Mengyin Lin | 2023 PEN/Robert J. Dau Prize Winner
In the coming weeks, we will feature Q&As with the contributors to this year’s Best Debut Short Stories anthology, published by Catapult. These stories were selected for the 2023 PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers by judges Venita Blackburn, Richard Chiem, and Dantiel W. Moniz.
Born and raised in Beijing, Mengyin Lin is a Chinese writer living in the US. Mandarin is her mother tongue and she writes in English as her second language. She holds an MFA in Fiction from Brooklyn College where she won the Himan Brown Award and a BFA in Film from New York University. Her fiction is published or forthcoming in swamp pink, Joyland, Epiphany, Fence, and Pleiades; her nonfiction can be read in The New York Times, Guernica, and Cha: An Asian Literary Journal. She is the winner of 2023 swamp pink Fiction Prize, 2023 Pen/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers, and 2022 Breakout Writers Prize. Her work has been supported by Tin House Summer Workshop, Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, VCCA, KHN Center for the Arts, Saltonstall Foundation, and more.
“Magic, or Something Less Assuring” was originally published in Epiphany.
Here is an excerpt:
A year or two after that, they might lose touch. In thirty years, they might start asking themselves if there was any meaning in fighting with anyone. In fifty years, they might forget each other’s names and the name of the country where they once rode camels in a great desert. Or none of that would happen, not in the way they expected, because life wasn’t like that. Here and now, they were Si-Bo and Ting, Ting and Si-Bo, watching the daylight pass over the Sahara, to the other side of the world.
What inspired you to write this story? Where did the idea come from?
This story was a confluence of things that I’d had on my mind for a while: I borrowed the idea of the “divorce honeymoon” from a Chinese reality TV show, the two main characters were grown-up versions of a couple I’d written about in a screenplay, I’d traveled to Morocco twice and always wanted to write about it.
But I think the emotional core of the story originated in a desperate need to understand what was happening in my own life. The COVID-19 pandemic has permanently changed my relationship with China as the place that my loved ones live in, the place that I call home. Since the beginning of 2020, I’ve had many arguments with my family and friends in China. I couldn’t understand why we disagreed with each other on so many issues, what that meant for how we felt for each other, and if there was a way to empathize and love each other despite our differences–these were the questions that I couldn’t quite answer in my immediate reality, so I set out to explore them in fiction, which allowed me to step out of my own head. The story became an outlet for my confusion and grievances, a mental space to think and feel. Writing it made me see my life in a different way.
What do you hope readers take away from your story?
Once I’d written the story, I realized what I was feeling, torn and confused, epitomized the polarized times we all lived through and are still living through no matter where we are. I’m thinking about the US in 2016 and, again, in 2020, Hong Kong in 2019, China in 2022, the ongoing climate crisis, women’s rights around the world, and so on. Every person’s reality is different from another’s, even from those who are closest. How do we move forward? Can the opposite be true at the same time? How do we think about the future without overlooking the present? These are the questions Ting and Si-Bo would probably be thinking after the last scene. I hope readers would recognize their own feelings in this story and reconsider the way they see and connect to the people around them.
What was your process like for writing about something as complex as love?
I wrote this story for my first MFA workshop. I don’t remember the process at all–when there’s a deadline, you just trust your fingers and type. The somewhat mystified process of writing fiction is true in the case of this story–it felt like I had the right people in the right place at the right time, and the story wrote itself. I think experiences like this are when fiction starts to have a life of its own, and like any other living organism, it has flaws and weaknesses.
In terms of love, a guiding question as I was writing was: what would these two characters do for love?
How has the PEN/Robert J. Dau Prize affected you?
It has advanced my writing career in the practical sense: I’ve heard from agents and magazine editors, got offered teaching opportunities, and received scholarships and fellowships, all of which I appreciate immensely. I don’t believe awards and prizes necessarily speak to the artistic merit of one’s work, but I do think that they matter to writers on a personal level, financially and creatively, especially to a new writer like myself. The next time I get frustrated with or disappointed with my own writing, which is every single day, I can tell myself that you’ve done this before, and you can do it again.
What advice would you share with aspiring writers?
“Writing begets more writing.” Many great writers have said this but I first heard it from my teacher, Joshua Henkin.
“Think alongside your characters.” My teacher Madeleine Thien once told me this.
Find your people who will always be in your corner (shout out to my teacher, Ernesto Mestre-Reed), who commiserate with you and celebrate you, and please, PLEASE, do the same for them. Take care of your body–writing is as much a physical effort as it is intellectual. Remember that you have a life outside writing, but also write like it’s all you got. Lastly but most importantly, don’t listen to anyone else if it doesn’t work for you!