Han Ong on Fiction and the News

Your story “Hammer Attack” is set in New York, during the early months of the COVID pandemic, at a time when there were several unprovoked violent attacks on Asians and Asian Americans, most likely triggered by political attempts to blame COVID on the Chinese. What prompted you to revisit that time in fiction?

I struggled with this question, but perhaps the simplest answer is: I don’t know. In a previous Q. & A. with you, Deborah, for my first story for the magazine, “Javi,” which touched on immigration and being undocumented in America, I said that, in writing that story, I had “strayed . . . into topicality.” The implication was that I generally resisted enfolding a “hot” issue into a story. That hesitation is still at work whenever I mull over a new story. But, in the case of “Hammer Attack,” I had this uncharacteristic thought at the beginning of the writing process: “I want to meet the moment in which I am living.” It came in a very clear voice, unbidden. But it’s important to say that such an ambition would not have gone very far if I did not already have stray elements circling around my still inchoate idea of a story about the recent spate of anti-Asian physical assaults in New York City: the title, “Hammer Attack,” came to me shortly after an image of a picture gallery of Catholic icons overlooking a hospital patient in a coma, and the understanding that those pictures had been put up by the patient’s family. I don’t know how it is for other writers, but that clear mental picture of a “witnessing” gallery of Catholic icons was more fecund, more “generative” for me as a writer, than the topic of “anti-Asian attacks.” Which is to say that, shortly after having the thought of wanting to “meet the moment,” I was taken over by more writerly concerns: Why did the family put up the gallery behind the hospital bed? What is the general mood in that room? (Mournful, obviously, but do the Catholic icons express a note of disapproval, as Catholic icons frequently do? And disapproval of what, exactly? I decided on the identity of the patient as a gay man shortly after those questions occurred to me. And, almost concurrently, I identified the narrator as also being gay.) I suppose that this speaks to the ambition of my writing project, by which I mean not just this story but all my stories: to capture life, to be “greedy for life,” as someone once put it. Sometimes the news coincides with life. For some readers, this intersection of fiction with news constitutes a bonanza: Timely! Urgent! Potential op-eds and think pieces on the horizon! And so props to me—I guess—and to my opportunistic eagle eye (LOL)! But, ultimately, writing fiction is not the same as delivering news. Fiction writers have no obligation to tangle with the news. For one thing, news arrives (and departs) so fast, while fiction is decidedly slower; the danger is that, by the time you finish writing your story on Topic A, the news will have moved on to Further Developments A3 or A4.

The characters in the story, members of a book group focussed on Asian literature, take measures to protect themselves and one another from attacks—carrying whistles and knives, escorting women on the subway and through the streets at night. Did you feel that you needed to take such precautions in those months, or help others to do so?

Wearing dark glasses and weaponizing my ubiquitous tote bag by placing a heavy metal lock inside it—these story elements were taken from my own life. I also sent a few concerned texts and e-mails to Asian friends in my circle: were they carrying whistles and/or pepper spray? I sent these notes not in the immediate aftermath of the first incidents but much, much later, when it was clear that the attacks were going to continue for a while. I was surprised at the fatalism of some of the answers I got: some friends said that they had not considered whistles or pepper spray because they would not be held hostage to fear. I understood perfectly. But, also, and fortunately, nobody from my immediate circle reported having been attacked, physically or verbally, unlike the circle of friends in the story. If something had happened to one of them, the note of emergency in our lives would have been higher, certainly.

The characters are mostly the adult children of Asian immigrants who previously tried to distance themselves from their parents’ culture but are now exploring what it might mean to reclaim it, if only through the novels they read in their book group. Why did you choose to position them at a period of their lives when they are rethinking their own identity?

The narrator immigrated to this country as a child or adolescent with his parents, and so I thought that the “like minds” that he would find in the book group would have this commonality—that they were first generation, or half-gen. It seemed more germane for such a group to be talking about “closet cases” and the self-consciousness brought on by having recent immigrant parents.

The story touches on another complication of that time: the fact that many (though certainly not all) of the attacks on Asian Americans were perpetrated by Black men, often mentally ill or homeless former offenders. How can members of one racial or ethnic minority come to terms with their persecution by another marginalized group?

I will quote myself in another Q. & A. with you, on the occasion of the publication of my story “Elmhurst,” last year. That story had, as a backdrop, Chinese residents of Elmhurst, Queens, protesting the relocation of Black and Latino residents into a neighborhood hotel turned homeless shelter. The story was inspired by actual protests that occurred in New York City, and I said that I had felt “disappointment and puzzlement, as well as anger, that groups who should, by rights, find themselves in common cause failed to recognize that they were natural allies.” This is the project at hand: allyship. Of course, allyship sometimes fails—and sometimes fails spectacularly—and, in those instances, it’s useful to turn down the ambient noise and remind one another, once again, of our “common cause.”

Roger, the narrator of “Hammer Attack,” struggles to frame another part of his identity. He is a gay man and feels, for that reason, linked to Allen, his comatose friend, who is also gay. But he resists the idea of being lumped in with Allen, whom he sees as less attractive, less interesting. How important was it to you to weave Roger’s vanity into the story?

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