Shortwave Magazine

Interviews / NonFiction

Your Favorite Author's Favorite Author: Ai Jiang on Toni Morrison

an interview
by Patrick Barb

May 13, 2024
2,259 Words
Genre(s):

Welcome to the first installment of “Your Favorite Author’s Favorite Author.” As a writer (and life-long reader before that), I’ve often found that the authors I admire will share recommendations of books and authors influential to them, and by following up on those stated interests, one can gain a greater understanding of the work of their favored author(s) and gain exposure to works they might otherwise have missed out on reading. The family tree of literature, especially speculative fiction, is a vast and many-branched one. With this interview series, I hope to speak with some of the top names—both established and upcoming—in the speculative fiction genres about the authors who have made an impact on them, whether as readers, writers, or both.

I am extremely grateful to Ai Jiang for agreeing to be the first victim (I mean subject) of this column. Ai Jiang is a Chinese-Canadian writer, Ignyte Award winner, Hugo, Astounding, Nebula, Locus, Bram Stoker, Aurora, and BFSA Award finalist, and an immigrant from Fujian, currently residing in Ontario, Canada. Her work can be found in F&SF, The DarkThe Masters Review, among others. She is the recipient of Odyssey Workshop's 2022 Fresh Voices Scholarship and the author of Linghun and I AM AI. The first book of her novella duology, A Palace Near the Wind, is forthcoming from Titan Books in 2025.

It was an absolute pleasure to chat with Ai about a literary legend, one whose work transcends genre, while also including one of the greatest ghost stories in American literature.

Who is your favorite author and why?

Toni Morrison. The emotionality, empathy, and rawness in her words bring out the humanity of her characters, the bleakness of society and history, language, trauma and its present manifestation, and the wisdom of the same when she speaks on these topics.

When were you first made aware of this author and when were you first drawn to their work?

In a third-year course titled “Contemporary American Fiction” that I took back in 2017 during my undergraduate studies in English Literature. Like many English students, I was often bogged down by the sheer number of works we had to read and analyze every term, and though I enjoyed most of what I read, Beloved was one of the books that stood out to me.

What was your relation to and understanding of contemporary American literature up to that point? Was there anything in particular about Beloved that stood out and made you take notice?

Before I read Beloved, white male American authors comprised most of the contemporary American literature I had been introduced to: Don DeLillo, Allen Ginsberg, Tom Stoppard, Tony Kushner, E. L. Doctorow, among others. However, there were authors like Morrison who tackled subject matter from contemporary American history that I had not yet read about, or, at least the courses I took had not delved deeply into them up to that point. These authors included Jhumpa Lahiri and Art Spiegelman as well. I felt, along with Beloved, their works offered me a much more comprehensive look into America’s past and present.

Is there one particular piece of work from this author that you are especially fond of or that’s had a significant creative impact on you? What is that piece and what makes it so appealing or affecting for you?

Beloved will forever be my first literary love. There is something about the insistence of Morrison’s words that drew me in, that lulled me into a choking breathlessness as I read, savoring the weight of each of her words and images—both the beauty and the horror. The concept of rememory is one that will stay with me forever—the way that trauma crawls into the present—and the way Morrison brings this concept to the page both metaphorically and literally.

I’d say your work often contains echoes of the rememory concept. In terms of ghost stories, could you talk a little about any connections you see between Morrison’s writing in Beloved and your own work in a piece like Linghun?

When I wrote Linghun, I very much drew on both Shirley Jackson’s Haunting of Hill House and Toni Morrison’s Beloved in an effort to bring my work into conversation with both in terms of the concepts of haunted houses and rememory. In Linghun, much like in Beloved, past traumas, grief, and loss manifest in the present in the form of ghosts. And, as with Shirley Jackson’s Haunting of Hill House, I tried to tap into the idea of houses holding memories and past histories and the way they might manifest those elements in the present. However, in Linghun, I took a slightly different approach in the way that the living are performing the haunting rather than the past and the dead, bringing with them their trauma and grief wherever they might journey, from home to home, rather than leaving those behind.

How often do you revisit that particular piece or the author’s work in general? What lessons have you learned at various times from the work?

I’ve read and annotated Beloved four times, and it is one I mean to revisit again soon. Each time I reread, I notice a different turn of phrase, the layers upon layers that Morrison has laid, what is held between the lines that I might have no noticed in a previous reading, the weight of emotions and the characters that become more nuanced and intertwined the more time I spend with them, and how all of this is only possible because of Morrison’s storytelling that feels part technical, part lyrical, but also academic and as though someone is telling you a story by the fireplace.

I completely understand the love for Toni Morrison. Beloved, Sula, and The Bluest Eye are high ranking for me as well. In one of my undergraduate English Lit classes called “Woolf, Faulkner, Morrison,” we read some of Morrison’s Master’s thesis, where she wrote on the treatment of the alienated in the work of those other two authors. That academic legacy, that sense of being aware of the literary canon before her and being aware of the new path she’s forging comes across in Morrison’s fiction and non-fiction. Talk a bit about your own academic background. Do you see academics playing a role in your fiction writing?

During my undergrad, though I specialized in English Literature, I also took courses in psychology and philosophy, and studied history by extension through my literature courses. My learnings from each of these fields have found their way into my writing—how I come up with concepts, my characters, their worlds, and central conflicts. I often draw on philosophical, social, political, and psychological theories, concepts, and musings in my work.

What I notice most often from readers and reviewers is their description of my writing as meditative, and, when I’m writing, it very much is a meditation on ideas for me. In philosophy, one of the texts we read was Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous by George Berkeley, and it often feels like I’m doing something similar in my own work, crafting characters that come together to debate different conflicts, theories, etc., and making worlds that help illuminate the same. But, in relation to themes, I try to expand on what I have learned from dissecting social and political pasts, presents, and futures, along with elements that always seem to be present in what I tackle: diaspora, migration, immigration, and identity. That said, my time in academia instilled within me the lingering question that if art and language is inherently political, then, knowing this, what should I do with that fact and how does it complicate my own writing?

When I was debating which author to choose as my favorite, I considered putting down Kazuo Ishiguro instead, for the way he is able to masterfully explore the human condition in his work with sci-fi backdrops that seem so familiar to our own society. And I think these meditations on humanity and the human condition have also found their way into my work through my study of Ishiguro’s books in university.

Are there any pieces in the author’s oeuvre that have not worked as well for you? If yes, which ones and why do you think that connection was not as strong?

I must admit that I seldom read more than one or two books by a single author and often strive to read as widely and broadly as I can, when I can.

What writing lessons have you taken, purposefully or accidentally, from your favorite author?

I feel like as every writer slowly finds their own voice, style, and rhythm in their work, their writing becomes almost like a collage of voices they have read, a kaleidoscope of experiences, thoughts, ideas of authors they have come in touch with intermixing with their own.

So, I suppose, unconsciously, I have. Not just from Toni Morrison, though doubtlessly her voice and work have seeped into my own, but I can also find traces of Kazuo Ishiguro, Ursula K. Le Guin, Shirley Jackson, and George Orwell in my writing. That is not to say I write anything like them or anywhere near as masterfully, but I see their shadows as my guide, a skeletal hand hovering over my keyboard that might not be physically felt, though the lessons of their words weave into every one of my own—how to write sparsely without losing emotion and weight, how to employ imagery and metaphor, how to use language and syntax to the advantage of a story, how to bring abstract ideas and concepts to life and make them a tangible experience for readers that lingers long after THE END.

Are there any works in your bibliography that you feel are closest to the work of your favorite—whether in terms of style, subject matter, length, etc.? Talk a little about those similarities.

As previously noted in another question, I seldom read more than one or two works from a single author, that said, outside of Beloved, I’ve read a book of essays by Morrison and listened to her Nobel Prize speech. And what I think is while some writers speak differently from the way they write, I feel as though Morrison writes the way she speaks, with conviction, with wisdom, with a deep-rooted understanding that I often find myself marveling at.

Where does your writing diverge from your favorite author’s? Are there any elements from your favorite author’s work that you would like to incorporate in your own? If yes, what are these?

The blend of show, tell, and the allure and atmosphere of oral storytelling with a sense of the folkloric even in urban settings, a sense of presence and immediacy even in the historical past, rich background and world building that always escapes notice, that feels exceptionally organic. In a single paragraph, Morrison can offer a complete view of a person and their past, family dynamics, the history and routine of a place, and drop us into another person, another time, another land with seeming effortlessness.

If a reader wanted to start reading your favorite author, what piece would you recommend they start with?

Beloved—always Beloved.

If you could ask your favorite author one question about their work, what would it be?

Rather than a question, I think I would simply want to thank her for writing, for bringing us her words and wisdom, for how her words have become so deeply rooted within me and always find themselves in my mind whenever it might be, wherever I go, whatever I write, like rememory; but in this case, it is not one trauma, nor a grim history and bloody past, but a welcomed haunting.

What do you have coming out next on the writing and publishing front? What are you working on now?

I have a science-fantasy duology series, Natural Engines, the first of which is forthcoming in 2025: A Palace Near the Wind from Titan Books. Hopefully, my first novel—post-apocalyptic cyberpunk that blends the far future and the ancient past—will soon be going on sub. Recently, I finished writing a dark fantasy inspired by the legend of Mulan that further extends on the themes of Linghun in terms of grief, loss, but that dives further into acceptance and moving forward. And, hopefully, I’ll be able to finish writing two more books this year—a literary historical body horror that is based on my hometown and inspired by my grandmother that explores reincarnation, Chinese afterlife beliefs, as well as revisiting the trope of the haunted house and diaspora; and the book I have been putting off for two years: the novelization of my story “Give Me English,” about language as currency.

Thanks for taking the time to chat with me about your favorite author.

Thank you so much for having me!

For more from Ai Jiang, find her on X (@AiJiang_), Instagram (@ai.jian.g), and online (http://aijiang.ca).

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About the Author

Patrick Barb is an author of weird, dark, and spooky tales, currently living (and trying not to freeze to death) in Saint Paul, Minnesota. His published works include the dark fiction collection Pre-Approved for Haunting (Keylight Books), the novellas Gargantuana’s Ghost (Grey Matter Press) and Turn (Alien Buddha Press), as well as the novelette Helicopter Parenting in the Age of Drone Warfare (Spooky House Press). His forthcoming works include the themed short-story collection The Children’s Horror (Northern Republic Press) and the sci-fi/horror novel Abducted (Dark Matter Ink).

patrickbarb.com

Copyright ©2024 by Patrick Barb.

Published by Shortwave Magazine. First print rights reserved.

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