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The Desire for Care Despite Disaster: An Interview with Stella Lei

By Josie Moore

Inheritances of Hunger (River Glass Books, 2022)

Josie Moore: In an earlier interview, you mentioned that the song “Girl on TV” sparked your idea for a story. Was there a specific song, image, or line that inspired or energized Inheritances of Hunger? How did this chapbook come to life?

Stella Lei: This chapbook was heavily influenced by art and music. One of the first stories I wrote for it, “Changeling,” came about because I had seen Ren Hang’s photography on Twitter, and there was something so haunting and evocative about it that made me look into more of his work. From there, I began exploring other contemporary Chinese photographers, and I very quickly created a Pinterest board of photographs with that same vibe. In the same vein, I compiled a playlist with that sort of sad, yet yearning feeling, which eventually became my playlist for the entire chapbook. A lot of it came from Phoebe Bridgers’s album Punisher, which probably contributed to the apocalyptic atmosphere in the chapbook. Those two sites of inspiration in art and music energized the creation of “Changeling,” which in turn inspired me to write Inheritances of Hunger as a whole.

JM: In “Changeling,” the goldfish is a prominent character. What does the goldfish symbolize?  

SL: “Changeling” began as a very image-based piece. As I was collecting images for inspiration, I noticed a trend of blue-green hazy photographs of giant tanks filled with goldfish. On a purely aesthetic level, the contrast between the glowing orange of the fish and the cooler colors of the background was so beautiful, so I knew I wanted to include goldfish, I just didn’t know exactly how.

As I began writing this story, and the ideas of consumption and cannibalism emerged, I remembered how my uncle and my aunt in China have this koi pond at their house. When I fed them, I’d throw the food in the water, and all the fish would swim up and open their mouths at me like a sea of blinking mouths. That’s an image I’ve associated with fish ever since. It was natural to take this image and tie it to the ideas of opening, hunger, and consumption that I carry throughout the story.

JM: In “Changeling,” the mother and Jennifer kill Jessica. I am curious as to why the mother chose to kill the daughter Jessica rather than Jennifer. Is it due to Jessica being the weaker of the two? Or perhaps the mother knew Jessica could never murder Jennifer?

SL: This is really interesting! I think the mother initially kills Jessica out of pure necessity because Jessica was the one who “fell ill” or became monstrous first. However, as Jennifer acknowledges toward the end, the mother would kill her as well, if she also falls victim to this disease. The mother’s indiscriminate treatment of her daughters, which morphs into cruelty as they age, is a key part of what drives their emotional hunger—their desire for care despite disaster.

JM: I love the writing in your chapbook. One standout sentence is in “On Building a Nest”: “Her philosophy was as follows: you cannot determine something’s worth before it is finished, and most everything finished is bad—corrupted by greed, or rust, or the general incompetence of its maker.” This quote synthesizes the theme of motherhood and the power complex of a mother-daughter relationship. How does greed or incompetence affect mothers and daughters?

SL: This is a really great question, thank you for reading so closely! I think the greed at the heart of “On Building a Nest” is the mother’s overpowering desire to keep her daughter close and dependent, to the point that she will harm her daughter’s wellbeing and development. In this story, the daughter begins to go through puberty and mature physically into an adult woman; the mother tries to slow or stop this process to keep her daughter a “child” forever. So essentially, she wants to keep her daughter “unfinished” so she can stay under her mother’s control. But in addition to this, maybe the mother fears that when her daughter becomes a woman, she will be “corrupted” or that she won’t be the perfect image of the child her mother wanted her to be.

JM: How did writing this chapbook help you grow as an author?

SL: I grew a lot with this chapbook. I learned so much about my writing tendencies and strengthened and solidified my craft to a point where I could be proud of my work on a line level and a structural level. It also helped me discover my optimal workflow, both in writing individual stories and in creating larger projects like a chapbook.

JM: What are some of your favorite books of fiction? How have they influenced your writing?

SL: There are so many to choose from! On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong, Ghost Forest by Pik-Shuen Fung, Real Life by Brandon Taylor, The Diving Pool by Yoko Ogawa, and Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng are some I’ve especially loved. For larger projects, I always assemble a list of books to “study” on a structural or thematic level, or just to immerse myself in writing I admire. However, more generally, I look toward Ocean Vuong for how tight, viscerally rendered, and emotionally complex his prose is. Yoko Ogawa is another favorite of mine for how deftly she brings the eerie and the surreal into her worlds.

JM: What advice would you offer to students interested in creative writing?

SL: Write for yourself before all else. I only became heavily involved with publications, summer programs, and contests in 2020, after writing independently of them for many years, and that long-lasting love for creation was my ultimate drive to continue. It’s natural to desire external validation, but don’t try to mold yourself into what you think institutions want or reward. Doing so will only make writing constricting when you should take this time to explore and experiment. I know this can be hard advice with the pressure of college applications, but I became much less anxious about writing once I stepped back and focused on strengthening my craft, rather than constantly submitting before I was ready.

Stella Lei is a Harvard undergraduate whose work appears in CRAFT, Four Way Review, Narrative Magazine, and elsewhere. Her debut prose chapbook, Inheritances of Hunger, is currently out with River Glass Books. Lei is editor in chief for The Augment Review and has two cats.

Josie Moore is from Nashville, Tennessee. She is a senior English writing major at Lee University, and can usually be seen with an ink stain on her hand, due to her immense love for filling blank pages with stories.