Welcome back once again, Ken! In your latest Lightspeed story, “Ghost Days,” you explore parent/child dynamics in the context of racism. How the parents dealt with it and how the children did were informed by their own time and culture. Can you tell us something about what shaped these critical moments for your characters, and perhaps what shaped them for their author?
Thank you! As always, I’m honored and excited to be back in Lightspeed.
A common part of the experience of cultures facing the threat of loss (via emigration and assimilation, colonial domination, or something else) is the conflict between the older and younger generations as to the value and meaning of that cultural legacy. This story explores three possible resolutions—out of countless other possibilities—of this conflict.
In the end, William chooses to accept that legacy as an act of rebellion against the racist colonizers, and Fred rejects it, also as an act of rebellion, but against the weight of history—an especially American ideal. And they each find their own ambivalent freedom with those choices. Ona, on the other hand, tries something different: Through empathy, she tries to forge her own path through the cloud of unknowing that is our identity.
As you noted, each of these choices is justified by the historical context and by the individual circumstances of the characters. My hope was to have written all three of the characters empathetically, so that whether readers agree or disagree with their choices, they can understand those choices.
You open the story with a recursive statement, which plays out through the structure of the story itself, generationally and even geographically. Did you set out to write the story that way, or did the nature of the narrative lead you to it?
Unlike most of my stories, which grow and take form organically, this one’s structure was planned in advance.
What structure might be interesting? I thought. Well, my favorite programming language is Lisp, which places recursion at the center of how to think about a problem. And so I decided that I wanted to write this piece like a Lisp program: The story would be divided into smaller versions of the same story, each delving deeper into the past, and the resolution would build up as we returned up the call stack.
“Ghost Days” is an impressively complex narrative on a number of levels. Were there any other particular challenges in writing it?
This story was also written as an entry in a Halloween fiction contest, and so it had to fulfill a number of constraints. For instance, it needed to have something to do with Halloween, which necessitated working the concept of a day dedicated to ghosts into all the sub-stories. It also had to make use of two “story seeds”: the Middle English Christian mystical work, “The Cloude of Unknowyng,” and nesting dolls. Nesting dolls were easy—they provided the structure of the story—but “The Cloude of Unknowyng” was hard. It took me many readings of the key passages in that work before I finally understood that it was a perfect metaphor for the fierce love that sometimes bound children and parents, passing understanding.
As originally drafted, the story had numerous problems. The complexity of the narrative(s) rather overwhelmed me. (It’s just like programming in Lisp!) And it took some careful discussion with you during the rewriting/editing process for me to figure out what was for me the throughline of the story.
Another difficulty involved the story’s central artifact. I needed something to anchor the whole narrative, something that would be a constant through all the recursive substories. My initial choice was a bronze ding, a small ritual cauldron. But this turned out to be a faulty choice for many reasons, and it wasn’t until the editing stage with John and you that I finally switched to the right artifact, an ancient spade-shaped bronze coin, a bubi. As a medium of exchange, a sign of value in the past, and an implement that digs up the past, it was perfect thematically.
All in all, this may have been one of the most difficult stories I’ve ever written, but I think the result was worth it.
The parent/child relationship seems to come up in your work more than any other. You’ve explored it from many different angles. What brings you back to the complexities of that relationship again and again?
I think too much of our fiction focuses on romance as the primary relationship for our characters, giving short shrift to friendship and kinship. I try to consciously resist that tendency in my own work. We are defined by many other relationships in our lives.
As a new father, the bulk of my waking time that hasn’t been bought by my employer is devoted to thinking about my daughters—I’m sure many parents can identify. Also, the parent-child relationship is central to Confucian thought, and thus it has always occupied an important place in my own intellectual history.
Ultimately, we tell stories that reflect our own anxieties. I worry about being a good father, and that worry inevitably seeps onto the page.
In addition to writing your own fiction, you’re also an award-nominated translator, bringing Chinese fiction to English-speaking readers—in fact, one of your translations will be running here at Lightspeed later this year. I hear you got some very good news about one of your translation projects recently. Can you tell our readers about it, and what’s coming up next for you?
Oh, yes! I’m really excited to say that Tor Books will be bringing my translation of Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem, a best-selling hard SF novel, to America next year. It’s the first book in a trilogy about first contact and the future history of the human race.
This book has sold some 400,000 copies in Chinese and inspired legions of devoted fans in China. (Incidentally, they take fan art really seriously in China: I’ve seen many videos and paintings, heard dozens of songs, and read countless poems and stories—many of them of professional quality—all inspired by the trilogy.) It’s a wonderful work of grand imagination and striking imagery, and I can’t wait to share it with my fellow American readers.
Meanwhile, I’m still working on my first novel while also writing short stories here and there. I do feel a bit overwhelmed at times, but I’m not complaining. I’ve been incredibly lucky to have had some readers enjoy my work, and what more can a writer ask?
Thank you so much for doing this interview with me, and I hope readers like “Ghost Days.”
Spread the word!