Q&A with Pam Zhang, author of “Are They Vampires, or Are They Just Chinese?”
Allison Noelle Conner: This story is like a gothic riddle. What attracts you to the weird, the creepy, the unexplained?
C Pam Zhang: What’s creepy is my being haunted for years by the pressure to write a Sad Immigrant Story. Having lived part of that story, I can tell you that oppression and bigotry etc etc get pretty fucking boring if you face them in their daily, unrelenting, deadening, systemic forms. I’ve fought to exorcise Sad Serious Realism about Big Issues from my own work. Books started out as escapism for me, and I want my writing to maintain some of that.
“Are They Vampires…” is an experiment in writing a Sad Immigrant Story at a slant. Speculative fiction is such a gift to minority writers. It’s capable of performing a kind of magician’s trick. A shiny new world, an oddity, a monster — these are all classic acts of misdirection. Behind the scenes may be the true and secret work of weaving class, or race, or sexual trauma, into the narrative. The automatic defenses and skepticisms that a reader might bring to an overtly political, realist piece are lowered. So by the time a reader realizes a monster might be a Big Issue in disguise — too late!
ANC: The narrator brings to mind a chorus. Your use of “we” unnerves, building tension between a sense of infectious belonging and a sense of being haunted. What does the “we” allow you to express? What are some challenges in using this technique?
CPZ: You’ve pretty much nailed it down. The challenge is that while the “we” can convey universality, go too far and there’s a risk of vagueness. I can’t sustain a “we” for too long; writers who manage lengthy pieces in chorus have my undying admiration.
Plus, “we” is creepy because there’s nothing more terrifying than being unwittingly subsumed into a group.
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