Chronicles of Now: What’s up with the relationship between Wilson and Anthony? There’s the racial aspect, there’s also almost like an attraction aspect. It’s really complex.
Bill Cheng: What I hoped to do was to look at these relationships where you have people from different cultural backgrounds, different identities, racial backgrounds, and sometimes they’re friendships, sometimes they’re romantic relationships, sometimes they’re things we find ourselves in every day, but in having to negotiate that, especially between a person of color and a white person, there’s always some level of performativeness and there’s always some level of “You have to” or self-erasure.
You have to either make yourself smaller or hide something about what you think. Or you have to sort of skew the way you present yourself so that it’s acceptable. So that you can have a good time with all your friends and so that you don’t cause trouble and ruin the night or make people uncomfortable just by the natural expression of who you are. It’s something that I feel like most people of color go through, if not all people of color. And it’s not always insidious. It’s not always as violent as it’s portrayed in the story, but I think it’s there. I think there’s always some level of, Here’s this thing that I own. And the people that I invest my trust in, the people that I consider myself close to, they don’t even see the work that I’m doing that allows me to be with them. That allows me to participate in this friendship, relationship, whatever.
CON: How do you think about writing outside of an author’s cultural experience?
BC: I don’t know if I have a specific way of doing it. At least with this story, it had been a long while and I sort of agonized over it a lot. I don’t know if there was a procedure or a process or a list of things you have to do. This story was so short, and I put in so much, what would be a disproportionate amount of mental and psychic energy into really trying to, I won’t say get it right, but to get it honest. There’s just no way outside of just putting in the time.
I thought about the times of my own self-erasure. I thought about my times in these sort of predominantly white communities or white neighborhoods or white social groups.
I think part of it is also looking at the points that are autobiographical. Certainly this story didn’t happen to me. But there are parts of the story that are true to me, right? Being able to extrapolate from that, being able to think about the characters specifically, the character not as a representation or a culture as a monolith, but to think about, Who is this? And this is every writer’s work, right? And then just building from there. And then of course fixing, exposing it to other writers, to people you trust, to prioritize the truth of the work over personal vanity or your cocksuredness about yourself.
It’s just like you’re spending time on this work, you’re spending mental energy, you’re going through emotional stuff, so at the end of the day, it should represent your best. That’s how I thought about this piece.
CON: One of the things that “Hold” does incredibly well is offer a view into how the news impacts lives. What was your approach to the story, the headline “Eric Garner’s Death Will Not Lead to Federal Charges for N.Y.P.D. Officer”?
BC: I knew I wanted to write something about Eric Garner and how he died, but I didn’t know what I wanted to say. I just knew I wanted to say something.
Initially, I was drawn to the figure of Eric Garner’s mother. This person who’s been forced into this position of not only dealing with her son’s death in such a cruel way, but also having to advocate. That’s a lot to ask for this overnight from this person. I thought, Okay, what would it be like if I wrote something about her? From her perspective?
Right away I realized that that’s just something I couldn’t do. Knowing that she’s in the world and has a chance of seeing it, I realized it was something that I couldn’t justify as an artist. There was no amount of bullshit I could tell myself to say that it would either be successful or would be good for anyone outside of my own sense of bravado or whatever.
Anything that I feel important enough to put down, the patience to spend weeks, months, years thinking about, and studying and exploring, it has to be important to me. It needs to be important, and if it is, the feeling of risk accompanies that.
So from there I knew I couldn’t write it centering on someone who existed, because someone who exists has their own integrity and value in the world, and I didn’t feel like I deserved or had the right to enter into their lives in that way. Other writers may, and I’m not passing judgment on that, but I’ll say I personally just couldn’t do it for this. So I knew I needed to construct someone who didn’t exist before or didn’t exist specifically. I thought about the times of my own self-erasure. I thought about my times in these predominantly white communities or white neighborhoods or white social groups.
In college, I had friends who grew up in Staten Island and I would go often enough that I have a memory of the place, a physical sense of the place and the people there. Where I live now, I’m only 30 minutes away from the actual site of the killing of Eric Garner. It’s a place that’s sort of rooted in its own. It’s set apart, it’s physically hard to get to. It’s shut off in a lot of ways.
I thought about times where you go along to get along. There’s a lot, it’s a short piece but there’s stuff in here that’s like “oh that’s me in college” or “that’s me in grad school” “oh that’s my dad” “oh that’s this”—it’s not interesting, but it’s there for me.
CON: The other day you described the story as an artifact of a moment of time, which it very much is. And yet it does have a whole new resonance today in the shadow of George Floyd’s death, in the nationwide Black Lives Matter protests that marked early summer, how has that news changed your view of the story?
BC: I don’t know if it has, right? It would be much harder for me to write this story today because it’s, not to say that it’s bigger news or more important today, because it’s not. It was always important. But I feel like it takes up more space today. When I write, not to say that my writing isn’t political—I think all writing is political—but it’s not political in the sense of “Like, Okay, I’m going to write a story about a big dramatic political moment; I’m going to write about a thing that changes the nation.” I just don’t think about fiction really in those terms. I think about fiction in terms of the everyday. Fiction in terms of what are the things that could happen that is not always dramatic; not always someone bursts into a room. It’s not this high-energy thing. It’s the interesting things that happen that are small that happen every day. It’s just a matter of being able to see it, to recognize it, and in recognizing it, I see how we participate with it or engage with it.
I think if you said to me “Can you write a piece on the Black Lives Matter movement?” I can’t. I wouldn’t know where to start. But if it’s a question of Can you write about these two friends, or these secret romantic feelings one character has for another, that’s a little bit more in the way that I think about fiction or the way I think about literature. I think the other stuff factors in but it’s not what I start with.
CON: What’s fascinating about the story is it’s not even necessarily about Eric Garner. It’s about conditions in society in a lot of ways.
BC: I mean I wouldn’t even go so far. I wish I had the answer as to why race is so fucked up, but I don’t. It’s more just an expression of Let me try to describe, as specifically as I can, the ways in which it is fucked up, that I don’t see that often. But I’m not an expert on race. I’m not an expert on sociology or history. I can only just write about what I see and what I think.
CON: Have you been writing many other short stories centered around Black characters, like your debut, Southern Cross the Dog?
BC: No, I really haven’t done it in a while. Literally, after the novel, this is maybe the first Black character I’ve decided to center a piece of fiction on.
CON: What did you learn from the reaction to your novel talking about race?
BC: What did I learn? Oh boy, so much. So much yet so little, it seems. I learned a lot about myself, about the things that I care about in the practice of my work. The way I think about it these days, the work of a novelist is to tell the truth. And any truth worth telling is accompanied by this feeling and sense of risk. This feeling of “Oh, people are not going to understand” or “You’re doing something that you really shouldn’t be doing.”
Anything that I feel important enough to put down, the patience to spend weeks, months, years thinking about, and studying and exploring, it has to be important to me. It needs to be important, and if it is, the feeling of risk accompanies that. To the exclusion of all else. To the point of maybe readers will hate it, maybe editors will hate it, maybe publishers will hate it.
At the end of the day, it has to be about the work. And the work that’s personally satisfying to me, is the work that is hard. And it is hard because truth is hard. Truth is complicated, and it’s not always going to be something—it’s almost never going to be something—that you feel comfortable or secure with. That’s why you’re writing it. You’re writing it to understand it better.
This interview has been edited for clarity.