Interview with Ai Jiang about Linghun
Ai Jiang is a fascinating young writer. She has published many many short stories, and you can find some of them at https://aijiang.ca/ and https://buy.bookfunnel.com/x5zxbciv4g. Her upcoming novella Linghun is an engrossing and very touching story, and I highly recommend pre-ordering it here: https://darkmattermagazine.shop/products/linghun.
Ai's voice is passionate and captivating, and in contrast to her bright and encouraging personality, her stories often probe dark topics with deep pathos.
She graciously agreed to answer some of my questions about Linghun and her writing journey in general. I learned a lot from her candid and vulnerable answers to my questions. Her honesty is disarming, and she does a fantastic job of describing complex emotional states (both her own and other people’s).
What books did you love as a kid, and what are some favorite stories your family told you when you were growing up?
As a kid, I read a lot of Owls of Ga’Hoole, and I’d say those were what I both remember best and loved most as a kid. From what I recall, my family never told me many stories (briefly about the moon goddess Chang’e, at least from what I remember), but I grew up watching shows about ancient Chinese legends and myths, along with more modern cartoons, but my favourites were Journey to the West, My Fair Princess, and Big-Headed Kid and Small-Headed Father.
Would you like to say anything about your inspiration for Linghun?
I won’t say too much, since I’ll be exploring this in greater length in a personal essay that will be included in Linghun, but my initial thoughts were that I wanted to explore grief, death, and mourning, and how to me they are horror, because when they begin, they consume, chew, swallow, and we often don’t know when it might end, if ever. The death of others, from what I’ve experienced and what I’ve seen from my family’s experiences, creates a strange sense of staticness, a halting of our lives as though we, too, have passed with our loved ones, even as we are still alive.
One thing that struck me about Linghun was its fierce anger at injustice. You explore inequality and the deadliness of competition, and you also explore how families are unequal with their love. Have you always felt strongly about injustice?
*Please brace yourselves for emotional rambling and an answer that derails and falls off a cliff*
I think it’s something I’ve always firmly believed, something that I’ve expressed through actions, but never explicitly stated through words. And looking back at my childhood growing up, I think I’ve always done my family an injustice, my mother and sister in particular, just as my mom and dad have thought the same way all their lives about raising my sister and I.
There is a desperate way that grief becomes a competition between the living and the dead, in the same way that siblings fight for attention, when a child must fight another for their parents’ pride—how there is always “a child from another family” who is brighter than you, more talented than you, more hardworking than you are: and in Linghun, this might be your own sibling, your dead sibling, that your parents refuse to let go.
But more in general about the injustice of competition—how “You’ve done well” ends up being an empty sticker we collect throughout our lives rather than a feeling that should bring us closer to our families. Instead, it brews resentment, drives a wedge between siblings, between friends, severs bonds with the idea that success, no matter the cost, is more important than friendship, love, and that all our self worth is reliant on this pride-driven thing. Even when we reach the top of the ladder, why does it always feel like we’re still falling?
And when parents finally become genuine with their “You’ve done well”s, and you no longer collect them as stickers, why does reaching your goal feel like you’ve finally reached and entered the prison of your trauma, of a childhood that felt more like a projection of adulthood and its failures?
To be trained all your life for ambition, what you leave behind is the ability to truly reach goals, of satisfaction, of contentment. It is a disguised injustice we do to ourselves, yet it is one that is inescapable.
Several characters in Linghun experience grief and anger, and you describe their feelings with potent detail and authenticity. When you write these scenes full of emotion, how do you enter into the feelings of your characters?
When I write the emotions of my characters, I draw on similar experiences that I myself have undergone, or for experiences that the characters are going through that I haven’t myself lived, I draw on similar emotions though it might be from a very different event. But for Mrs., I wrote her scenes while being utterly immersed in her character, while drawing on the emotions of various women around me, including myself—on their grievances about their marriages, about their lives, about themselves. These experiences might not mirror Mrs.’s, but the raw emotions are ones that are shared.
What are some challenges and some advantages of being part of two worlds and having access to two languages (as a first-generation immigrant)?
I think being able to speak the language, yet not being able to write or read Chinese characters (only pinyin to some degree), is frustrating. English has become my native tongue, even though Mandarin is my first language. Yet, even though I am fluent in English now, I never feel truly fluent, if that makes sense. I often feel a strange tug between the two cultures—of warring identities within me where the Canadian is winning solely because I’ve been so immersed in the culture for so many years, but there is the immense strength of guilt that pulls me back towards tradition and my homeland. But because of my upbringing, my beliefs and values have been largely influenced by my Fujianese culture during my childhood, but more and more, they’re being challenged with each passing year. There is more now that I disagree with, in terms of my Fujianese upbringing and my parents’/relatives’ values, that I used to swallow without batting an eye. But there is also more that I understand about why they are insistent about these values, about upholding them, about their inability to let go.
What would you say to your younger self to encourage her path as a writer?
Knowing my younger self, I wouldn’t encourage her path as a writer. I was really rebellious and would often do the opposite of what I was told. If I had told my younger self to be a writer, she would’ve fought against it. I don’t think I would’ve wanted my path as a writer to be any other way, to be honest, because everything I’ve written thus far has been influenced by everything I’ve gone through and everyone I’ve met. To change the past would also mean changing this present.
What are some themes you want to explore in your writing in the future?
As the saying goes, “I know that I know nothing”, and I think that’s completely true in my case. There are still a lot of things I don’t understand about the world, and about myself, and I’m going to have to do a lot of digging to form my own conclusions about our society, about humans, and the world. So as I explore these areas further, I think a lot of my writing will be skewed in the direction of these topics. Though for my current work-in-progress, I’m exploring the idea of change and the fear of it, and about identity and balance—or more specifically, humans’ tendency towards chaos.
Many thanks to Ai!