Janalyn Guo‘s fiction emerges from a host of unlikely collisions. In her debut, Our Colony Beyond the City of Ruins, features bizarre amalgamations of humans and vegetable life – but Guo is equally at home taking an Ibsen-inspired story to an unexpected place. Her work abounds with unpredictability: haunting visions of a post-human tomorrow on one page, a quiet moment of introspection on the next. I spoke with her about the roots of this book and the effects of certain spaces on her work.
One of the recurring images in the stories in Our Colony Beyond the City of Ruins is that of humans’ bodies being slowly consumed by or transformed into plants or fungi. What first drew you to this image?
When the image first came to me, I was on a long train ride from Kunming to Beijing that took three days. I had this phase where I liked traveling long distances by train to absorb the gradual change in landscape. I had just finished up a writing residency in Yunnan, China, and I was heading back to Beijing to catch my flight home. All I had left to read in my suitcase was Ovid’s Metamorphosis, so I read of these transformations of gods and mortals into animals and trees and other forms of nature as I stared out at the landscape through the dusty train window. What struck me was that I saw farmland and towns one after another and just lots of people. No unused spaces, really. We passed these big red banners in the fields with slogans about protecting the land, and I wondered who exactly the intended audience was. I started to imagine what environmental protection would look like in a country so full of people, and the image of trees and plants sprouting out of people’s backs just sort of came to me, a twisted symbiotic relationship arising from the adaptive properties of plants and a plentitude of human surface area. I guess I should mention that I didn’t actually write any stories with that image until long after that trip. Stories incubate in my head for a really long time.
“The Sea Captain’s Ghost” features, among other things, a ghost of a man who isn’t dead. How did you determine the fictional groundrules for this story?
It’s a little bit like making a soup. I throw in various details, and if something doesn’t seem right or feels forced against the other elements, I remove it (I guess this can’t really be done with soup). I think I have a collagist’s mentality when it comes to writing. The world is created one image at a time. As for how the ghost of an undead sea captain came about, I was trying to solve the problem of how to frame a story around a person’s inner and outer life, what is expressed versus what is carried in silence, when those two lives are very different. I wanted to find a way to make both manifest on the page, and the idea just came to me to have a sea captain and his ghost in the same space, interacting. So much of writing a story, for me, is a puzzle. I’ve always loved puzzles, which is probably why I fell into fiction writing. When some idea or concept that I’ve been struggling with gets worked out on the page, it’s incredibly satisfying.
The collection has a particularly evocative title. When in the process of putting the book together did you settle on it?
It’s a line from a story in the collection “Sleepwater,” which was the last story I wrote that made it into the collection. When I reread that line, it just felt right as a title. “Sleepwater” is a story about a group of people carving out a new way of living in the woods after their old way of living is destroyed. They’re resourceful and creative, using a more ancient set of principles to guide their lives. I wanted the title of the collection to allude to the ways we might live differently than the modern norm as an adaptive measure or to remain true to self. In my worlds, there are good reasons to live on islands visited by ghosts and in soda machines, caves, and castle-like aberrations.
You’re based in Salt Lake City — what’s the literary community like there? Has the city had any influence on your fiction at all?
I think that there’s a lot going on in the literary community here, but I can’t say I’m very involved in it right now. I’ve made a small group of friends here who write, and we meet every two weeks and try to have something new each time. I’ve lived in Salt Lake City for the last two and a half years, and I’m not certain of its effect on my writing. In some ways, I think that I need to have left a place for it to take shape in my mind. I think it’s because I like to warp landscapes in my fiction, make them unfamiliar. I know exactly what places Boris (in “The Sea Captain’s Ghost”) and Crow (in “Heart Site”) are modeled after, but I played around with the details. For me, it’s a little harder to reimagine a place when you’re living in it, caught in your routine. (This is why I love to travel). But there’s no doubt in my mind that being in Salt Lake City has made me a better observer of nature. We are surrounded by so much natural beauty. There are places I can go thirty minutes to an hour from my house where I can be alone in the mountains. I don’t think I ever really noticed spring until I moved to the high desert. It seems to take its time here, the blooms slowly making their way up the mountains. I am also infatuated with the ugly beauty of the Great Salt Lake. It’s so salty that no creature can survive in it except for minuscule brine shrimp. I’ve sailed in it on a catamaran and felt my t-shirt turn into cardboard. People who swim in it have to coat their bodies in vaseline. The water is pinkish and foamy at times. I love walking on the salt crusted shore, observing the layers of dead things that comprise it: tiny bodies of shrimp and flies and half-submerged seabirds. I did have the Great Salt Lake in mind when I wrote “Lake Rose,” a new story published by the Collagist, where I obviously took liberties. I predict that it will show up more in my writing sooner or later.
How did you determine what would and would not fit in this particular collection?
I was thinking very loosely about habitat, stories of characters restlessly searching for one, of characters stumbling across one, and of characters who choose to settle just at the untouchable edge of experience. When I decided on the title, I used the idea of colonies in the ecological sense as a sort of center for the book. My characters are like wild honey bees swarming trees as they move across the landscape searching for an optimal space. Some stay and hunker down, others keep looking and report back on their glorious finds.
“Acting Lessons” alludes to the work of Henrik Ibsen. Had you always had it in mind to include this, or did that come as you were working on the story?
I think Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House was pretty much always part of the story, though the things around it have changed dramatically over revisions. I first started the story as an exploration of Chairman Mao, but I kind of lost steam on that quickly. He’s such a bloated figure already. So I re-tried writing it with different characters but continued to use some tidbits of information I’d collected: the fact that Mao loved swimming and that he rinsed his mouth with tea. I also read that his last wife, Jiang Qing, starred as Nora (or Nala, in Chinese) in staged productions of A Doll’s House before she met him and that maybe, on some level, her connection to it protected it from being banned. “Acting Lessons” was, among other things, an attempt at weaving together some of these fragments I’d collected in a less politicized space.