Alexandra Ye’s story “IOU” was published in The Offing’s Fiction department on February 23, 2023. Q&A conducted by Mary Pappalardo, Fiction Editor.
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Mary Pappalardo: I know our editors were all really immediately struck by the delicate tension of the push-pull relationship between Nora and her mother in this story; how did you go about structuring the story around that? Did you go into writing it with an idea of how it would appear on the page?
Alexandra Ye: Thank you for this question — I’m glad to hear that this tension worked on the page. When I was starting to write the story, I was thinking a lot about avoidance — specifically, that kind of disgusting, clammy, jittery feeling you get if you sit indoors all day avoiding something you need to do on your computer. I was curious about how long a character could convincingly avoid something this way, as well as all of the attendant duties they would be shirking in the process. This was very helpful in guiding the structure of the story, since avoiding both her mother and her supervisor means that Nora unfortunately has to find a way to cope with herself, which she ultimately isn’t really able to do.
MP: I’m really fascinated by the ways Nora’s mother appears in the story — either in flashback, or, at the very end, in future tense, but never fully in present tense, except as a kind of imagined presence via Nora’s phone. Was that a super intentional choice, or did the story feel like it insisted on that?
AY: It felt very important for Nora’s mother to never appear in the story. I suppose I was avoiding it, because it felt like it would have been hard to write. But I think it was also necessary, because so much of her mother’s character is actually a projection of Nora’s, as you insightfully point out in the third question! If Nora had just bought the plane ticket right away and gone home, we might have discovered that her mom is actually a relatively normal person who interacts with her daughter in a relatively normal way. Her mother probably wouldn’t have lived up to the character she’s become in Nora’s head.
MP: There’s a lot in this story about how Nora’s identity relates to the projection of her parents’ experiences both before and then after they emigrated to the United States. Could you speak a bit about how you see that relationship shaping Nora’s character?
AY: For Nora, her dad’s life represents the path she thinks she should follow, and her mom’s life, the path she feels she absolutely should not and must not follow. But beyond the most basic details, she doesn’t actually know that much about their actual feelings or experiences. Instead, she’s filling in a narrative and extrapolating from their experiences what she believes she must accomplish in her life.
I’m not sure to what extent her character is aware of this, which is why, I think, she’s put herself under such a tremendous amount of pressure. She has a very fragile sense of self, and she’s grasping for some kind of certainty with which to govern her own life. But this certainty isn’t quite available to her, because she also harbors these suspicions that the lives her parents have chosen for themselves were also chosen based on mere projections of their hopes and desires for what “America” makes possible.
MP: How did you manage to so perfectly capture the character of Nora’s professor who “is always behind on emails, she is overbooked, she doesn’t have the time to type out ‘regarding'”? Is this just an omnipresent figure in all of academia? I’m so fascinated by the sort of foil she offers to Nora’s character — busy, active, and perhaps most strikingly, decisive and seemingly unburdened by the kind of ennui Nora’s facing.
AY: Thank you so much for saying that, I really appreciate it! I do wonder if this is an omnipresent figure in academia. Or maybe the state of being a student leads to a tendency to perceive professors this way? I felt very lucky and excited to be in college when I was there, but for some reason I also couldn’t help feeling slightly humiliated all the time. This probably also has something to do with projection.
In the story, I wanted there to be a strong contrast between Nora’s supervisor, who is doing her job and being a scholar, and Nora herself, who is pursuing her degree in order to please her parents, rather than out of real interest. It also felt important for the professor to differ a great deal from Nora’s mother, who is the figure that ultimately makes Nora feel safe, despite all the internalized misogyny and misplaced pity that Nora holds for her.
MP: I’m always fascinated to hear about our authors’ writing and reading lives — are there any writing projects and/or books that are finding you especially fired up these days?
AY: I have been attempting to voyage into longer forms of fiction beyond short stories, which has been both fun and challenging. As a result, I’ve been reading lots of novels. I’m still thinking about the narrator’s incredibly lucid voice in Intimacies by Katie Kitamura, and also the entire world that Kathryn Scanlan conveys through such short chapters in Kick the Latch. I also think that Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan is the most perfect book I’ve ever read about people having a bad time on vacation.
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