In November, Aspen Words announced the longlist for the fifth annual Aspen Words Literary Prize, a $35,000 award recognizing a work of fiction that addresses a vital social issue. The selected books explore questions of freedom and identity, exile and belonging, and are set against the ravages of colonialism, consumerism, and classism. While the jury works on selecting a shortlist, Aspen Words chatted with the nominees about their work, how they view their role as a writer in this cultural and political moment, and the best piece of writing advice they’ve received.
Linda Rui Feng is a professor of Chinese cultural history at the University of Toronto. Swimming Back to Trout River offers an authentic and emotional look at the struggles and joys immigrants face and is particularly resonant in our current socio-political climate. This is her first novel.
What inspired you to write Swimming Back to Trout River?
I wanted to tell a more complicated story about immigration, one that encompasses both the leaving (emigration) as well as the arriving (immigration), the tension between the pursuit of an elsewhere and the equally powerful urge to stay put.
What is the core tenet of your book’s philosophy?
I don’t think works of fiction should have a philosophy, but a successful novel will find a way, to quote the literary critic György Lukács, to say “And yet!” to life. I hope my readers will finish the book with a sense that, no matter what we know about the larger and sweeping forces of history, these forces always play out in unexpected ways when they precipitate in more ordinary human lives.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received on writing fiction?
Two of them come to mind for me. Andrea Barrett once said in an interview, “You don’t need to write a novel if you feel at home in the world.” This gave me the crucial courage to begin one. The second piece of advice is from Tobias Wolfe, who wrote, “Time, which is your enemy in almost everything in this life, is your friend in writing.” This gave me the courage to keep wrestling with it, time and again, when both my courage and stamina failed.
What are you currently reading?
I just finished The Art of Revision: The Last Word by Peter Ho Davies, and am still reeling from its richness and profundity. It’d be hard for people to believe that a book on craft could make you cry, but that’s exactly what happened to me when I got to the end of this luminous, generous, and wise book.