Canadian Writers in Person: Jack Wang on fiction as a way of relating to the past

An open book

Chinese Canadian writer Jack Wang launched the Canadian Writers in Person series for 2022-2023 with a reading from We Two Alone. Wang offered a compelling presentation about the historical figures and events that inspired the short stories in this collection.

Jack Wang Book We Two Alone (Cover)
Book cover of Jack Wang’s We Two Alone

When asked about the research he undertook for these stories, Wang said the process can be quite different from story to story, but it often starts when he finds himself stopped in a scene because he is missing some kind of authenticating detail. “And if I do feel stopped in that way, I often have to go looking for that detail, do that research in the middle of the composition in order to authenticate and believe in the story myself.”

Initially, Wang puts a lot of his research in the story, as a way of bookmarking the information. But in subsequent drafts, in the process of revision, it’s almost always a matter of paring back the information so that the emphasis is really on drama, on character and what the character yearns for. “I want the context to be understandable, but … I think it’s the dynamics of desire and drama that holds our attention, so I find myself stripping down information and privileging the drama,” said Wang.

“While history presents a story, traditional history doesn’t necessarily produce that embodied simulation the way fiction does, and I think it’s that embodied simulation that allows us to more fully imagine our way into history. In a small way, I think fiction allows a foray into the past,” he added.

We Two Alone can be described as a collection of stories about the Chinese diaspora, set on five continents over a century. Wang says, “these stories are a kind of proxy of my own experience as a Chinese person in the West, who encountered not just Canadian society, but also Western literary tradition… and so I’m only capturing that part of the diaspora that I know best: its encounter with Westernness.” 

Wang said that he discovered early on in his writing career that he enjoyed writing fiction. “For me, writing fiction meant that I had to step outside of myself and learn something that I didn’t already know. So, I found that writing a story set in the past allowed me to refract my own experience,” said Wang.

Wang’s reading and presentation for the Canadian Writers in Person series took place Sept. 20.