This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Nathan Winer: Your most recent novel, We Ride Upon Sticks, is set in your hometown of Danvers, Massachusetts, which was originally part of Salem village. Was there anything new or surprising you learned about Danvers through your writing process?
Quan Barry: Nothing factual that was new, but if I was to be surprised by anything… I’ve always been fond of my hometown, but I was surprised just how formative it was in my life. After the book came out I went back to Massachusetts, and I gave a reading at the town historical society, and a lot of people came from my field hockey team came. These are people I haven’t seen in thirty-plus years. And so it was surprising… I was just having this conversation last night with some friends of mine who have teenage children who participate in sports. And it’s interesting to hear their experiences of playing sports, now, versus my experience of playing sports in the 80’s, and how different they are. I’ve always sort of known that playing a sport gave me certain life tools, I just never realized how deep that went. I’ve had a few Zoom conversations with a lot of the people I played with on my field hockey team. And some of these people I have kept in touch with, and some I haven’t. But just to see how the friendship is still there thirty years later… It’s just the idea that there’s something about team sports in which you make these friendships that last a lifetime. So that was what was most surprising to me, the human part of it.
NW: In a lot of ways this novel feels very psychological, with the way the members of this field hockey team, the Falcons, seem to become more authentically themselves when they do things which they believe serve some “dark power.” How much, either consciously or unconsciously, do you think the Falcons are going along with this witchcraft experiment simply because it gives them permission to be together, and be authentic with themselves, in a way they might not otherwise be able to?
QB: I don’t think any of them are conscious of that, but I do think ultimately that is what’s happening. I was really interested in writing a book about women in sports. There’s a way in which women and girls in sports—particularly team sports, and especially in the 80’s—were allowed to really be themselves, and not have to “be girls,” in a way. In this book I’m really interested in the word “ladylike.” When I was growing up that was definitely a word I heard a lot—“is that ladylike?” And these girls are not interested in being ladylike, and sports allow them that; it’s the one place where it’s sanctioned that you don’t have to be ladylike. It’s one of the few vehicles—particularly in the 1980s—that was afforded to women where they could get beyond those notions of what it meant to be feminine, or what have you. So a lot of them might not have been conscious of that, but they might recognize that being a member of this group, at some level, allows them to do things a little differently than if they weren’t.
NW: This story, and this team, are situated in a really interesting place historically—they’re in the late 1980’s, they’re thinking about the 1690’s, and they’re being introduced to readers in the 2020’s. In situating this novel and these characters in the time and place that you do, do you think there’s some similarity that can be found in female friendships or relationships like these, regardless of time?
QB: I very much think so. There’s a tiny bit at the end, where there’s a shift in time, and you see their daughters. You get a sense of their team, and the girls who are nowadays playing field hockey, though they may have different concerns. So I do think of it as being larger, going across time. In some ways there are ghosts there. And a lot of the things that came up in 1989 are the same things that will come up later, whether it’s questions about consent, or questions about body image, or what have you. Even just mother-daughter relationships—that’s thousands of years of stories. In some ways I think there’s nothing new under the sun, the things these girls are going through are things they’ve been going through forever. And I have been thinking about that, growing up in this town where these girls, in 1692, did what they did. And for me, it’s very much about agency. There was a time for about a year where these Salem girls were the most powerful people in Massachusetts, and without that they would have been the least powerful, right? And three-hundred years later, everyone still wants to have agency. That was 1692, but how do the girls today try to express agency in their lives? What’s similar about their journeys, what’s different? Those kinds of things.
NW: I want to tie this a bit into your first novel, She Weeps Each Time You’re Born. Both of these novels have very interesting narration—We Ride is told from the omniscient plural first, a We, which lends itself to that sense of communal, team identity on par with individual identity. And She Weeps shifts between first, second, and third person, depending on the part of the story being told. How did you choose to work with narrative perspective and voice in the ways that you did?
QB: The fiction writer Justin Cronin, I watched some videos of him where he was talking about how time works in fiction. And at one point, as an offhanded comment, he said, “I have no idea how time works in poems.” And, primarily, I’m a poet. But that comment, “I don’t know how time works in poetry,” well, I thought about that. How does time work in poetry? And I don’t think I sat down to do this consciously when I was writing these novels, but I think my fluid sense of time comes from my poetry. I can’t really tell you how time works in poetry, it’s just intuitive. And I think that’s in respect to both time and voice, why I slip in and out. In She Weeps Each Time You’re Born it’s third person mostly, some first, some second, and in a poem you can do the same thing. There’s a lot more freedom allowed you in poetry. And I trust that, even if I can’t explain it. It bleeds into my fiction, in many ways.
NW: To step back a bit into discussing your poetry, there’s a textual note at the end of She Weeps that explains that some of the language in the book was actually taken directly from your collection of poetry, Water Puppets. Where in the process of writing your first novel did you decide that you actively wanted to include some of your poetry?
QB: So originally I started working on a very different novel, with the same title, about an American nurse in Vietnam during the war. I wrote maybe one-hundred, two-hundred pages, and it was terrible. But I went back to Vietnam, and I heard about this psychic. There are many psychics in Vietnam, many mediums—because it’s a Buddhist country and because of the war, people want to know what happened to their loved ones. Ancestor worship is very important. And I heard about this woman who was the “official psychic” of Vietnam. Her story was that she was bitten by a rabid dog when she was a child, and when she came out of her coma she allegedly could hear the voices of the dead. And when I heard that, I knew that was what my novel would be about, this woman. And I also thought about what my strengths were as a writer. Like, I know now that research is not a strength of mine. But because I am a poet, I do think language is a strength of mine. And I am somebody who can just make stuff up. And writing a ghost story allowed me to do that, to make stuff up and let it be magical. So when I was writing, and I would come to a new chapter, I knew I wanted these little interludes to come between them, and I would realize that I had already written some of the language I wanted there, that it already existed. So it was never really a conscious thing. In a particular moment, I would remember something I had already written, and find that it would work. So, for example, the title She Weeps Each Time You’re Born, I have a poem with the line “she weeps each time you’re birthed.” Even the title comes from my poetry.
NW: You mention hearing this story of the psychic in Vietnam and realizing that’s what your story would be about. You were born in Vietnam, and grew up in Massachusetts, and so both of your novels seem to have a lot of you in them. Which do you feel pulls at you more—writing stories you discover, or writing from a place of familiarity, from yourself?
QB: People always say to write what you know, but for me I don’t think it’s so much that as it is writing things that interest me. There’s plenty of things that interest me that I actually don’t know. I’ve been writing more and more plays, actually, and my first production will be happening next year. And in the writing of that particular play, I realized how much of the main character is me. People ask me that about We Ride Upon Sticks, and I think all of those characters are me to a percentage, but the question is what percentage? Usually it’s less than ten percent. But in this play it’s probably more like sixty or seventy percent. But, to your question, which drives which? Does the story come first or does my interest come first? I think the story comes first. Or, I will hear a story that aligns with my interests; I’m interested in Buddhism, so I’m looking around for Buddhist stories. Recently I’ve heard a lot of stories and think that they’ll be good as plays; I haven’t had that with poetry much recently. Even though I sort of work in three different areas, I can’t really jump from one to the other.
NW: Along with all of your writing and your creative work, you’re also an educator, a professor at Wisconsin-Madison. Now, I might be biased in this, but I’ve always found English to be a subject that can very often become emotional, and at times even to depend on that emotion for the weight of the literature to be felt. Could you talk at all about the experience of trying to teach English through a pandemic, and through this distance which separates us from the immediacy of things?
QB: In the past year I taught just one class each semester, one fall class and one spring class. And I got very lucky in the fall, actually. I think when the kids came back they were excited to be back in some sort of space, even a pandemic space, and I had one of my best classes ever. And I’ve been teaching for twenty years. And spring semester was great too, I don’t want to give the wrong idea! [laughs] I just felt like kids wanted to be writing poems, they were looking forward to it. My classes are smaller, so I think they felt like it was their chance to really be in a space, in that way. One of the classes I super enjoyed teaching is one just on poetic forms: sonnets, or villanelles, or pantoums, or terze rima. Or more modern forms, like “The Golden Shovel” by Terrance Hayes, or “Duplex” by Jericho Brown. I love that class, and I taught it in the pandemic. And then in general, too, my reading list is very diverse. We spend time with a bunch of work of all types of writers of color. And some if it is really hard, talking about race relations or what have you—those can be difficult conversations, whether or not you’re on Zoom.
The pandemic… I feel guilty saying this but I have to admit that, as a writer, parts of it were great for me. I didn’t have to go places, I was so productive in my writing. And I don’t say this to be a snob, but I really don’t watch TV. People are always like, “How do you get so much done?” It’s because, basically, every night from about seven to eleven, I’m just writing! And obviously you can still be productive and watch TV, of course. I just don’t! So it just gives me a lot of time.
NW: We Ride feels like a very new take on a type of story that’s become popular over the last few decades—school aged “practitioners” of magic. The obvious one here is Harry Potter, but you also have more recent examples like Lev Grossman’s The Magicians trilogy, or Leigh Bardugo’s Ninth House. When you look at these works, a pattern of whiteness emerges pretty readily. We Ride felt very different, not only because of your status as an author and woman of color, but also because a number of the characters are women of color as well, and that diversity is in no way ignored. Do you feel at all like this novel is part of that family of work? And if so, I’m wondering what your thoughts are on the overall homogenous makeup of the other members of that family.
QB: I don’t think when I set out to write it I thought of it in terms of the other books that you’ve mentioned. Because of my hometown, because I had that knowledge, I hadn’t necessarily seen it in that vein. But one time I was in conversation with Mona Awad, who wrote this book called Bunny—it’s set at a school like Brown, in an MFA program where the students are maybe witches, maybe doing various kinds of things—and it’s comedy-ish, it’s almost sort of like “Heathers.” And I see the similarities there. I don’t have a problem with my book being included in lists like that.
And then, as far as that group being very homogeneous in terms of their characters… You know, I’m trying to start this phrase, and I’m noticing it a lot in playwriting. A lot of people are familiar with the Bechdel test, but I’m also interested in seeing if work passes what I call the “racial Bechdel test.” I feel like I’ve seen plays in which the most interesting thing about characters are their races, and they happen to be people afterwards. And I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in characters of color where the fact that they’re people of color is incidental. And that doesn’t mean they don’t have struggles, it doesn’t mean they don’t have those challenges. But the character comes first. And so in thinking about those other books, with the homogenous characters, I don’t actually have much to say about that. We are living in a world, unfortunately, where people feel they can only write characters they have firsthand experience with. And, to me, that’s too bad. I understand why, of course. It’s a very complicated time. But a friend of mine is white, and Jewish, and has an adopted African American son. And I was reading her book of poetry, and she actually has poems about things like police brutality, and other things her son encounters. It made me realize how few white poets are writing about race. And I think it actually puts the burden on people of color to be the only ones who are writing about these things. And some people think that’s fine. Maybe it’s because I have this very complicated background—half-Black, half-Vietnamese, I’m transracially adopted—I just don’t believe in that idea that you have to stay in your lane.
NW: Something that really struck me after having read both of these novels is their difference. There’s a lot they share, but tonally, and on a language level, they feel so wholly distinct and different. I think one of the earliest lessons that a young writer is taught is the need to “find your voice,” with emphasis on voice, singular. How much truth do you think there is in that idea of a writer finding their one voice?
QB: Not much. [laughs] I think when people are told that it comes from a good place, and I don’t think it’s bad advice, exactly. The idea of voice, I think people often interpret it to mean finding your genre. And I don’t believe in that. People say, “Oh, am I a poet, am I a fiction writer, am I an essayist?” And I don’t believe you have to make those kinds of distinctions. So it’s an interesting question. Like, with my poetry books I would argue that the voice of them is all the same, but they’re all different in terms of form. I’m somebody who’s very interested in not repeating myself, I think, well, what’s the point of that? So no, I don’t think I’ve talked to a student about “finding your voice,” and I think it’s because of the idea that each piece will dictate what that voice is. With We Ride Upon Sticks, it became obvious to me very quickly that it was going to be funny, within the first ten or fifteen pages. But if I had the same voice from She Weeps Each Time You’re Born it would be a very different book. Not to say that you couldn’t write it, just that it would be very different. It’s a bit different in plays, you can have more of that whiplash—one character who’s funny, one character who’s not, so you can have that range of voices.
With this new novel project, the thing I’m having trouble with actually is figuring out the voice. Not to compare myself to David Foster Wallace, but my understanding of him—and I could be wrong about this, it’s just what I’ve heard—is that he thought his essays were not his great writing, because they came to him very easily. He thought that his fiction was his great work, because it was more of a struggle. But for me, I think his essays are his best writing. And I have to admit, for me, We Ride Upon Sticks was a fairly easy book to write, because in many ways that is the voice of, like, the emails I send to friends; it’s kind of written in my voice. So in some ways, with She Weeps Each Time You’re Born or this Buddhist monk book, that’s not my voice, and so I have to work harder at it. So I’m always thinking about that David Foster Wallace thing, that his essays were so great even though he discounted them. And I think, you know, I want to be a serious writer, but maybe I really am a comedic writer, and I should just lean into that. And I think it’s really easy to discount comedy as not being serious, or “literary” or what have you, and I personally don’t want to buy into that idea.
NW: The final question I always like to ask: What have you been reading recently?
QB: It’s interesting, actually. For whatever reason, I don’t know why I’m built this way, but when I’m writing, I don’t really read. I read the news, but not books. So in the pandemic, when I had all this work time, I would just work on a play and have it done in six weeks, and then I would just read for two months, and then I’d go back to writing. So when I’m in a reading phase, I’ll read a ton for those two months. I’ve been reading a lot of plays. If you know plays then you know her, but I have to say I’m a huge fan of Lynn Nottage. She’s won the Pulitzer twice for plays, once for a play called Ruined, and another one called Sweat. A recent one of hers, the one I just read, is called By the Way, Meet Vera Stark. I read this great play by Edward Albee called The Goat, and there’s a part of me that’s like… God, if I could have written that. Though again I’m obviously not comparing myself to Edward Albee. It’s called The Goat, and you find out very quickly that it’s about a married man who basically has a love affair, physically, with a goat. And in ways it’s funny, and then it’s not, and it’s really genius. And I’m just like… The Goat! You know? And then, I have to admit, to me the playwriting world is a very new world, so there are things I don’t always know. There’s a lot I’m learning now, especially about young playwrights. So there’s this one playwright, Qui Nguyen—I’m not saying there’s only one Vietnamese playwright right now, but he’s sort of the guy people think of, and he has this play called Vietgone. There’s a woman named Lauren Yee who has a great play called Cambodian Rock Band. So, yes, reading a lot of plays. And because classes are starting up in about three weeks [laughs] I do need to go to the bookstore and get some poetry books, figure out what I’m actually teaching this semester.
QUAN BARRY is a poet, author, and playwright who was born in Vietnam and grew up in Massachusetts. She is also a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Barry is the writer of four books of poetry and two novels. Her most recent novel, We Ride Upon Sticks, follows a high school field hockey team that dabbles in witchcraft in an effort to turn their losing streak around. It was published by Penguin Random House in 2020.
NATHAN WINER is a graduate of Kenyon College, currently living, working, and writing in Chicago. Prior to joining MAYDAY, he worked as an associate at the Kenyon Review, a writer and editor at the Kenyon Collegiate, and the editor-in-chief of the Kenyon Thrill Blog. Currently, he is working as a tutor in the Chicago area.