by Maddie King
Jennifer Tseng is a published poet and the author of four books, the most recent of which is a collection of twenty-four, fable-like short fictions.
The Passion of Woo & Isolde is a book of small moments and secret, mystifying passions. The second section focuses entirely on the marriage of Woo, a Chinese immigrant, to his American wife, Isolde. Tseng gives every piece in this section its own breath, its own beat, its own preoccupation, to the point where her titular characters appear not to have lived or shared one life, but many. Like the persimmon—blooming as a tree in one story, swishing as a ponytail in the next—Woo and Isolde are as though reincarnated in these stories that serve as chapters in their complex relationship.
For her excellence in writing, Jennifer has been the recipient of several awards, including the 2005 Asian American Writers’ Workshop’s National Poetry Manuscript Competition, the 2006 PEN American Center Open Book Award, and the Marick Press Poetry Prize.
She has taught creative writing at Hampshire college, and Chinese American Literature at UCLA, where she earned an MA in Asian American studies. She also works as an instructor at the Fine Arts Work Center’s online writing program, 24PearlStreet, teaches fiction at MassArt, and is currently Visiting Core Faculty at OSU-Cascades’ Low Residency MFA Program.
Maddie King: You started publishing your work as a poet, in 2005, then wrote a novel, Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness (2015), and most recently you are working in hybrid forms and published The Passion of Woo and Isolde with Rose Metal Press, who specializes in hybrid genres. Do you identify with the “hybrid author” label? If so, what does that mean to you?
Jennifer Tseng: Classic hybrid author answer: Yes and no. My 12-year-old daughter Xing often says to me, alternately teasing and exasperated, “Why can’t you ever just give a simple answer to a yes or no question? Everything’s always so complicated with you!”
Being the hybrid of two wildly different human beings is complicated! And when I say “different,” I’m referring to the complex differences that reside between any two human beings. Perhaps because the world we live in is quick to point out my parents’ outward differences, I feel tasked with investigating and understanding those differences. But if you look closely enough at any two human beings, whether they’re two black people or two Chinese people or a black person and a Chinese person, you will find mystery and complexity and difference in their relationship. Growing up as the child of parents whose native languages and cultures were different gave me a heightened sense of the existence of the many different ways there are to live and think in this world, an acute awareness that my way is not the only way or the preferred way or even the understood way of doing or thinking or writing about something. Being a “mixed” kid also instilled in me an aversion to choosing one side or the other, to being half of something. I make an effort to leave room for both, to be both.
So I identify with the person who, because she’s been raised in two or more languages, in two or more cultures, recognizes that there are many ways of doing any given thing, whether that’s writing a book or expressing emotion or being in relationship.
That said, there’s nothing special about being a “hybrid author” that I identify with. Sometimes I write poetry. Sometimes I write fiction. Sometimes I write something in between. I don’t get too bogged down by or interested in the labels.
MK: Topics of mixed heritage or ethnicity sometimes remind me of this verse by Langston Hughes: “My old man died in a fine big house/ My ma died in a shack/ I wonder where I’m going to die, being neither white nor black?” It popped into my head when I read “Country House,” the story of the man who “brought his country into the house and sat down” told by the nameless “we”—his children. These children are Isolde, and they are Woo; they are both and neither—my heart breaks for them. How has your dual cultural background specifically—being of Chinese and German-American descent—colored your stories? Is it at all connected to hybrid writing?
JT: One of the problems with focusing intensely on the sort of difference that is readily seen, e.g. an overt difference between phenotypes, two different languages etc. is that in this country, it’s typically the dark person who’s made into the pole of difference and the white person who serves as the pole of normalcy. In my family, our father’s habits and ways of being were considered strange, different, foreign while our mother’s habits and ways of being were simply who she was. His Chineseness defined him, it was the explanation for who he was while her whiteness was like the air; we all breathed it and it was invisible. She was granted a subjectivity that he was not.
It wasn’t until my father was dead and I had the opportunity to live, as an adult, with my mother, that I first noticed how very similar my parents were. There were so many things they shared — a passion for justice, equality, cleanliness, honesty; an obsession with longevity, eternal life; an appreciation for beauty and sacrifice. None of these similarities were visible to strangers. My parents’ similarities were only apparent to those (very few) who knew them intimately, and even through the eyes of those few (as in the case of their own children), these similarities were often blotted out by mainstream narratives of difference.
Part of my project as a writer is to particularize characters like my parents, to study their similarities as much as their differences, to understand what the culture emphasizes about them and why. Everything I write is colored by the desire to see beyond appearances, by my awareness of multiple viewpoints, multiple margins and centers operating at once. And yes, I think it is all connected to hybrid writing, though often these connections are subconscious.
MK: Many of the stories in The Passion of Woo and Isolde read almost like fables—some, I suspect are even inspired by existing lore. I was reminded of “Androcles and the Lion” while reading “The Kitten, the Lion and the Mouse.” The relationship between Woo and Isolde has the ancient, melancholic quality of Tristan and Iseult, with a modern bent. But also, many of your characters and the situations they find themselves in feel incredibly grounded. I like this pastiche of realism, magical realism, and many other subgenres on the fictional spectrum that can be found here. What are major sources of inspiration for you? What kind of fiction do you find yourself gravitating towards?
JT: Thank you for reading so carefully. Libraries, ferries, trains, apartment buildings, strangers, art, music, travel, eavesdropping, memory, and the work of other writers are all major sources of inspiration for me. I read a lot of dead people, a lot of very young people, and writers of all ages in translation. Magda Szabó, Marie NDiaye, Daša Drndić, Ling Ma, Koyé Oyedeji, Mercè Rodoreda, Javier Marías, Yōko Ozawa, to name a few.
Predictably, I want more than one thing from the books/stories that I read. I gravitate toward fiction that does and/or is more than one thing. For instance, I love Ling Ma’s debut novel, Severance, because it’s literary fiction, dystopian fiction, immigrant fiction, social critique, and a story about grief, all in one book. Then again, there are books like Paul Yoon’s The Mountain that do one very profound thing in a such a deep and beautiful way. This is rare though, difficult to accomplish, to will into existence a book like that.
MK: I read that you had twenty-four hours to assemble the Passion of Woo and Isolde, but that the individual stories came in their own time. I am curious to hear how the process of writing them compared to that of your previous work. How much time do you spend with any given story before it feels complete? Does it ever?
JT: The stories collected there are a mixture of old and new work, so it’s hard to compare. I’m not sure if there’s much of a distinction to be made there. My Woo and Isolde stories never feel complete. I write them to keep my father alive. If I were to finish them, he would die all over again and I’m not ready for that. This way, he keeps me company, he stays alive. Other stories are easier to finish. When I write non-father stories, I can feel complete. The feeling of completion can take days, weeks, months, years to achieve; it depends on the story.
MK: I’m so touched to hear both about your father and that writing is, for you, a way to mourn and honor him. Would you mind telling us a little bit more about your process of initial drafting and revision for these Woo and Isolde stories? Did you ever contemplate non-fiction to tell your parents’ story, or was fiction, specifically short fiction, an obvious choice?
JT: Whether I’m writing a poem or a story or a novel, I write little bits and stitch them together slowly. There are always bits left over, things that don’t fit anywhere. Some of the Woo and Isolde stories—“The Word Oh” and “New Wife” in particular—were bits like this that I wrote for my never-ending novel-in-progress, Woo, bits that resisted being stitched to the others and seemed to want to exist by themselves. “The Passion of Isolde” and “Zealots” were different; they were assignments I gave myself. I wanted very much to write stories that were both inspired by my mother and stories my mother would like to read.
In large part because my father never talked about his past and I know very few facts about him, fiction (&/or poetry) was the obvious choice. More recently, I’ve written nonfiction about the experience of being my father’s pen pal for thirty years, a little bit about his marriage to our mother and his dying. Perhaps as I move further away from his death date, I’ll write more.
MK: The way that a writer’s life and a writer’s writing inform each other has always been fascinating to me. That delicate relationship between experience and craft requires a degree of equilibrium that isn’t always easy to attain. Have there been moments in your life that have tested that relationship for you? If so, how have you navigated them?
JT: Absolutely. Birth, death, motherhood, moving—any kind of radical change disrupts the equilibrium that writing requires. But the most agonizing disruptions, if we can survive them, are what we write about it; they are our life’s work, our material. I have navigated such moments awkwardly, trusting my instinct to know when to push myself to work harder (even in the smallest bursts) and when to surrender, to let the writing go until the storm passes.
MK: In between storms, do you have any writing habits or routines (time of day, time of year, place etc…)?
JT: I’ve always been a morning person and when Xing was born, I would get up early but then she would get up early so then I would get up earlier but then she would get up earlier and so on. It went on like this until getting up at 4 or 4:30am became weirdly normal to me. I like to write in bed and/or near a window, preferably with my cat, in my lap or sitting next to me. He’s next to me now as I write this.
MK: As I was reading, I began to feel a strange, yet familiar sensation emanating from your characters. It’s true that passion is a predominant feature in the cast you’ve assembled, but nevertheless, that pesky sensation I felt was doubt—doubt in the midst of zeal. In “The Word Oh,” the gulf between two lovers is manifested beautifully as the slim gap between two letters: “Was it an expression of pleasure or pain? An H or a W?” (p.16). The question dangles primarily in Woo’s mind, but in Isolde’s too. That is what I loved most about that story, and others: the sense that one can find oneself as unreadable as the world around them. I wonder if I am correct in this assessment. Of the many threads tying these pieces together, is doubt, in your mind, a significant one?
JT: Thank you for these beautiful questions! I love your phrase, “doubt in the midst of zeal,” though I can’t claim to have written about that consciously (and am thrilled to perhaps have written about it unconsciously). Consciously, I write about (and this may seem very similar) the lack of certainty I associate with a lack of a sense of entitlement and self-assurance, both of which our culture affords some people more than others. The word “doubt,” though similar, also connotes, to my mind, “faith and doubt” and so evokes a different struggle. I write with an awareness of difference and of the possibility for misunderstanding, even between two extremely well-intentioned people; I write with an interest in the ways in which uncertainty, a sense of entitlement, and self-assurance are often situational and dynamic, especially within the context of interracial and/or intercultural relationships.
As for passion, I mean it also in the Christian sense of the word, as in suffering, enduring— both “endure” as in to withstand and “endure” as in to last. Woo and Isolde’s passion is at once ecstasy and agony. Paradoxically, the more they desire union, the more tortuous the process of merging becomes because it demands that they step out of their own comfort zones and into, or at least toward, the other’s. Their passion disorients and destabilizes even as it brings pleasure.
Maddie King graduated from Skidmore College in 2018 with a degree in English and a focus in Creative Writing and Film.
Author and book cover Images via Jennifer Tseng