BY JESSIE LAU
“Dear Chrysanthemums” is a debut novel composed of several interconnected stories by writer, poet, translator and musician Fiona Sze-Lorrain. It explores the lives of Chinese and Asian women grappling with trauma, love, identity, and exile. The characters—musicians, dancers, protesters, cooks, and more—are all connected with one another in a collection of stories set in Shanghai, Beijing, Singapore, Paris and New York.
In this conversation with Jessie Lau, NüVoices board member and editor of NüStories, Fiona shares her thoughts on writing, creativity and the evocative themes explored throughout the novel, which has been longlisted for the 2024 Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction. This interview, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, was conducted over Zoom and email.
JESSIE: I loved all the stories in your novel. Many were very sad, but they also made me feel very wistful and nostalgic. In particular, your focus on characters who traverse gender and social boundaries really resonated with me. Why did you choose to focus on these themes and female characters?
FIONA: I see my women characters each as an individual human first and foremost. The “identity politics” comes later. It isn’t just their identity as a gender minority that’s given voice to their storytelling. They find themselves in situations that shine a spotlight on “the story under the story.”
In most Asian cultures, gender is viewed a given—an assumption with expectations fixed by others. I don’t think any of these women were ignorant of the social norms. Some defied them, others wrestled with their conscience. But they each strive to reach out to the other. Their secrets become a source of shame. Some descend into violence, others use it to dominate others. Even those who do not believe in power end up using it as a weapon to role-play and perform for others.
JESSIE: What’s your creative process like?
FIONA: Most of the time I have no idea, which is why I do what I do. If you know this is how something is to be done, there’s no mystery. The beginning is often out of nothingness in a state of restlessness. Lots of uncertainty. But for something more contained, say a story or poem, I tend to follow one specific image, timeline or action. Language can also exist in the form of music. Technique is one thing, but the source of creativity is really life itself. The hunger for it. Any form of artmaking needs to reflect the complexity of life.
JESSIE: Through these stories, you can really perceive how Chinese identities shift and transform in various cultural contexts. For instance, in the story “Cooking for Madame Chiang,” the character ends up moving from Shanghai to Taiwan and then Singapore. In a later story, we also learn that her daughter Willow travels to New York and then Paris. Can you talk about why you chose to showcase these transnational identities?
FIONA: I find the diversity of transnational experiences lacking in most fiction I read. I don’t see this (transnational Chinese identities) portrayed often. Exile yes, the scripting of changes, but not in more than one nonlinear timeline moving through cities. And I wasn’t interested in just writing about geographical displacement. I needed something else more composite.
Boundaries are visible and invisible. This novel believes in women characters who live with and around boundaries while staying authentic. Such that even when they move from one country to another they carry one inside themselves everywhere they go. And in shifting boundaries, they have found three ways to handle their “Chineseness”: ignore it, accept it, or confront it.
JESSIE: How did the structure of the novel come about? (The novel is composed of several interconnected stories, each taking place in a year ending with the number six, which signifies a “smooth life” in Chinese divination)
FIONA: I did not know the structure when I started. The first piece that went into the book came to me more than 12-15 years ago. The last chapter—one of the last pieces I finished—was done when I decided that it could be “abandoned.” This was during the pandemic, after the work had evolved through different forms, met different monsters. What I want to say is there comes a moment when everything tumbles into its own place and finds its missing piece. For that magic to happen, I’m still learning to accept different chaos in the creative act.
The concept of the years in this novel became clearer to me when I had to find a way to weave through different timelines. I decided to look for a string. Like being tasked with a harp and stringing it note by note. I liked the idea of lines, even lines that behaved more as waves. But I found it boring to move the plot from one year to another chronologically. Slowly the idea of years ending in the number six came to me. Every woman character in the book does not have a smooth life—in fact the contrary. It’s an attempt to question the construct of destiny and time and fate, and how one comes in the way of the other.
I don’t think all these women characters want to triumph over human will. Most of them are just looking for ordinary triumphs: moments of joy and freedom from their own quotidian struggles. They’re imperfect heroines, flawed women, but they have a lot to offer life. They’re just not equipped for what life has in store for them. I structure the novel in a way that makes life a circle: an ending goes back to the beginning. It’s a reunion.
JESSIE: Food and our relationship to it is another crucial theme in your novel. I loved how “Cooking for Madame Chiang” revolves in part around Shanghai sela, a type of potato salad with fusion influences. What drew you to highlighting this?
FIONA: Shanghainese food–I never realized how much I loved it until I didn’t have it. Food is a memory trigger, and sela here operates as a trigger for the historical backstory. Food appears quite often in my poems, too. Mostly we eat to look for the childhood we once had, or we eat to find the children we once were—the child in us. We’re not often eating something completely new for the first time. We seem to be eating to always locate what we had eaten before, just to recreate that experience. In this story, a simple dish like sela becomes rare in daily life. It creates nostalgia and its contradictions.
Food is a conduit for these characters to mythologize themselves. Chang’e, for instance, makes Madame Chiang a sela while imagining herself in different lives. Same for her using soybean milk as a beauty cream. Food makes the writing more physical and intimate.
In a way, I’m writing it for people I know who had emotional histories of these foods. To honor these people. As we get older, people from our past disappear. I find a way to eternalize them in writing. It’s an effort to keep them close in memory. When I was writing about certain foods, the immediate thing that came into my mind is: “Oh, so-and-so would have loved that,” or “I ate this with so-and-so.” I hope my stories honor those who might have known or prepared these foods better than us now.
JESSIE: In addition to writing, translating and editing, you also play the zheng harp and have performed in Europe, Asia and the United States. How has your background as a musician influenced your approach to other mediums of art, like poetry and fiction?
FIONA: I generally don’t see them as different or disparate. I’m interested in building a house, creating a world. And in that world, different movements and possibilities coexist, but they are essentially in a continuum. It’s sort of like my book: it’s a novel with different stories, each standing alone. But read them together, they become a whole. Everything gels at some point. There’s certainly a conversation, how one narrative bridges the next. There can be rejection, conflict, disagreement . . . which as an ensemble reinforces what I want to create on the page—and in real life: connection and a quality relationship.
JESSIE: Thank you. Lastly, do you have any advice for people interested in pursuing writing, art or music who are just starting out?
FIONA: I didn’t exactly plan to be an “artist.” I have an appetite for life that leads me to each creative project. When I want to do something, I’d begin by focusing on a small task, breaking it into pieces or stages. One step at a time. I simplify. I might create a ritual, but I resist habits and routines. Artmaking is about constructing something soulful in relation to time—it’s not about the end product after all.
I listen to myself. I’m not very curious despite my appetite for life. My sense of curiosity is much more nuanced: based on the content and not the possession of it, or the impulse of “knowing as much as possible.” Knowledge is ego-based, expertise an illusion. I find the state of not knowing far more interesting. It’s important to be intuitive. Technology claims to allow us to know anything, but no—it doesn’t teach us to be intuitive. It’s about speed and can be consumerist. I think we could do better engaging with the mysteries of time.
About Fiona Sze-Lorrain
Fiona Sze-Lorrain is a writer, poet, musician, translator, and editor. She writes and translates in English, French, and Chinese. She is the author of a novel in stories, Dear Chrysanthemums (Scribner, 2023), five poetry collections, most recently Rain in Plural (Princeton, 2020) and The Ruined Elegance (Princeton, 2016), and fifteen books of translation. Her novel Dear Chrysanthemums is longlisted for the 2024 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction. A finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the Best Translated Book Award among other honors, Sze-Lorrain was a 2019–20 Abigail R. Cohen Fellow at the Columbia Institute for Ideas and Imagination and the inaugural writer-in-residence at the Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires. She lives in Paris and has performed widely in Europe, Asia, and the United States as a zheng harpist.
About Jessie Lau
Jessie Lau is a freelance journalist covering human rights, politics and culture with a transnational, feminist perspective. Born and raised in Hong Kong, she’s a specialist on China who also keeps an eye on East and Southeast Asia. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, Foreign Policy, BBC World Service, CNN, The Economist and more. Now based in London, she serves as editor and board member at NüVoices, an international collective supporting women working on China subjects. She holds a MSc. in International History from the London School of Economics, an LLM. from Peking University, and a BA in English from the University of California, Berkeley.