Writing is a Window: Oriana Tang
Oriana, you're currently a student at Yale who has received quite a few notable distinctions—U.S. Presidential Scholar, National YoungArts Finalist, Foyle Young Poet, and others! Why do you think writing is so important in this day and age?
I think writing (and art more generally) has always been important for the insight it gives us into other ways of being. To me this seems to happen on two levels. One is the macro, what I think people usually mean when they say that writing is a window into other lives—we can read a story about a person of a different race or ethnicity, or a different gender, or a different sexuality, or a different social class, or a different profession, or a different anything, and gain some insight into an experience we ourselves can’t access in our realities. The other is the micro: how writing can change the way we process the world on a sentence-by-sentence, linguistic, or transitional level. I love this quote from an interview the late poet Max Ritvo did with DIVEDAPPER: "[At] the end of the day, what a poet does is let you inhabit a different way of thinking for a brief moment of time. For a very very brief bit of time, logic tacks together in ways it never has, and you’re able to have a series of free associations that’ve never been in your brain, or hopefully in any brain, before."
Both these levels of empathy and restructuring are, to me, powerful ways of understanding the world, and ones that I think are more important than ever right now: politically (because Trump’s rise is evidence how little we know or care about people not like us), and socially and technologically (because it’s so easy to avoid other perspectives by curating what you’re exposed to on the Internet). So the situations that art and writing let us participate in, and the questions they raise in our minds, should be absolutely crucial to our daily lives.
Your stories/poems often focus on Chinese American identity and diaspora ("Lychee," "Jinan," etc.). To what extent do you think race informs your writing?
To be honest, I never intended to start writing about being Chinese American. I grew up in a town with a significant Asian American population, and I never went through a phase where I wished I were white or anything other than what I was. Although I now realize how privileged of an outlook this was to have, at the time I was actually frustrated that, because of my name, people would expect me to write about being Asian American—I just wanted to write about whatever I wanted to write about without other people’s judgments about my race or ethnicity hanging over their assessments of my work. I think the terminology for what I was unknowingly criticizing is the ghettoization of marginalized identities. This changed around freshman or sophomore year of high school. At the time, I was wrapped up in a crisis over whether or not writing should serve a sociopolitical purpose, and if so, how directly it should make political claims. One of my best friends and longtime writing buddy, Christina Qiu, hit upon race as her social purpose. She began to read about Asian American history and write beautiful pieces about being Chinese American, so I—somewhat resentfully—decided to follow suit.
Almost everything I wrote at first operated on notions that didn’t have much to do with my personal experience (like immigration narratives, running family restaurants or laundromats, and Chinatown). Which of course is not to say that these narratives aren’t real, but I wrote stories based on what I’d heard other people tell me was Asian or Chinese American rather than what I knew was Chinese American from my own life. As I wrote more, I started thinking more deeply about what my life as a Chinese American meant: not rice paddies and straw hats and feet bound in silk, but speaking two languages, using a rice cooker, taking my shoes off at the door. And I started trying to write pieces where the characters were Asian American but the story wasn’t driven by that identity: it was just another piece of who the characters were. (It was also a relief to no longer have to come up with “race-neutral” tropes—I used to have so much trouble with what I’d serve my characters for dinner, for instance (lasagna? pizza? a mystery casserole?).) I’m still trying to figure out where race fits in, and whether the way I write now does justice to it, or if I’m still bound up in a way of thinking and using language that is central around the wrong ideas.
How did you first start writing, and what is it that keeps you doing it?
In second grade my incredible teacher Mrs. Snyder gave the whole class a prompt to write a story starting with the sentence, "There was something in the dog house, but it wasn't the dog." For some reason, this sentence fired me up and drove from me a twelve-page mystery about a girl whose dog was kidnapped by a witch living in the woods. But I don't think I wrote very seriously until middle school, where I became friends with Christina and we started trading pieces. At first I kept writing because it was fun, and because I got to write all the preteen angst out of my bones (by writing stories about my friends with their names changed), and because it became part of how I saw myself. Then it became a sort of drug. I guess this quote from Dmitri Shostakovich, which my orchestra conductor sent us when we were playing one of his symphonies, sums it up: “A creative artist works on his next composition because he is not satisfied with his previous one. When he loses a critical attitude toward his own work, he ceases to be an artist.”
You've experimented in several different genres—is there one specific type of writing you prefer (poetry, fiction, CNF, etc.)? How do you think experiencing each type has affected the way you write today?
If I had to pick—unrelated to the act of writing—I’d probably say that the short story is my favorite form. I love reading short stories, listening to short stories, thinking about how short stories function, reading interviews with short story writers—it seems like the form closest to being "perfect" in my mind, whatever that means. I definitely spend most of my time trying to write short stories even though I'm not very good at them. In a sense I guess I feel that if I were ever able to write a good short story, I would be satisfied with the condition of my writing.
Every literary form necessitates a different way of considering the world. I like experimenting with different forms because it forces me to keep rethinking how I process my life. I'm not sure how much cross-pollination there is otherwise, but I always find it interesting to consider how a story would best be told, how form serves function, and vice versa. Right now I find the “auto-fiction” category really interesting—books like Édouard Louis’ The End of Eddy or short stories like Claire Vaye Watkins’ “Ghosts, Cowboys”—where the boundary between what’s autobiographical and what’s fictional blurs.
Having been a mentor in quite a few writing workshops—Adroit's mentorship, Glass Kite Anthology's Summer Studio—you've most likely experienced many different ways of writing and a variety of voices. What is it that appeals to you about mentoring young/emerging writers?
I love mentorship programs! Being a mentee in Adroit’s mentorship in 2014 improved my poetry astronomically, and I made close friends (Peter LaBerge, who was my mentor, and Maddie Kim, one of my fellow mentees) whose work I admire and opinions I trust. So I mentor in part to pay it forward, in the hopes that I can instill in my mentees the kind of confidence and love that Peter helped instill in me; in part because I love exchanging ideas about writing; and in part because I learn at least as much from my mentees’ insights and creativity as I hope they learn from me.
How do you overcome literary rejection?
The world is bursting with people who are good at writing, judgment is subjective, and sometimes you’re lucky and sometimes you’re not. Rejection doesn’t have to mean anything other than a sign that you should keep trying. And acceptance into a journal or a competition is never the end-all and be-all proof that your writing has value. For me, rejection is a reminder to keep working, keep reading, keep revising, keep thinking, a reminder to stay humble, and a reminder that I can always become better.
If you could have lunch with any Asian American writer (living or dead), who would it be, what would you eat, and why?
I’d love to meet Yiyun Li for crab cakes and cherries somewhere by the ocean. No particular reason for the food (besides the fact that I love crab cakes and cherries), but I love Li’s writing—I admire how quiet it is, how subtle the lyricism of the prose, how much work it does without seeming to work particularly hard. I especially admire (and I don’t know if this is just a crazy idea I have about her work) how the English almost carries the same rhythmic patterns as Chinese. But I’d love equally to go to a local diner with Christina sometime and have Belgian waffles and hot chocolate and talk about music and writing and college and our lives.
Can you tell us a little bit about what's next in store for you, writing-wise?
I’m working on a couple of miscellaneous pieces (fragments of a few stories, a small poem cycle)—I’d give more details but I’m too superstitious that they’ll all go away if I talk about them too much, haha. And reading a lot. The more I read, the more I realize how much more I have to read, so I’m spending the summer trying to fill in some gaps: a lot of poetry, Toni Morrison, William Faulkner, Stuart Dybek, Elena Ferrante, a little criticism.
Is there anything else you'd like to emphasize/tell us?
For beginning/young writers: there’s no rush to attain a list of publication credits or competition wins. Be serious about the mantle you’re taking on by writing, make work that you’re proud of and that you know you’ll continue to be proud of, and the rest will come.
Oriana Tang grew up in New Jersey. Her work appears in PANK, The Sierra Nevada Review, DIALOGIST, Winter Tangerine Review, Killing the Angel, and The Adroit Journal, where she is currently a prose reader. She is a student at Yale University.