Catching Up with 2023 Fiction Prize Winner Mengyin Lin
Born and raised in Beijing, Mengyin Lin is a Chinese writer living in the U.S. Mandarin is her mother tongue and she writes in English as her second language. She holds an MFA in Fiction from Brooklyn College where she won the Himan Brown Award and a BFA in Film from New York University. Her work is published or forthcoming in Ploughshares, The New York Times, Guernica, swamp pink, Joyland, Epiphany, Fence, Pleiades, and Best Debut Shorte Stories 2023 (Catapult). She is the winner of the 2023 Ploughshares Emerging Writer’s Contest, 2023 swamp pink Fiction Prize, 2023 Pen/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers, and 2022 Breakout Writers Prize. Her work has been supported by Tin House, Bread Loaf, VCCA, KHN Center for the Arts, Saltonstall Foundation, and more. You can find her at mengyinlin.com.
SP: How long have you been writing and what inspired you to become a writer?
ML: I started writing fiction in September 2020. Before that I only wrote screenplays, which is in many ways similar to fiction writing, but I personally find it a very different process. So I have been writing fiction for exactly three years now, two of which I was enrolled in the MFA program at Brooklyn College, where I grew a lot as a writer and became a member of a vibrant writing community.
I’m not sure what inspired me to become a writer. I grew up with writers and readers. My paternal grandfather, who died when I was four, was a writer who wrote both fiction and nonfiction. My father wrote for work and loved reading literature, history, and philosophy. I’d always been an obsessive reader, but thought that literature was too good for me. Never had I dreamed of writing in my second language.
Then, during the pandemic, I finished a feature-length script in Chinese and realized that with the censorship there, I’d never be able to tell the stories I really wanted to tell. It was also a time that being Chinese, especially being Chinese in the U.S., suddenly took on new complications. I became frustrated with how China and Chinese people were misunderstood by the rest of the world. China’s place in and relationship with the world had dramatically changed in the past two decades, as I came of age, and English language and literature, both original and translated, so rarely reflected that change. There were so few stories about the lived experiences of Chinese people in our contemporary, globalized world. So I decided to write them, to fill that void. I would probably never have started writing fiction if the COVID-19 pandemic didn’t happen.
SP: What was your inspiration for writing “Shangri-La”?
ML: I wrote “Shangri-La” in September 2022. A Chinese massage parlor had recently opened in my neighborhood and I went in for a foot massage at a discounted rate, just like in the story. A young masseur provided his service. During those 30 minutes, I couldn’t stop thinking about how different our lives were while both being Chinese immigrants in New York. The class divide within the immigrant community has grown wider and wider as a result of the same happening domestically in China. In Manhattan, there are hundreds of these Chinese massage places, and the immigrant community is strong enough within each of our class bracket’s that people like me and people like the masseur can afford to live within our bubbles and overlook our commonalities. My life in New York is more similar to, say, my American classmates than Chinese immigrants who work in bakeries, massage parlors, nail salons, restaurants, etc. But what if we were in a smaller American city in a neighborhood with a smaller Chinese population? Would I still have the luxury to look the other way? I have met other Chinese people in unexpected places, and the experience has always been an immediate bond of being Chinese, while our differences, the barriers between us, temporarily disappear.
That summer I had read the two books I liked the most in 2022: Noor Naga’s novel, If An Egyptian Cannot Speak English, which centers around a romance with a very complex, layered power imbalance; and Souvankham Thammavongsa’s story collection, How to Pronounce Knife, which weaves stories of working-class Laotian immigrants in Canada. If I remember correctly, there’s a story in that collection that features an accountant as well. So those two books were on my mind when I wrote “Shangri-La.”
SP: Who are some writers that have influenced your writing?
ML: I take different things from different writers for different projects, so this is an impossible question to answer! But I can try to answer it in the specific context of “Shangri-La.”
In addition to the two books that I mentioned above, because I studied and wrote films before, I was mainly thinking about films and filmmakers: the way Celine Sciamma investigates the female gaze and the female desire in A Portrait of A Lady on Fire; the way Tsai Ming Liang portrays desire, self-discovery, and urban loneliness in Vive l’Amour; the way Lee Chang-dong is able to make his audience feel so intimate to his characters while remaining at a distance; Wong Kar-wai’s romantic use of small spaces: hallways, hotel rooms, elevators; Abbas Kiarostami’s use of the quiet, of time passing, and the way he is able to focus on the most mundane and small to reflect the most intense and profound. And many more cinematic inspirations that I am not naming here.
SP: What does your revision process look like?
ML: Quite a few of the stories that I’ve written so far came out relatively close to their final draft, perhaps because I had been thinking about them, thus revising them in my head, for a while before I actually wrote them down.
For other stories, my revision process is to start over. The first draft is me telling myself the story for the first time without really knowing the full shape of the story. By the second or third round, I know the story and the characters much better. When I get to a point that I think the bigger structural work is done, often I’ll read through the draft with one simple goal: to make it shorter. When that is my sole purpose, I suddenly see all these words and sentences, sometimes even scenes, that can be rid of. It’s very liberating. I also print it and read it out loud, like many writers do.
However, I am early into writing my first novel, and I imagine that starting over a novel will be much more painful!
SP: What advice would you give to a beginning fiction writer?
ML: I am very much a beginning fiction writer myself! I have stolen some advice from my teachers for another interview, which can be read here.
Another thing I’ll recommend to other beginning writers is to stay curious about the world: people, other animals, nature in general, history, technology, different art forms, other countries, other languages. They will fuel your writing. And read! Read both dead and living writers. Read outside the genre you write. I think our writing should be in conversation with what came before and what’s around us.
SP: What project are you currently working on that excites you the most?
ML: I am looking forward to sharing my story collection, The Memory Museum, with the world. But I’m most excited to work on my novel, for so much of it is unknown to me, and the unknown is always exciting.
Submissions for the swamp pink Fiction Prize open on January 1st and will close January 31st.
Submit your work here.
With a $20 entry fee, writers may submit up to 25 pages of fiction. Winners receive $2,000 and publication. All entries will be considered for publication, and more than one story may be entered.
Before you submit, please remove your name and any other identifying information from your manuscript. Simultaneous submissions are okay, as long as you contact us should the work be accepted elsewhere.