The Human Heart of the Fantastic

Ai Jiang in conversation with Ariel Marken Jack

Portrait courtesy of Ai Jiang

Ai Jiang is a Chinese-Canadian writer and an immigrant from Fujian. She is a member of HWA, SFWA, and Codex. Her work can be found in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, The Dark, Uncanny, The Puritan, Prairie Fire, The Masters Review, among others, and she has two stories forthcoming in Interzone: ‘We Are a Little Hotel’ and ‘Where the Grass Is Always Whiter’. She is the recipient of Odyssey Workshop’s 2022 Fresh Voices Scholarship. Her debut novella Linghun (April 2023) is forthcoming with Dark Matter INK. Find her on Twitter and at aijiang.ca.

Author and reviewer Ariel Marken Jack spoke to Ai Jiang about resilience, body horror, and what we inherit from the past.


Ariel Marken Jack: You have two stories forthcoming in Interzone, ‘We Are a Little Hotel’ and ‘Where the Grass Is Always Whiter’. While these stories are very different from each other, both involve complex family dynamics and complicated relationships with the concept of ‘home’ (as does your recent story in Hexagon, ‘Come In, Children’). What speaks to you about using speculative fiction as a medium for exploring topics that, for many readers, are matters more of fact than fantasy?

Art by Vinayak Varma for ‘We Are a Little Hotel’, forthcoming in Interzone #295
Art by Vinayak Varma

Ai Jiang: I’m a big fan of the fantastic, of made believe worlds and characters, and thinking further about this, sometimes I wonder if it’s because it’s easier to explore hard to speak about and emotionally heavy topics and themes if the world and its people are not so closely connected to our own. Some people write speculative fiction for entertainment, some to create new worlds and characters wildly different from our reality, but for me, I like to write speculative fiction to explore what I’m still learning about myself, about those around me, and the world we live in. What is often plain to see to us might not be so easily recognized, even when they are displayed right in front of us, and exploring them through another lens like speculative fiction, at least for me, sheds light on the things we might have an unconscious or a suppressed understanding of, but at the same time, have been looking away from.

Ariel Marken Jack: You publish speculative poetry as well as fiction. You have a new (and, I must say, absolutely magnificent) poem out in Uncanny titled ‘I Am a Little Hotel’, which feels very much like an expression of new facets of the same fundamental set of ideas underpinning ‘We Are a Little Hotel’. Do you often find yourself coming at the same topics and ideas through the channels of both poetry and fiction?

Ai Jiang: I find that poetry is my emotional and ‘vibes’ vehicle, whereas my stories are the vehicles I use to explore what I discover through poetry. I like to explore the tangled and often contradictory ways in which the human turns, the way it experiences one emotion but quickly switches to the next before we even have time to process the change, of shared pain and trauma, of empathy and how to develop that for others who might have differing lived experiences but shared emotional challenges. I think when I’m feeling particularly passionate about a certain topic, an idea – often political, social, or reflectory/philosophical in nature – I turn to poems to unload the sudden flurry of emotions caused by the musings. But when the initial passion has had the time to simmer, cool, yet not wane, I turn to fiction to explore these topics – sometimes from a variety of angles, sometimes from the same angles as the poems, if I have more to say about the topic, or sometimes I leave it to the fleeting passion of the poems because to draw it out in a story doesn’t seem like it might do it justice.

Ariel Marken Jack: How does working in the medium of poetry allow you to explore an idea in ways fiction might not–and what does fiction offer you as a medium that poetry might not?

Ai Jiang: The way I think about exploring an idea in poetry is like a slideshow of imagery, metaphors, and symbols, infused with emotions that doesn’t allow you to breathe, to stop feeling, until the poem is done. In fiction, I think there is more room to pause during the quiet moments, to reflect alongside the character or by ourselves at the end of each scene or chapter, before we continue on the journey. To me, it is like a sprint versus a marathon, a song versus a show or movie, a shot versus a pitcher. It is a form that condenses the most key aspects of the story I want to tell without any excess. But at the same time, it does not offer the kind of lull I think fiction has in painting a world and character more fully rather than only the most impactful and heightened details of their reality and selves.

Ariel Marken Jack: You have published poetry, short fiction, non-fiction, and soon a novella. How do your process and mindset tend to vary when drafting poetry versus fiction or non-fiction, or when working in shorter forms versus longer forms. Do you find that your approach to an idea changes depending on the medium you choose for expressing that idea?

Ai Jiang: For poetry, I usually write them in one sitting, and outside of grammar, I change very little about them upon completion.

For short fiction, I’m fickler when it comes to plotting and pantsing, but I will usually have a few lines that highlight what events of I want to occur, along with the beginning and ending already set, before I dive into writing. Sometimes a story might only see one draft, and sometimes several. It is more common for my horror stories to have much fewer drafts or publish in their first drafts compared to my fantasy and science fiction works – with science fiction often going through the most drafts because I’m not as well versed in the world building and inclusion of more explanatory details.

In terms of non-fiction, it depends on whether I’m writing about my own life experiences or about a book/story/movie/show, or about a topic of interest. My memoir-style non-fiction will usually result in me first penning down the memory and experience before expanding on and weaving in the reflection aspect of the piece. For reviews, I often speak about the themes and the execution of the themes in the different mediums, and how the author tackles them through story and character. Concerning topics of interest, it’s still something new to me, but the piece I’m currently working on will draw on personal thoughts and musings, while citing examples from different media and academic works.

For my novella, I found that I needed a much more detailed outline compared to when I write my short stories, but the story almost always evolves to become much more or shifts as the themes change or become more evident during the writing process. Currently with my first novel, I’m trying to outline more, to figure out my characters and the themes of I want to explore in the novel, before beginning the writing. Though sometimes I find it difficult to write with the rigidity of an outline, I think it’s necessary for me to understand the direction I’m taking the work in.

Ariel Marken Jack: You have tweeted about how reading articles on literature and writing craft reminds you ‘to tell a good story but also to be intentional about it’ (Twitter, 3 March 2022). I am curious about where and how that sense of intentionality fits into your writing process. Do you find yourself consciously engaging on that level right from the start of a new piece, or is it something that comes more directly into play during the revision stage?

Ai Jiang: I would say I’m very much a concept and theme-based writer, so more often than not, it’s what appears in my mind first before the characters and settings, along with plot/character/emotional arcs. The intention of a piece is almost always what comes first for me, such as how an interesting concept might connect with current issues, emotional themes that might resonate with the rest of humanity, how my choice of characters, settings, perspective and such might influence the intention – distract or elevate it – of a piece. Even when I’m pantsing a story, often these elements are in my mind, but it might mean I’m often trying to focus on far too many things when I’m writing the first drafts (though it might also mean there might be less to add if the first drafts are also the final drafts).

In my revisions, I usually tackle bringing the characters and story further to life, to focus in more on the initial concept and theme rather than the other way around. But that does mean that I might leave myself with a lot of character and plot inconsistencies. I do often think I’m a walking contradiction as a writer – though I suppose most humans are by nature as well – so we’ll leave it at that.

Ariel Marken Jack: Your first book, Linghun, is coming out in April 2023 with Dark Matter INK. Judging by the description on the publisher’s website, this novella will engage with some of those same topics of home and complex relationships with loved ones as the stories mentioned in our first question. Did writing Linghunfeel like a culmination of something you have been working toward in your body of work as a whole?

Cover art by Mateus Roberts

Ai Jiang: I do think a lot of my long form works so far are bringing together a lot of what I explore and experiment within my short form work: formats, perspectives, concepts, characters, themes. And in terms of themes, like my short stories, my long form further explores aspects of death and grief in relation to not just loved ones but also its connection to culture, language, place, and identity. Though I think another theme that’s growing in insistence in my writing is change – in the sense of the fear of change, of being left behind, of the world moving on without us, particularly in relation to technology, along with cultural and societal changes as we move from more traditional mindsets and ingrained values and beliefs to becoming more progressive, open-minded, and having what we are used to and familiar with constantly challenged. Apologies for the rambling! As for the more succinct answer, yes, Linghun, like much of my forthcoming novel/novella WIPs, is the culmination of what I’ve been working to explore through my short stories – and more generally in my life – but also the extension of it. And I suppose at the heart of it all, what I’m trying to explore with my fiction, even when the characters are of different species or live in fantastical places, is what it means to be human. ∎


Ariel Marken Jack (they/them) lives in Kespukwitk. Their fiction has appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Bikes in Space, Dark Matter Magazine, PseudoPod, Strange Horizons, and more. Their non-fiction columns on speculative and horror literature appear in Fusion Fragment and at Psychopomp.com. They also curate the #sfstoryoftheday. Find their writing at arielmarkenjack.com.


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