Ever since I read Jean Chen Ho’s Fiona and Jane, I’ve been craving all the innocent moments that come with having a Best Friend Forever. I’ve always believed in a sacred, almost magical energy in friendships among teenage girls and women in their twenties. They’re messy, intimate, awkward and ultimately support us through life’s biggest transitional moments. The friendships I carry over from my younger years continues to inspire and influence the friends I make now, a person so far removed from the era of BFFs and Barbies.
Written as a series of short stories, Fiona and Jane encapsulates this nostalgia of cultivating female friendship well into adulthood. Both Taiwanese immigrants in Southern California, Fiona and Jane learn to navigate life’s uncomfortable and daunting choices as separate individuals on their own paths, loosely bound by the deep roots of their childhood friendship. Through phases of distance and disconnection, each woman stumbles through her twenties — either together or estranged — with a shared sense refuge in their unified identity as lifelong friends.
I sat down with Jean to talk about the complexities of mother-daughter relationships, particularly in Asian American literature, the nuances of strong female friendship and the process of writing her very first book!
Emily: I want to get into Fiona and Jane as characters because to me they felt so real and visceral and I could just feel the tension in all their decisions, whether good or not so good. There were moments where I was reading through, especially their high school selves and I was thinking “Oh my gosh, this is exactly how it felt when I was this age.” So I’m wondering… how did you tap into those feelings and those memories of when you were younger, even in your twenties?
Jean Chen Ho: I think that there’s an emotional memory because to be honest, a lot of the specifics of what I went through or fights that I had with my friends when I was a teenager and my twenties, I probably don’t remember them. You know what I mean? Because it’s been so long, but there’s an emotional memory of having felt betrayed by a friend or realizing that you’ve hurt somebody or just the feeling of growing up together and realizing …
I think a really important thing that comes out in this book for Fiona and Jane is the two of them realizing that they’re not the same person, even though that they’re so close, they’re like sisters, they get to make their own choices. They don’t have to always look to the other one. You don’t always have to do what your best friend is doing. You don’t always have to get their approval, even though you want it so much. So I would say that I rely on my emotional memory for some of these stories. And then it was fun just to make up the fictional circumstances of trying to tell those kinds of emotional stories between these two women.
I don’t remember any of the fights I got into either, but the scars are still there. It’s so true.
Yeah, because it seems so serious when you’re in the fight or you don’t understand why your friend is upset with you for something that you did. I’ve definitely been in those situations where I thought I was the one who was being wronged or my friend thought that I had done a really shitty thing and I just couldn’t see it from her point of view. The circumstances almost don’t matter. It’s just that you love each other. When you love someone so much, the stakes are always going to be high because what they think and how they perceive you and how they’re living their life is so important to you.
When I was writing these stories, I think that it was really just about getting that feeling and making sure that the connection felt real and authentic even before I could figure out like, oh, they’re going to go to this club or they’re going to end up at this place and get into trouble this way, you know?
Did you ever get frustrated with them as you were writing?
Yeah, because I had to make them make bad choices. That’s how a story advances, and that’s what makes fiction interesting. You make your characters go toward something that they should not be doing that’s unsafe, that’s really dangerous. Or they can really discover something about themselves because they’ve never been in that situation before. So yeah, I think part of me was like, well, why would you do that? Why? Why would you lie to your friend about that? Or why would you do this thing behind her back? Or why wouldn’t you just talk to her about it? Those ideas, which seem so obvious and sane when you’re looking at it from an objective point of view. But when you’re the person who’s in that situation, there’s so much more in it that makes those choices really strange and interesting.
I think a lot of times when I’m thinking about conflict in my own real life, it doesn’t make sense. There’s no A to B for why somebody gets upset or gets really triggered by something that you’ve said or done. So I think in that way, I always was like, well, a lot of times people don’t make sense. People make choices that don’t make sense. People actually do make choices that are detrimental to their wellbeing because they have a desire that gets fulfilled if they do this one thing, even though it’s going to harm them down the line. So I just applied that logic to these characters, but really turned up the volume.
That must have been tricky and difficult to navigate when you want someone to do something so bad. I mean, I felt that even watching go through so many scary situations. So as a queer person reading this, I wanted to fight for Fiona and Jane to get together. Maybe that’s just my lens, but I’m wondering if — when you started out or maybe when the idea of Fiona and Jane came to you — you knew it was always going to be about their friendship and what friendship means between two women?
Oh, so you’re saying you wanted them to have a romantic connection?
Or even just like…I could feel Jane thinking through it or maybe just questioning it, even if it was subconsciously. I knew it wasn’t going to happen, based off the arc of the book, but I’m wondering what your ideas were from the start in terms of how you want to represent female friendship.
Yeah. Oh gosh. I love that question so much. It’s something that I did think about because the way that I wanted to represent friendship in the book and the way that I generally think about friendship in my life too, is that there is an element of Eros in friendships that are really close, especially between women, because I think women are really clairvoyant. In my experience I’ve had just like … when it’s a best friend that knows you so well, they really can read your mind. And so some ways that can be invasive, but in other ways it’s really wonderful because there’s that intimacy.
There’s something very erotic about that to me, even if it’s not sexual. And so with their friendship, even though it never gets to a romantic or sexual connection, I think because they’re so close and they’re so close to the point where they hate each other at times, the conflict and intimacy of that feels like there’s an element of Eros. I think that in real life too, I’ve always been a person who places a lot of importance in friendships as much, or perhaps even more than my romantic relationships.
When I was a young person, like in my teens and twenties, I definitely thought that there was a certain trajectory that romance was supposed to follow. It always seemed to me that friendships had so much more possibility and expansiveness for the ways that I can relate to my friends. I can have so many different kinds of friends, friends who I have an intellectual conversation with, or a friend who I can just sit there and be with and have just like a physical comfort with. That was always so interesting and valuable to me. I never placed that much importance on my romantic relationships or saw those kinds of interesting possibilities or different variations of a romantic relationship as I could with my friends. So I guess some of that translates into the writing of this book.
I totally understand you. I treat my friendships the exact same way. I think that’s something that we don’t come across a lot, especially in fiction and especially between two women. Your idea of what friendships look like and how expanding they can be really comes through in this book and I think a lot of that is also informed by what I’m reading into it. I could feel that pain of them hating each other and then loving each other and checking back in and not checking back in. I loved the relationships between women throughout Fiona and Jane, specifically with their mothers as well. I’m wondering what inspired you to highlight some of the more in-depth moments between each protagonist and their mother, especially because the fathers aren’t as present or present at all throughout their lives.
The dads are missing for various reasons, and then their mothers, I really wanted to have the two women envy each other in their relationships to their mothers and then each have an arc with that relationship to come to a different understanding, perhaps. So with Jane, when I was writing the younger version of her, I knew that she was a daddy’s girl, somebody who was really close to her father growing up and then having gone through this big abandonment loss episode really has to transform her relationship to her mom. Also, dealing with the feelings of betraying her father.
I wanted them to be antagonistic. By the end of the book, I don’t know if they’ve necessarily made peace, but I think I know they have each other’s backs. And then with Fiona, she was always really close to her mom. I wanted to write that almost codependent relationship. Fiona is so independent. She’s the older sister type. She had to be an adult much sooner than she should have been.
I was really interested in how she might look at Jane’s relationship to her mother and feel envious of that dynamic, even though when we get a close look at Jane’s actual relationship with her mother it’s not pleasant. But I wanted to use Fiona’s point of view to, in an oblique way, talk about like what it means to be a child and a child of immigrants and at which point you have to stand on your own two feet and be an adult. And then at what point do you see your parent as an adult too, with their own lives?
I think representations between daughter and mother alongside that can be really tricky and complicated. I just wanted to hear if you had anything specific that you wanted to bring into their individual relationships, or if it just was more natural as you were putting in plot structures.
Yeah. I mean, I definitely was. When you’re an Asian American woman writer, I think one inevitable comparison one gets is to the Joy Luck Club, right? Because decades later, it’s such a seminal text of Chinese American mother daughter relationships and an immigration story and intergenerational trauma. For a long time, that was almost the only story that mainstream general public has of what it means to be an Asian American woman, what it means to be an Asian American mother and daughter. No shade to Amy Tan, but I think that I wanted to acknowledge that’s a familiar story of having the second generation daughter be very antagonistic against the first generation mother.
But in my book, if there was any antagonism between Fiona and her mother or Jane and her mother, I didn’t quite want it to be because, “oh, like this is a first-generation, second-generation immigrant parent/child conflict language barrier. Oh, they don’t understand me because I’m an American who grew up here and my parents are from.” I just find that not as interesting in fiction in 2022.
When I was writing these women and their mothers, I wanted to show that these are individuals. This is not representative of all Taiwanese American daughters and mothers, of course, but I wanted them to have a relationship that was tender and antagonistic and annoyed. And like I said earlier, that you can be envious looking into your friend’s mother/daughter relationship when in fact it’s not what you thought it was.
We know Fiona and Jane are both Taiwanese immigrants and you have a very similar background. Were there any experiences from your personal life that you felt like you really wanted to capture through Fiona and Jane’s eyes?
Well, I, like Fiona, I moved to New York in my twenties and I only lived there like for three years, so I gave Fiona a longer time there. I think she lives there for about a decade, but there was … I don’t know if this is an interesting answer to your question, but I just remember it was my second winter in New York and I was just like, “Ugh, I can’t take this. I can’t live here. I can’t, I just can’t do it. Another winter. This is awful.” So some of that I put into the story “Doppelgangers.” This is when Fiona is deciding to move back to LA and then she’s talking about how much she hates the winter.
You’re walking around a sleeping bag for months and it’s just awful. So, I mean, I think that’s a very specific example of something that I put from my real life into the book. There’s snippets of my life in Fiona and Jane. I mean, there’s definitely moments for both women where I channeled an emotional truth rather than the specific circumstances of what was happening in the story. But I think there’s definitely a little bit of me in both of them and probably in all the characters in the book, because I wrote it, sorry I couldn’t help it.
The emotional truth is really what brings them to life and yeah, I feel you with the cold. My family is all in Ohio, but my dad’s side is Burmese and they’re always like, “It’s so cold here. We need to move.” And I’m like “Then we don’t need to be here.”
This is my theory, totally not scientific, but I just feel like because I grew up in Taiwan and in Southern California for the most part, I can’t live in a place that has a really harsh winter. It’s just really hard on me.
Yeah! I was really curious about why you chose to make the structure more like a series of short fiction like snippets or essays that alternate narrators, and then why Jane’s was first person and so intimate but then Fiona’s is so cold and distant. I’m wondering what your process was in how you decided to convey it that way.
Well I think that’s it organically came out that way when I was writing these stories. When I first started writing about these two, I didn’t know that I was writing a book. I didn’t set out being like, “Yes, I’m going to write this novel in short stories about these two women.” I just started writing individual stories.
I think I naturally tend to write in first person more. That’s just when I’m trying to figure out a story, I’ll use the first-person voice to understand who this character is. And then if for whatever reason, the story wants to be in third person, then I’ll write the next draft in third person.
I generally feel more comfortable writing in first person. I think because Jane’s stories just came to me that way and her voice is so distinct and enjoyable for me as a writer that I wanted to know more about who she was and what her world was like. And then her best friend, Fiona, I actually feel like writing in third person. There is a different intimacy because in some ways the first person narrator is really unreliable because you’re hearing things from her point of view and you don’t really know if you can trust that, right? You get all of the lies that come along. That’s one of the things about writing a first person. You have to stay in that character’s brain and everything is filtered through what they’re telling you, as the reader.
Whereas in third person, you really get just directly into their thoughts and you observe their whole world in a much more expanded way because you’re not stuck being told the story in this character’s voice. So I don’t know. I wish I could tell you “yeah, I had this master plan of writing first person and third person,” but it just came out naturally that way. When I started writing stories about Fiona, they just came out in third person.
I actually had a [first person] story that was a Fiona story. In “The Inheritance,” the story where she’s talking about her childhood, where we find out about her grandfather, that story was originally written in first person. Then because of the structure of the book, I then had to shift everything over to third person so it would match the overall form. But for the most part, they came out in third person, I think just be because the stories worked better that way.
I don’t know. This is my first book and I was just writing it and trying to have fun. And there were moments where I wanted to kill myself and many times when I just wanted to give up and kept having stories rejected. Nobody wanted to publish any of my stories and it was really hard, but I think I just, for whatever reason really believed in these two women. And so part of that belief, or maybe even delusion is just trusting my gut when it comes to things like is this a first person’s story or a third person story? Maybe if I thought about it more, I could give you a really smart, concrete, craft-based answer to that, but I think at the end of the day it was just a gut instinct thing.
This is your first book, as you said. Did writing this or the process of writing this spark future ideas for you?
Oh yeah. Oh gosh. One of the best ways to get new ideas is when you’re trying to procrastinate on your project. I’m not even kidding. I have a whole notebook of ideas that came out in the last five years of trying to write Fiona and Jane. Some of them were essay ideas that I did end up writing. Other of them are short story ideas about different characters that I’ve tried to pursue and then failed. And then others are business ideas that I’ve had, just totally fantasy things about like, “oh, if I had a vintage store, this is what I would name it.”
So yeah, I have all kinds. When you’re working on a long project, like a book, you get all kinds of ideas and sometimes they’re worth pursuing and other times they’re totally not, but I am working on the second book now. So probably in the process of writing this second book, I will come up with lots of other crazy ideas.
I feel like, the vintage [store idea] is common amongst writers. It’s that or a coffee shop, you know what I mean?
Oh yeah. I was like, “we need a Boba shop here. There’s like restaurants, bars, there’s a coffee shop. But what we’re really missing on this block is just like a cool Boba shop.”
Yes! That’s what I’m missing here in North Hollywood. Agreed. So, you referenced Joy Luck Club as the crucial text when people — the Western canon — thinks about Asian American writing. I’m wondering what advice you have for Asian writers trying to break into fiction publishing?
Okay. Well, I don’t know if I’m qualified to give advice as I have barely broken in to publishing myself!
But you’ve been studying it your whole life. You’re in it!
Okay. So for Asian American writers trying to break into publishing, well, I guess I would say one thing that helped me a lot is finding a community of likeminded writers. Whatever you’re writing, whether it’s literary fiction, science fiction, romance, YA, screenplays, whatever it is, I think it’s always useful to have readers who you trust, whose intelligence and whose emotional capacity you trust. Right? And just because you’re Asian American doesn’t mean that you necessarily have to have an Asian American writing group.
But I do think there’s a different lens that your fellow Asian American writer, your Asian American woman writer, especially in my experience, that’s able to see you, to really see you and the work that you’re trying to do. That’s not to say “Oh any random Asian American person who’s also writing is going to understand what I’m doing or it’s going to like really connect with me” but I think it’s worth finding a writing community that includes — if you’re like me — an Asian American woman, I think it’s worthwhile to find other Asian American women who are on this journey with you.
I was talking about Amy Tan earlier and how for a long time, she was the only one. It was either her or Maxine Hong Kingston. Right? I think, thankfully, we’re not in that universe anymore where there’s just one story. There’s so many others of us who are out here trying to write fiction. It’s important that we make room for the proliferating and different kinds of stories that all of us want to tell. That’s really important to me, to have a community in a way to share resources and to build each other up.
What do you hope to see in the future of fiction? I know that’s a broad question. You can have no answer, but I’m throwing it out there.
I was supposed to write a playlist of music that I had that was related to my book and I was supposed to turn it in back in December or something. I still haven’t finished writing it, but I was thinking about writing it this last week. I listed one of the albums that I think of is Mos Def, Black on Both Sides. It came out so long, it’s probably been like 20 years now, more than 20 years. But I remember listening to that album, just driving in my car.
So I listened to it the other day again, and there’s an interlude where he’s talking and he says, “People often ask me, what’s going to happen with hiphop? And what’s happening with hiphop is whatever is happening with us. If we’re healthy, hiphop is going to be.” I don’t remember, I’m paraphrasing, but he was like, “If we’re healthy, hiphop is going to be healthy. If we’re not, hiphop is not. We are hiphop, hiphop is us.” And so I guess I want to borrow from that energy and say that fiction is us too. Whatever we are writing and whatever energy we’re putting out there, whether if we are politically engaged, if we are compassionate, if we’re generous, then the fiction that we create is going to be that way too. So it’s up to us as writers.
Fiona and Jane by Jean Chen Ho is available now.