Xuan Juliana Wang’s debut book of short stories, “Home Remedies,” is split into three sections. It might seem like an effort to organize the tales — some fantastical and others rooted firmly in realism — into digestible categories. But Wang says it serves as a timeline of the past 10 years of her life.
“When I laid out my book and looked at all the stories, I realized they fit into those categories,” she explains over the phone from her house in Los Angeles, where she’s recently moved from New York to be closer to her mother and father. “I wanted to signal to the reader that this is the journey of my 20s. It was a natural progression that had a lot to do with what I was obsessed with at that time.”
The first part, “Family,” represents Wang’s frame of mind from her early 20s, when her parents were in the midst of a divorce, throwing how she perceived family into a tailspin; “Love,” touches on the heartbreak she experienced in relationships during her mid 20s, and her late 20s are characterized by “Time and Space,” when she began to question whether she knew any of the definitive answers to life’s questions.
The beauty of “Home Remedies” lies in these three groups — while reading the novella, the reader wonders how each one fits, like a particularly tricky puzzle. Some stories very plainly make sense within the “Love” or “Family” chapters, others make you wonder how the narrative could possibly fall under its given classification.
“I thought they were all stories about love, and all stories about family and all stories about time and space,” Wang says, laughing. “Even up to the last minute, I was shifting them around.”
For “Home Remedies,” Wang tapped into her own experiences while also crafting details from her imagination. She fell in love with an architect who’s now her husband, then recounted the event loosely in “The Art of Straying Off Course.” While she worked as a translator during the 2008 Beijing Olympics, she saw a pair of male divers who seemed madly in love — that turned into “Vaulting the Sea.” “Echo of the Moment” is an envisioned continuation of Haruki Murakami’s short story “Tony Takitani,” picking up where it left off in the end.
“When I write fictional characters based on people, they’re rarely people very close to me, or the ones that I have a lot of access to, emotionally or mentally,” she explains. “It’s usually somebody in the periphery.”
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Wang was born in Heilongjiang, China, during the post-Mao era Eighties. Like many people of her generation, she was an only child. At seven, she and her parents moved to Los Angeles, where she spent her formative years. Growing up in suburban Southern California as an immigrant, Wang read Danielle Steel and John Grisham novels because those were the thickest books sold at Costco and supermarkets she frequented with her mother.
“In fifth or sixth grade, I did a book report on a Danielle Steel book,” she recalls. “The teacher was kind of horrified.”
But in her teens, Wang longed for a narrative with which she could identify. She read Haruki Murakami and watched all of Wong Kar Wai’s films, searching for something to latch onto. It wasn’t until she graduated from college that Wang found what she’d been seeking. The author returned to China and moved into a small apartment in Beijing. A few of the anecdotes from “Home Remedies” began to take shape, and she has described her time living in the Chinese capital as one of the most important periods of her life.
“That was the most amazing feeling, to just look around and be like, ‘Everyone looks like me. No one cares. No one has any idea who I am,’” she says. “I often felt like I could really shape-shift between the cultures.”
Although charting the tales of modern Chinese life both in and outside of China were important to Wang, she especially wanted this book to nail what it feels like to be young. She says that’s why she used her own timeline from her 20s to describe a larger narrative pertaining to the feeling of youth.
“You know the way Ryan McGinley, the photographer, can have youth down? You can flip through his books and you feel this rush of youth coming to you. I think that’s what I wanted to capture for these stories,” she says. “I wanted to have real love stories and I wanted to have complicated families and I wanted to have young people being young and dumb. And there’s nothing that explains that away besides just them living their lives, I guess.”