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Emma Zhang

"You should think about writing as a way of seeing the world as opposed to a destination because that's how you really, really end up enjoying it."

The editors of Eucalyptus Lit recently had the privilege and opportunity to speak with Emma Zhang, editor-in-chief of Aster Lit. Her work “teenage girl squatting on wooden stool biting mango in old kentucky garage (flash on) undated” features in Issue 3, Reconciliation.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

How did you start writing?


I've been writing since first grade or kindergarten. When I first started, it was mainly fiction because I feel like that's just what young people write. In elementary school, I wrote mainly novels and very long form stories. Every year, I'd work on a new longform work and it would be around 30,000 words or something.


I was super interested in plot structure and building really elaborate narratives around the people and the characters that I cared about. That led me to care about a lot of other parts of writing, too. I feel like the fascination with story structures, building the story arc, and character growth also carried on to when I started other forms of writing, like poetry and creative nonfiction.


I started writing poetry in my freshman year of high school. Since then, I've just oscillated between poetry and essays—sometimes fiction on the side. Writing’s been with me for a really long time and definitely gone through a lot of different changes.


How do you find your inspiration? What is your creative process?


Reading is super key to me for finding inspiration.


In general, I feel like writing is a way of admiring and caring about the world and finding significance in it. Whenever I’m living or in a particularly emotionally provocative moment or one that I feel like is important to me, everything I've read and little quotes that I find really meaningful come to life. 


Writing is a way for me to really make sense of why what matters to me, matters to me, and why everything that feels significant to me really does feel that significant.


Being in strange situations, situations that make me wonder about all the different layers of the people I talk to (and of the world that has led to the strange situations I'm sometimes in) is very stimulating to the writing process.


I write first drafts really, really quickly. They're kind of random emotion image dumps. Then, I just think about it over the next 2 weeks or a month. Little words that I don't like about it will pop up or words that I want to add and I'll just keep editing it. It's just a constant train of thought that continues and keeps getting edited until I finally am happy with it.


It's like a subconscious thing where I start repeating words to myself. Sometimes, I'm walking somewhere and then I just remember a line and it works. And then I just think of another line, but it's in chunks.


That's usually how I know that a piece is worth pursuing, too. When I keep thinking of it right after I write it and I keep wanting to add things to it and it feels really in tune with what I'm living through right now.


Do you have a favorite author or work that you've read?


So many! 


When I first started writing and was in, like, my very emotional fiction era, one of my favorite pieces was “Berlin Nights” by Annmarie McQueen from The Lumiere Review. That piece was everything I wanted and cared about in a story. The rich imagery, the characters, and just the sense of wanting and longing and desire that drives everything. 

Like I said before, writing is just significance to me. It's quantified not in terms of numbers, but in terms of concreteness on the page. Works that are really, really passionate to me feel the most significant.


And that made me explore a lot more with the way I want to portray watching and pieces. Ocean Vuong and Richard Siken are super fundamental to my writing style in general. “Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong” has been a poem I've just read over and over again since I first discovered it four years ago, and “Scheherazade” by Richard Siken as well.


In terms of essays, I really like Jenny Zhang, Joan Didion, and Zadie Smith. I like to listen to their voices on audiobooks. I think it's really cool to listen to essays by the person who wrote it because I feel like essays and CNF in general are like the best representation of a person's immediate thought process, so it's cool hearing them narrating essays.

I've also been reading Lunch Poems by Frank O’Hara lately. I realized that a lot of writers I like also like Frank O'Hara, so I've been reading him and now I really understand where that inspiration comes from. I also really like “The Garden of Forking Paths” by Borges. It's a really clever short story. 


In terms of STEM writing, I really like Jenny Qi's “Point At Which Parallel Waves Converge & From Which Diverge”. Jenny Qi and a lot of other Asian American poets explore the intersection between science, especially biology, and writing in a really elegant way. That’s always been super inspirational to me.


STEM very much has its own feeling to it. Biology is really smooth and almost translucent to me, whereas calculus and physics definitely have a different feeling. I just think it's so cool that words can portray and amplify that.


The whole poem is really, really stunning and I think about it a lot. When We Cease to Understand the World is just kind of about people going crazy when they try to figure out the world, usually through science.


Again, I just love the idea of putting all your heart and desire into something. I really relate to the fact that sometimes it's not the most ideal and we spiral a little bit: that makes it even more beautiful.


What are some of your interests besides writing? How do you address them in your work?


I started really, really liking biology the summer after freshman year.


I think I liked reading Campbell Biology. It’s really funny: I was actually at a writing camp when I was in my peak bio phase. Every day, after going to all my workshops and stuff and after my roommate fell asleep, I would just read bio on a PDF on my computer. It was the strangest combination, but that was freshman year summer for me.


I really do think biology has such a beautiful feeling to it. Whenever I read a biology textbook, it's so comforting that everything makes sense and flows together in a subconscious way. It's really nice to see the chemical cause and effects, and the way everything is formed and built up and broken down. I love the connection with the human body because what are we but biology and chemistry and the physics under the chemistry?


I think Nietzsche was writing about the body, how nature has chosen to hide the body from us. You don't really feel the things that are going on in your body that much. It's a vessel as you try to interpret things with your brain and your mind. 


Everything is there because of the things around it and the things that make it up. I think it's really beautiful how the way we're able to think and express things in words and the way the brain works is all biology.


I love exploring the connection between that. Usually when I write STEM poems, I don't really think of them as writing STEM poems. Sometimes the metaphors just work. Though I did intentionally write a calculus poem lately. That was an interesting process because before I never actually thought to myself, I'm going to sit down and write a calculus poem.


I truly could not have expected to explore what I explored with calculus. But writing about other subjects just really brings them closer to me because they feel more personal and more connected with the overall significance. I think writing brings everything together and I just love feeling more connected to every other part of the world.


How has your work with Aster Lit impacted you?


Aster Lit has been really fundamental to developing who I am as a writer. When I first joined, I loved the aesthetic, and I thought it was really cool how it was very cross-cultural and funded by the U.S. Department of State. 

We have the ability to connect with so many people because it's funded through the Bureau of Cultural Affairs. Aster Lit has definitely made me realize how much I love seeing different colorful perspectives in writing.


And it’s really pushed me to read a lot more translations. I didn't really like learning languages before—like I loved the idea of learning languages, but actually doing it always felt tedious. Being able to appreciate literature, cultures, and languages for the nuances they bring to poetry, and how the different perspectives make me feel when I read them, has definitely pushed me a lot more to explore that side of writing.


I was actually reading this essay today about the quote unquote “flattening of the world.” As we're more globally connected through digitalization and everything, the world almost is flattened in a way because we are able to connect with each other. There seems to not be so many barriers.


But there definitely are still differences across the different parts of the world. It's almost like now our connection helps us see those things in a more vivid way and helps us more deeply understand and more fully relate and connect to these little pockets of differences that we otherwise wouldn't feel so tied to.


I've had the opportunity to interview so many translators and writers that both teach at a college level, but also are from so many different parts of the world. I've had the opportunity to read works that just really push the boundaries of what I thought could be written by youth and could be written, period. I feel like the teen writing world, at least in the US—sometimes we all read the same people and it just feels like we all kind of take inspiration from each other (which is great).


Reading for a very culturally internationally focused literary magazine has really expanded my perspectives. And now we're also having an internship for people around the world! If you're reading this and you're between ages 14 and 16, you should apply because I just think connecting through literature is one of the most beautiful ways to connect ever.


Yeah, you guys heard her. Apply!

Could you share a little bit about your current work and ongoing projects?


I'm working on a micro chapbook right now because I feel like it would be nice to collect some of the things I've written over the past year and a half.


And it's interesting because I feel like a really important piece in my whole writing trajectory is my Scholastic piece, “A Letter to the Terrified Versions Of Myself”.


That piece—there's so much to say about it—really changed the way I view writing in so many ways, good and bad. It's been almost exactly two and a half years since I first started writing it. So now it's me two years later thinking about that first past version of myself, writing to that past version of myself.


Back then, I didn't really write STEM creative writing at all. I didn't really write poetry at all either. I was still very in touch with the idea of “events only matter if they're significant to the plot.” My life, therefore, had to be significant to some sort of plot structure—I felt like I really, really had to amplify all of my emotions to make some sort of impact.


My view on that has changed significantly because what I view as significant has changed significantly. So I’m revisiting that piece with everything I've discovered along the way. Like with all of my new STEM ideas, the interdisciplinary work I've encountered, and my experiences traveling to so many places. And just being 2.5 years older and wiser, I guess.


So the chapbook mimics that format but also doesn't mimic the format. I’m a senior next year and probably have to reflect on all of this. I think it would be really nice to think about everything that has happened—writing and discovering writing. So yeah, that's something I'm working on and something I'm hoping to explore more.


I just want to say, the first time I read your Scholastic piece, I genuinely didn’t know people my age could do that.


Haha, yeah, that was definitely a journey. I actually had a really big writing slump after that piece—I was thinking, do I really want my life to be this much of a story? That made me move away from creative nonfiction for a while. Now I'm finally coming back to it with a different perspective and that just means a lot to me because that piece definitely did mean a lot to me and as you can probably tell it, like everything is in it.


It's really reminiscent of the ways I've changed as a person and a writer.

So you were writing to yourself and now you're writing to yourself again. That's so cool.


I was really stressed when I wrote the other piece. I think I definitely put so much into it that it made me reevaluate the relationship between putting myself in my writing. I think I was so young that none of this really mattered to me on an identity level. I was kind of like, who cares if I just put everything into my writing? 


But part of growing up is realizing the bits you want to keep to yourself. Writing, for me, is differentiating what is significant and what is not.


The way you express significance really defines how you view yourself in the world. I used to think, if I threw everything into my writing, then it has to be impactful, right? But there's more to impact than just putting every bit of yourself out there.


What advice would you give to other people, especially young writers?


I think it's very important to feel completely comfortable with your words. A really beautiful moment in your writing journey is when you feel like everything you feel can be translated into writing.


It's led to me rethinking: even though everything I feel can be translated into writing, what should I actually translate into writing?


I think having that comfort with words really allows you to then mold them. To use the way you write to push the way you think and the other way around. To use writing as a vehicle to expand your thinking and expand the way you feel and interpret the world.


I think that when you start doing that, you can really push your creative boundaries and it's just the most interesting and fun thing to me when I get to write a certain way and it changes the way I think.


In terms of writing for publication or writing for prizes, I think it's definitely very validating. You find so many other amazing writers that you relate to, and that you can have really nice literary conversations with. That's definitely something that should motivate you more than just prestige.


And ultimately, like high school is very short and is this whole gap where you feel like you have to achieve things. Once you look back on it, you realize you thought that was so important, but it was just the starting line.


Don't put pressure on yourself to do anything that is “prestigious” or looks good. After high school there's so much left and what's more important is finding your direction with words and finding your view on caring about your own writing.


That will create a much better basis for you to love writing moving forward. It's totally ok if you don't write for three months or half a month, half a month or half a year or even a whole year. I basically took a writing break for almost a year and a half.


You should think about writing as a way of seeing the world as opposed to a destination because that's how you really, really end up enjoying it.


How do you hope to interact with writing in the future?


I've been thinking about that a lot lately.


About the future in general, I definitely want to keep writing. I don't think I can stand having it be my main career because I want to explore it in a lot of nontraditional ways and not feel bound by necessarily producing all the time. And like I said before, I want to keep appreciating writing as a way to see the world.


I hope to write a lot more essays and hopefully do translations as well. I've been thinking about writing essays for a really, really long time, but I haven't really allowed myself to write essays because it sounds really formal and scary and it feels like your thoughts have to be really nuanced and interesting and revolutionary to be in an essay.


But as I have time over the summer and in general, I hope I can incorporate a lot more of my STEM knowledge and my passion and my reflections on everything I've done so far into essays and longer forms.


It would also be cool to explore journalism or journalism-slanted creative nonfiction. I just love the way writing can be applied in so many different directions. I would love to publish long form essays and maybe translations.


Poetry, I think, is similar to taking photos: it really helps me appreciate the moment more. Whenever I'm somewhere really beautiful and I read a poem, it really amplifies that experience, and writing a poem does the same for me.


I hope I never lose writing because it truly makes everything feel so much more vivid and so much more significant. Even if I don't go into it as a career, I hope it'll stick with me as a lens to see the world with. 

Thank you. I think you captured a lot of what we feel about writing, too—the ever-growing process of it. 


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