Jack Wang received an M.F.A. from the University of Arizona and a Ph.D. in English/creative writing from Florida State University. In 2014–15, he held the David T. K. Wong Creative Writing Fellowship at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England. Stories in his debut collection, We Two Alone,have been shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize and longlisted for the Journey Prize. Originally from Vancouver, he teaches writing at Ithaca College in Ithaca, New York.
A masterful collection of stories that dramatizes the Chinese diaspora across the globe over the past hundred years, We Two Alone is Jack Wang’s astonishing debut work of fiction. Set on five continents and spanning nearly a century, We Two Alone traces the long arc and evolution of the Chinese immigrant experience. From the vulnerable and disenfranchised to the educated and elite, the characters in this extraordinary collection embody the diversity of the diaspora at key moments in history and in contemporary times. Jack Wang has crafted deeply affecting stories that not only subvert expectations but contend with mortality and delicately draw out the intimacies and failings of love.
Interviewed by Jenny Hyslop
Jenny Hyslop (JH): Can you tell me a bit about your research? Reading this book made me realize how little I knew (and, I suspect, how little most westerners know) about China in world history, particularly in wars. Were you surprised by anything you learned? Did you travel anywhere?
Jack Wang (JW): I did a lot of research for this collection. As someone who grew up in Canada, I didn’t know a great deal about China in world history either, so I had to find out the things I needed to know. For instance, my maternal grandmother lived through the Second Sino-Japanese War. Some of what she told me went into “The Nature of Things” (which I’ll be reading from for the VFA prose podcast), but I had to read a number of books on the war to authenticate my story.
Things that surprise me often lead to stories. For example, in 2010, I went to Shanghai for the World Exposition. At the Israeli pavilion, I saw a plaque dedicated to a man named Feng-Shan Ho, the consul general of China in Vienna who had written exit visas for Jewish Austrians around the time of Kristallnacht. This surprising bit of history led to a story called “The Night of Broken Glass.”
JH: What came first in the stories, characters or locations?
JW: Sometimes setting comes first, but milieu alone is never enough. One of my stories is set in South Africa, and it was inspired in part by a fishing pier that the Chinese of Port Elizabeth were allowed to use during the era of apartheid. Whites used one end, Blacks the other, and Chinese the middle, which seemed a perfect metaphor for the liminal space that Asians often occupy in a racialized society. But until I had specific characters through which to dramatize life in South Africa, there was as yet no story.
JH: Your book features two different characters who play hockey. Can you speak to the importance of hockey (and/or other sports) to immigrants or descendants of immigrants, particularly in terms of acceptance?
JW: first story in my collection, “The Valkyries,” is about a Chinese laundry boy who aspires to play organized hockey in Vancouver in 1921. Hockey is very much part of the mythos of Canada, and the lengths to which the character goes to play is a measure of his desire to belong. I actually have a photograph of a hockey team from Chase, B.C. in 1913—the team logo is a maple leaf with a “C” in the middle—and one of the players appears Chinese. It’s interesting to think that before just about anyone who cares about hockey today was even alive, the sport might have lived deep in the heart of someone Chinese. It upends our notions of priority and complicates our sense of what it means to be Chinese.
JH: Almost all of your stories in We Two Alone feature characters who have a layered otherness, that in addition to being Chinese or of Chinese descent in a predominately white country, they also are outsiders because of class, career, gender, etc. Why was it significant for you to create such characters?
JW: The Chinese diaspora is vast and includes rich and poor, male and female, successful and unsuccessful, and everything in between. That “layered otherness,” then, is an attempt to dramatize some of the myriad ways of being “Chinese.” It’s a reminder that no one is only ever Chinese and nothing else.
JH: There is an excellent conversation in “We Two Alone” (the novella), wherein two characters debate the best way for Asian-American actors to ‘claim full-fledged humanity’. What similarities and differences do you see between Asian-American writers and Asian-American actors in their struggle to be included in the human experience?
JW: Asian North American writers and actors have generally faced what American writer Viet Thanh Nguyen calls “narrative scarcity,” and that’s part of our impetus to create. These days, my daughters see themselves in stories more often than I did at their age, so things are better, but we haven’t yet reached what Nguyen calls “narrative plentitude.” When there aren’t enough stories, there’s pressure on those that exist to represent whole swaths of people. That remains true for both writers and actors.
JH: The reader sees the title -of both the novella and of the collection- in the King Lear lines that dissolve into their bare essence in the final pages of the book. Can you explain how you came to land on that title, as well as the significance of the disappearing words?
JW: As you say, We Two Alone comes from Lear: “We two alone will sing like birds i’ th’ cage.” All of the stories take love—a relationship, a marriage, a broken marriage—as a central concern, so We Two Alone seemed fitting for the whole collection.
The last lines of the novella suggest an answer to the question of whether or not the protagonist is losing his memory, like his mother before him. But the last lines also suggest what’s in store for all of us: one day, the contents of our minds will disappear. That fate is part of our shared humanity.
JH: Who do you hope will read We Two Alone?
JW: My first duty as a writer is to hold attention. I don’t write to “be creative” or “express myself” or “say something”—all of which happens as a matter of course—but to hold the attention of the reader and to make the reader feel something. We Two Alone is for anyone who likes their attention held and their feelings stirred.