable from the acts of writing and critiquing. So, most of all, my education experiences have made me hyperaware of these issues. I long for a writing community of BIPOC peers and mentors. I wish that we have programs like VONA or Kundiman here in Canada, and hopefully, we will do, someday.

SHR: What stops you from writing?

YW: Racism, misogyny, and repeated microaggressions. There are other challenges like finding the time and space to write, or overcoming writer’s block, but most of all, I have been struggling with how to find the emotional and mental space to be creative while dealing with systemic injustices. Over the past year, I have faced racist remarks against Chinese poets, insensitive comments and microaggressions in writing workshops, the gaslighting of my experiences by friends and family members, multiple incidents of workplace bullying, the censorship of an interview I did about my experiences, and at one point, a legal threat for speaking out against racism and misogyny in publishing. (I won’t go into details here, but you can look up my blog or the Twitter hashtag #RacismInCanLit.) It’s been a difficult and exhausting journey. For me, so much of writing has become about persisting in the face of emotional challenges and systemic barriers.

SHR: How do you balance writing with your jobs and social media?

YW: Poorly! Haha. I have lost track of the number of jobs that I have right now. I’m a graduate teaching assistant, coordinating volunteers for a literary festival, mentoring high school students in writing, tutoring more students privately, working on translation contracts, and somehow finding time to write creatively amidst between all of that. A lot of my work immerses me within the literary community and many of my friends are also writers, which means it’s hard for me to get away from social media. I find it very draining at times and have to force myself to take breaks. I like to write longhand when working on first drafts, which also gives me a break from the computer. But that’s not feasible when it comes to revisions. 

SHR: Who are your influences?

YW: Most of my friends know how much I love Ken Liu’s work. I always bring up his short stories and translations during conversations about speculative fiction. I’m also influenced by the writing of Hiromi Goto, Ruth Ozeki, Patrick Rothfuss, Jaster Fforde, Yiyun Li, and Kim Thuỷ. My earliest exposure to reading and literature was in Chinese, and I’m currently obsessed with the work of Jin Yong (Louis Cha), Gu Long, Xi Xi, Qiong Yao, and Li Qingzhao. Finally, I want to give a special shout-out to two writers whose work I admire and who I have had the chance to learn from through workshops or manuscript consults. Mary Robinette Kowal, for her exceptional lessons on writing short fiction, and Evelyn Lau, for her beautiful poetry and words of encouragement during a difficult period of my life.

SHR: What are you reading right now?

YW: I just started reading N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season and I’m really enjoying it so far. Her voice is so amazing, and I want to read all her other novels as well. I have also been reading short stories by the Chinese science fiction writer Xia Jia (both in Mandarin and in translation), Phoebe Wang’s poetry collection Admission Requirements, and many nonfiction books for novel research. Some books that I’m excited to read or pick up soon—Lydia Kwa’s The Walking Boy, Alicia Eliott’s A Mind Spread Out on the Ground, Gwen Benaway’s Holy Wild, and Canisia Lubrin’s Voodoo Hypothesis.

Yilin Wang is a writer and translator who lives on unceded Musqueam, Tsleil-Waututh, and Squamish territories. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Clarkesworld, The Malahat Review, Grain, CV2, Room, carte blanche, The Tyee, The Toronto Star, Business Insider, and Abyss & Apex, while her translation work is forthcoming in Pathlight: New Chinese Writing. She is an assistant editor for Room Magazine and a Creative Writing MFA candidate at UBC.

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