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"Secret Subterranean Spaces": An Interview Janalyn Guo

Janalyn Guo lives in Austin, Texas and works as a grants management consultant. Her most recent short fictions have appeared in The Tusculum Review, Heavy Feather Review, Quarterly West, and other places. She holds an MFA in fiction from Brown University and was once artist-in-residence at Lijiang Studio in Yunnan, China.

Her story, "Heart Site," appeared in Issue Seventy of The Collagist.

Here, she speaks with interviewer Dana Diehl about rapdoors, edible mushrooms, and Remedios Varo.

How did the idea of the Heart Site and its wish-fulfilling crones first come to you?

I had some old material that I’d written when I spent a summer in Yunnan, China with a Naxi family (a minority group in China with a matriarchal history). The landscape was very interesting. In Baoshan, women would go out and labor in these tiered fields, which were on very steep mountainsides. I’d watch some elderly women scale up and down this terrain to pick vegetables. They were extremely nimble. They carried sickles in one hand and moved like wind. I felt this strange sense of protection because they were everywhere. I started some stories about them and never quite finished any. When I set out to write “Heart Site,” I was attempting to revive some of those stories. At the time, I was also reading 1001 Arabian Nights. Something that really intrigued me about the tales was the repeated discovery of secret subterranean spaces: metal and wood trapdoors in the ground leading to a flight of stairs and finally to a very domesticated space, lavishly decorated with carpets and silks, and a figure waiting to be questioned. I wanted to write a story that opened up into strange underground territory.

So, that sheds a bit of light on how the story originated, though it’s morphed from my plans and there’s not much semblance to what I originally thought it’d be. One reason I enjoy writing stories is that it’s a little bit like putting together a memory capsule, and you don’t know how each thing you add is going to color everything inside. Now that I’m thinking back on how the story came to be, it’s all the stuff I mentioned above, but it could also be that during that time, a good friend of mine had a summer job cleaning statues in Central Park, a beekeeper at a coffee shop educated me on the behaviors of bees, and I was also obsessively reading a Japanese horror manga called Uzumaki, which is all about evil spirals.

The strange is often met with a lack of surprise by the characters within this story. For example, when the speaker and Elsinore encounter crones within the heart, they are undaunted. Why do you think this unflinching acceptance of magic is important, if not necessary, in fabulist literature?

I think that when they step into the heart, they’re already on this quest to find something spectacular, and when they encounter the crones, the world they inhabit turns out to be much more expansive than it seems. So maybe what they feel is more like awe and relief.

I’m often anxious when I start on something new because as I write, I’m waiting for the leap into fantasy. Sometimes, all it takes is the first sentence to feel like I’m there. But, sometimes I write stories that are only realism for the first few pages, so I put them in the metaphorical drawer and come back to them later. I don’t want to force anything. I want the magic to feel inevitable in each story I write, entirely probable within the logic of the world, but maybe initially dormant. I like having fantastical elements in my stories arrive a little bit late.

As for why this unflinching acceptance of magic is important in fabulist literature, I think it has to do with the space we are able to create. It’s evocative. There are so many more ways to tell the stories we want to tell, or maybe, for some of us, it is the only way.

I love that mushroom pickers and light saber-style canes exist side by side in this story. There’s a wonderful combination of modernity and timelessness in this piece. Why did this style appeal to you?

In Yunnan, I wandered around a pine forest with my neighbor, an expert mushroom picker, who then prepared a mushroom dish for dinner. Those edible mushrooms were some of the weirdest shaped and textured things I’ve ever put in my mouth, and I think about them from time to time. At the same time, the town where we stayed was modernizing. A highway was being constructed to connect it to the rest of China.

I think that sense of timelessness, as you described, is what it’s like to wander through a Chinese landscape, sometimes. It’s hyper modern in some ways and also very unchanged at the same time. I also think that if you look at any social landscape close enough, anywhere in the world, you’d find those layers of old and new traditions.

I admit I do like setting my stories in spaces and timeframes that are not easily identifiable. It could have happened in the past; it could be happening in the future. I feel like I’m granted more freedom to build my world.

If an old crone offered you a wish when you were a kid, what would you have asked for?

That’s a tough question. I think I would have made a terribly informed wish. I remember that I was an avoidant kid. If I could get out of doing something, I would, even if it was something I mildly enjoyed—like choir practice or line soccer. I think I would have wished for a little trapdoor to follow me wherever I went so that if I wanted to get out of a situation, I could step through it and immediately land in my bed at home.  

And of course the crone would have said no. So, I would have wished for unfrizzy hair or maybe to be less shy around adults

If you were to pair this story with another work of art (a song, a painting, etc.), what would its companion piece be?

That’s a really hard question, but I have an answer for you! So a companion painting would be anything painted by Remedios Varo. The colors she uses are what I imagine the world of the story would be: reds, yellows, and oranges—a light and dark, whimsical and mysterious. The subjects are often mysterious figures, sometimes emerging from openings in walls. As for music, I would pair this story with something like Erik Satie’s The Velvet Gentleman. When it starts out, there’s this sort of orchestral thing in a melancholy key going on. Then it transitions into something wonderfully playful and MOOG-y. And then there’s all those elements mixing together throughout. That juxtaposition of sounds seems right.

What projects are you working on now?

I’m revising a novel I started years ago, which is challenging because I am not the same person as I was then. I am also working on a short story collection, which is coming easier to me. So hopefully, more things to come from me soon!  

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