A Conversation With Cleo Qian

Cleo Qian is a fiction writer and poet from California. She received her MFA from NYU. Her work has appeared in over twenty outlets, was a winner of Zoetrope: All Story Short Fiction Competition, has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, was twice longlisted for the DISQUIET Prize, and supported by Sundress Academy for the Arts. Her first book of short stories, Let’s Go Let’s Go Let’s Go, was recently published by Tin House.


Joanna Acevedo: Although you studied fiction when we were at NYU together, you now write in multiple genres, including poetry and essays. Can you speak to the transition between the genres, and what prompted you to switch? 

Cleo Qian: I started out writing fiction, and that’s what I’ve written for most of my life, and I’ve always primarily thought of myself as a fiction writer. I took my first poetry workshop when I was in college. I think when I’m going through times of great sadness or emotionality, I turn to poetry more than I turn to fiction, and so in the last two or three years I’ve turned to poetry, because I’ve been sadder. But I think that each genre does different things. I think poetry is a bit more personal for me, and it deals more directly with things I’m feeling or going through in my day-to-day life. But for this collection, and for things I’m working on now, I think I am very curious about fiction like The Vegetarian by Han Kang, or novels that have less of the three-act structure. I have a big cerebral interest in different narrative forms that drive my imagination when I’m writing short stories. 

JA: That actually segues really well into my next question. Some of your initial characters, like N (or Nora) and Luna, recur later in the book. Can you tell us about the arc of your short story collection, its structure, and how the collection came together? 

CQ: The very first version of this collection, which I pitched to agents unsuccessfully, had the title story “The Girl With The Double Eyelids,” and the protagonists were younger. It was more about adolescence and girlhood. Writing the story “Chicken. Film. Youth.” changed the collection’s point of view, because that story is really about people in their twenties, and in that story, the concern for the protagonists is about whether they had lived their life properly, if they know what they’re doing, all those types of questions, and that became the driving force. From “Chicken. Film. Youth.” the collection became more young adult-focused and about a different sort of coming-of-age. I do feel like there are two coming-of-ages—there’s one when you’re a teenager, and then one when you’re post-college, post-graduate, figuring out who you’re going to be as an adult, and that’s so different from what you go through as a teenager. And the collection became about that second coming-of-age. 

JA: Many of your characters feel invisible. Can you talk about this theme, and why you’ve chosen to represent these protagonists? What, if anything, is the danger in hiding in plain sight? 

CQ: I think…well, I think I feel invisible a lot, so the protagonists feel invisible a lot as a result. But I think it’s interesting that you describe it as “hiding in plain sight,” because a lot of these characters feel like there’s a menace in plain sight that they’re afraid of, that they can sense, that other people aren’t aware of. Like a guy who’s really creepy, or like in the title story, “Let’s Go Let’s Go Let’s Go,” there’s a menace, for example. These protagonists hope that remaining invisible might stop them from being noticed by something dangerous. 

JA: So it’s like a form of self-protection. 

CQ: It’s safer not to be noticed. 

JA: In addition to invisibility, loneliness is another big theme in the book. How does loneliness function as a driving force in this collection? In your opinion, why does it appeal to us as readers, and to you, as a writer? 

CQ: I’ve also felt really lonely in my life, so a lot of my protagonists are lonely! But I do think that loneliness is an inevitable function of invisibility. The characters throughout are trying to figure out how to be more visible and less lonely while also staying safe. I don’t know if they actually figure it out in the stories, but they’re trying. Something that people have said about my collection is that it’s about alienation and technology, and I do think that we live in a very alienated society. I think that New York, where a lot of the stories take place, is a very alienating city. And modern life, with all the apps and emails and social media and screens, is very alienating. So much of our lives take place on these devices that are not part of our bodies, and I think this just divorces our interior lives from our physicality in a way that drives loneliness in contemporary culture. I think a lot of people are very lonely.  

JA: At many moments while reading, I felt a sense of how desperately these protagonists wanted to be perfect—a drive that often came from within, but also had outside influences. How does race, as many of these protagonists are Asian, affect these characters? 

CQ: For the perfection part, I grew up in Southern California, and my high school was very “model minority.” It was a public high school that was really competitive and you were supposed to take 20 AP classes; it was a feeder school for Stanford and UC Berkeley and all that. Everyone from my high school is now struggling with the consequences of that perfectionist culture. We had a sense that if you take the right classes and get the right grades and go to the right school, then everything will be on track, but you have to make the right choices as well. You can’t make a single misstep. I do think a lot of these protagonists, especially Luna and Nora, really feel that pressure, and I think part of it is cultural. So maybe part of it does come from growing up under immigrants who have a sense of precariousness. The second part of it is also generational. These characters are late millennials, and many of us have this sense that we could do everything right and still not get the right job, or not get the right healthcare, or get messed up very easily, and that sense of anxiety is very pervasive in these stories. 

JA: I think that anxiety really comes through. Some of these stories also have magical realist elements, but they’re often very subtle. What influenced your decision to include these elements, and why are they important to the collection? 

CQ: I feel like I’ve never been good at writing realist fiction, and when you’re writing contemporary fiction, there is kind of a disdain that people have if you’re not writing realism. I think that’s changing now, but that is something I struggled with. Ever since I started writing fiction, there’s always been a slightly surreal element to my writing. I read a lot of Japanese, Chinese, and Latin American fiction in translation, and it seems like the literary cultures of those countries are a lot more welcoming of surrealist elements. The question of genre doesn’t come up that much. I feel like reading across cultures really liberated me—I mentioned Han Kang as a writer I really like, but I generally like writers who just don’t worry so much about realism. 

I do think there are some films now that engage with realism really well, and depict society really well, and might do for culture what Edith Wharton did when she was writing. I feel like nowadays, novels have a different function in culture. They don’t just depict society; they’re more interior, and I think that surrealism and magical realism can serve as tools to go deeper psychologically than a simple social sketch. 

JA: How does queerness function in your book? Does it relate to other themes, like loneliness or alienation?

CQ: Queerness is an undercurrent throughout most, if not all, of the stories, whether implicit or explicit. There are queer romantic relationships, and there is a lot of longing throughout, by women, for other women: what might be termed sapphic longing. But I think most importantly, no matter who the protagonists are attracted to or longing for, queerness is present with the ceaseless, restless questioning the characters engage in. To be queer is to question how to live, why to live, who to live with, how to be, and to do so counters the grain of what the “norm” is in whatever society the characters live in. Ames and Miho in “Seagull Village,” for instance, are pursuing very different ways of meaning-making and being than the society around them. Luna, throughout, is constantly reinventing herself and holding certain parts of herself up to the light, testing alternate modes and identities—sometimes explicitly, like with the dress mannequin—rather than taking for granted what path in life works best for her.

I also think queerness relates most to the structure of relationships throughout the book, too, and the collapse and blurring of different types of relationship categories. Friendships are taken as seriously as romance, and they function as self-exploratory sites for interrogating desires, wants, selfhood, and limits—finding where the self stops, and where it dissolves into someone else. I think this can be seen in, for instance, Emi in the title story. She is obviously drawn to Lily, but it isn’t clearly stated as physical or sexual attraction. Still, Emi finds something vital in Lily that helps her mold herself. And in general, the categories of friend, lover, idol, mentor, antagonist, and mirror of the self are all rather fluid throughout the pieces.

JA: How important is setting to you in these stories, and how does place change in your writing process? 

 CQ: These stories take place in New York, China, Japan, and California. I move around a lot and have lived in these places at different points of my life. The question of place is a very sensitive question for me because, whether it is because of my ethnicity or heritage or whether it is a fundamental personality trait, I feel as though I am on the outside of so many places and feel like people are often asking me to justify why I am living or working in a particular place, and no matter where it is, there will be people who question how I got there. Simply put, I feel out of place all the time. I think as a result, I feel anxiety about writing each place authentically, and so I try to conjure place very vividly, to add as many details to fill in the setting as I can, as though to prove that yes, I did live there, yes, I do know this place, yes, I did occupy physical space in it. I did breathe this air. I did exist here. 

Place was very important to me in each story. Often, a particular setting, such as Mount Haruna (in the title story), or the specific restaurant that the “Chicken. Film. Youth.” restaurant is based on, unlocks the rest of the story for me. At the same time, I have felt very lost in many of the places I lived, and I am not good with details like store names and street directions, so throughout writing these stories, I’ve emphasized the atmosphere and feeling of a place more than its specific proper nouns.

JA: What were some of your influences as you were writing this book and compiling these stories? 

CQ: I do really like Han Kang, and also Mariana Enriquez. I was into Yoko Ogawa, but I read a lot of her stuff before The Memory Police got popular, so I feel like I was a fan before The Memory Police got big in America. I tend to like writers who are not super voice-driven, but do something subtle with morphing reality and depicting psychology. 

JA: Your book comes out in August. What’s next for you? 

CQ: I have been working on a poetry collection. Once that’s squared away, whether it’s accepted or rejected, I do want to get back to new work, and I actually picked up an old fiction project that I started a really long time ago and I’m totally reworking it. So hoping to get back into that. 


Joanna Acevedo

Joanna Acevedo is a writer, editor, and educator from New York City. She is the author of two books and two chapbooks, and her writing can be seen across the web and in print, including in Jelly Bucket, Hobart, The Rumpus and The Adroit Journal, among others. She received her MFA in Fiction from New York University in 2021, and also holds degrees from Bard College and The New School.

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