10 Questions for Sonya Chyu
- By Edward Clifford
The first day of their year arrived four weeks later than the rest of the world's. Or, perhaps, the rest of the world's year had simply started forty-eight weeks early. In either case, the day was marked by great occasion: work and study were suspended for a week to accommodate cross-country travel and family reunions.
—from "The Middle of Things," Volume 60, Issue 3 (Fall 2020)
Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
My first published piece, "Sartorial Shedding," was birthed from a Creative Writing course taught by the always-witty Ernesto Quinones at Cornell University, and inspired by the summer I had just spent in Thailand as part of a business internship program. Though I am not Thai, the parallels of their culture with that of Taiwan—my heritage—sparked something I desperately needed to explore. All of this talking around my piece to say, the story itself chronicles gender fluidity as told through a stranger’s fallen clothing onto a balcony in Taiwan, and the linguistic nuances of Mandarin that can aid in gender expression.
What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
I am grateful to have found my anchoring writers in high school, and through required reading. The “3 M’s,” for “Masters,” as I call them: Murakami, Marquez, and Morrison. Though they have quite disparate styles, the commonalities of magical realism, cross-generational dynamics, and own voice narratives were models first for what I wanted to read, and later, what I wished to write.
What inspired you to write this piece?
“The Middle of Things” was the result of a sidebar conversation with my mother about recent political events in Taiwan. Inspired by the centuries-old Daoist practice of bua buei—divination via oracle blocks—and the coincidence of America’s own elections, and the story was born. Its themes of uncertainty were the more personal result of having just begun my first job post-college, and the general feelings of meaning-seeking that accompanied.
Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
My stories begin and end with Taiwan. As a 2nd-generation Taiwanese American, I grew up visiting relatives in Taiwan nearly every year, and spoke Mandarin before I knew a word of English. Something about the country has always lent itself to magic—myth permeates the air until we both live and become it. I don’t deny that in my fiction, I am translating Taiwanese culture through a bi-cultural lens to a multi-cultural audience. Fiction is about discovering those forgotten seeds of truth from my family or heritage, then returning daily to water them without knowledge of the final product. Some hard-earned truths I have realized as a bi-cultural writer: honor the story first and always, and if you wish to write about your heritage, do it while casting aside thoughts of pigeon-holing or community representation. If this is the story you wish to tell, then so be it. Let others tell you no.
Is there any specific music that aids you through the writing or editing process?
Melody matters more than genre; often the flow of a pop ballad is just as soothing as that of Debussy. While my tastes lean toward Classical, I also love Taiwanese and American pop music—flow can be achieved with or without lyrics. As an introvert, I find music lets me curate the headspace critical for focus. It is also my tool for amplifying or inducing a particular emotion, which in turn can help me “get in the heart” of a story’s narrator.
Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
This one I am still trying to figure out. (It’s tricky, isn’t it?) My rituals have varied vastly, by life stage but also by mood and setting. Certainly music is a must, also gum-chewing, which I find meditative, and a nice cup of something never hurts. One thing I do consistently is write at night, which started out of necessity with my full-time job, but which I now do out of true zeal. What could be more magical than writing at night? On my best days I go to bed inspired and awake sleep-deprived. It is always worth it.
Who typically gets the first read of your work?
My sister, more often than not. This is when having a twin is an especial blessing—she critiques my work with both the like-mindedness of an identical twin and the fresh eyes of a reader. Oftentimes she knows what I am trying to say; it’s the how she can help with.
If you could work in another art form what would it be?
I have always been a lifelong musician, beginning with piano at age five, flute at age ten, and later a Chimesmaster (this may require a quick internet search) at Cornell. Before becoming enamored with writing, I entertained fantasies of being a professional flautist.
Beyond the truism that music expresses what language cannot, music is to me a form of “ear-training”—attuning oneself to the lyricism necessary for writing. There is also something deeply spiritual about music and writing that I find organically complementary.
What are you working on currently?
I am in the final stages of a few short stories and the very early stage of another. My work has been evolving to draw more from Asian American history—the American West as built with the help of Chinese laborers, exclusionary immigration policies in the US, and the formation of Chinatowns. In my back pocket is the skeleton of something started in my senior year at Cornell—a novel with themes of climate justice, Taiwanese myth, and cultural drift. There are always more stories to be told.
What are you reading right now?
When the pandemic first hit, I, like many others, reverted to childhood comforts. Recently I have been enjoying the growing repertoire of Asian American juvenile fiction that did not yet exist when I was a kid—reclaiming my childhood, as I call it. How inspiring it is to read these voices! More recently I am reading “Gingerbread” by Helen Oyeyemi; anyone who knows her work knows her brilliance.
SONYA CHYU is a Taiwanese American writer whose work has won the Arthur Lynn Andrews Award, and was a finalist for the George Harmon Coxe Award and Glimmer Train’s Short Story Award for New Writers. Her short fiction has appeared in World Literature Today, Louisville Review, and elsewhere. By day, she is an account executive at the world’s largest consumer goods company. A presidential scholar graduate of Cornell University, she is at work on her first novel.