The PEN Ten: An Interview with Te-Ping Chen
1. What was the first book or piece of writing that had a profound impact on you?
The Oz series. It was a country full of derring-do and adventure and whimsy—ruled by strong women to boot—and created a world so persuasive that I spent much of my childhood walking around with a sense of anticipation, fully expecting that I would at any point be whisked away there, a la Dorothy, Betsy Bobbin, and Trot. It never happened, but it convinced me that you could build whole civilizations with just words.
2. What does your creative process look like? How do you maintain momentum and remain inspired? Do you have different strategies when writing fiction versus journalism?
It’s messy! I keep many lists of phrases or images or thoughts as they come—and then reliably lose them, find them again, and try to decode them. Inspiration isn’t hard—I’m constantly thinking of new story ideas—but maintaining it can be. During the initial drafting, I try to put words down in short, fast bursts, dipping in and out and not spending too long sunk in the text itself, though the story will stay in my mind. When I’ve reached the end of a piece, it’s like reaching the end of a long pool after swimming, eyes shut, and there’s that moment of extraordinary relief. Then it’s a matter of revision, taking another deep breath and going back in the same direction you came from, much more slowly.
Journalism is very different for me: a more disciplined, orderly process. I’m far more ruthless and able to clear through the clutter. There’s a quick hierarchy of information that emerges in the reporting and ultimately dictates so much of how it’s written. There are often surprises in the reporting, but—unlike fiction—rarely in the writing.
“I was trying to bring to life a much more vivid, textured sense of China, a country full of complexity and contradictions that can be hard for readers to really access. There’s so much from a distance that is hard to perceive. . . So often in China, we tend to focus on the government and think about the Chinese Communist Party as the central character. And yet, there’s so much more to the country—and people with their own highly individual lives and stories—that also feels urgent and important to evoke for readers.”
3. Where do you write? Some writers have special routines or talismans they keep close by when they write. Do you?
I write with a blanket over my head, tucked over my computer and knees, sitting on a couch or in bed. I first started using this blanket maneuver in 2011 while living in Chengdu, when I was trying to write a novel while living in a student dorm that did not have any heating—typing with gloves on was not really an option, and the habit stayed with me. It’s like working inside a very small, cozy tent. It does tend to startle other people when they walk into the room, though.
4. When did you first call yourself a writer? How did it feel?
I’ve written fiction for a long time, but even with close friends never really talked about it and only identified myself as a journalist. It was only when a short story of mine was published in The New Yorker in 2019 that I had to write a bio about myself for the magazine and used the term. I didn’t have any literary credentials to add, but I described myself as a writer living in Philadelphia. That was the first time I described myself that way. It was nice, but strange—a bit like trying on a fancy ballgown and then taking it off and putting it back on the rack.
5. What is one book or piece of writing you love that readers might not know about?
One that I’ve often returned to is My Country, My People, a 1930s collection of essays on Chinese culture and life by Lin Yutang, who was a linguist, translator, and philosopher. It’s written very candidly, is humorous and heartfelt and often bitingly perceptive, and though parts are very anachronistic, much of it still feels so shockingly relevant—his preoccupations with questions of nationhood, culture, and citizenship—even a century later.
“Being born and raised in the United States, I come from a very different set of political circumstances and always felt keenly aware of those contrasts. In particular, when living in Beijing, I was conscious that the freedoms I experienced living and working there were a rare and powerful thing, not to be taken for granted.”
6. Two of your stories, “Field Notes on a Marriage” and “Beautiful Country,” are about Chinese American relationships. Your stories highlight the assumptions and misconceptions that Americans have about China and vice-versa. Was it a goal of yours, in this collection, to dispel myths about the common experience in China? Did you have an audience in mind when writing your stories?
I didn’t have myths, exactly, that I was trying to dispel. But I was trying to bring to life a much more vivid, textured sense of China, a country full of complexity and contradictions that can be hard for readers to really access. There’s so much from a distance that is hard to perceive. That’s not to say that the common tropes people think of when it comes to China—human rights abuses, pollution, the booming economy—aren’t accurate descriptors, but they’re also sorely incomplete. So often in China, we tend to focus on the government and think about the Chinese Communist Party as the central character. And yet, there’s so much more to the country—and people with their own highly individual lives and stories—that also feels urgent and important to evoke for readers.
On your question about audience, part of what I loved so much about writing these stories was the fact that unlike journalism, I wasn’t thinking about readers, or what they did or didn’t know. There was something liberating about writing that way—putting things on the page hungrily, recklessly, getting to tear things down and play, to inject magic into scenes and turn the world on its head, using the tools of fiction to make meaning in new and different ways.
7. What was one of the most surprising things you learned in writing your collection?
I was surprised by how grateful I felt to have written it. Once I began writing these stories, it was like getting to take off a very heavy coat, a feeling of relief, of no longer being burdened somehow. I lived in China off and on since 2006; it was a country I had been wrestling with personally for many years, a place that’s at once so infuriating and deeply lovable. In the years I lived there, there were so many indelible images or conversations, observations, and particular details and moments that had been piling up in my head—moments of grace and beauty and humor, and also ones that made you want to tear your hair out in anger and frustration and weep. Even though I was a journalist, I could never capture more than a fraction of them in my writing, and looking back, I realize that had actually taken its own kind of psychic toll. Anyone who’s ever had a story to tell but couldn’t share it knows that feeling—the weight of things unexpressed. And it was striking to me once I began to write these short stories how freeing it felt.
8. Having been a journalist for many years, you have had the experience of others reading and commenting on your writing. How is Land of Big Numbers going to be different for you?
Much more terrifying! I’m not used to having to talk about my writing, or myself—as a journalist, comments come in on stories, but you don’t typically have to get out there and talk about process, or who you are as a person. But launching a book means having to do both. After spending my career asking questions and not answering them, it’s very foreign to me and not strictly comfortable.
“Fiction—like any kind of art—can be used as a mirror to reflect what we already know, but importantly can also transport us, enlarge our sense of the world, and reflect what exists beyond the reader’s immediate frame.”
9. China has a long history of poets and writers addressing their relationship and feelings toward China. I think of poets like Shu Ting, specifically her poem, “Oh Motherland, Dear Motherland.” Where do you see yourself fitting into this history, if at all?
My great-grandfather was also a poet and journalist born in Guangxi, southern China, an intellectual who was part of a party in the pre-Communist era that advocated for a democratic future. He died in Beijing, with his grave desecrated during the Cultural Revolution, along with those of many other intellectuals, and he’s someone who I think of often. For me, being born and raised in the United States, I come from a very different set of political circumstances and always felt keenly aware of those contrasts. In particular, when living in Beijing, I was conscious that the freedoms I experienced living and working there were a rare and powerful thing, not to be taken for granted.
10. What advice do you have for young writers?
In my own writing, what’s helped me most is lots and lots of reading, trying to decide what I liked and didn’t like, and to feel more confidence in those judgments. Sometimes, it puzzled me when critics liked something so much and I did not. I found it helped my own writing to grow more confident as a reader. And as a reader, of course you can apprentice yourself to any text, to try and learn, take it apart and figure out how it works, or just admire and absorb it—which is mostly, I think, how I’ve learned.
I’m also reminded of Geraldine Brooks’s exhortation for young writers to remember that foreign countries exist. Which is to say, more broadly, that fiction—like any kind of art—can be used as a mirror to reflect what we already know, but importantly can also transport us, enlarge our sense of the world, and reflect what exists beyond the reader’s immediate frame.
Te-Ping Chen is the author of the story collection Land of Big Numbers. Her fiction has been published, or is forthcoming from, The New Yorker, Granta, Guernica, Tin House, and BOMB magazine. She is a Wall Street Journal correspondent based in Philadelphia, where she writes about workplace issues. From 2014 to 2018, she was a Beijing-based correspondent for the paper, covering politics, society, and human rights. Before that, she was a Hong Kong correspondent, covering the city’s politics and pro-democracy movement. Prior to joining the Journal in 2012, she spent a year in China interviewing migrant workers as a Fulbright Fellow and worked as a China reporter for the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists in Washington, D.C.