INTERVIEW WITH Stella Lei
Stella Lei is a writer from Pennsylvania and an Editor–in–Chief for The Augment Review. Rhythmic and resonant, her debut prose chapbook, Inheritances of Hunger (River Glass Books, 2022), is a vivid, thrilling collection featuring five stories punctuated by cruelty and intimacy as she interrogates generational hurt through the rawness of hunger and girlhood.
Emily Judkins/Four Way Review: Inheritances of Hunger’s themes of family, specifically mother-daughter relationships, shine throughout this collection, but I particularly love how you embody these themes by exploring hunger’s origins, as well as its consequences. Where did the image of hunger come from while you were writing? Did you find your intention in targeting hunger in its various forms a sustained investigation?
Stella Lei: Thank you so much for asking. When I was writing this [chapbook], I actually came up with the idea of putting these stories together because I had written “Games” and “Changeling,” independently of each other, in a row. Maybe coincidentally. Maybe not. After writing those two stories that focus on hunger and on cruelty and on familial relationships back to back, I noticed a lot of commonalities between them thematically, tonally, and imagery wise. I wanted to dig deeper into why I was so preoccupied with these themes and images and how I might want to continue investigating them. So, after I drafted “Changeling” and started noticing those common threads, I wrote a few bullet points for myself about how I was using hunger in both stories and the role that hunger plays in both stories, both as a physical sensation and as a motif, and the different ways in which these characters interact with their hunger (actively and passively). In that development process, this hunger became a literalization of or an embodiment of hurt and cruelty, asking if these experiences and emotions are inheritable, including the yearning that comes with hunger. I was thinking about how to convey generational hurt and generational violence in an embodied way.
FWR: I definitely felt all those threads being interwoven together. I think the core of the chapbook is so strong that when you experimented within the stories, the main themes remained cohesive and tangible . Once you found this core, how did you then draw upon and tie together these traditions, experiences, previous writings, and other inspirations to fully flesh it out so it could go in so many different directions?
SL: Once I figured out that I wanted to use hunger as a central metaphor/motif throughout this chapbook, I wrote down a lot of different ideas for different directions in which this hunger could go. I tried to approach these ideas of abuse and of generational violence and of complicated families in slightly different ways. For example, in “Graftings,” the familial structures get complicated because we have this mother who is very neglectful and the sister, in turn, has to take the place of the mother, versus how in “On Building a Nest,” the mother has trapped the daughter in this flawed ideology as a way of keeping the daughter dependent on her. These different dynamics play out across similar themes. As for inspirations from other sources, “Changeling” was very much directly inspired by Ren Hong’s photography, and from there I started looking into more contemporary Chinese photography. There’s a certain atmosphere to those works that I really love and that became sort of central to how I developed the atmosphere of the chapbook, even if it might not be explicitly related.
FWR: Yeah, totally! The atmosphere throughout the chapbook is so stellar and well defined. I think part of that is thanks to how you have so many different details, as well as the intuition of knowing when to pull back on them. I’m thinking about the two characters in “Games” and how their relationship isn’t really defined — they don’t even have names — yet they feel incredibly real and I personally found them recontextualized while reading more of Inheritances. I had inferred that the characters were sisters based on the other strong sister relationships in the chapbook and how these relationships can be obscured due to trauma and familial situations, such as in “Graftings” where, as you were saying, Elaine takes on this maternal role for Charity due to neglect. Could you talk about how you know when to pull back on details and obscure certain characterizations to allow more possibilities?
SL: One thing I tried to do in writing and finding the balance between details and obscurity is letting these characters and their relationships speak for themselves, rather than putting down hard definitions for who these people are and how they have shaped each other. By letting their actions and subtext speak for itself through the selection of specific details, I tried to demonstrate how the cruelty or the hurt or the mutual yearning of these relationships play off of each other and let the reader derive a context from that, especially in “Games.” Like you said, these girls are not named and their relationships are not defined, but there is a very palpable intimacy in that story and intimacy within the violence of what they’re doing and in their own hurt. I think that [intimacy] gives you an on ramp into the other familial relationships in the chapbook and how these stories work together in a community: they provide context and support specific details, while letting the individual relationships speak for themselves, rather than defining them very strictly on the page.
FWR: I love the idea of these stories working within a community, because, since so much of the chapbook is about generational trauma and familial hurt, it’s almost as if these stories became a supportive community for each other.
Focusing on the details and tones throughout the chapbook, I love how you utilize the idiosyncrasies of the characters and settings to really make them come alive. Still talking about “Games,” the two girls are playing knife games as “crabgrass chokes [their] feet” in their backyard, which is a “minefield of wounds” — I immediately understood from what was happening and how it was described that this game is not just about play. In the second anecdote of this story, these individuals weigh themselves “against the heft of morning as it dragged itself above the hills.” We are immediately thrust into the world and logic of the narrator, underscored by self-destruction and disordered eating. Each word feels so deliberate as you construct and connect the internal and external elements of the environments of the story. Since you find such accurate actions and use subtext so effectively, what’s your process in developing and/or collecting these details, and how do you ensure they all fit together?
SL: One idea that I always come back to is this concept of having an “ecosystem of language.” I did not come up with this term, but an ecosystem of language is where all the language throughout the story has a consistency in it regarding tone, image — kind of like how an image system might work. When I pick the metaphors that I use, I draw upon this ecosystem of language or image system to make this language like a figurative minefield, or figuratively like choking. Choosing to describe them in this way provides a lot of additional subtext that further frames what is literally going on in the scene.
A similar idea that I come back to when writing figurative language is what Ocean Vuong has said about metaphors and about sensory connectors and logical connectors. It is not enough that the tenor of your metaphor is physically similar or similar in a way that you can notice in your senses to the vehicle of the metaphor. There also has to be a logical connector to the specific qualities of the vehicle that become imposed upon the tenor and that adds nuance. I’m asking the implications of and the impact of describing the crab grass as choking their feet, versus caressing their feet. Caressing their feet is a terrible, terrible phrase, but just asking what is impacted by choosing that phrase over the other, what added nuance does that add, and how does that help shape atmosphere and subtext, and so on.
FWR: I love the term “ecosystems of language”, especially in reference to this collection — your strong, cohesive language really does feel like entering an immersive environment. It also reminds me of this recurring image of the knife throughout the chapbook and how poignant that image is, given the sharpness of your language. Bringing up “Changeling” again, both the chopped fragments in your writing and the cuts between sections made each part bite sized and satisfying on its own, yet each section added a new dimension to the narrative. As we move through time and discover more about Jennifer, Jessica, and their mother, and what they are living/have lived through, certain elements linger longer than others, both in terms of literal variance of length, as well as metaphorical resonance. When you were working on this piece, and on other pieces where you use this narrative structure, how did you establish this? Did you intend this choppier style to coincide with themes of familial hurt and relationships and hunger, or is this just a style that you gravitate towards?
SL: I think this style definitely lends itself to these themes of strained familial relationships and this sharp feeling throughout the chapbook. I am a big fan of the form of a work fitting the function of it.
When I am writing a story, I’m very interested in the negative space both surrounding the story and punctuating the story’s scenes: what is not being said in between these scenes and around these scenes, and how what is not being said or that “negative space” shapes our understanding of the “positive space,” or what is being said in the story. I try to be very intentional in picking certain scenes to show and make sure that these scenes have an exigence and a clear purpose. I often ask myself, “Why am I showing this scene? Why am I showing it right now? How does this develop the characters or move the plot forward?” I try to render the most focal moments or most impactful moments on the page. This often leaves a lot to be inferred in the negative space or in what is not being said, especially in stories like “Graftings,” where I have to cover a long chronology in a relatively short space.
FWR: I was really impressed by how much, chronologically speaking, you were able to fit into “Graftings” and how you were using this double lens of an unreliable narrator with Elaine and Charity, as described in CRAFT. I felt like I was alongside Charity as she was trying to understand her life, both from her perspective and from Elaine’s stories, and account for things in her life.
SL: Regarding the previous question, I also think it’s just really cool how you can have so much happen in the subtext, even in the scenes that jump between years. There’s so much that happens in between those two scenes that the reader can infer, based on where the characters are from one scene to the next, such as how things have changed or stayed the same. In that way, the reading almost becomes a collaborative process between the writer and the reader where the reader also has to do that work to uncover subtext and infer context and so on and so forth.
FWR: I think that collaboration particularly shines in “Meals for the End of the World,” where you’re using this very cool list format, encouraging the reader to make connections and collaborate with the work to make these lyrical jumps. How do you approach something that is more list-like and poetic, which may require the audience to make more leaps in logic?
SL: In my head, when I was conceptualizing this chapbook, it is a chapbook of prose, with some flash fiction and microfiction. Then when I sent it out to readers, people told me, “I really like this hybrid collection where you have stories and a prose poem and a list poem,” and I was like “Oh! That’s really interesting! I didn’t think about it before, but yeah it does function like that.” So the line between prose and poetry can be blurry in that sense.
Talking about the writing process of “Meals for the End of the World” itself, when I was selecting items for this list, I wanted there to be momentum and urgency in between the lines or from one line to the next, even if it isn’t explicitly articulated, to push you through the list and continue reading. Rather than making it feel like it’s just setting a bunch of items side by side, I wanted there to be some kind of escalation. I also wanted to pick images that felt urgent in that way, which are very vivid and very visceral as one way to push that escalation. Another thing I tried to do for this specific list story/poem is I wanted each line or each item in the list to “inherit” a word from the previous item in the list and preferably use it in a different way to really underscore the idea of inheritance through form and language. I actually messed up a little bit, but that’s okay, I’m just going to embrace that mistake.
FWR: Definitely! I think ending this piece with “Now I can swallow for two” with the final list item specifically encapsulates this theme of inheritance and working through generational hurt. This last line doesn’t just receive language; it also captures the feelings and experiences from the different stories and characters,ultimately choosing to release the hunger and hurt with the end of the collection. I thought it was beautiful.
I would love to talk a little more about this hybridization. I’ve been reading some of your poetry, both published by Four Way Review and other magazines and presses, and one thing I love is how even when you are not working in specifically prose, there’s often this clear sense of character and narrative. Similarly, I love how this prose collection had such beautiful and visceral poetic language. As you mentioned, there’s this wonderful element that blurs your work to feel like poetry and prose at the same time. Do you have a way to decipher what pieces will become poems and what will become fiction? Do you have any influences or guides to help you return to see what a piece will become? Or do you just kind of let it come out as it is, and go from there?
SL: I would say it’s mostly a gut feeling determining whether or not something will be a poem, piece of flash fiction, short story or a novel. Usually I will get an idea and I will almost immediately know which form I think it should be. There have been cases where I thought a piece would be one thing and turned out to be another, but most of the time I know in the moment. I ask myself, “What is the scope of this idea? How broad are the themes that I want to explore here? How many characters are involved? How in-depth do I have to go into their relationships and into their background? Do I have to create a whole world for this story, or can I focus in on one specific moment, or a short series of moments?”
FWR: Beyond hunger, I’ve also noticed this thread of apocalypse in your work — within Inheritances of Hunger, I’m thinking about “Changeling,” as well as “Meals for the End of the World,” but also in your poem “Prospective Final Girl Sits at the Gas Station” from Honey Literary, and I was wondering if you could speak to the appeal of writing about the end of the world and/or why you continue to return to it.
SL: I’m so glad you noticed this; I am definitely very interested in the apocalypse and I have been writing more apocalypse poems lately. I actually have an apocalypse poem forthcoming in Frontier Poetry. It kind of feels like a natural extension from my previous focus on hunger in this chapbook. I think the appeal for me on writing about the apocalypse is partially because the world does kind of feel like it’s ending, but it is less that and more that I feel like trauma often feels like a personal apocalypse. Some of the things that I went through when I was younger and that still shape who I am today felt like a personal apocalypse in that my own world was kind of ending. In more recent writing, I’ve been focusing on what comes after the apocalypse and thinking about and acknowledging the grief or the hurt of the past and wondering what to do with myself moving forward. In the apocalypse poem that I have forthcoming in Frontier, I was thinking about the appeal of losing that past and starting anew, but then the speaker decides to accept their place in the apocalypse in making a turn for preservation. Even if only for themselves, it’s like saying, “It’s okay, and maybe it’s even good if no one else knows this origin story or nobody else knows this trauma (ie. like the apocalypse).” The speaker is forcing themselves to understand what made them this way, and making the active choice to accept this and move beyond this on a personal level.
FWR: Thank you for talking about that. I’m very excited to read the poem when it comes out! I’m really interested in that premise as well as trying to navigate trauma. I’m wondering, how do you negotiate writing about what you are carrying while protecting both yourself, both in terms of self-care and safety?
SL: I’m so glad you asked this question because this is a question I ask myself and for me, well in fiction writing, I can just take these themes and these ideas and impose them on the characters and now it’s a story, right? In poetry, the line becomes a little blurrier. I think a lot about the separation of the speaker from the self and how, for me, my speakers are often a facet of myself, oftentimes put into a hypothetical situation, or put into figurative situations that did not literally happen to me. They are still an aspect of myself, and asking myself how I would react to XYZ situation is part of how I craft my speakers.
In a lot of the poetry that I write that addresses these ideas that are personal to me and that I don’t want to disclose to other people who aren’t very close to me, I will abstract these ideas and discuss them in figurative ways, or in hypothetical situations. I try to be very careful in the metaphors that I pick, or in these figurations that I create, where I can still talk about these themes and these ideas and emotions without disclosing real lived events.
FWR: That’s a really well-thought out way of approaching subject matter like this. You’re almost building in defense mechanisms and safety precautions to go about this kind of work. As a young and up-and-coming writer, how do you balance writing and everything else going on in your life right now, such as with school, family, friends, jobs, etc.? Have you found any writing “rituals” or practices other than these negotiations to be helpful?
SL: That balance is definitely hard. I will be very honest in saying that I haven’t been writing nearly as much this year as I did last year, just because of family and school and jobs. I’ve been working a lot this summer. I tutor in creative writing, so I’m surrounded by writing craft all the time. When I want a break from that, that oftentimes means not writing, which is not usually what I want. One writing ritual that I am trying to adopt and is helpful when I do actually engage in it is to just write for half an hour every day. It doesn’t have to be really anything, but just forcing myself to write for that half an hour and seeing where it gets me is better than just not writing at all. It seems intuitive, but for some reason it’s just not something that I was doing for the past few months. It’s just setting that timer and writing for half an hour and seeing where that gets me.
FWR: 100%. I often find that when you haven’t been writing, this sense of guilt from not writing starts building, and I know I can find myself in loops of self-doubt. I think a big part of getting into a consistent writing practice is learning to treat yourself with a bit more compassion and forgive yourself for not having the time. The skills are all still there, and you will be able to tap into them soon, even if it’s ten or thirty minutes — you’re still moving forward, and I think that’s really important to remember.
SL: 100% exactly that.
FWR: I know that we were talking briefly before about some different project you have coming up, as well as this thread of apocalypse in your work. Can you tell us anything about those projects? Will you be returning to any of these themes from Inheritances of Hunger?
SL: The whole thing about the apocalypse is interesting because I have enough work about the apocalypse that it is a noticeable trend, so I am thinking about maybe putting that into some type of poetry chapbook or some small scale project like that. It’s not very clearly defined yet, but that is something that is on the table.
The two big projects that I am supposed to be working on are two novels. When Cicadas Sing for the Dead is a surrealist family saga across two generations. It’s about ghosts that are both metaphorical and literal, the American dream, the past recurring into the present, and how these ideas kind of unravel in this family and in the surrealist or fabulous things that happen to them. I see a lot of times that people will say that a writer’s first novel is always kind of autobiographical, which I think is probably true for me. Even though I am not living the exact life that I am describing in this novel, it does partially take place in Pennsylvania, which is the state that I’ve been living in for the past 18 years. The character’s family is from the same region of China as my family. Beyond those superficial similarities, it addresses a lot of themes and ideas that I have been ruminating on for the past few years, including in [Inheritances], so this novel almost feels like a natural extension of this chapbook.
After that, the second novel that I’m working on is less directly tied to my personal life. It’s a lot less fleshed out, but there’s a dead girl in a pool and there’s a lot of summertime imagery. I really want to make this novel experimental form-wise and I wanted to introduce things like fake newspaper clippings or diagrams and things like that. I’ve been thinking a lot about playing around with aspects of form and oral tradition and stories within stories. One of the major thematic focuses is on archive and the fragility of paper and cultural memory, and also how real people can become mythologized through a very specific process of remembering. Then, in turn, the people surrounding this myth can interact with it and reject their place in it or try to enter it from the periphery, and then cover more about it. That’s a lot of abstractions, but those are kind of the ideas that I’m thinking about for this project. I’m really excited to work more on it.
FWR: I’m really excited for both of these projects! I’m definitely going to be checking them out once they’re in their final form.
As we wrap up, what do you want your reader to take away from Inheritances of Hunger? Is there one major overarching question or idea that is crucial to leave with?
SL: I always have so much trouble answering this question because I’m not sure if there’s any singular thing. The thing I think that makes me the most satisfied and most like I’ve done a good job is in the response to the chapbook — when somebody messages me and says, “I had familial issues and I dealt with XYZ and I really connected to this chapbook,” those people are my ideal audience, right? The fact that my themes and ideas came through so clearly to them means that I have done what I needed to do and done what I intended to do with this chapbook, and connected with who I really wanted to connect with.
Stella Lei was interviewed by Emily Judkins for Four Way Review. Emily Judkins is a queer writer and artist studying English and Film and Media Studies at Smith College. Their writing has received the Ruth Forbes Eliot Prize and has appeared in Emulate, Voices and Visions, and the Worcester Art Museum. You can reach them on Instagram @ee.jay_