Creative writing PhD candidate Jean Chen Ho talks to Pulitzer Prize winner Viet Thanh Nguyen about her acclaimed first book, “Fiona and Jane,” and how her research into a violent event in Los Angeles history illuminates today’s spike in anti-Asian racism.
Jean Chen Ho, a student in the PhD in Creative Writing and Literature program at USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, published her first novel, Fiona and Jane (Viking) in January to widespread critical acclaim.
Ho recently spoke to Pulitzer Prize winner Viet Thanh Nguyen, University Professor, Aerol Arnold Chair of English and professor of English, American studies and ethnicity and comparative literature at USC Dornsife, about her book, an intimate portrait of a decades-long friendship between two Taiwanese American women.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: A lot of the hype we see is either about very famous older authors or soon-to-be famous younger authors, and you fall in between. Why did it take you so long?
Jean Chen Ho: I think it took me so long to actually start writing fiction because, honestly, I didn’t have very much to say. When I was in my 20s, I was too busy living my life. I didn’t have the wherewithal or the discipline at that point in my life to write a novel. I started my MFA in creative writing in my 30s. I wanted a way to continue my scholarly research, so I entered the PhD program in creative writing at USC Dornsife at age 35. The last six years have been a wonderful education and a really wonderful way to support my writing. I couldn’t have done it without USC Dornsife.
VTN: There are literally hundreds of master’s of fine arts in creative writing programs throughout the country, where you spend one to three years writing a creative thesis. But at USC Dornsife, we have a PhD program. Part of what’s unique about it is that you have to write a creative thesis and a critical thesis. The creative thesis is this book that’s just come out, Fiona and Jane.
JCH: This collection of 10 linked stories is about a span of 20 years in the friendship of two Taiwanese American women growing up in Southern California, how they grew apart and then, how in their 30s, come back together and have to figure out how to be friends again. Through this long friendship, the book explores identity, heartbreak, romance and sexuality.
VTN: The book is set in Southern California, so if you’ve lived or grown up here, you’ll recognize a lot of the landmarks.
JCH: I love L.A. I grew up in the suburbs of L.A. and I wanted to write about some of those places that I’ve seen and that I feel perhaps haven’t been represented in literary fiction.
VTN: You were one of the cool kids in high school, am I guessing right?
JCH: I went to an academically rigorous high school, touted as one of the top five public schools in California, and to be considered cool in that context was to be a very good student. I just wanted to hang out with my friends, that was what was cool to me. But I also took books very seriously from a young age. So, in some ways, I was also a big nerd.
VTN: There’s a wonderful way in which the stories you’ve woven out of your imagination are both very specific to a place and a people, but also resonate greatly beyond that. Here at USC Dornsife’s creative writing PhD program, you also have to write a critical thesis.
JCH: I have this wonderful opportunity here to do archival research in and around L.A. because the next book that I want to write is going to take place in the 19th century and is about the first Asian American pioneers to settle in Southern California. I’m writing about the formation of L.A.’s [original] Chinatown, where Union Station is today. Part of what I’m interested in is where history meets fiction and memoir — how what’s written by somebody of that time trickles down into what we take as historical record.
In October 1871, during a shootout between two Chinatown gangs over a woman, an errant bullet struck a white rancher. Because of fomenting anti-Asian sentiment, news spread that a Chinese gunslinger had shot a white rancher. An angry mob formed and 20 Chinese men and boys were lynched that night and dragged through the streets. There were convictions, but because of a clerical error, the men were released.
I’m researching how that story came to be told and asking questions about what can we take as truth. And what can we take as perhaps more of a poetic kind of truth when it comes to stories like these.
VTN: What we’re dealing with today is nothing like what they were dealing with in 1871. Look at L.A — L.A. would be gutted without its Asian American population. So, things have changed for the better, at least from an Asian American perspective. Yet we still see a persistence of anti-Asian violence throughout this country. What do you make of that?
JCH: We’ve been living through this pandemic era for the last two years. I think in moments of crisis like this, it’s easy to find a scapegoat. It’s disheartening. But I think that if we can look at it in the long-term historical context, it’s not new. This is part of the narrative of this country that needs a villain. Who that villain is often shifts at different times. Perhaps this is very optimistic or even naïve, but I think writing fiction about ordinary Asian American people and presenting them as fully human can perhaps shift some of that.
By Susan Bell