In her debut short story collection Home Remedies, Xuan Juliana Wang writes like she’s steadying herself against everyday whiplash. She has a careful ear and a steady gaze on lives that quietly, seismically shift under the rapid forces of globalization. Her mood is wary and her style is mischievous, but the animating force of her writing is always diligent curiosity.
“With writing,” Wang says behind big, white sunglasses, in a park in Los Angeles, “I’m taking this really boring drug, but I can’t stop doing it.”
The collection is a document of moving quickly and watching slowly. It peers into lives of sensitive tough kids in Chinatown, or the languid trust-fund scene sprawling on a Beijing rooftop, where the wealthy learn English idioms, like how “to throw the word love around.” The collection bursts with hopeful, irresistible characters whose lives are on the eve of change.
Wang wrote Home Remedies throughout her twenties, a time when she lived in Beijing for a couple years, Palow Alto for a couple more, then into a 270-square foot apartment in New York, and then back to Los Angeles whenever she teaches fiction writing at UCLA. Home Remedies is particularly responsive to the tug of place. It explores how environments inform the cadences of our relationships, our ambitions, the way we love (cramped, frantic, expansive, chaotic) and the way we think (same).
Wang places herself in the school of “writing clearly about weird things.” Her stories have the immediate oxygen burst of Aimee Bender, the just-strange logics of Deborah Eisenberg, and the intense, alien curiosity of Mary Gaitskill. Her fiction is chameleon-quick and only casually surreal, just to enough to stay true to the weirdness of living. Her asides are vicious and quick, like how villains always get the best houses, don’t they? “I’ve been to some of those apartments in New York,” Wang laughs, “I’m like, you could do bad stuff here! But you just drink whiskey sometimes and you have a big cat!”
Rather than seek any pointed revelation about a character, she heightens endless fascination about all the ways people morph, change, and exist. Wang's perspective is satisfying and enlivening, and also peculiarly precise, probably best crystallized in her skill with naming. In the collection, there are siblings named Walnut, Pinetree, and Lucy. There is a cat named Small Cow.
“I name things constantly,” she says. She got into the habit when she was living in Beijing, where she translated English and Chinese and was a fixer for the Olympics. “All the bartenders wanted English names. They’re from outside of Beijing, they would sleep in the restaurant booths after working. They were so sweet. One guy was like ‘my name is Joe,’ but then the other guy was like, ‘I don’t have a name because he used Joe.’ I was like, ‘You can be Nathan!’” She’s given many people in her family their English names. Her step-sister is Veronica, as Wang was reading Mary Gaitskill at the time.
In Home Remedies men narrate half the stories, and delving into their perspective took some warming up, Wang says. She read old LiveJournal entries and went to parties with the intent of letting a man talk at her “about dating or something.”
“I use people around me all the time,” she says. “I’m never writing about the people I’m close to, never my husband or my close friends. It’s the people who are not available to me who I’m interested in. I’m most fascinated when they’re not giving me everything.”
The collection is luxe, snaky, and perceptive, pulsing with new ideas about storytelling. The characters living in Home Remedies are written with unleashed tenderness. They’re so present a couple of times, it feels like crawling inside someone’s body and wanting to steer them away from various heartbreaks or self-sacrifices. The watery grace of “Vaulting the Sea” encapsulates this probably best of the stories in Home Remedies; the watery grace evokes Carol Anshaw’s under-read novel Aquamarine.
This close hew to specific human foibles doesn’t slow Wang from capturing the bigger forces that steer lives. In some ways, the book is a catalogue of portraits about life under the strangeness of globalization. Through portraits of Chinese and Chinese-American people, Home Remedies pushes against the perception that culture is bounded, and looks at what morphs when cultures shift locations and time.
Wang was born in 1985 in Heilongjiang, China. She remembers one television station that went blank at 10 p.m., when she would watch static for a bit. There was a bathhouse where people took a shower once a month, and wiped down the rest of the time. “Everyone in my generation can remember what it was like to really not have anything,” she says. Now, China’s major cities are arguably more advanced, with much greater wealth than in the U.S., where she moved when she was seven. “It just leapfrogged. I think that does something to a person. Also I think it did something to me.”
Wealth and its repercussions haunt Home Remedies—close encounters with money, a sudden windfall at a cost, no money at all, too much of it. “My grandmother always encouraged us: Why save money! Live life! That’s so different that most Asian families, and that generation,” Wang says. Her family had had a trucking business, but it was taken away during the revolution. “So my grandmother never thought about saving money for her kids. She thought, they’ll make their own, maybe this will all go away.”
Home Remedies comes into a world that’s spinning at a breakneck speed, like a steady, inquisitive searchlight, always looking for a flash of an unguarded, true face in a world that might lose all its gravity any second.