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'Fiona and Jane' captures a friendship's intensity, loyalty and occasional torment

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Let me ask you. Do you have a friend you can spend years not talking too much and then, when you finally reconnect again, it's like no time has been lost? Well, I feel grateful to say that I do have a few friends like that. But, you know, at the same time, I do wonder what caused us to drift apart during those years in the first place.

Well, a new collection of stories by Jean Chen Ho explores just this, stories about two Taiwanese American women who grew up in Los Angeles and whose friendship spans decades, coasts, lovers, family conflicts. These are two best friends who do grow apart only to find their way back to each other again. "Fiona And Jane" captures the textures of female friendship and all the intensity, loyalty and occasional torment of it.

Jean Chen Ho joins us now. Welcome.

JEAN CHEN HO: Hi, Ailsa. I'm so excited to talk to you.

CHANG: I'm so excited to talk to you. I mean, I would first love to hear you describe these two women, Fiona and Jane - like, how their personalities bounce off of each other, the dynamic between them. How would you put it?

CHEN HO: OK. So they're best friends. They met in the second grade. And the book spans, you know, decades of their friendship. There's definitely shifts in their dynamic throughout. I think when they're younger, Fiona is definitely the leader. She's really ambitious. She knows what she wants, and she goes after it. As an example, when they're 16, she decides that they're going to get fake IDs and learn how to drink. And, you know, in that era, Jane is definitely the follower. She's - you know, she gets made fun of as, like, quote, unquote, "Fiona's bodyguard." She's actually a lot more introspective and observant and empathetic.

And then in their 20s, Fiona moves to New York. She's doing her ambitious thing, dating all the wrong guys. And then Jane comes out, and she's bisexual. She's dating men and women. But she's sort of just drifting about. She's grieving the loss of her father, who took his own life. So, you know, there's a lot of that going on. And when they come back together, they really - part of what I wanted to explore with the book is how these two women figure out how to be friends as adults...

CHANG: Yeah.

CHEN HO: ...Given all of their history.

CHANG: Well, even though there is so much that's specific about this friendship between Fiona and Jane - I mean, they are two Taiwanese American women who grew up in Los Angeles - there's also so much about their friendship that's universal - right? - that I feel like a lot of women who have close female friendships can relate to. And I want to talk about that piece of it. Like, what is it about friendships between women that's so hard to replicate in other friendships, you think? What's unique about female friendship?

CHEN HO: Oh, this is such a juicy question. I don't know. I think part of it is that we get so many sort of master narratives about what female friendship is supposed to be like or how girls are supposed to treat each other, whether it's, like, the mean girls trope or, you know, that girls and women are competitive with one another, you know?

CHANG: Yeah.

CHEN HO: There's, you know, things like that. And I just found that those representations can sometimes be so boring and flat, and I think female friendships are always more complicated than that. So even if there is envy and jealousy, which I think exists in this book between the women, there's also this tenderness and vulnerability that can't exist anywhere else.

CHANG: Yeah. I want to turn to a moment in this book that made me think about you as the author, not about Fiona or Jane, because there's this one part where an Asian writer gets called out over who he writes his stories about. I'm talking about Jasper, right? And let me quote from a piece of the book here. (Reading) She told him to stop writing stories about white people. He'd scoffed, and then they'd argued. Just because I don't indicate what race the characters are doesn't automatically mean they're white. Um (ph), yeah, dude. It reads like that. Sorry to break it to you.

I was just wondering, when I read that, were you sort of speaking to yourself there? Was this something, like, someone had once said to you about your own writing?

CHEN HO: No.

CHANG: (Laughter).

CHEN HO: But I have an MFA, and, you know, I've taught creative writing elsewhere. And I think one of the questions that often comes up for my students who are writing characters who are Asian American or other people of color is, how do I indicate that this character is Taiwanese or Persian or Mexican or whatever it is that they want to show about this character without making it feel clunky or without it feeling too heavy-handed?

CHANG: Right.

CHEN HO: In that story with Jasper, I wanted to sort of lampoon the kind of writer who feels very defensive about having to indicate that his characters are Asian American. You know, like, he sort of wants to have the privilege of not having to add that marker of difference. And yet our writing doesn't exist in a vacuum where writers of color have that privilege, right? So...

CHANG: Yeah.

CHEN HO: You know, I didn't want to land in one way or the other with this character. He does some odious things in other parts of the story. But as far as his writing ambitions, I wanted to just sort of gesture toward the struggle that he really has. And then, you know, that leads to a conversation and sex outside of his relationship. So, you know, it's all a big mess.

CHANG: Well, there was so much that I related to when I was reading these stories about both Fiona and Jane because - you know, I'm thinking about my own teens, 20s and 30s, and you just think, like, oh, my God. Like, this is bad. This is so bad. Is life ever going to get better? There are those really low points.

And in the end, I'm just curious. Like, do you think maybe a subtitle to this book is, it's OK; you're going to make it to your 30s, and life will still be fine? - because that is kind of the overall message I got at the end.

CHEN HO: I love that you've turned my book into a self-help manual for depressed Asian American women.

CHANG: Who grew up in California, yes (laughter).

CHEN HO: You know what? One of the things I didn't expect with the book is that, you know, when I finished writing it, I'm - you know, I'm so excited the book is out there. But there's also sort of, like, this letting go process, you know? Now my book is going to be in bookstores, and people are going to have their reactions to it. And I have to sort of say goodbye to those characters.

But one of the ways that I've been thinking about them is that just because I don't get to follow them around anymore - they're still living. They're still going on in their lives into their 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, beyond, you know, because Asian women live forever.

CHANG: Exactly. And we do not wrinkle, by the way.

CHEN HO: Absolutely, absolutely. So yeah. So I think - I love that you added that subtitle. And I do think of these women as still, like - I don't know - older ladies still in love with one another and cracking jokes and roasting one another.

CHANG: I love that. Jean Chen Ho's new book is called "Fiona And Jane." Thank you so much for sharing this time with us. This was so fun.

CHEN HO: Thank you, Ailsa. It was such a pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROOKED COLOURS SONG, "NEVER DANCE ALONE (FT. LADYHAWKE)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.