Upending the Scene: A Conversation with Te-Ping Chen

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Like therapy or a bidet, everyone can benefit from a good short story collection. A collection can function as a literary multivitamin, each story serving a different purpose, fulfilling myriad needs bound by one spine. Each story in journalist Te-Ping Chen‘s debut, Land of Big Numbers, satisfies—like a feast, there’s something for everyone. What a gift to give readers, especially now, when so many of us are starved for hope and joy.

Aiming to capture how the recent economic boom has shifted the lives and trajectories of people’s lives in modern China, this debut collection also follows the universal desire for purpose, especially where mobility is limited. In “Lulu,” a twin brother and sister embark on drastically different paths: one becomes a professional gamer, the other a political activist hellbent on exposing injustice. “New Fruit” brings a community together, relishing in the rare and marvelous taste that begets collective joy, until the fruit begins to unearth past traumas in anyone who takes a bite. And in “Gubeikou Spirit,” commuters are trapped underground on a train platform for months, initially awaiting the day they can return to their normal lives until eventually finding solace in abandoning the script of daily life and embracing their new community. Seven other stories also lie at the intersection of gripping and tenderhearted, garnished with occasional elements of magical realism. It’s a love letter to China and its people, and a stark reminder of the plights of those swept by the riptide of unchanging bureaucracy.

After years of reporting on contemporary China, Chen mines the foundation of her headlines to depict the beauty of the communities she’s encountered and the people she’s met and spoken to. The Wall Street Journal reporter shared with me how her background as a journalist influenced her fiction, and we spoke about the resiliency of community and the beauty of life’s minutiae.

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The Rumpus: What is it about the short story that sates you the most?

Te-Ping Chen: I find so much joy in writing short stories—like taking in a big draught of air. I always feel like one of the most fun parts of writing fiction is that bolt, the rush that comes from having a fresh inspiration or impulse, and the short story form really allows you to revel in that, because you have the delight in getting to start over, again and again. I picture it a little like running with a butterfly net in the air, whereas writing a novel is a more disciplined affair. For me there’s a tremendous sense of wonder that infuses the start of every short story, and you feel an almost giddy sense of possibility, and I love that. 

Rumpus: Have you always been more drawn to the short form? How has writing in that capacity influenced your craft?

Chen: I haven’t! I’ve always loved short stories, but before Land of Big Numbers hadn’t tried writing any. Prior to writing the collection, I’d been working to try and revise a novel, and had been hitting some walls. But setting it aside and experimenting with the short story form felt completely invigorating. I’d been frustrated, and the chance to play in a different genre really was liberating.

Rumpus: One of my favorite things about reading stories is following the narrative thread that binds the collection together. Tell me more about the connective tissue of Land of Big Numbers. Did the overall themes come to your first, or did it come into focus after writing one (or more) stories?

Chen: I wanted to write short stories, and of course these are all in one way or another about China, a country where I’ve lived for many years, and one I love deeply. I knew I wanted to try and convey a sense of place, and capture some of the incredible people and sensory color and detail of life around me, but beyond that I hadn’t really sketched out any notion of theme when writing. It was just writing one story at a time, seeing where they would take me.

I wrote the stories, and then I sent them to agents, and it was really only in the process of trying to pitch the collection that I started to stand back and think about the themes as a whole. At that point, it did strike me that many of the stories were grappling with similar questions: what freedom means, how we make and shape identities for ourselves, how we strive for meaning even in incredibly straightened circumstances.

But to be honest, it wasn’t until they were written that more of those connections became apparent to me.

Rumpus: I love that: “how we make and shape identities for ourselves.” Every character in this collection is, in some way, trying to carve a space for themselves in the world. Cao Cao, the old farmer who tries to build an airplane, particularly tugs at my heart. Is this why you’ve written such a diverse pool of protagonists varying in age, gender, and socioeconomic backgrounds?

Chen: Yes! That’s part of what I enjoyed so much about writing the book, that process of trying to get inside so many different characters’ heads. I was also conscious of wanting to challenge myself and evoke perspectives that I might not relate to so intuitively—something I think is also probably a reflex from journalism.

Rumpus: I’m curious how your background in journalism—and specifically, what you report on—has informed your fiction?

Chen: So much of what propelled me to write these stories was the feeling when I was in China that there were a million details and stories I’d encounter that didn’t fit into a newspaper article. It felt like an incredible privilege to get to be a reporter there, to meet and speak with so many people, often who were taking substantial personal risk to speak with me. I found it all vital and riveting, but not everything was a news story, and in many ways, fiction became my way to try and channel all those shards of life that you’d witness in the course of a day, the mundane details as well as the things that would take your breath away.

There’s a quote by Carlos Fuentes that I love: “Extreme attention is the creative faculty, and its condition is love.” To me that really sums up so much of my time in China, and writing in general. As a reporter, you accumulate stacks and stacks of notes (or more accurately in my case, unfinished drafts in my Gmail) that often disappear or go unused, a thought that, when it came to life in Beijing, was almost physically painful to me. I’d been wanting so desperately to find a way to capture or share what I was seeing around me, and so fiction became another kind of canvas.

Rumpus: Do you still have any notes, stacks, or unfinished drafts that you’d like to revisit? I personally have a file of unfinished Word documents that I hope one day will still become something, and even if they don’t, I still can’t bring myself to delete them.

Chen: Yes, absolutely, so many! By now they’re scattered on so many hard drives that it would be hard to surface them, but I have lots of bits and pieces hanging out in suspended states of being. Though truthfully, I don’t know if I could really sink back into any of them. Maybe it’s my background as a journalist, but I tend to get most excited by the idea of what’s next. Zadie Smith once said that the excitement of a new novel lies so much in repudiating the one that came before—when I read that, I found myself nodding wholeheartedly.

Rumpus: You report on work and work culture a lot, which is a recurring setting for a number of the stories in this book. What tools does fiction equip you with in this regard that reporting might not?

Chen: I always think of the voices in Studs Terkel’s Working, and as he puts it, how work is a search for meaning, as well as daily bread. It’s where we brush up against the minutiae of hope and longing and human frustrations, measured out in tiny increments, it shapes so much of how we see ourselves and other people and it’s where we mostly spend our waking lives. It’s a small stage, but an inherently dramatic one, and I think fiction allows you to linger on those aspects in a way that can be harder to capture in journalism.

Rumpus: What made “Land of Big Numbers” the perfect choice for the title of the collection?

Chen: I grew up loving fantasy, and the Land of Oz in particular. Until I was ten years old, I was convinced that I would someday be whisked away to a universe inhabited by talking tigers and roses that came to life. It never happened, of course—China was the farthest from home I ever got. And though it wasn’t conscious, thinking about your question now, I do think there’s a little bit of an echo there in the book’s title.

So often China is thought of as a place of abstractions, gargantuan and far away, and the book’s title is intended to evoke that, but in a way that’s playful, too, and pokes a little fun. My hope is that the stories offer up more of a prismatic, grounded sense of the country and its people, and some surprises along the way. 

Rumpus: When I got to the end of the last story—”Gubeikou Spirit”—and turned the page, only to discover that it was blank and the book was over, I exclaimed “NO” so loudly I startled the cat. That ending! But also, it was perfect and couldn’t imagine it ending any other way. But also, I want more? I feel like any of these stories have the potential to become a novel. If you had to choose one to turn into a novel, which story would it be and why?

Chen: Oh, wow! That is just the nicest thing to hear, thank you. And what fun to think about turning one into a novel. I hadn’t thought about that before.

If I had to pick, it might be “Shanghai Murmur.” Xiaolei is a character whose voice I can hear very plainly in my head, and she’s also one who I find very easy to relate to, and I’m really curious to know what will happen to her! Or maybe Cao Cao, the elderly farmer in “Flying Machine” who decides to build an airplane at the end of his life; I would really enjoy rewinding and getting to write more about him at earlier points in his story, too. They’re some of the characters I have the most fondness for, so it’s very easy to imagine following them for the course of a whole novel.

I am working on a novel now, though it’s a little hard to talk about since it’s not done, and it’s a completely different kind of challenge. Send all novel-writing tips my way, please! 

Rumpus: Back to “Gubeikou Spirit,” because I’m still not over it. I feel like it straddled the fine line between possible and this-could-never-happen. (Counterpoint: we know, especially from the past year, that anything is possible.) What do you want the reader to take away from tapping into such a narrow space between possibility and impossibility?

Chen: You’re right; this past year has shown us that anything is possible. With “Gubeikou Spirit,” I was trying to explore the idea of how easy it is to grow comfortable with a lack of autonomy, a lack of freedom and control, and how seductive it can be to let others—the government, other arbiters of authority—assume control and choose the script. In some ways to me that story feels like a dark fairytale, and I hope that the reader feels a little unsettled by it. On one level, it’s a story about people pulling together and surviving and the triumph of community. But it’s also one about how frighteningly malleable people can be, and how readily we can adapt and become complicit. I hope both those messages come through. 

Rumpus: I love the tongue-in-cheek magical realism in some of the stories. Why did you choose to include this element and how does it impress what you want to convey?

Chen: I feel like China is a place that demands both styles. It’s a place that subverts genre, and is such an over-the-top place to live that it almost feels like magical realism and realism already coexist. It’s a place where the government literally seeds the clouds and decides when it’s going to rain, and a place where for a while, one fashion trend was to wear fake green plants on your head, so in crowded streets you could sometimes trick yourself into thinking you were looking out on a moving field. So, there’s that.

And, for me, while my background is in journalism, fiction is a chance to play. Many of the stories take a kernel of something in my own life and then start running away. Like one story, “New Fruit,” which is basically a tribute in many ways to the neighborhood where I lived in Beijing, in an apartment in an old hutong. It was a very traditional kind of old neighborhood, where peddlers bring in fresh fruit from the countryside and all the retirees sit around, browse the markets, and people watch. When living in Beijing I loved nothing more than to wander through and make chit-chat. But at the same time, you knew that the people you were seeing had lived through such unspeakable tragedies, from the Cultural Revolution to Tiananmen. I wanted to describe the neighborhood as earnestly as I could, and I put a lot of love and affection into the portrait, but at the same time I wanted to upend the scene a little. So I imagined, what would happen if a fruit arrived in the markets that made everyone start to remember the things they wanted to forget?

When living in China, I found myself constantly reinventing scenes and wondering “what would happen if…” These stories are in many ways an answer. 

Rumpus: There’s an ode to joy, ordinary pleasures, which is very much needed, especially now. What are some things that bring you joy in this challenging time?

Chen: First on the list is probably my son, who’s a toddler now and entranced by songs and sounds and moving vehicles and has the biggest laugh and is just incredibly fun to hang out with. And books, I’m always grateful for books, but especially in a time when we’ve all been stuck in place, they offer one of the surest ways to be transported, to have that sense of travel and breaking free from our own heads.

On the list of more humble pleasure: chips! I recently learned from my husband’s ninety-three-year-old grandmother that there used to be a company that did door-to-door potato chip deliveries—like the milkman, but better—and was so delighted by this vision. The potato chip delivery man doesn’t exist anymore, but it turns out you can still buy the chips, which are excellent, and have accounted for a pretty large portion of what I’ve eaten in recent months.

Rumpus: This collection has a lot of heart, both individually and on the whole. I feel like, despite history, government, and the limits imposed by both, community is resilient. Why was it important for you to include this aspect?

Chen: I’m so happy that came across! I didn’t want the collection to feel too dark, because fundamentally, I don’t think that’s the story. There’s a lot of darkness in the history and the government, but when I think of my time in China, I mostly think about the incredible creativity and resourcefulness and cleverness and resilience of the people that I met, and that to me is what’s important, and what I want people to focus on.

In some ways, especially in these times, when we’re mediating the world from a distance through screens, it’s easiest to see what’s harsh and ugly and the things that make us despair. But if you zoom in, you start to see what’s particular, what’s human, and the ways we are weak, but also kind and strong in ways that can offer hope.

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Photograph of Te-Ping Chen by Lucas Foglia.


Greg Mania is the author of the memoir Born to Be Public. More from this author →