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10 Questions for Cleo Qian

Cleo Qian

I was, and continue to be, impatient. During the rests, I never counted properly, always stumbling forward to get to the next note. I didn't understand how a song worked, how to contextualize notes and phrases, the arc of a piece. When I performed, I relied on muscle memory: if you stopped me after I started, I couldn't go on. 
—from "Common Time" by Cleo Qian, Volume 64, Issue 2 (Summer 2023)

Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
When I was in college, in one of my first creative writing workshops, I wrote a short story about a woman who literally loses her words. She sees a physical manifestation of them as they fly out of her mouth and she can’t catch them. She can’t speak anymore and becomes silenced. Later, I started a piece in which a woman gets a skin care treatment and starts growing tiny bones in her skin. I haven’t been very good at sticking to writing strict realism, though I tried (and continue to try).

What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
Too many, and all so different. I really liked the visceral, creepy-cold feeling of Han Kang, Yoko Ogawa, Mariana Enriquez, Taeko Kono, Ha Seong-Nan. Borges made a big impact on me when I read him. I learned how to linger on a small detail from daily life and bring out the emotion in it from Japanese authors like Hiromi Kawakami and Yasunari Kawabata. Natsume Soseki’s Kokoro was very influential to me as a reader; later, I sought to recapture that feeling of elegy. I also was influenced by Patrick Modiano’s novels, how he creates this noirish atmosphere and evokes the hauntedness of regret and memory. But it’s hard to say what I successfully adopted as an influence and what I simply admired but failed to make my own.

What other professions have you worked in?
I currently work a day job at a nonprofit. Previously, I’ve worked at a for-profit education company (which didn’t feel great); as a Japanese translator and editor for a publishing house; as a research assistant; as an admin assistant for a social science research lab; an editor for an English-language city magazine in Tokyo; as an English teacher; an ice cream scooper; a waitress…

What did you want to be when you were young?
I always said I wanted to be a writer. I didn’t really know any writers (or readers, to be honest), though, and I didn’t really know what that meant. I thought it might be fun to be an archaeologist at one point. Or someone who does exploring, like an aviator, or mapmaker.

What inspired you to write this piece?
I wrote this when I was going through a time of great grief and recovering from a bad relationship, in a time of a lot of change in my life which made me look differently at my past life as well. I was reconnecting with some people who I hadn’t talked to in a long time. I was reading The Body Keeps the Score and starting to understand why this samul nori troupe was so important to me - the feeling of rhythm, of community, of building trust with the people around you. I was also very tired of words and was interested in how rhythm has no words. Funnily enough, after I wrote a draft of this piece I ran into someone from the Koong in New York in a totally random place, after not having seen her or kept up with her on social media in any way for eight years. It was a big coincidence.

Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
I think Southern California subconsciously infiltrates my writing often. Also, the coast, and places with bodies of water, like lakes and oceans. I also think of the Asian metropolises a lot, in an abstract way; they’re so shiny and new, compared to American cities.

Is there any specific music that aids you through the writing or editing process?
I listen to math rock pretty often, like by the band toe. And while this sounds really annoying, sometimes I’ll put on a classical music playlist with Bach or something. I truly don’t know much about classical music, but it seems to help.

Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
I think writing longhand on physical paper helps.

Who typically gets the first read of your work?
Jenzo DuQue, an editor here at Massachusetts Review, is a longtime friend and has read a lot of my fiction. I’ve also shared fiction with fellow writers Silvia Park and Nadine Browne, and there are some other classmates and writers I’ve asked for a first read from time to time. But usually, I don’t have a first reader. I do a lot of the writing and revising on my own.

If you could work in another art form what would it be?
I think I’d like to make movies. I think unlike writing fiction, I’d be interested in making a slow, detailed, human drama-driven movie; I really like the director Edward Yang.


CLEO QIAN (she/her) is a writer originally born in California. Her first book, LET'S GO LET'S GO LET'S GO, a collection of short stories, is forthcoming in August 2023. Find her online at

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