Cleo Qian | That Intangible Cinge of Memory

Via Issue 188, The Eternal Flame Issue!

Written by

Julia Smith

Photographed by

Alex Frank

Styled by

John Tan

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PRUNE GOLDSCHMIDT shirt and PANDORA JEWELRY earrings and bracelet.

But what of the ash that sparks the eternal Flame? The byproduct of consumed energy, falling to the ground with the consistency of fresh snow in February? The heat of the moment’s remains, marking the fleeting shape of the flame, collecting within a small dish for those curious.

Akin to a cremator, author Cleo Qian sifts through the ashes of lived experience, pulling out the bones of memory, carefully collecting them within the velvet pouch of new story collection, LET’S GO, LET’S GO, LET’S GO. Memories are woven and transfigured by unsuspecting characters—a supernatural karaoke machine, a girl who begins to see omens, and a mirror able to see through space, among others.

LET’S GO, LET’S GO, LET’S GO begins in a small strip mall restaurant, accented by styrofoam takeaway containers and Qian’s favorite food at the time of writing: crispy, honeyed, Korean chicken. Mr. Kang, the mysterious owner of the chicken shop invites attendees of a painfully familiar high school reunion—where characters confront divergent life paths and relationships—to a makeshift theater in the restaurant’s back where he screens an odyssey-like homage to Hollywood. Herein lies the power of Qian’s storytelling: the ability to transmute mundane, relatable conversations into fantastical stories, contemplatively peering into contemporary Asian society.

The world of LGLGLG is vibrant and gritty and saturated with details. It’s not that Qian is exceptionally observant in the moment, she’ll attest, but rather that details emerge from the story as a part of the careful, conscious world-building. “I think most of my friends would say I’m not observant,” Qian laughs. “I’ve been known to be pretty spacey. With stories like ‘ZEROES AND ONES,’ ‘MONITOR WORLD,’ or ‘SEAGULL VILLAGE,’ I had a very vivid setting in mind that I did try to capture. I am very sensitive to the atmosphere in places, so when I am writing, I am trying to figure out how to recreate the mood.”

A part of Qian’s vivid writing began the way most young writers and artists find their first critics: online. “There was [a forum] called FictionPress,” Qian recalls. “It was like a cousin to fanfiction, but it was just pure fiction. I posted something there once and the commenters said, ‘You have no detail, you need to work on your setting.’”

Qian’s aforementioned failed filmmakers’ story, “CHICKEN. FILM. YOUTH.” typifies her emotional tapestry that reaches throughout the collection, detailing the tumultuous journey of life in your early twenties. Loves had and loves lost, imposed responsibilities, unexplained coincidences, and the otherworldly take on a new life, cementing transient experiences and emotions that would have otherwise been buried in the shuffling catalog of memory. The eleven stories in LGLGLG are ordered intentionally, taking the reader through moments of unease and heightened tension. Qian worked with Alyssa Ogi at Tin House to curate the flow of the novel. “We started with three, in my mind, very intense mood pieces that are emotionally claustrophobic,” Qian shares. “They started the atmosphere, and after the third story, the feeling starts to loosen a little bit and there’s some relief.”

When asked what the hardest story was for her to write, Qian cites “POWER AND CONTROL,” in which you’re placed in the center of “a relationship where one person is very controlling and jealous of the other person.” It’s a particularly astringent piece that places you unconventionally at the opposite end of the traditional love story, a perspective that took Qian a few tries to nail down. “I had been in such a relationship,” she recalls, “and so I was trying to write the story from the perspective of [Greta] in the first person, and it was really hard.” Her editor wasn’t convinced, she explains. “It was only when I started revising it in the third person and got some distance from being inside [Greta’s] diseased brain did the story come together.”

The piece that inspired the title of Qian’s novel comes from the conceptual artist Yutaka Matsuzawa, and his 1964 work, Banner of Vanishing. Upon a long, pink silk screen banner the words, “Humans, Let’s Vanish, Let’s Go, Let’s Go, Gate, Gate—Anti-Civilization Committee” are proclaimed. The use of pink fabric in the banner represents the spiritual and the unnatural in nature. It’s an invitation to accompany Matsuzawa beyond the world of matter, and to move into an alternative, if not alien dimension, another plane, unconcerned with the materialistic world. Much like Matsuzawa’s work, Qian focuses on the intangible and supernatural to convey human emotions.

On harnessing the fantastic, Qian laughs, “I’ve never been able to stick to realism. I try.” Indeed, Qian’s background in multicultural literature lends itself to a fluid writing style, unconstrained by the Western-genre-imposed bounds of fiction. “I feel in America, there is this distinction between: this is Realist, this is Literary, this is Speculative, this is Magical, this is Sci-Fi.” She continues, “In America, the genre teachings are so clear cut and stringent, but in other regions, like Latin American or Japanese literature, there are random elements produced all the time that are not realistic.” Qian adds, “No one will say it’s not literary or it’s so-genre, and I feel I was really influenced by that, reading non-American authors.”

For the bold world-building and risk-taking style of Cleo Qian, maybe it is not about how vibrant the flame or how sweltering the heat, but just that it happened. Carefully sweeping up the ashes of existence, we acknowledge we were here. 

Photographed by Alex Frank

Styled by John Tan

Written by Julia Smith

Hair and Makeup: Dalia Younan

Photo Assistant: Isabel Evans

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Issue 188, The Eternal Flame Issue, Cleo Qian, LET'S GO LET'S GO LET'S GO, Julia Smith, Alex Frank, John Tan