The Passion of Woo & Isolde is fiction, yet it also serves, in some ways, as a dreamlike alembic for these thematic leitmotifs from Tseng’s life. The collection, which was published by Rose Metal Press as the winner of its 11th annual Short Short Chapbook Contest, is populated by a constellation of figures from the margins, often echoing the experiences and atmosphere of Tseng’s own upbringing in some way: immigrants, workers flitting between social worlds, queer lovers, characters whose genders don’t conform to others’ assumptions about their bodies. The title, too, reflects figures intimately connected to Tseng; Woo and Isolde, Tseng has said, “bear some resemblance to my Chinese immigrant father and my German American mother.” The book’s pieces vary seamlessly from brief, surreal narrative tales to something more closely resembling prose poetry, reflecting Tseng’s limber movement between fiction and poetry throughout her career. Her first two books, The Man with My Face (2005) and Red Flower, White Flower (2013) featured poetry, while her next book, Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness (2015), was a novel. Earlier this year, she returned to poetry with the collection Not so dear Jenny.
“In one slim volume,” Amelia Gray, who selected Tseng’s collection as the winner of Rose Metal Press’s 11th annual Short Short Chapbook Contest, writes in the introduction to The Passion of Woo & Isolde, “Jennifer Tseng parcels out a world’s worth of ideas in twenty-four flashes, the truth of things revealed with a sense of elegance, as only fiction can.” The book’s brevity is deceptive; it feels far longer than it is, as its little pieces seem to illumine so much, their tonal atmosphere slipping from lovely and ludic to lugubrious and painful. Tseng’s new collection, each piece of which can be read separately or as part of a thematically collected whole, pushes at the limits of length, creating characters who, in brief yet lingering pieces, quietly deconstruct what it means to be queer, to be gendered, to be in exile, to love, and to lose.
I caught up with Tseng recently over email to talk about her charming new collection, how the constraints of very short fiction may impact characterization, and the many intertwined forms of exile in her stories.
GABRIELLE BELLOT: The stories collected in The Passion of Woo & Isolde can be read straight through as a long narrative, telling a broad, interconnected story that the reader slowly pieces together. At the same time, each story also easily stands on its own, a brilliant little flash illuminating something larger. How did you conceive of this chapbook, and why did you decide to work with flash fiction for this project?
JENNIFER TSENG: I’ve been writing flash fiction off and on since the ’90s, ever since I took a class with Thaisa Frank whose brilliant collection, A Brief History of Camouflage (Black Sparrow, 1992), always inspires me. Back then, there weren’t many places to publish flash fiction. Hotel Amerika, where my story “The Locksmith” first appeared, was a notable exception. Sometimes I wouldn’t even send my pieces out; I just stuck them in a drawer. Whenever it came time to put a poetry manuscript together, there were always several pieces of this sort that didn’t fit with the rest of my poems, and so they would go in a drawer, too.
One day, last year, I caught myself having the thought, “I’m so poor,” and tried to counsel myself out of it by asking myself how I was rich, asking what assets I had. I immediately thought of the writing I’d been keeping in that drawer. The next day, I saw the Rose Metal Press contest announcement — which had a deadline of the following day. I told myself that if I could make a chapbook in one day, using work I’d been keeping in my drawer, I would enter the contest. I didn’t know what would happen when I put the pages on the desk, but, eventually, I found a shape for them. They seemed, weirdly, to belong together. I suppose I was intuitively aware of the shape lurking in the drawer, the ghost of the book that had been keeping me company for years. I was able to add a few new things and, suddenly, I had the chapbook in front of me. If it weren’t for Rose Metal Press, which is devoted to publishing hybrid genres, the stories would still be little ghosts in my drawer.
One of the things I found immediately intriguing about The Passion of Woo & Isolde is how your characters navigate gender and sexuality. In “The Locksmith,” you sketch out two persons I almost felt I knew: a narrator who “had loved manly women and womanly women (though these terms are insufficient)” and the bookish, deeply reserved girl she is writing about, “who,” the narrator reveals, “was neither” kind of woman, a lovely figure who subverts and oppugns an overly simple gender binary. “Often she spoke,” the narrator continues, “in a voice that seemed better suited to an age, a gender, a nationality other than her own.” In the first story, “Past Lives,” a male museum guard and a woman who rewinds tapes of the museum’s audio tours learn that they were married in a past life, but with their genders switched: the guard’s eyes become those “of a very sad wife,” and the rewinder feels “a pang of her old husbandly guilt.” How do gender and queerness function in the collection?
Switching genders has always seemed natural to me. In our family, I was the boy and my sister was the girl. There were advantages to each. While no one acknowledged these roles aloud, our friends and family seemed to pick up on them. On birthdays and at Christmas, I was given cameras and tool kits and bike pumps, while my sister got silk scarves and bath balls and dolls. My father called me First Son at home; out in the world I was Daddy’s Girl. Of course, I was both. Years later, when I encountered the queer community — drag queens and, especially, the drag kings, stone butches, high femmes, tomboys, androgynes, trans women, et cetera — I felt a surge of recognition and delight.
Your question about the museum worker and the security guard reminds me of Flaubert’s famous claim that he himself was the inspiration for the character of Madame Bovary. (He said something to the effect of, “She is me.”) This makes perfect sense to me. Writing a story is like having a dream. Every character is some version of the dreamer. When Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness was published, people tended to draw parallels between me and the novel’s characters: the middle-aged woman obsessed with a 17-year-old boy. They wanted to know which man had inspired the young man’s character. Just as Flaubert identified with Emma Bovary, I identify as much with the young man as I do with the woman; he and she are me.
And these stories indeed often feel like dreams, like diaphanous fables. Does that form help, in your mind, with deconstructing gender and sexuality? In other words, does a more dreamlike story make it easier to talk about or represent that which, even today, is still so often regarded as transgressive, if not verboten, in literature today: our queerness, our nonconformity with hetero- and cis-normative societal expectations?
I find fables and surrealism extremely useful when writing about forbidden subject matter, including gender and queer sexualities. Fables and surrealism can liberate us from the confines of 21st-century reality and allow us to literally remake our experiences. In “Past Lives,” the supernatural notion of reincarnation easily accommodates the very natural human capacity to be more than one gender. Each character is at once the same person in different forms and a different person altogether. The story’s surrealism allows for this voluminosity. Instead of two characters, we have four characters: a man who becomes a woman and a woman who becomes a man. The reincarnation makes human states of multiplicity literal.
In “The Locksmith,” the line “I had loved manly women and womanly women (though these terms are insufficient)” illustrates a dilemma peculiar to the queer writer and one possible strategy for coping with it. I wanted to invoke the complexities of queerness, for the endless possibilities of the sex and gender spectrum to be present. Yet I also wanted the freedom to write about something else: a portrait of this “deeply bookish, reserved girl.” My impulse wasn’t to write a piece about queer identities, but their invocation, their existence, was vital. Without it, the characters would cease to be who they are and would cease to invoke the possibility of an open love. So I use the line as a message to the reader. For most queer readers, it’s meant to invoke a larger, shared experience of loving that which is different and apart from hetero norms. For most cishet readers, it’s meant as a clue, a tiny signpost that reads, “This isn’t the whole story. There’s so much that you don’t know.”
Flash fiction occasionally receives a bad rap as a form that cannot really create human characters, but that, because of its brevity, tends to rely on stock figures, tropes, or flat characters who are merely the vehicles of an argument (as in many of Aesop’s fables, for instance). I disagree with this assessment of flash and characterization, and your collection, too, resists such a limited view. Yet the compactness of the form does put certain constraints on you as a writer. Do you think creating fully realized characters — queer characters in particular — rather than tropes or flat, one-dimensional figures is more difficult in flash fiction because of how little space we have?
In the wrong hands, long-form fiction simply draws such things out, while flash fiction spares the reader prolonged torture. Whether creating characters — queer characters in particular — is more or less difficult in flash depends on the writer and, perhaps, the character. When I wrote “The Locksmith,” I felt the form suited my subject. It enacted, on a formal level, the way in which the “bookish girl,” in a flash, appears and disappears. It enacted, as well, the fleeting nature of the narrator’s encounters with her. Paradoxically, I find flash fiction helpful for writing larger-than-life characters that I might otherwise feel overwhelmed by having to describe at length.
I like to start small. One can always expand small pieces later. When it comes to those beloved characters we have carried with us for a lifetime, we must trust that our deep knowledge of and fondness for them will come through in the writing, no matter how long or short. A single line can refer to entire worlds that exist beyond the page. At its best, a very short story feels at once complete and part of a greater whole, like a glimpse of a life that has its own history. Characters who refuse to be tropes, refuse flatness, refuse to be merely vehicles for an argument, almost always do so via their own specificity. Regardless of the length of the form, specificity saves us.
The theme of exile resonates throughout The Passion of Woo & Isolde: geographic exile; romantic exile from the relation that one longs for; and, also, the body itself as a place of exile, when one is not in the form one thinks one should be. In “Reading Miles from Nowhere,” the lost head of a daughter's doll becomes a “drowned emblem” that leads the narrator to examine their “relationship to exile.” As a transnational, transgender writer who also lives with many compounded senses of exile, from geography to gender, this theme leapt out at me. Yet despite how deeply it is embedded in your stories, your treatment thereof always seems fairly subtle, all the same. Would you, then, describe this as a book, at its core, about exile?
Yes, The Passion of Woo & Isolde is absolutely a book about exile. Woo’s exile is geographic, cultural, born in language. An “Alien of Extraordinary Ability,” he immigrates alone and in so doing relinquishes his family, his native Mandarin, and his social and professional standings. Isolde’s exile is physical, spiritual, and heavily gendered. She despises her own body; it is only via the Virgin Mary that she comes to love her femaleness. For her, the Earth itself is a place of exile, an oppressive way station she must endure before ascending to Heaven. When she marries Woo, she leaves behind her family, her hometown, and her working-class status. While a shared sense of exile brings them together, it doesn’t cure their condition(s) of displacement. Exile functions simultaneously as their common ground and as a fog separating them, an amorphous obstacle. It both attracts them to one another and prevents them from seeing one another. In love and in love-making, they withstand their exilic sufferings separately — her powerful yet unfathomable female desire, his male performance anxiety compounded by his lack of English, their mutual bewilderment in the face of one other’s speech and behavior. However, they also step together into a new exile: that of an interracial couple in 1960s Loving v. Virginia America. Not only are they unable to undo one another’s sense of exile (impossible!), but, as a pair, they also become doubly exiled.
Though perhaps most pronounced in the Woo and Isolde section, exile works as a lens trained on almost every character in the book — animal, human, or otherwise. The museum worker and the security guard are exiled in time and place, a lion and a mouse have been exiled by a covenant of their own making, the citizens in “Lingua Franca” dwell in a linguistic exile. Some characters feel a sense of exile in a familiar place, as in “The Fence” or in their own home, as in “Country House” and “America.” I could write all day about exile. Although I never set out to write about it explicitly here, exile, in some form, exists on every page of the book.
Gabrielle Bellot is a staff writer for Literary Hub. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Tin House, The New York Times, Electric Literature, New York Magazine’s The Cut, Vice, Guernica, Slate, HuffPost, and many other places. She is the recipient of a Poynter Fellowship from Yale and holds both an MFA and a PhD in Creative Writing from Florida State University. She lives in Brooklyn.