10 Questions for Cherry Lou Sy
- By Edward Clifford
Maria slinked in corners and stood next to objects that did not move, pretending that she was an object. She held on to her growing belly. It wouldn't stop moving, wriggling like a worm exposed to the sun. She tried to wear bigger clothes, pretending that nothing was happening in the area of her stomach, but still, it would not stop.
—from "The Nameless," Vol. 64, Issue 1 (Spring 2023)
Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
One of my earliest memories of writing a piece of fiction was in fifth grade. I was a student in a small school in the Philippines where the principal was also my fifth grade English teacher. I don’t recall now what the prompt was, but I remember writing about the travels of an old galleon coin from a pirate ship—probably because I used to read a lot of those children’s books classics. My older sister was always reading them and I didn’t want to be left out. Books like The Secret Garden, My Little Princess, Robinson Crusoe. My English teacher read the adventures about the old galleon coin, which was probably a page and a half long in cursive writing on a piece of paper, and, during one of the Parent-Teacher meetings, told my father that I had a talent for writing and to cultivate it.
What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
The Lover by Marguerite Duras; The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante; Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides; the writings of Audre Lorde, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, and Jamaica Kincaid; Daniyal Mueenudin’s short story collection In Other Rooms, Other Wonders; my late friend Kimarlee Nguyen life and short stories; Alexander Chee’s essay collection How to Write an Autobiographical Novel; Cathy Park Hong’s Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning.
What other professions have you worked in?
I was a hospital clerk, a children’s party clown, that person who handed flyers from the street, actress, office receptionist, theater usher, a server, a diner counter person who cut bagels and bread slices and toasted them, college assistant, teaching artist, and adjunct lecturer.
What did you want to be when you were young?
It’s pedestrian and a stock response from a kid out of Asia: I wanted to either be a doctor or a business person. I thought I would be financially comfortable in whatever profession I chose. But look at me now!
What inspired you to write this piece?
I wanted to work on a piece that was both familiar and unfamiliar to what I know of Filipino society and folklore, particularly its supernatural folklore. One of the common social mores for young girls is to keep their virtues intact, but I heard so many stories growing up of fallen women. I imagined what it would be like for a young girl who doesn’t see this as a fall from grace but a deal she makes with a figure. Is the figure the devil? Is it her imagination? We don’t quite know.
Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
I think there exists in my head an imagined place of everywhere I’ve been to. I haven’t been back to the Philippines since I left over two decades ago, so it has a pull on me that I can’t quite explain. China, a place that I have only ever been to as a college student for two years, also has a mythical quality to me that I can’t place. When my grandparents left, it was a different China. They ended up having Taiwanese passports even though they both ended up migrating to the Philippines. My grandmother even had bound feet! I also found out recently that she was adopted by an opium drug lord family after her mother committed suicide. I knew her until I was ten and she was legendary with how she handled money, computing with her abacus, and kept an eagle eye on the cash till of their store and gas station. The China I know exists from my father’s stories of it. Second-hand and off-the-rack. There are other places that I’ve traveled to and lived in, of course.
Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
Since attending my first Tin House workshop in Winter ’21, I discovered that the best time for me to write is in the mornings. I used to light a candle and have it on while I wrote. I don’t do that now anymore. I just get up, have breakfast, then write.
If you could work in another art form what would it be?
I already do! I am also a playwright! I used to draw when I was younger before I decided to pursue writing more seriously. Maybe I’ll get back to that at some point.
What are you working on currently?
I’m currently revising my novel Love Can’t Feed You, a coming-of-age story about intergenerational fractures and the task of forging an identity as a mixed-race immigrant daughter, following a young woman who moves from the Philippines to NYC with her family in pursuit of “a better life”—one that seems out of reach and leaves her suspended between two countries, two identities, and two parents. It’s set to be published in the Fall of 2024 through Dutton Press.
What are you reading right now?
I just finished reading John Okada’s No-No Boy and Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist for a class I designed and currently teach at Brooklyn College called The Introduction to the Asian American Pacific Islander Experience Through Literature. No-No Boy should be considered an American classic in the canon, but it came from the ashes of such a complicated history in the aftermath of World War II and how Japanese Americans were treated during their incarceration for being considered the enemy from within. The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a novel born out of the existential crisis that many Muslims in America felt after the advent of 9/11. I found that the two novels spoke to each other since both talked about conditional Americanness during times of war.
CHERRY LOU SY (she/her) is a writer/playwright originally from the Philippines of Chinese and Filipino heritage. Currently based in Lenapehoking, aka Brooklyn, New York, she received her BA at NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study and attended Brooklyn College’s MA in English Literature as well as the MFA in Playwriting program under Mac Wellman and Erin Courtney. She’s a recipient of fellowships and residencies from VONA and Tin House among others and a finalist for way too many things to mention.