Rona Wang is a sophomore at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. For her writing, she has been named a HerCampus 22 Under 22 and nominated for the Best of the Net Anthology. She is originally from Portland, Oregon.
Cranesong explores the trauma that clutters our bones, the echoes that infuse our language, every dawn that insists on spinning into existence despite it all. At the same time, it lingers inside wild wind, consumes the cartography of longing, interrogates all the colors piano music can hold. These characters don't exist in the same world, but if they did, perhaps they’d recognize each other.
Cranesong was released on February 13th, 2019 from Half Mystic Press. You can order here.
A Conversation between Rona Wang and Lily Bechtold
1. Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with us today, Rona! Cranesong is such a beautiful celebration of human emotion. What inspired its creation? How did you begin?
Thank you so much for having me, it’s an honor! The stories in Cranesong bloomed from very liminal spaces—I wrote all of them when I was a teenager and caught in stages of transience. I felt very unsure at the time, and in many ways, writing Cranesong was a way to map my way back to my roots.
2. You dedicated Cranesong to your grandparents and their stories. In which moments do you specifically see their influence or hear their echoes?
I don’t know if there’s a specific moment, because the stories in Cranesong aren’t directly derived from, say, a folktale my grandparents relayed to me. But I think the collection brims with the values they instilled in me, especially that ferocious hunger for survival that I still carry today.
3. The characters in Cranesong are varied in age, gender, and sexuality, yet their stories flow together seamlessly. Is there any single thread or common element that you see binding them together?
Superficially, the answer is that all the protagonists are of Chinese descent. It’s a question that’s pursued throughout the collection—what does it mean to be Chinese, or Chinese-American? There’s a lot of beauty that manifests from this heritage—“Wu Daozi Dreaming,” which is set in the Tang Dynasty, has this dreamy surreal atmosphere, for example. But there’s also inherited trauma—this is probably most obvious in “The Art of Acceptance” or “How to be a Badass.” Can the former exist without the latter? I’ll leave that up to the reader to decide.
4. One thing that really hit home for me was the reconciliation of parental expectations with reality in your stories, which was so well-encapsulated in “Style” and lines like “my mother had at least been obsessed with the idea of me.” To what degree do parental influences inform each of the characters in the collection?
This is an interesting question, because parental influence is often humming below the surface here—for example, in “How to Be Badass,” the protagonist’s father is only mentioned in passing, but he still plays an invisible yet integral role in the plot.
I’m very occupied with intergenerational suffering and how that informs love. For immigrant families, absence is often a symptom—or maybe symptom isn’t quite the right word, maybe the word should be hallmark—of love. In “Liv, Liv, Lipstick Liar,” the main character’s mother is never present because she is busy working at a nail salon.
I wanted to critique Western ideas about familial love—that familiar diatribe of oh, your parents must be tiger parents, filial piety is terrible, etc. For a long time, I saw being loved as this insurmountable debt, but now I see it as an honor.
5. Pop culture and its individual impacts are so present in Cranesong, but there’s no easy definition of how pop culture affects your characters. STYLE’s leader Yuna is unlike the kind of Asian representation described in the beginning of “How to Be Badass,” which is unlike elements of other stories, too. How do you see the pressures of stereotype and the effects of cultural representation interacting in these stories?
I made a point of incorporating lots of East Asian pop culture (Nigahiga, K-pop, Jay Chou) in Cranesong, because I grew up consuming that media. But it’d be totally unfair for me to celebrate it without also acknowledging how problematic it can be, and how Asian-Americans can get a bit fanatic about representation to the point where such activism can become toxic. This idea is most blatant in “How to Be Badass.”
It’s a nuanced issue, and I’ll admit that it’s hard to explore in such a brief medium. I hope to write more about it in the future.
6. The stories’ settings soar from an 88-day walk through “farms salted with blood, villages boneless with smoke” to the inside of modern high schools with such lightness. Was there any challenge in weaving cohesive narratives against such varied backdrops?
I wrote these stories without intending to coalesce them into a collection—I think the larger challenge was deciding the order of the stories and figuring out how they all fit together, since they’re rooted in such different worlds. At the risk of sounding super MIT, there were multiple permutations before I found the right configuration, where each story slid into the next thematically.
7. Located right next to each other, “Seeking” and “The Girl in the Rice Paddies” offer two very different takes on the progression from girlhood to womanhood, yet I could feel so clearly connected to both stories. How does Cranesong work to navigate the female teen experience with such simultaneous specificity and relatability?
So glad to hear that you felt connected to those stories! I didn’t set out to explore girlhood, exactly. I wanted to prod at the institutions of innocence and childhood, and how those notions can be quite dangerous. So I ended up mining my own experiences deeply and tenderly, which is pretty useful for writing honest work.
8. In relation to that, what do femininity and girlhood mean to you individually? Where do you feel your own experiences emerge most in the collection?
I think the first short story I ever wrote about girlhood was titled “Finally Getting It”—I was fifteen and still writing white protagonists. It was centered around this backyard treehouse that the narrator wasn’t allowed to enter because it was “boys’ only,” but I had never even been inside a treehouse, this symbol of American (white) childhood. It took years for me to realize, hey, my girlhood wasn’t really aligned with what I’m writing about.
“Liv, Liv, Lipstick Liar” is a total antithesis to conventional norms of girlhood. It’s all about what happens when one undocumented Chinese girl tries to bend her own girlhood to match that of her classmates’, who are wealthy and white.
9. Surreal elements crop up a few times in the collection, especially in “The Evolution of Wings” and “Wu Daozi Dreaming.” According to Dali, “Surrealism is destructive, but it destroys only what it considers to be shackles limiting our vision.” How do you use surrealism to destroy certain shackles and redefine reality?
That quote is fantastic, thanks for sharing! I think surrealism is super cool. (One of my favorite short stories is “Paper Menagerie” by Ken Liu.) Magical elements work best, in my opinion, when they exist to interrogate a character’s emotional landscape. In “The Evolution of Wings,” the character witnesses her classmates metamorphosing into birds, but she remains human. It’s a metaphor for her arrested development brought on by unresolved trauma.
10. Was there an aspect of the creation process or a story that was particularly difficult for you to complete? How did you keep working through it?
I actually first began writing “Style” in January 2018 but didn’t finish it until August of that year. Out of all the stories in Cranesong, it took the longest to draft. One of my friends commented that it feels “like a car crash,” which was the intended effect—but it was very difficult to balance the pacing and tension to create such an experience.
11. A common roadblock for young writers who want to share their work is not knowing where to go with their finished product. What advice would you give about the querying and publishing process?
I’ve been super fortunate in my publishing process with Half Mystic Press—I sent them the manuscript and they got back to me within a month or two. However, there are horror stories, too; in middle school, my friend and I co-wrote a novella and tried to get it published. One press accepted it, but asked for $4000 up-front. A quick Google search confirmed that the company was entangled in multiple legal battles for fraud. (It was dismantled several years ago.) It’s imperative for young writers to do their research and protect their work!
12. Do you have any plans for after the collection’s release? What else can we look forward to reading or seeing from you?
I’m working on a few longer projects right now, so keep your eyes peeled for more on those! If you’d like, I would love to connect with you all on Twitter at https://twitter.com/ronaywang :)