Mark W published his short story “Pearl River 1980” in the Climate Justice issue of Belletrist. We spoke with him about the inspiration for his story, his process, and COVID-19.
B: What was the inspiration for this story?
MW: This story was created with the intent of merging contemporary anxieties of climate catastrophe with the more traditional anxieties of Chinese family life. I knew I wanted to tell a story related to my own qualms with the value disparity between sons and daughters, and the outlet ultimately became interconnected with COVID-19—especially with how humans are able to understand each other better in frightening times. There was an online video I saw of a whole neighborhood block singing songs to bolster each other’s faith, and often I wonder if suffering is necessary to promote greater understanding. When atrocities are tolerated, they become norms, but when atrocities are great enough to a wide enough amount of people, they change the way people perceive everything: family, friends, neighbors, strangers. There are many traditional values that are tolerated and normalized that I do not think should be. This is just one of many that I am in adamant disagreement with (although I do think there is much to love about Chinese culture).
B: Writing is hard. In what ways were you challenged by the creation of this story?
MW: The hardest part of writing, for me, is empirical research. To write in a subconscious flow-state, I must commit to personal knowledge efficiently and with certainty. That is why I did not continue with [a] story I previously wanted to write. That story had elements of science-fiction and obstetrical components that did not adequately capture my imagination in the way I wanted. To write with a strong focus on emotion in such a large-scale, I would have needed more empirical research than I had time for. And I do not think that story fits in with the magic of short-storytelling and would be more comfortable in a visual medium, perhaps film or graphic novel. It’s quite amazing to be able to tell this bombastic generational story with elements of immigration, Americanization, religious faith, and Chinese economic transmutation in only a few paragraphs. I was able to write out such intricate details because everything I needed was already in my subconscious—COVID-19 was all over the news before I even began writing and I was already familiar with Chinese culture due to my annual visits to the country.
B: How did the rest of the writing process go?
MW: The first draft came out quickly and without any problems. Watching online video blogs of people stuck in their apartments in China inspired me to explore claustrophobia, and soon the externalized claustrophobia of the main character naturally progressed into an internalized claustrophobia. For me, it is easier to write the first draft because I don’t have to care much about the words themselves as long as some semblance of an idea comes across. The second draft is where the execution of such ideas become a priority, and so every sentence matters and should flow one to the other like poetry. Arc words were of absolute important in that phase—from the fever the main character feels in her home country, even in celebratory circumstances, to the fever dream she experiences at the end of the story; the American pop songs the main character escapes to both in youthhood and in adulthood; and many more. Rewriting is harder, but definitely more rewarding than writing the first draft. It is as if I am refining a square block of ice into a beautiful ice sculpture. I am not sure if this draft of the story is a perfect execution of my ideas, but I am, regardless, incredibly proud of it. This was a wonderful experience and a pleasure to produce.