Interview with Jess Row

Jess Row, recently named one of Granta‘s Best Young American Novelists, has written one collection of stories – The Train to Lo Wu – and is working on another, tentatively titled The Answer, that deals with religious fundamentalism in the aftermath of 9/11. We talked about how his fiction builds models of karmic processes, how cities can enlarge our sense of what it means to be human, and the literary and political state of Hong Kong.

Congratulations on being named one of the Best Young American Novelists by Granta. Do you feel more pressure now to perform as a writer?

Not really. A writer’s “performance”—a word that gives me the chills—or success is always up for debate, and I don’t have, or want, a role in that debate when it comes to my own work. My obligation is to keep going back to the page, day after day after day. Of course I would love to have the kind of recognition over time that some of the writers on the 1996 list have had. But all I can control is the words right in front of me at this moment in time.

Train to Lo Wu feels very tightly arranged – both in uniformity of place and judicious selection of themes. Did you start writing into a themed collection, or discover it along the way, and what stories, if any, did you have to leave out?

I knew pretty early on that it was going to be a book set in Hong Kong and “about” Hong Kong, and then at a later stage I made a somewhat deliberate choice to incorporate a wider range of perspectives than I had thought possible at the beginning. That is to say, I did make a deliberate choice to write in the point of view of Hong Kong Chinese characters, and to try to represent the city as it appears to some who was born and grew up there. Other than that, I wrote the stories as they came to me.

I did leave out two stories, one of which has been published (it’s called “Calgary,” and it was in the journal Washington Square in 2002). This was a collaborative decision between my editor, my agent, and myself. “Calgary” was more like a sketch, and a little hackneyed, and the other, “Water Babies,” was very long and never really worked as a whole. Though it had some parts I’m still proud of.

In 2001, “The Secret of Bats” appeared in the Best American Short Stories, and The Train to Lo Wu came out in 2005. Did the writing of the stories take place entirely within that time frame, or was the accretion of the tales a more extended process?

I wrote the book between 1998 and 2001, and then edited and revised up until 2004, when the final manuscript went to the publisher.

Did you write the stories while you were in Hong Kong, or afterwards, and did you have a community of writers there to give you feedback?

Yes, I wrote several of the stories during my second year living in Hong Kong, but the bulk of the book was written during my time in graduate school. I didn’t show any of the stories to anyone in Hong Kong while I lived there; they only saw them when the book was published in 2005.

In terms of a community of writers, there is a small group of writers who have written in English about Hong Kong, but not really a community as such. There is a wonderful writer named Xu Xi, who was born in Hong Kong and now is based in Vermont, who I met quite by accident while serving on an awards panel in Baltimore. She’s published many books; her latest is called Overleaf Hong Kong. My favorite Hong Kong writer writes in Chinese; her name (not to cause confusion) is Xi Xi, and her books aren’t widely available in the West, but you can find them on Amazon.

I like that you preface the collection with the quote from Italo Calvino: “You take delight not in a city’s seven or seventy wonders, but in the answer it gives to a question of yours. Or the question it asks you, forcing you to answer . . .” What questions did you pose to Hong Kong and what were you forced to answer?

A great question, and I still don’t know how to answer it, exactly. Personally I suppose the question was just one question both to and from the city, namely, how can I live here, what place do I have here, do I really exist here? I felt entirely rejected and alienated by the city when I first moved there—in a sense, dehumanized. I started writing about Hong Kong, as much as anything, out that sense of isolation and a frustrated desire to connect. And in the end, through the process of working with all these different characters and situations, I was reaching toward a much larger and broader sense of what it means to be human, which meant sacrificing some of my older, more rigid habits of thought. A process which is still going on.

By choosing that epigraph, though, I was trying to say something about the nature of cities in general, not just Hong Kong—that a city, especially a very large global city, is such an astonishing combination of the broad and collective and the personal and local and subjective. That’s not a very original observation, but I think that we’re not nearly as aware as we can be of how many things a city can represent. And the ways in which cities can enlarge our sense of what it means to be human.

Did your writing about the city change the way that you viewed it, so that you can never see the city the way you did pre-Train to Lo Wu, or was the book just an accurate reflection of your vision of the city?

Well, my vision of the Hong Kong evolves and changes as the city evolves and changes and as I learn more about it. That was definitely happening as I wrote the book, and it’s still happening now. But The Train to Lo Wu reflects Hong Kong at a certain moment in time: the immediate aftermath of the 1997 handover of Hong Kong to China. It was a time of real political and cultural uncertainty, a moment when people in Hong Kong, Chinese and Westerners, native residents and expatriates, were rethinking what the city meant to them and where it was likely to go in the future. There was a real fear of what it meant to be part of China, and that was reflected in the refugee crisis which forms the backdrop to the story “The Train to Lo Wu.” Now, all that has changed. China’s economy has developed so radically in the last ten years that Hong Kong’s standard of living is not so different from that of any large Chinese city. The difference, of course, is that Hong Kong has a vibrant democratic political culture, and a very long and complicated colonial legacy and relationship with the West. So what Hong Kong represents will become more complicated, and perhaps more important, as China becomes a central world power. Or, as some people fear, the city may come to be viewed as a backwater, a relic of the past.

What kind of research did you do for all the Zen philosophy in your work?

I’ve been a student in the Kwan Um School of Zen, a Korean Zen lineage, since 1994. In that time I’ve done a fair amount of informal study of Buddhism, including studying classical Chinese to read Buddhist texts in the original language. But the references to Buddhism in the stories come out of my personal experience as a practitioner, including the time I spent as a member of a Buddhist community in Hong Kong, the Su Bong Zen Monastery.

You frequently have characters talk about eradicating desire in your stories – how does this intersect with the desire you need to be a writer?

That’s a question that has a very long history among Buddhist writers, going back at least as far as the Chinese poet Bai Juyi, who wrote very movingly about not being able to give up “the karma of words.” There’s a certain absolutist strain of Buddhist thinking that advocates practitioners giving up artistic pursuits in the spirit of relinquishing all attachments. But I think that’s extraordinarily naïve, given the long relationship between Buddhism and the arts throughout Asia and now in the West.

From my own perspective as a Buddhist, I think that working as a fiction writer involves building models of karmic processes and watching how they play out. In a somewhat similar way, working as a nonfiction writer, whether of journalism or personal narrative, can involve witnessing and describing these same processes in real life, in real time. Being a writer certainly does involve a certain level of commitment and passion, but it also requires detachment. You have to be able to approach your work with a certain distance in order to see it whole, just as you have to be able to step back from a given situation and appreciate the larger pattern that created it. You also have to be somewhat insulated from the emotional duress that comes along with being a writer. Meditation practice can certainly help with that.

In any case, I don’t think that it’s possible to eradicate desire. At most one can try to observe and understand one’s desires and hopefully direct them to some beneficial purpose.

In “Revolutions,” you have a Nun sacrificing herself in order to jumpstart an artist’s creative drive. Was this theme particularly poignant for you in any personal way, as an artist yourself?

Yes, absolutely, and that’s a terrific way of putting it, although I don’t think “sacrificing herself” is entirely accurate, because it’s too close to a Christian view of martyrdom, which Buddhists don’t share. I think the sunim (the nun) in that story sees her disrobing to help the artist as part of her calling and her vocation. Zen Master Seung Sahn, who was the founder of the school I practice in, always said that you have to know when the precepts, the rules, are open and when they are closed. In other words, you have to understand the letter and the spirit of the law, and how to distinguish between them. There’s a very important concept in Mahayana Buddhism called upaya, or “skillful means,” which is a way of explaining why the Buddha taught so many different things on different occasions: the idea was that he was adapting his teachings to the particular situation and orientation of the audience. Part of the bodhisattva vow that Buddhist monks and nuns adopt is to help any suffering being in any circumstances, even if it means taking some radical risk or breaking the precepts in doing so. Which isn’t to say that in practice many monastics wind up doing anything like what happens in the story. In fact, the situation those two characters find themselves in is extemely far-fetched.

I notice that your story “The World in Flames”, just up at FiveChapters.com, is set in Thailand. Are you merely continuing the expat theme in your current work, or are you going to focus on Thailand the way you’ve focused on Hong Kong?

No, not at all. In fact, “The World in Flames” is the one story in my new collection set overseas. The collection as a whole (it’s tentatively titled The Answer) is concerned with the intersections of religion and violence and fanatical beliefs of many different kinds. It’s very much a post-9/11 collection; some of the stories deal with that event explicitly, some much more obliquely, but they’re all connected to it in some way, mostly within the United States. Which is not to say that this is a book about white Americans; the characters in these stories are Sikhs, Koreans, Mexicans, African-Americans, and on and on. And that’s part of the point. In my view, September 11th, as much as anything, was a kind of violent allergic reaction against the idea of coexistence and multiplicity. What all fundamentalists share is the belief that they alone can impose order on the universe—a mystical, in some ways admirable, but extremely dangerous fantasy. So in this collection of stories I’ve been drawn to a prismatic view of the world after 9/11, somewhat like the prismatic view of Hong Kong I tried to present in The Train to Lo Wu—a view that is inherently multiple, and can never be fully be reconciled or resolved, a kind of disorder by design. Which is probably about a good a way as describing my writing process as I can think of.

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