Q&A with Pam Zhang, author of “Are They Vampires, or Are They Just Chinese?”
C Pam Zhang's work was published in The Offing on February 6, 2017. Q&A conducted by , Assistant Fiction Editor
Allison Noelle Conner: This story is like a gothic riddle. What attracts you to the weird, the creepy, the unexplained?
C Pam Zhang: What’s creepy is my being haunted for years by the pressure to write a Sad Immigrant Story. Having lived part of that story, I can tell you that oppression and bigotry etc etc get pretty fucking boring if you face them in their daily, unrelenting, deadening, systemic forms. I’ve fought to exorcise Sad Serious Realism about Big Issues from my own work. Books started out as escapism for me, and I want my writing to maintain some of that.
“Are They Vampires...” is an experiment in writing a Sad Immigrant Story at a slant. Speculative fiction is such a gift to minority writers. It’s capable of performing a kind of magician’s trick. A shiny new world, an oddity, a monster—these are all classic acts of misdirection. Behind the scenes may be the true and secret work of weaving class, or race, or sexual trauma, into the narrative. The automatic defenses and skepticisms that a reader might bring to an overtly political, realist piece are lowered. So by the time a reader realizes a monster might be a Big Issue in disguise—too late!
ANC: The narrator brings to mind a chorus. Your use of "we" unnerves, building tension between a sense of infectious belonging and a sense of being haunted. What does the "we" allow you to express? What are some challenges in using this technique?
CPZ: You’ve pretty much nailed it down. The challenge is that while the “we” can convey universality, go too far and there’s a risk of vagueness. I can’t sustain a “we” for too long; writers who manage lengthy pieces in chorus have my undying admiration.
Plus, “we” is creepy because there’s nothing more terrifying than being unwittingly subsumed into a group.
ANC: "Are They Vampires,..." seems like a companion piece to "Gone Collecting". Do you see these two stories as conversing with one another?
CPZ: Thanks for reading “Gone Collecting”! I didn’t consciously write them as companion pieces. But yes, both are interested in how women in traditionally unempowered roles can subvert those roles through acts of violence. I create a moment of triumph that’s necessarily fantastical, because I have a hard time imagining that triumph in a realist world.
ANC: Are there any books/stories/poems that have a haunting effect on you or your writing practice?
CPZ: I wrote “Are They Vampires…” after my bud Mai Nardone lent me Marilyn Chin’s Revenge of the Mooncake Vixen. It’s irreverent, crude, weird prose-poetry stuff that eviscerates and then wears the skin of traditional Chinese fables.
Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber is always a master class in language and feminist fairy tale retellings. I’ve recently read a lot of fiction about violent girls (yay), perhaps in response to the political situation (less yay). A recent favorite: “The Weak Spot” by Sophie Mackintosh.
I took a class on “Third World” literature where I read Frantz Fanon along with a group of wide-eyed undergrads. (I highly recommend taking classes with undergrads, by the way—it’s great fun to see minds in the process of expanding/exploding.) Fanon’s concept of oppression being physically stored in the body, of the oppressed body needing outlet as a coil needs release—that idea haunts me.
ANC: You mentioned you're raising a novel. How's that process been going?
CPZ: Lol “process.” I’m close to a draft that’s ready to be sent into the world, but apparently I can’t revise without writing the entire novel over, beginning to end. I made it tougher on myself by making the novel voice-y, but picking a made-up voice that’s a mix of Wild West slang and pidgin Mandarin in the mouths of immigrant orphans in a speculative Gold Rush California. DEEP BREATH. That said, I haven’t run out of ideas yet, and the first chapter is forthcoming as a short story in The Missouri Review! I give my “process” a solid C+, B-.
ANC: Do you have any writing rituals? Things you like to do in order to create peacefully?
CPZ: I write well in spaces where I can stare at pretty things in the middle distance. Mostly, I’ve learned to relax my internalized Asian Parent. I tend to create in intense spurts (the first draft of this novel took 21 days), followed by weeks or months of not much.
C Pam Zhang's fiction is in or coming to The Offing , Black Warrior Review, The Missouri Review, Sonora Review, Tin House Open Bar, and elsewhere. A Tin House Scholar, she was recently an honorable mention in the Zoetrope Short Fiction Contest and a runner-up in The Missouri Review Editors' Prize. She's not quite sure where home is, but lives online @cpamzhang.