Books·How I Wrote It

Jack Wang's short story collection We Two Alone is a layered look at love and the Chinese immigrant experience

The Canadian author discusses the inspiration behind We Two Alone, which is on the Canada Reads 2022 longlist. The five panellists and the five books they choose to champion will be revealed on Jan. 26. 

We Two Alone is on the Canada Reads 2022 longlist

We Two Alone is a book by Jack Wang. (Mike Grippi, House of Anansi Press)

Jack Wang is a N.Y.-based writer and professor originally from Vancouver. He teaches in the Department of Writing at Ithaca College and his short stories have been published in Joyland Magazine, The Humber Literary Review and The New Quarterly.

Wang's debut short story collection, We Two Alone, is on the Canada Reads 2022 longlist. The panellists and the books they choose to champion will be revealed on Jan. 26, 2022. The debates will take place March 28-31, 2022.

Set over a century and spanning five continents, We Two Alone traces the evolution of the Chinese immigrant experience. Following various people, families and professionals across the globe, Wang creates a tapestry of experiences that encompass the trials and tribulations of a diaspora trying to find its place in the world. 

We Two Alone won the 2021 Danuta Gleed Literary Award for best first short story collection.

Wang spoke with CBC Books about how he approaches writing.

From inspiration to strategy

"When I first started writing stories, I didn't have a grand vision of what the collection would be. I was just following my interest in individual stories. The very first story I wrote, Allhallows, was set in Florida in the early aughts. And then the next story I wrote is the first story in the collection, The Valkyries, which is set in Vancouver in the 1920s. Because both of those stories involve hockey, that's when I had the first inkling that I could write across the century and connect these two stories somehow.

"The next story I wrote was The Night of Broken Glass, which appeared in the middle of the collection and it's set in Vienna in 1938, around the time of Kristallnacht. I think that's when I really began to see how this could be a global collection about the many places that the Chinese diaspora has settled. 

"The further I wrote into the collection, the more strategic I became, the more deliberate I became in terms of covering different times and places. Probably the best example is the last story written for the collection, Everything in Between, which is set in South Africa. That was actually a story that my editor encouraged me to write after the collection had already sold. She read the collection and there was a big gap in time between The Night of Broken Glass, set in the late 30s, and Belsize Park, which is set in England in the 80s. So she was looking at a pretty big gap in the middle of the 20th century and encouraged me to add a story that would fill that gap in time. 

The further I wrote into the collection, the more strategic I became, the more deliberate I became in terms of covering different times and places.

"At that point, I was like, 'Well, if I'm going to have a story, why not continue to expand the portrait of the Chinese diaspora to go somewhere that many readers have not gone before when they think about the Chinese diaspora.' The Chinese have a very long history in South Africa, as they do elsewhere. But at least in North America, we don't hear a lot of those narratives. So that's an example of how, by the end, it was very strategic and very deliberate."

A writer's duty

"On the one hand, I feel that a fiction writer's first duty is to hold attention; I'm always concentrating on the story itself and on how I can make it as compelling as possible, narratively. I'm not necessarily thinking, first and foremost, about saying things or meaning things. But of course, you do consider your audience — and there is that complicated question of who you're writing for. The question of whether or not you are catering to the white gaze, which is part and parcel of industry expectations or the kinds of books that get published. It's a complicated question.

As a person of Chinese descent growing up in Canada, I wasn't exposed to a lot of Chinese history or Chinese North American history in school.

"As a person of Chinese descent growing up in Canada, I wasn't exposed to a lot of Chinese history or Chinese North American history in school. What the book reflects is my own process of learning discovery. I imagine, on the one hand, a lot of this is learning and discovery for people who are not of Chinese descent, but might also be even for those of Chinese descent.

"For example, my immigrant parents may not have had time to dig into Chinese Canadian history because they were busy making ends meet and surviving in a new country. Or a new immigrant who may not have immersed himself in Chinese North American history."

The diaspora and beyond

"This is a collection of short stories and a novella about the Chinese diaspora over the past century. It's set on five continents and it's really about the way Chinese people have migrated to the different parts of the world and their encounters, especially with the West. 

I wanted to write stories that broke out of some familiar patterns of immigrant narratives.

"One of the reasons it's called We Two Alone is because love is the central axis of every story. And it is about human relationships and desire. It's about mortality and it's frequently also about failure. And trying to write against certain tropes, including the model minority – the idea that Asians are always successful.

"I am writing about Asians in different walks of life that sometimes don't penetrate the public imagination. Chinese as athletes, as artists, as diplomats, in walks of life that may be a little unexpected to some. My goal is to hold attention: I want people to feel moved by these stories and to see that these are characters who, yes, happen to be Chinese, but they're living, they're loving and they're trying to be human like anybody else.

"I was always cognizant of the fact that I didn't want to fall into certain tropes. I wanted to write stories that broke out of some familiar patterns of immigrant narratives."

Hard won success

"I'm sort of the poster child for the late bloomer. And even though I've been teaching for a long time and writing for a long time, this is my debut; whatever success I've enjoyed, it has been very recent. I'm going to turn 50 in a couple of months. And so, it took a long time for my skills to rise and for my own perfectionism to come down and meet somewhere in the middle, where I could write fiction that I was happy with, that I could be proud of and wanted to put out in the world. I think that for me, first and foremost, I wanted to please myself. I believed that if I could please myself, I stood a good chance of pleasing others. 

I'm sort of the poster child for the late bloomer.

"Despite the degrees and despite being a professor, I had to go through those thousands of reps to become a better writer. And so for me, this collection really represents decades of a lot of hard work. But I'm happiest when people tell me they really enjoyed the book.

"I think as a writer, to know that people are out there in the privacy of their own mind, engaging with my imagination, that's the best thing."

Jack Wang's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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