John Gu’s story, “On the Occasion of the Publication of the Revised Edition of the Practical Chinese Reader,” appears in the autumn 2020 issue of The Southern Review. Here, he discusses the intertwined nature of language and memory, the ineffable pull of nostalgia, and the ways in which how we see the world change as we grow older.
Shakirah Peterson, Editorial Assistant: This story is a unique narrative told through glimpses of a language textbook. How did the inspiration for this narrative form?
John Gu: In the case of this story, reality did most of the heavy lifting in drawing the idea. A few years ago I was trying to learn to read Chinese (which I grew up speaking, but which I am no longer very fluent in, and which I still can’t read) and I was working out of a Chinese language textbook that the textbook in the story is based on. I discovered one day that a “revised” edition of my textbook had come out several decades after the publication of the first book (which had been published in the 80’s), and the characters in the second (revised) book are indeed the children of the characters in the first book. This discovery inspired in me this powerful, delicious feeling of secondhand nostalgia that I wanted to capture and sketch into a story.
SP: You write that the Practical Chinese Reader itself should not be blamed for “unhinging the floodgates” of memories, and that “objects always begin as themselves, simple and shapeless, and then accrue our associations.” Can an encounter with an object inspire your writing? Do you often give shape to objects in your work?
JG: In answer to your first question, oh absolutely! It’s the feeling right?, that some very mundane (or nonmundane) physical object can inspire in you or call to mind for you that you’d want to capture. As to your second question, I think that if an object has a storied past, it can be as rich a character as any human being in the right story.
SP: Gubo and Palanka, the protagonists of the language textbook in your story, meet at the train station and you call it “the kind of reunion that could only occur in the bounds of fiction: the lovers embracing after defeating the exigencies of time and distance.” How would you describe the bounds of fiction? Do you find fiction to be an idealistic genre? Do the bounds of fiction make it easier to create human interactions that we dream to experience in reality?
JG: I suppose there are different authorial approaches. Some writers might be sticklers for verisimilitude while others just want to explore a feeling, and don’t trouble themselves too much about whether it’s fantasy or reality that they’re describing in their stories. I suppose that to the extent that I give the question thought when I’m reading or writing, I do tend to think of fiction as existing in a kind of heightened world, where things are either hyperreal or hyporeal, and where we as authors get to land the emotional punches that don’t ever quite seem to hit the mark as satisfyingly in real life.
SP: Youth plays a large role in this story. The language book seems to be a reminder of how simple living is when you’re young and how complex life become as you grow older. Would you consider this to be one of the themes you’d want the reader to take away from this story?
JG: Ha, ironically, I wrote this story a few years ago, when I was younger, and I had thought then that I was qualified to discuss what life is like when you grow a bit older. Now, I’m not so sure I’m qualified to make any claims vis-a-vis what life is like as you get older, but yes, I suppose it’s something like that that I’m saying in the story (that life gets more complex when you’re older, and is the worse for it, in a way).
This story is very much a story about youth, and how we look with nostalgia on the years of our youth, but I don’t think that we feel nostalgic about youth because it’s a simpler time, but because the world feels vaster, the possibilities greater, when we’re young. Doesn’t everyone feel that way?
John Gu grew up in Houston and studied at the University of Texas at Austin. At the age of twenty-seven, he quit his job to travel the world, learn different languages, and write about his experiences. He currently resides in Mexico City, Mexico. You can find him online at https://johngu.io.
Shakirah Peterson is the editorial assistant for The Southern Review and an MFA candidate in creative writing at Louisiana State University. She writes across all genres: poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. She is originally from Los Angeles, California, where she earned a BA in communication studies at California State University Long Beach.
Support great writing by subscribing to The Southern Review.