The Lightning Room with Jenny Xie


–interview by Diana Clarke


Is it too much to say that Jenny Xie’s story “Wendy Beside Herself,” Wendy finds herself even as she loses her own arm? Of course it is. Wendy doesn’t find herself—none of us ever do. But, in Jenny’s words, “our remembrance of loss is an acceptance of that fissure; it becomes a part of our architecture.” The search, the gaps, is all there is.


1. The opening line of “Wendy Beside Herself” does such interesting things with time. By writing “Three years after Wendy Tsai loses her right arm…” you situate the reader in a present informed by loss. Before we know anything about Wendy, we know what she is missing—and even though the loss happened three years ago, the news of it is delivered in the present tense. How do losses shift and change with age? How do we integrate them into our sense of self?

There’s an element of traumatic loss that always remains incomprehensible. I think it’s our tendency to return to a moment of loss in an attempt to understand it, but it’s an intellectual and emotional orbiting that never really brings us closure. As we change and age, our remembrance of loss is an acceptance of that fissure; it becomes a part of our architecture.

2. Just looking at your story, I was struck by the form, the em-dashed dialogue tags rather than more standard quotation marks. That formatting made each piece of speech visually startling, an upset to the urgent, visual descriptions in the rest of the piece. What inspired you to shape dialogue in that way?

I struggled to use quotation marks because I imagined Wendy and her arm communicating just under the linguistic level, so I gravitated towards the em dash.

As a reader, I’ve always found the em dash capable of representing different degrees of reality in conversation, though maybe that feeling’s unfounded. It also signals change, or an interruption, which felt more true to the way the characters interact.

3. Your narrator’s returning arm reminded me of Nikolai Gogol’s short story “The Nose,” in which the errant appendage goes about on its own, putting on airs and embarrassing its owner. Have you read it? Have you ever felt alienated from your own body?

I haven’t read it before now! The body’s failures can be alienating—sickness, injury, lack of coordination–which I’ve certainly experienced. What I remember best, though, are moments from childhood of being mystified of my body, defamiliarized. I was enthralled by the communication between command and action; I would crook and uncrook my finger and try to locate the difference between thinking about moving it and actually moving it. (There’s a similar scene with Briony in Ian McEwan’s Atonement, which I was happy to discover.)

4. This story is also a story of creation—Wendy is baking—but the scent of the sea, “a density and brininess in the air,” causes her to falter; the knuckles of her severed arm make “small crustacean movements.” How do we keep making when what was buried rises up? Do marine life forms—which breathe where we cannot—ever nourish us?

I think discomfort is part of the creative process, and that it can be the impetus for it. In this story, the stoicism of marine life, the feeling of being underwater, informs how Wendy works through her emotions.

5. Although it was deeply painful, I loved that the primary hurt in this story appeared to be Wendy’s separation from her own arm, rather than Daniel, her husband. How do you balance necessary self-love with caring for others?

Compared to our love and generosity for other people, our capacity for self-love is so impoverished. Our own unhappiness and stagnation can be the hardest to recognize. Keeping the balance is different for everyone, but remembering your own trajectory is a big factor.

6. What is Wendy baking? What’s the last thing you made from scratch?

She’s baking a tres leches cake, which is one of my favorite desserts! I, unfortunately, am not a baker. The last thing I made from scratch was probably a veggie stir-fry, a dinner staple for me.





image attribution: “Arm cut”. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –