Short story writers Te-Ping Chen and Brenda Peynado recently met when speaking at an author event about their books debuting this year, Land of Big Numbers and The Rock Eaters. Although both collections are set in different locales — Chen’s stories mostly take place in China, Peynado’s in the U.S. — they each share a palette of magic, violence, and themes of transnational identity and class differences.
Chen’s collection was published in early February (Mariner Books/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt); her stories have appeared in the New Yorker, the Atlantic, Oprah Magazine, and Granta, among others. Peynado’s collection (Penguin Books) will be released in May with stories from the Chicago Tribune’s Nelson Algren Award, the O. Henry Award, and the Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy.
The following conversation took place at the start of the new year.
Te-Ping Chen: One thing that strikes me is how hard it is to write in a compelling way about the current American political moment. The Rock Eater’s first story addresses gun violence. Can you talk a little bit about why you wanted to address that topic through fiction, and what that process was like?
Brenda Peynado: When I write political fiction, it’s less often that I want to write about something on the scale of national politics, but more out of a sense of bafflement of the particulars, something that seems so contradictory, so bizarre to me, it’s bordering on the magical or science fictional. My most political stories often use various techniques of the unreal because that’s the way I can communicate my bafflement, the ordinary magic of our contradictions. People who chant rhythmically at humanoid birds to be spared the world’s violence but are determined to do nothing about it, an autocrat that disappears people’s body parts for his own benefit, flying prodigals, all of these are my attempts to represent how utterly baffling — wondrous, rage-inducing, worth weeping over — I find the world.
When I started that first story, it was very recently after Hurricane Maria, and that became entangled with the near constant school shooting news. When Maria moved away from Florida, my mother said her prayers had been answered, without acknowledging that it had hit Puerto Rico devastatingly, even though we have a ton of family in Puerto Rico. I kept wondering if she thought more people in Florida had prayed than had in Puerto Rico. Did she think my siblings and I survived school without being shot simply because she was at home praying for us and the victims of the Parkland school shootings had said eight novenas instead of her nine? When people hear about school shootings and natural disasters, they’re always saying things like they’re sending over their thoughts and prayers. But those are just easy absolutions from true action. And yet, I have to remember that most people have a wholehearted conviction that their actions come from love, will make the world a better place, and they may never realize if they’ve made things worse for the very ones they’re trying to love. Out of that contradiction came the image of a family performing oblations to these bird-angels and the plot of a salvation march led by an armed Instagram prayer group.
Speaking of political writing, I am so thrilled I got to read Land of Big Numbers. Your stories capture a political frustration with bureaucracy, the Chinese political system, globalization, yet they do so through such specific and vivid characters and they resist easy answers. “Lulu,” the first story in the collection, is such a poignant example of this. The main character chronicles his status quo life versus his dissident twin sister’s radicalization. I kept hoping the narrator would come to an understanding about his sister, and yet it was more haunting that he didn’t despite his love for her. It’s too tempting to think that had we been any of those characters, we would have been the dissident, throwing our lives after a cause we believed was just. But I think most of us are the brother. How did you negotiate between your own position as a writer who perhaps wanted these characters to realize an essential truth, and resisting that easy impulse?
TC: Throughout Land of Big Numbers, though there’s a lot of playful use of the surreal and magical realism in the collection, I wanted the stories to feel true to life, and because of that I think the story had to end the way it did — with the sister, who’d spoken out, being punished by the state, and her apolitical brother, by contrast, getting feted as a professional video gamer, simply because of the political realities on the ground in China. I could — and did! — endow fruit with supernatural properties, and I could make a group of Beijing commuters get stuck underground in a subway tunnel for months, but I did not feel like I could change the fundamental rules of how politics work in China, even in fiction.
Perhaps this is a reflex I have as a journalist, but as a fiction writer, too, I also find myself instinctively recoiling from a feeling of judgement, or the idea that characters should ideally evolve or act in a certain way. Would it have been better for the brother to end up sympathizing with what his sister had done? And if so, better for whom? It might make a reader feel better, I suppose, but it would likely make his own life harder. He’d spent so much time learning to compartmentalize his understanding of the world — a skill he and so many others around him rely on.
“Lulu” actually makes me think of one of the stories in your collection, “Yaiza,” which traces the relationship between two girls from different sides of the tracks, the intense competition they have on the tennis courts and the way their lives fork. That story, along with stories like “The Whitest Girl,” are very much engaged in questions of race and class. Can you share a little about how you’ve tried to approach those themes in your writing?
BP: Authenticity was a real struggle for me until I graduated my MFA, just figuring out how my many hybrid identities could all exist on the same page in ways that felt honest. Growing up Latina and writing stories about girlhood and womanhood meant grappling with those hybrid identities, dealing with being white-passing in a culture steeped in colorism and classism, engaging with religious and political convictions that rubbed against solidarity in my communities. When I was growing up, I wasn’t aware of the ways all of that was playing out. So growing into authenticity as a writer meant trying to accurately capture the way these characters were steeped in all of these conflicts without always being able to see their way out of them.They’re not yet listening to what the world is trying to tell them. How often, really, do we hear what the world is trying to tell us, without catastrophe forcing it? I wanted the reader to see, through these surreal or exaggerated conceits, what the main characters often cannot.
Speaking of hybrid identities, we both went back on Fulbright grants to live in the countries that our families emigrated. I’d love to hear about how you navigated that hybrid psychology of feeling like you’re both inside and outside the culture you’re writing about.
TC: I’d grown up in Oakland, Calif. as an American of ethnic Chinese descent, in a family whose traditions were more particular to southern China, and whose forebearers had largely left the country before the Communist takeover. From the first time I arrived in Beijing as a student in 2006, and later as a Fulbright fellow, many of my early experiences in the country were about learning all the ways it was different and in many ways unrecognizable from the time my grandparents had lived there. It was dislocating, but also really spurred me as a reporter and a writer to try and understand and learn as much about the country and how it worked as I possibly could.
And eventually, working as a reporter there, the fact that I was Chinese honestly felt nearly beside the point. It made it easier at times to blend in and do the work, but for me I mostly felt occupied with trying to capture this world around me, and wanting to share it.
I was also conscious of the ways my being foreign was useful in China — as one of my Chinese colleagues once observed, it meant that I was often curious and interested in details of life that locals might take more for granted, but to an outsider seemed so vital, surprising, and significant.
What about you? You mentioned feeling like you had many hybrid identities — what were they exactly, and how were they in conflict? And what you mentioned about how your MFA helped you deal with questions of authenticity is so fascinating! Could you share more?
BP: That’s great that being an outsider gave you that distance to find things striking. I had to go both directions. I had a similar experience of being dislocated from contemporary Dominican culture because of stories from my parents that in many ways were outdated. But I also spent so many summers there, being shocked and fascinated by the difference between my summer life and my school year life, often longing for one or the other. In order to write the stories in The Rock Eaters, I had to both forget whatever “insider knowledge” I thought I had, but also normalize what felt strange to me about both my American and Dominican experiences while calling attention to what I really wanted to investigate. That’s probably where a lot of the magical realism comes in, as a way of magnifying psychology or particular issues while normalizing other things that would have otherwise been surprising.
I don’t think I could have done this as a younger writer, which goes back to what you were asking about authenticity. As a younger writer, I was sucked into other people’s sense of what kinds of things I should write about, what should have been shocking based on previous media representations — what Chimimanda Ngozie Adichie calls “the danger of a single story”. I loved Junot Diaz’s stories, and he was a mentor of mine in my undergrad. I unsuccessfully spent much of my MFA years trying to pull myself away from his experience of being Dominican American. My suburban, Floridian, Catholic school experience was just so wildly different from the lives of his stories. In trying to understand my own experience, I forced my stories to represent that confusion. I wrote long, sprawling, very unfocused stories. But I had to flounder through all of that before I was able to handle my own perspective. It wasn’t until after my MFA that I was able to piece together that my stories weren’t about being Dominican American, they were about girlhood and love and death and grief and privilege. They were about Latinidad insofar as we can’t escape ourselves and the histories that surround us, and I had to thread that line between the individual and the history. I had to understand how to contain all of that bigness in a small space without making the stories themselves small.
Your stories pack a tremendous wallop in small spaces, taking on large time scales, whole towns, whole relationships, weighty topics — basically, whole novels. Can you talk about how you handle the bigness of your stories and compression? How do you make stories feel important enough to spend time with?
TC: I sometimes think about the Tralfamadorian sense of time (from Slaughterhouse Five), and the idea that the universe is just so vast, with all events happening simultaneously or having happened, and the lack of linearity of it all. In some ways when you’re faced with such a sense of bigness, you don’t have any choice but to narrow in on one moment, or one gesture or person or scene to try and find meaning and make sense of it. That was absolutely how I felt about China, and in writing these stories — trying to identify those moments and scenes for readers that could unfold a whole world.
And I also really loved getting to play with different styles and genres in one book, almost like making a mixtape. When writing about a country as sprawling and diverse as China, it made sense to me to write a collection of shorter pieces, and also was really fun.
What about you? How did you arrive at short stories? What was the genesis for The Rock Eaters, and why short stories?
BP: I love reading short stories, the swiftness with which they wallop you with a whole life, a swift punch. I also love the way that surreality and exaggeration can work in short stories in ways that they don’t often in novels. The wilder the conceit, the harder it is to sustain, like it’s rocket fuel. Surreal novels tend to be on the shorter side too, like Laurie Foos’ Ex Utero, Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Paramo, and Jeannette Winterson’s The Passion. Even longer magical realist novels function, in some ways, like connected short stories, or have such long time scales because they’re running through so many generations of myths and stories, like One Hundred Years of Solitude or The House of the Spirits. So, because I love exaggeration, wonder, and the absurd, I often write explosions rather than slow burns, and each of the stories in The Rock Eaters started with an image so vibrant to me that only a wild ride would honor them — ghosts, angels falling from the sky, alien arrivals, virtual reality pregnancies, a tennis rivalry between two girls, the greatest recluse in Santo Domingo. Right now I’m writing a novel about a girl who can see all possible futures in the 1965 Dominican civil war and American invasion, and each of those futures allows me to write like I’m handling rocket fuel, with conceits like a housewife who can bring people back to life, the strongest man in the world, and a marine who can trade places with his shadow. But my first love will always be short stories. And especially during Covid quarantine, I have more attention span for quick bursts of reading than long hours, something to break up each day.
Your stories have so many electric pops of image that feel like rocket fuel. I will never forget the house on stilts in the middle of a landfill sending a bucket down for food in “Field Notes on a Marriage”. I want to ask you about what that image represented, a gulf that seems inexorable between even people who love each other in many of your stories. Do you feel like literature can bring people closer together—whether characters or readers—or only illuminate a gulf?
TC: It’s one of the most striking images you’ll see in China—so-called dingzihu, homes where people have refused to move, even when a developer has come in and torn up everything around them, and there’s road being poured on either side of their house and rubble everywhere but they still won’t go. They’re cinematic scenes of resistance and love and stubbornness and attachment, which is so much of what Land of Big Numbers is dealing with, those human passions taking place against a much grander backdrop of power and control and plans with a capital P.
I do think literature can change how we relate to each other, enlarging our sense of the world and identity, almost in the way that travel can, the ability to sit in a busy plaza in a city in another country and look around and be reminded, all these people, all these stories, a million lives happening at any given time, always. Or just the chance to engage with a mind that’s not yours, characters who aren’t your family or coworkers, who speak in their own tongues and have their own histories and experiences. That ability to pick up a book and get lost in its pages is something I’ve been especially grateful for of late, in a time when so many of us are feeling so relentlessly stuck in place. If we can find refuge in each other’s stories, I think we can be reminded of our commonalities, yes — but also, importantly, be struck by our differences. To me that’s part of a book’s promise, too, that it will remind us that our perspective is not the only one that exists (and what a relief that is).