A few months ago, Ran and I were talking, and I kind of went, “What if I did a series where I only asked writers about the kind of books they read? Would you be into that?” There were no capitals and more than a few typos in the text I sent her, but Ran has a habit of supporting a lot of ideas I am unsure about, so she probably sent a gigantic keysmash and said yes. Which was a bit of an ego boost but still exciting– especially because I’m now launching this series with a feature from someone who contributed to the conception of this idea, and is just generally an awesome person to be around.
In the first issue of Indigo’s Bookshelf Interviews series, Ran Zhao talks to me about cats, poetry that perseveres, and finding inspiration through multiple forms of art. The books pictured and mentioned have been compiled onto a Goodreads shelf, which you can find here.
To start off, tell us a little bit about yourself! What do you write, what’s your favorite breakfast, what are some musicians you hate that you love– all that usual stuff.
Thank you so much for having me! My name is Ran, I live in Hong Kong, and my favorite breakfast is eggs! They’re so versatile, and each country has a different way of making them, so there’s never a shortage of recipes. I recently found out you could poach single eggs by microwaving them in half a bowl of water with the yolks and whites pricked to avoid explosions. It’s so satisfying to watch the egg coagulate in the microwave. You feel productive without doing anything. Some artists I enjoy are Phoebe Bridgers, Mao Buyi, and Ludovico Einaudi.
As a writer, how would you define your relationship with reading? What kinds of books do you gravitate towards?
This is such a cool question, since I’ve never made a conscious distinction between my reading self and my writing self. I think, as a writer, I’m inspired by books that use form, metaphor, or narrative in unconventional ways—“Autobiography of Red” by Anne Carson and “Interior Chinatown” by Charles Yu both do that so well. And I’m just down so bad for beautiful language. Recently, I’ve loved “The Living Mountain” by Nan Shepherd, “This is How You Lose the Time War” by Max Gladstone and Amal El-Mohtar, and “The Bread We Eat in Dreams” by Catherynne M. Valente. Would totally recommend all of them!
And what kind of a reader would you say you are from a non-writing lens?
I like character-driven novels more than plot-driven novels, and I’m a sucker for political intrigue. Recently, I’ve been reading a lot of books by writers of color (translations in particular!) just because I want a break from the motifs and values and narrative structures that dominate Western novels. “Pachinko” by Lee Min-jin and “And the Mountains Echoed” by Khaled Hosseini have been so beautiful and gut-wrenching. In terms of nonfiction, I love astronomy, history, and social commentary (read “Trick Mirror” by Jia Tolentino!), and I’ve recently been getting into deconstructionism.
Of course, I see many art books on your bookshelf. How has visual art informed the way you look at literary text or your own writing?
This is such a cool question—I think it’s definitely affected how I conceptualize poetry! In art, people always talk about drawing what you see instead of what you think you see. If you were to draw a mountain from your mind’s eye, you might come up with a few snow-capped triangles; but that’s not how real mountains are, only how you expect them to be. By paying attention, instead, to the shapes and colors that actually constitute the mountain, you develop the perspective you need to capture its beauty more powerfully. I think this process of defamiliarization has been so helpful to my writing process—by examining thoughts and emotions as if I’ve never seen them before, I’m way more open to novel metaphors and interpretations.
You also have a wonderful art account on Instagram! Do you have any ongoing projects?
Thank you so much for asking! I have a little project going on where I’m painting different shop fronts across Hong Kong, and it’s taken me to so many tiny, beautiful places around the city. I’m so in love with the unique clutter and character of each shop—the snack packets, the store signs, the cats sleeping in cardboard boxes…it’s been a blast doing the paintings, and I hope other people are finding them fun too.
What would you say is your favorite book on your shelf, and why?
I love “Calling a Wolf a Wolf” by Kaveh Akbar—thank you for introducing me to it! I remember you sent me the first two poems last year, and I added it to my TBR at the speed of light. It’s such a beautiful book that depicts mental illness in a devastatingly human way. I’ve never experienced alcoholism, but when I first read it, I was struggling to recover from some other things, so his depiction of recovery struck a really deep chord in me. I still revisit it a lot.
What about a favorite book not picturized, since so much of the media we consume is digital now.
I can’t choose! But I just finished “Piranesi” by Susanna Clark, and it was so different from anything I’ve ever read. I won’t give away the plot, but the setting (endless house filled with Greek statues and seawater) was just so beautiful to me. I’ve always loved Jorge Luis Borges’ stories—his exploration of stars, loneliness, and infinity—and I was so happy to find that this was inspired by that.
What is a book (or many books!) you dislike/hate? Is there anything on this shelf you haven’t read all the way through?
I love Haruki Murukami’s writing—it’s so lyrical and dreamlike—but I hate the way he writes women. I still need to finish The Odyssey!
You also have a blog in which you translate Chinese poetry. Tell us a little bit about your experience reading Chinese poetry, reading translations, and then being the translator yourself.
Thank you for letting me yell about this! I have to say I’m not great at Chinese—the blog is more of a personal exploration in poetics—but I really love Classical Chinese poetry. It’s such a beautiful genre filled with mountains and rivers and profound meditations on homesickness and loss, and there are so many stunning verses that have never appeared in English. I think the value of exploring literature in multiple languages is that you start to realize elements you thought were universal to poetry are actually only specific to a particular culture. For instance, in the Western world, there are so many powerful poems about passion or fear or hatred, and the thrall they hold over the speaker; you kind of start to think that’s the only way to write poetry. But Chinese poetry is more influenced by the zen notion of emptiness, of nonself. A lot of poems deal explicitly with the emptying of the self—the ability to experience the world without being swayed by the tumult of your emotions. Here’s my blog, if you want to check out my silly little scribbles. (The name is a pun! Get it???)
I love this answer because here, writing becomes a tool for rediscovery in addition to one for recovery as you had mentioned before. Also, there are… so many cat books on this shelf… I didn’t even know that was a thing! Do you have any cats of your own?
STOP EXPOSING ME!! I don’t have any cats, but I feed the ones near my apartment most days, and it’s nice to have little cat buddies wherever you go! But I had a terrible cat phase when I was younger—I remember reading DK’s Complete Cat Breed Book until I’d memorized every cat breed in existence. There was an online cat quiz, and at one point, I was the highest scorer in Hong Kong. It was a problem.
“Calling a Wolf a Wolf” by Kaveh Akbar was one of the first poetry books I ever read. What are your thoughts on this book, and what are some other poems or collections you love?
Oh no, I’ve already talked about this! But thank you again for the recommendation—it was one of my first poetry books too! I wish I could say I had a huge stack of poetry collections, but I read most of my poetry online. I love “Eating Together” by Li-Young Lee and “Jiaomen West Station” by Lydia Wei—they’re so sad and fluid and staggeringly beautiful. I also enjoy Federico García Lorca’s poems—he describes landscapes in such a lushly evocative way. I remember he ended one of his poems with “In the fir trees on the mountain: fireflies.” and it absolutely took me out. Imagine it—the fireflies suspended motionless in the dark mountain, blinking in the blue night…it wrecks you like a roundhouse kick in the face.
Tell us about a strong literary opinion you hold.
I don’t like writing that romanticizes pain—it’s so needless and harmful, especially when you have younger people reading your work. It’s not profound and meaningful to suffer: it’s just painful.
Lastly, is there a question you wished we had asked you?
I actually wanted to thank you for all the cool questions! So lucky to be able to rant so long about my thoughts on books/poetics/eggs, as well as my random little side-projects. I’m so excited to see how the rest of this interview series goes.
Ran Zhao lives in Hong Kong. She is an editor-in-chief at Dishsoap Quarterly, and her writing has been recognized by Bennington College, Hollins University, the New York Times Magazine, and the Foyle Young Poets Award. In her free time, she enjoys petting cats, eating sweet potatoes, and painting.
Dhwanee Goyal is getting through college one donut at a time. The editor-in-chief of Indigo Literary Journal, her work appears or is forthcoming in Barrelhouse, Foglifter Journal, and A Velvet Giant, amongst others. Find her on Twitter @pparallell.