"I gave myself permission to write without asking for forgiveness." (An Interview with Rona Wang)

Rona Wang’s short story collection Cranesong drops from Half Mystic Press on February 13th. Rona is a sophomore at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. For her writing, she has been named a HerCampus 22 Under 22 and nominated for the Best of the Net Anthology. She is originally from Portland, Oregon. To kick off the blog tour of Cranesong, Rona joins us on the Half Mystic blog for an interview on the creation process of the book...

HM: In the acknowledgements section of the collection, you mention that your stories have been “inherited.” While exploring heritage, what did you unearth about yourself? What have you inherited that shaped you, and this collection, into being?

RW: In writing Cranesong, I learned how to be a tad kinder to myself. See, I’ve inherited not only my family’s mythology, but the limitations that the world has imposed on me since birth. I write a lot about race, but I struggle with feeling comfortable doing so; I worry about being contrived, performative, presumptuous. But in Cranesong, I gave myself permission to write without asking for forgiveness.

Throughout the collection, there is beautifully nuanced commentary about home, belonging, and the often-inaccessible American dream.  Where does your home live? What blossoms there, and what doesn’t? Why do you think these motifs run throughout Cranesong?

Almost all of the stories in Cranesong were written in 2017. I spent that year in constant motion, uprooting myself multiple times—from my hometown of Portland, Oregon to Boston for college; to Paris for a summer internship; to New Zealand for a gap year. Life swept me along in a bright whirlwind and I didn’t have time to look back. I told myself it didn’t matter to me, except it clearly did, because here’s Cranesong, this series of iterations of questions about home, about the stories that anchor us in a world that beckons us to lose ourselves. I still don’t see anywhere as home, but I’ve also come to learn that maybe that’s okay.

In the dedication, you reference a lovely quote from Marcel Proust about reading and truth. How do you go about exploring truths throughout your writing? What truths resonate with you? What truths do you hope readers uncover and question as they read your stories?

I usually don’t understand the truth woven in a story until I’ve finished writing it. It reminds me of that Kierkegaard quote about only understanding life backwards. For example, the oldest story in the collection, “Dissonance,” was written while I was in high school. I revisited it in 2018, and it was so clear to me, the limitations of what I knew at age sixteen or seventeen, the insecurities I held that had bubbled up within my words. I’m sure I will read Cranesong in a few years and cringe, but it contains the truths I held at age eighteen and nineteen, and that is enough.

Many of the truths within this book are about the impossible debt of love and the tremendous gift of lineage. I hope they resonate with readers, but more importantly, I’d like for Cranesong to give readers the space to interrogate and celebrate their own heritages.

To build on this—many of your stories end in astonishingly brilliant ambiguity. What attracts you to these liminal spaces in endings? Where do you imagine your characters after the stories end?

I’m not certain where my characters end up. As a reader, I adore epilogues, but as a writer, I find them dishonest. Our lives brim with infinite moments in which others’ lives brush up against ours fleetingly, and I wanted to emulate that in Cranesong.

Cranesong covers a vast range of topics—from a child with a camcorder to young girls surviving in a world pitted against them to the fathomless grief of growing up. From where do you draw inspiration? How do you channel an idea into a fully realized story?

I think all my ideas bloom from endless pursuit of some unanswerable question. I write for discovery, so sometimes I wander off in a seemingly fruitless direction. But even the paths that meander off to nowhere are valuable; I might stumble upon something surprising, or I might learn more about my craft along the way. It’s a joyful journey.

Like all journeys, I’m not certain there is a finishing point, and thus it’s difficult for me to claim any story of mine as “fully realized.” A piece feels complete enough for publication when it unearths what I set out to discover. But of course, there is always more digging, more searching, more asking to do.

The language used throughout the collection is highly musical, almost as if it is a collection of stories written in lyrics. What songs remind you of the book? What would a Cranesong playlist sound like?

This is a difficult question, because I’m not actually a very musical person! I listened to a lot of K-pop and Broadway showtunes while writing Cranesong. “Yellow” by Katherine Ho (from the Crazy Rich Asians soundtrack) always evokes strong emotions—it reminds me of the unbelievable sacrifices my parents made in immigrating to America.

The collection often provides an interesting look into the psychology of the characters—a very personal snapshot into their minds and hearts. How do you go about writing people with such unwavering mimesis? Did you have any difficulties writing so many distinct personalities?

I’m not sure I believe in empathy within literature—I could never claim that any character I conjure can come close to encapsulating the complexities of some human experience. Maybe none of us can ever truly step away from ourselves, into another body, another world.

I think I’m always writing about myself in some capacity—which is uncomfortable to admit, because some of my characters are truly awful people—but it’d be dishonest to write any other way.

Are there any places that act as a catalyst for your writing? In what kinds of locations (physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually) do you need to be in order to create?

I need to inhabit curiosity. When I’m creatively drained, I find myself asking the wrong questions, which leads to prose without movement, without rhythm.

I also find that long walks through cityscapes often help. I like the lack of expectation to be anybody—a student, a daughter, a friend—and the act of giving myself permission to slip my earbuds in and be alone with myself. It gives me the space required to flourish.

In a few of the stories in Cranesong, media is inseparably tied to the plot—a K-pop star in one; YouTube in another. Does the media you consume finds it way into your stories?

Absolutely! I think this is most blatant in “How to Be Badass,” which is this story about a trio of kids who love watching this YouTuber named Nigahiga, who was incredibly popular during my time in middle school. He was the first Asian-American celebrity many of us knew. I grew up during a time of rapid innovation, and digital media irrevocably shaped my emotional landscape. It wouldn’t ring true if I excluded it from my fiction.

What media were you interacting with while writing Cranesong? What media are you interacting with now?

Julie Otsuka’s novel, The Buddha in the Attic, and Jenny Zhang’s short story collection, Sour Heart, were hugely impactful on my vision for Cranesong—both books are confident reclaimings set in historical eras where Asian women were not allowed many triumphs. These books say so much about collective trauma without generalizing. For example, Otsuka uses first-person plural perspective (“we”), and Zhang employs multiple first-person singular narrators, all Chinese-American girls.

Lately, I’ve found myself gravitating towards poetry—I just picked up Jennifer S. Cheng’s poetry collection, MOON: Letters, Maps, Poems. I love poetry’s deconstruction of language, how it doesn’t need permission to wilt and bloom.

Cranesong, as a collection, takes readers on a journey to different places, time periods, moods. What journeys are you on?

Maybe my trajectory is one of unspooling. One example: for many years, I wrote strictly white protagonists, and it wasn’t until the latter half of high school when I realized that I did so because I didn’t believe somebody who looked like me could be the center of a story. Nowadays, I’m constantly unraveling myself and my creative decisions, which can become repetitive and even exhausting, but it’s so necessary.