Nancy Au Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Nancy Au

Nancy Au

An interview with Nancy Au

DEAR FRIEND / TEACHER / COMRADE / LOVER / ARTIST: An Interview with Nancy Au and fellow author and playwright Carson Ash Beker.

CARSON BEKER: In this collection, you give voice to Baboochka Survivor of Wars, to Lai and her duck Louise, to toothless sexy mountain witch Bea, to people who travel in dreams, to parents who survived wars and their child who just wants to get away, to Sophie in her elephant costume, to powerful fisherwomen, to spiders and grandmothers and storytellers, to the very last dragon in the world, and to so many on the verge of becoming. You listen to them all and hear them, the same way that as a friend, you've listened to me. You lay out their grief and wonder and uncertainties and strengths in a way that I can say, yes, I know what that is, that sadness, that invisibility—and then you give them wings, you give them voice, you give them roars. You give them their voice back through listening and telling stories, the same way you've so often given my voice back to me... You write, "If you do not know how to swim, you trust that the deep waters will hold you." This book made me feel held that way, in the dark waters between becoming and belonging. How did you know to begin listening?


NANCY AU: I began listening at a young age because I grew up in a large family and struggled with finding my voice in times of need (and still do). And because of this, I've often felt invisible. Though this sometimes feels like loneliness, there are times I yearn for this invisibility and the listening that accompanies it like a devoted shadow, when stillness is the spark that pushes me to create art, to speak through my paints and pastels and mosaic tiles and paper collages and written word. As a writer, I listen to grow my craft. I have learned to write dialogue after overhearing strangers' stories and anecdotes while waiting in line at the grocery store or on the subway. I learned to more deeply observe my physical world, to convey through my writing the myriad of colors and textures and movements of my natural surroundings. When I think of listening, I think of all the unsayables that get translated through tastes, expressions, gestures, the silence that follows grief or confusion or heartache. As a writer, listening has given me the space and courage to think about the ghosts that hide just below the surface. I often wonder: If I did not write, who would I be? If I did not write, would I disappear? If I did not write, would I have any memories? If I did not write, would I have found you, dear friend?


CB: In this collection, animals are—like many of your characters—both invisible/silent and hypervisible/roaring. They are as important as human characters. Sometimes humans become animals, boys become bees, a duck is like a child, a girl becomes an elephant, another girl's backpack sprouts wings, a couple in an emergency ward become spiders rubbing their filaments together—which is to say that you ask us to look beyond anthropocentrism and queer that line between human and animal... You remind us that our lives are inextricably linked with the lives of non-humans. And then you go one step queerer and shatter the binary ... When you teach writing to scientists and people who have forgotten how to write, you ask them to imagine themselves with antennae, with feelers, with webs, with fur, and try navigating the world differently. I know that what you're conveying is a form of creative empathy you do so well: imagining with another's feelers, but it's also a trick that has helped me survive as a human in a terrifying, devastating world. I'm wearing my antennae right now. Do you dream in animal? Do animals dream? Is it so simple that in moments of despair, we could imagine ourselves with beetle wings and learn to fly?


NA: I wish that I could dream in animal. I think that I dream in human, and write in animal. Maybe it has to do with animals' confidence; rhinos have thicker skin than I, cheetahs are nimble and swift, owls have sharper vision. Or, maybe writing in animal means that my creatures can opine and gossip, detached from the rules and social conventions that govern humans. Or, maybe writing in animal lets my humans live their largest lives, both soft and touchable, scaled and armored... I'd like to think that we could imagine away our deepest fears and insecurities. Have you ever felt the top of your head where antennae, if we were insects, would sprout? I am terrified of growing antennae, constantly sensing and thrumming with the private pain of others. I wish for every piece that I write to offer, [as your writing does so beautifully], "the probability of teeth." I wish for my writing to reach into pain the way that your stories do, to allow my fear eat me from the inside in the promise that it will feed my imagination.


CB: Many of the characters in Spider Love Song live with invisibility/hypervisibility, the feeling of being the aberrant body in the room, the feeling of being either discarded or hyper-scrutinized for being too old, too young, too femme, too weighed down by inherited trauma, too not-white, holding too much grief or joy or anger, too bold, too opinionated, too imaginative, too curious... I want to write to you about innumerable bash-your-head-against-a-wall moments you've experienced in this cis/heteronormative, ableist, imperialist, capitalist, white-supremacist patriarchy, some of which you've told me about, most of which you haven't. But often there are no words, only silence. I am holding your book in silence, listening to the quiet between the turning pages. You have a lot to offer from silence, and from invisibility: you offer textures of silence, of wonder. You offer characters who don't speak out loud but find worlds within ... I think of your character Babooshka in "she is a battleground," who roars, "she is a person. She is sex. She is a useful poison. She is a survivor of wars ... she is a fighting drive to live, a horror heart in wooly slippers." This moment reminds me of another great queer lover, James Baldwin, who writes, "Love is battle, love is war." Love is making these souls uninvisible, as you do. Are these ghost stories? Are all queer stories in some way ghost stories?


NA: You described so beautifully how the characters' lives are impacted by forces so much larger than themselves—racism, sexism, homophobia, ageism—conflicts that stretch throughout history, across physical and geographical boundaries. I think of how the elderly and the very young are both visible and invisible, ghosts in an egocentric world that honors vitality and proficiency. In writing Spider Love Song and Other Stories, I imagined the capacity and capability my characters have to haunt their bullies, to enthrall with their unknowable, untouchable, unseeable selves. If ghosts, like Baboochka, cannot change the attitudes and actions of the teenage bullies, I like to think of the muscles of her imagination, thriving and fighting back, that there are places in her mind and body no one else can touch. I always think about the memories that we've never shared with another soul. There are some that I've not had the courage to share with anyone. I think of why and how we keep them hidden, how protecting these memories allows them to live inside our imagination in the ways we choose, in ways that, sometimes, heal. Hiding memories allows us time to ask questions of ourselves, to reinvent motivations, and to consider our responses. In your incredible short story, "Root Systems" (Fairy Tale Review's The Pink Issue), you wrote:

The wolf ate only one wing. He should have eaten two ... Longing for flight without being able to. That's the kind of thing that makes fairy tale wolves cruel ... It ends with everyone dead and the forest burned to the ground by wildfires, burned to nothing, and below nothing, we survive. Transmission, transmission, transmission.

This piece reminds me that everything that we create—our art or stories or enemies or fears or or or—both belong to us and have never belonged to us. Your writing reminds me of why we need to keep writing, why it's possible to face the world with sharp teeth, bent animal spine, and night howls that can be both song and fury.


CB: As a queer artist in conversation with another queer artist about their work, I want to ask you about love. I keep returning to the question of a "queer aesthetic": Does it exist? Has it been colonized? Can it be pointed to without reductiveness? But, in my heart of hearts, I believe in a queer aesthetic that must have something to do with love, with desire, particularly desire that exists outside the safe, normalized production unit of the cis-hetero family, with found families, with inappropriate desire. It's a love that has seen the door shut in its face and comes back fabulous. This book contains so much queer love and desire—between Mai and her wife Lai and their duck Louise; between Lincoln Chan, Pear King, and his friend Flint; between Sophie in her elephant costume and her Grandmother—both of them shielded from the world. But my favorite might be the desire of the very old, which asserts itself here as valid. It says, "This is me." "She is sex." It demands to be fed.

The queer aesthetic is also love that extends beyond the page because as queer artists, artists of color, artists who are women or AFAB or femme, trans* artists, disabled artists, etc., we are not allowed to stay on the page anyway. We are always asked about our bodies and what we had for breakfast and how it feels to be in our skins—and so, the best QT/POC/women artists I know are also the ones who extend their loving art beyond the page, like you do in your tireless work coming out, making yourself uninvisible, and helping others find their voice. In his "Hymns to the Broken," Louis Alberto Urrea quotes or misquotes (I've never been able to find out) the poet Etheridge Knight, who says that as an artist, "You've got to be telling someone I love you." Is a queer short story collection a love letter?

NA: I am not sure if I will ever have the words to describe what your witness, your generosity, your friendship, your lionheartedness has taught and meant to me over the years... .Every day I think about the night when I came out to you and to my partner, how I was so terrified of not having the right words to describe what it meant to me. I think every day about the afternoon you came out to me, how much your love and trust vibrated with every syllable that you spoke. I think about how, for a writer, expressing love often means baring one's entire soul, how it means trust, how it means a courage to love love love in a world that so often crushes this intrinsic impulse. In your breathtaking short story, "Zombie Cat Elegy or Your Five Step Guide to Lesbian Bed Death" (Foglifter, Vol 1, Issue 2), you wrote:

Secretly, he makes wishes anyway ... I'll buy you another drink if you stay and listen. If a stray cat in a disappeared place could think, she might think, maybe I can swim; maybe I can be a mer-cat; maybe I can be part of your world, but the water rushes up and around its head, fur flattening like storm sunflowers, arabesque.

While growing up, I was often taught that "speaking up," that strong emotions (love, passion, lust, anger) were something to be feared, scorned. I think often about the "disappeared place" you wrote of, about how in writing "Zombie Cat Elegy," you teach your readers to honor the dark waters as we fight for breath, how our breath matters. In writing Spider Love Song and Other Stories, I most hope and dream that the collection will speak to the voices that are so often unheard.


CB: In this final question, I want to talk about wonder. Your stories are filled with wonder: the wonder of dreams, of cooking, of being on the verge of adulthood, of the very old, and even the wonder of grief. They remind me of something you taught me once, that saved me: that everything can be written about and that every tragedy has its own wonderous perspective. You've let me cry and then said, "Yes, but what is the view like from crying on the bathroom floor? I bet you no one has seen that before." You've reminded me over and over again about what it means to be an artist. Where does art take us? In "Radiance," you write about someone who crosses into another place: "How will she come back? Full of love and moonlight? Where she went, is it full of ghosts sitting together on clouds, shoulder to shoulder, legs dangling over the velvety white edges, busy with gossip?" When your character emerges from this imaginative place, she is "red and steaming, smiling. Pure radiance." What are you working on next? What does it mean to be an artist open to wonder? What would you say to the you of last year? What was the view like from the journey of writing this book? Does a butterfly remember what it felt like to struggle in darkness, and will you promise to keep translating the things that only you can see? "What did you see? Tell me! Tell me! What did you see?"


NA: When I think of wonder, I think of ... our Oregon State University collaborative writing residency... If I could speak to the me of that time, I would try to reassure my past-self that it was okay to have a near-obsessive focus on (writing) one story (which eventually became the title story for my collection), that my single-mindedness was because this story had so many shadows that wanted/needed to be explored. As I continue to build my next collection (a book of interlinked flash fiction centering on themes of invisibilities), I hope that I will tell my future self to allow the writing process to unfold, no matter how fragmented or nonsensical it feels at the time.

I think that to be an artist in this world means that we are creating unique spaces (both tangible and intangible) for others to explore, to learn, to discover... I think being an artist means trying and failing and trying and failing and trying with our art. And this process will yield something that we might never have imagined. I never imagined when I first started writing that I'd have a collection of short stories. I never imagined my words would even be read by anyone else. I was writing for survival, to have a voice. I still write for survival and to have a voice. My dream for Spider Love Song and Other Stories is for readers to feel like they've journeyed to places they've never been before (or didn't even know they wanted to go). As a writer with bipolar disorder, as a bisexual, as a person who struggles with speaking their mind, who oftentimes feels like the world would be better off without my confusion and awkwardness and anger and depression—my dream is for my book to bring some form of healing, if even in the smallest of ways, to another individual's life. I'm not sure how to really describe what I mean when I say all this, but I will end by saying that one of my greatest dreams is for my work to help others in the ways that the work of Yiyun Li, Carson Beker, James Baldwin, Sung Yim, and so many other artists whose work I deeply admire have helped and taught me. I dream that my writing will reach those who have struggled with invisibility. I hope that my art will help others to feel less alone in their unique and courageous journeys through life.


Read the full interview full published text in Foglifter

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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