An Interview with Joy Guo
By Lauren Furman
Just this year, New York–based writer and attorney Joy Guo has published work in the Masters Review‘s New Voices, the Bureau Dispatch, Jellyfish Review, Hobart, and Chestnut Review. She also reads for No Contact, “a digital publisher of short-form prose, poetry, and hybrid works.” Her flash fiction has been nominated for several prestigious prizes and anthologies, including a Pushcart Prize and the Best Small Fictions anthology.
In this interview, Guo and Colorado Review’s assistant managing editor, Lauren Furman, got in touch to discuss her new story “A Most Generous Offer,” published in the Summer 2022 issue of Colorado Review. Join them as they explore such themes as generosity, womanhood, and responsibility.
Lauren Furman: This story is so clean and tactful in its construction—the sectioned structure and the emotional content build into one another beautifully. Can you elaborate on your writing process for this piece? Where did the idea come from and how did you shape it into a story?
Joy Guo: I initially wrote the whole story from the child’s present-day perspective, but I’ve always had a tricky time writing in a child’s voice because there are, inevitably, all these adult nuances that seep through. In a subsequent draft, I rewrote the story from scratch through the eyes of an adult narrator looking back and noticing things that a child would never have reason to. The voice felt truer and more believable that way. Earlier drafts also focused a lot more on the assault, making it the story’s centerpiece. While some of that remains in the final version, I tried building in more context, so that hopefully it reflects a degree of contemplation that comes when a period of time passes and you’ve had to sit with the thing that happened.
Some scenes took a lot longer than others to write. The scene with the mother in the bathtub—that came fully realized to me. But the back-and-forth with Yan and Mrs. Yang at the end took several tries to get the reproachful tone just right.
As with almost all my stories, the idea for this one came from personal knowledge. My father’s family owned an apartment in China that became the center of this decades-long family conflict. As a child I heard stories about it all the time—how this one relative was invited to stay for a month and that month turned into years and there were ultimately eviction proceedings. So that was the germ for the idea.
LF: Much of your previously published work is flash fiction. When you set out to write this did you think it would be flash as well, or did you know it would be a full-length story? How did this differ from writing flash fiction?
JG: No, I set out from the beginning to write a longer story. I think flash is useful in teaching how to write with restraint because you only have so much real estate to leave an impact. Flash is its own form of storytelling. It’s a snapshot, a peek behind the curtain. You need a lot of momentum to sustain a piece of flash. I wanted this story to contain some lulls, a pause every now and then for the action to slow down and take a breath. Editing-wise, for me, flash is both harder and easier—I’m always mindful of the word count, but there are fewer moving pieces to keep track of.
LF: One of my favorite parts of this piece is your nuanced depiction of female bonds and burdens, especially through the sibling relationship. The narrator, Yan, envies her half sister’s beauty and the attention she receives from adults. Along with that attention, however, Lin also gets taken advantage of by Wu Laoshi, though in the end, it appears that Yan is the one who carries the burden of that knowledge. How did ideas of family, duty, and the experience of girlhood/womanhood impact the way this relationship shows up on the page?
JG: That’s such a great question. I’m an only child, so I tried to incorporate some of that natural distance and isolation into how Yan perceives her relationship with Lin. She grows up with this competitor for affection and attention and constantly feels like she’s not measuring up, like someone else always has it better. I think the realization of what happened with Wu Laoshi, in a perverse way, feeds into those insecurities even more, based on a child’s reading and memory of what she saw, and it’s not until Mrs. Yang reframes what happened that the full brunt of what her sister experienced occurs to Yan. And, even though this story is told from Yan’s perspective, I did want to incorporate some of what Lin is thinking and experiencing. For instance, Lin refers to Yan as the daughter who knows how to get things done. I thought that was a clue that Lin has her own sense of competition to wrestle with.
The idea of duty, as you mention, comes off as adult in nature. For Yan, there’s no recognizable, articulated concept of keeping an eye on her sister when they’re kids, though in hindsight, the act of witnessing what happens has its own significance. Yan will always feel some resistance and frustration to being seen as her sister’s keeper, whatever that means, but in the end, the discovery of how Mrs. Yang has taken responsibility for them, without being asked to, triggers a parallel sense of obligation for Yan.
LF: Alongside the sisters, Mrs. Yang also offers an interesting depiction of womanhood. She rejects the femininity and kindness expected of women and expresses a distaste for the narrator, yet she also fiercely protects Yan and Lin, filling the stereotypical female caregiver role. Was it difficult to navigate these seemingly contradictory attributes when you were constructing her character? How did you envision Mrs. Yang either fitting or breaking the mold of what is expected of women?
JG: Absolutely. As you’ve picked up on, it’s hard to slot Mrs. Yang into one box, but I hope that’s exactly what makes her so well-rounded. I initially wrote her as very malicious, an active antagonist for Yan to butt heads with, but doing so flattened the character for me. It drained anything compelling about her. What makes someone who’s not a family member, who also has her own interests at heart, watch over two children for years without asking for some sort of acknowledgment? So I wrote her with shades of nurturing. For instance, she manages to do a complete overhaul of the apartment, something the actual owners are incapable of doing. But I also wanted to retain that instinct of self-preservation, for Mrs. Yang to be the one who sets the terms of the arrangement and who wields the control to tell the whole story. Both can coexist and make her relatable. She’s asking, How is what I’m doing good for me and for others? That’s the guiding principle at the heart of Mrs. Yang’s character.
LF: The apartment in the story seems to have a life of its own, holding the family history and the personal memories of the narrator. Through backstory, detailed descriptions, and conflict, the apartment seems to push past the role of a setting and into the space of a character. Can you talk a bit about the process of writing about a place like that and the role you envisioned for the apartment in the story?
JG: Yes, the apartment is its own self-contained character. The setting guides the narrative. The apartment is what sets the events of the story into motion and serves as the motivation for all of the characters—Yan and Lin view it as their birthright, something that’s obviously theirs by virtue of being in their family for generations, something that they don’t necessarily feel any concrete attachment to, other than what it could mean for their more immediate needs and dreams. On the other hand, Mrs. Yang sees it differently, as something to attain and once attained, to improve upon, something deserving of love.
I also wanted the apartment to serve as the physical embodiment of memories. It’s quite possible Yan and Lin would have moved on with their lives if they didn’t have the apartment to contend with. It’s what prompts Yan’s trip back to Beijing to seek answers. I’m glad you asked about the process of writing about a place like this because I found it to be one of the most challenging aspects of writing this story—to imbue a physical setting with so many attributes. Some earlier drafts didn’t touch on the tangible aspects of the apartment at all. I wanted to establish why the characters cared so much about the place and why the reader should care what happened to it too.
LF: As indicated in the title, one of the throughlines of this story is an inquiry into what it means to be generous. Throughout the narrator struggles to understand the separation between material and intangible generosity, finally asking Mrs. Yang, “Why would you do that for us?” What does generosity mean to you, and how did it become central to this story?
JG: Through the lens of this story, I wanted to show that generosity, in real life, isn’t always something that has to be recognized and applauded at every opportunity. It’s the small, quiet, day-to-day tasks that you do because you want to. I love that you called out that line in the story. By needing to ask that question, by making it explicit, Yan misses the point and comes off oblivious. It’s also the driving theme for the story about her grandparents that Mrs. Yang relays to Yan, as well as the reason why Yan moves home to take care of her mother. As for how this idea of generosity became central to the story, I wanted to package it as a mystery, something you don’t really see the shape of until the end. Much of it is tied to someone’s interior, the core of their character and motivations, and you need to work really hard at chipping away to find out what it contains.
LF: Finally, what projects are you working on currently?
More short stories. At any given time, I’m wrestling with about four or five half-finished short stories. I’m trying to carve out the time and emotional bandwidth to tackle a novel manuscript about a mother during the Cultural Revolution and the impact of those events on the generations that follow.
Lauren Furman is the assistant managing editor of Colorado Review and a first-year MFA candidate in fiction at Colorado State University.