On the bookshelf
FIona and Jane
By Jean Chen Ho
Viking: 288 pages, $ 26
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I was not sure that Jean Chen Ho would come to our interview.
Late on a Wednesday evening, less than 12 hours before our Zoom meeting to discuss her first book, “Fiona and Jane”, Ho had tweeted from Jumbo’s Clown Room on Hollywood Boulevard that she “wore a reasonable cable-knit sweater to a strip club.”
I was relieved when Ho arrived from her home in Los Feliz just three minutes late – “a little hangover,” she confessed – and in the same snow-white sweater she was wearing. was asleep early that morning. “I woke up, had breakfast, made myself some coffee,” she said. “I still wear the eyeliner from last night. I put on a little lipstick to make it look more alive.
Ho has been an Angeleno for most of his life. Although she grew up in Cerritos, she has fond memories of Taiwan, where she was born and lived until the age of 8. After his family immigrated to Los Angeles, Ho found a home among its strong Asian-American communities. “All of my childhood friends were Korean, Indian or Filipino,” she recalls.
When she’s not at home, Ho told me, she goes out with friends or searches the archives at the USC library, where she is a doctoral candidate in creative writing and literature. Her thesis also made her literary debut: “Fiona and Jane”, a collection of related short stories, spanning 30 years of friendship between two Taiwanese American women from LA.
The characters in the title are of complementary types: Fiona is an outgoing serial monogamist and a law school dropout, Jane an insecure budding author struggling with her bisexuality. The story alternates between Jane’s first-person perspective and a third-person narrator, but each chapter focuses on one of the two protagonists. It’s easy to get carried away by the dichotomy – wondering if you’re a Fiona or a Jane.
Ho, for her part, says she grafted her experiences onto the two characters. “I’ve had a similar geographic trajectory to Fiona,” she said, “and I think I identify with Jane in that she’s kind of an underachiever. She’s, like, adrift in her twenties and part of her thirties. “
At 41, Ho admits she is “not a youngster” when posting her debut. “I’ve lived a lot of my life,” she says. The book reflects this, browsing Taiwanese night markets; Korean sooljips in Garden Grove; and Canal Street in New York City, where Ho lived for three years, working for a nonprofit arts organization before the seasonal depression took hold and she decided, “I have to go.”
Ho had started a novel in New York City, and when she returned to Los Angeles, she began taking writing classes while working one day as the Director of Development at AAPI Visual Communications. Being 30, she says, “forced me to really face” the decision to write full time. She received an MFA from the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, where she wrote the first of the “Fiona and Jane” stories.
After that, it was back to Cerritos. “Luckily my parents didn’t charge me rent,” she joked. Living in his childhood home at the age of 34 was “nourishing but also strange”. That winter, Ho received a phone call from writer and USC professor Aimee Bender, welcoming her to the doctoral program.
It was Ho’s “ease of voice” that drove her, Bender recalls. “You feel like listening to a friend talking to you,” she said. “She talks about layers and complexity, but with such a light hand.”
At USC, Ho studied from Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen, who described her as “refreshing and unembarrassed,” right down to her memorable thrift store outfits.
“Jean has always maintained this streak of independence by simply being herself in front of her fellow students and faculty members,” Nguyen told me. “I think it’s pretty hard to do, to have that kind of lack of self-awareness. It suits him as a writer as well, because I think “Fiona and Jane” is a book about vulnerability, but it’s also a vulnerable book in and of itself for a writer to write.
Vulnerability seems to come easily to Ho. A few minutes into our conversation, she told me that one of her best friends had committed suicide a few months ago. (Ho wrote an article in The Times in August about dealing with his grief.)
“She was also Taiwanese American, and in some ways it was a different kind of intimacy,” Ho said, voice startling. “It’s like going to her house – when I was a kid I felt like it was my home, it was like her parents were my second parents. When you have a long friendship like that, I assumed we would be friends until 80 or 90, if we were lucky enough to live that long.
“Fiona and Jane” is a refreshing and honest treatment of long-term friendships, especially their inexorable ebb and flow. Story by story, the book captures how friendships negotiate their own boundaries, sometimes dissolving unexpectedly and sometimes blossoming into something more, if only fleeting.
While Ho admits her adult friendships scent the book, she hesitates to draw direct parallels. She said she felt compelled to write about friendship between Asian American women, in part because of her own upbringing in a predominantly Asian suburb of Los Angeles – the kind of place that complicates simplistic media definitions of diversity as “something different from whites.” majority.”
I asked him what it meant to have a best friend. Can you only have one? Ho was quick to disagree. “’Best friend’ is kind of like a category or kind of person,” she told me. One such “genre” in her lifetime is her close-knit circle of Asian American writers in Los Angeles, including novelist Jade Chang.
Chang described Ho’s handwriting as “just immediately touching” (and his fashion sense as “chaotic and absolutely perfect”). “Someone like Tracy Chapman or Adele could sing over the fries and I would cry because their voices are so open and connected,” Chang added. “Jean’s writing is like that.
“Fiona and Jane” tackles dark themes, including depression and abuse, as well as the complexity of race relations and homosexuality among Asian Americans, but without any tension. Sexuality is portrayed as fluid and shameless, although the consequences of its suppression bring with it tragedy and guilt.
“I feel like everyone, or most people, is bi, or would be open to what we would call bisexual erotic pleasure,” she said. “Sometimes characters are revealed to you.”
It may initially seem surprising that one of the most promising early writers of 2022 spent the wee hours of the night before a strip club interview. But Ho is not a poet in an attic. Friendship is not only its central theme; this is what binds her to the life of a writer.
Lilliam Rivera, another writer friend of Ho’s in LA, fondly remembers Ho’s enthusiasm for Rivera’s 2019 novel, “Dealing in Dreams.” Ho helped her organize the launch party, and for a recent birthday she gave Rivera a monstera plant. “It bloomed so big,” Rivera said. “For me, it’s John’s growth and his pursuit of new things.”
This may seem to stretch the metaphor a bit. But consider that when Ho started writing her book five years ago, she bought herself a bromeliad and a traveller’s palm. “I named a Fiona and a Jane just as a joke and to feel good about this long project of writing a book,” she said. Now that the book is out, only the traveller’s palm is behind it in the Zoom frame. “Sadly, Fiona passed away. So only Jane remains, but she thrives.
Let Ho, a first author grieving a lifelong friend, conjure up the bittersweet meaning of something as simple as an unlucky houseplant.
Venkataramanan holds a master’s degree in philosophy. Candidate in English Literature at the University of Cambridge, where she is a Gates Cambridge Fellow.