I was seven when Mama taught me how to burn.

We lingered inside until dusk, watching the sun slink beneath a tidy, shingled skyline before we stole away into the night. Mama’s hands were still dusted with flour, fingers curled around imagined jiaozi in need of folding, but her eyes shone as she shepherded me through the kitchen, out the rickety screen door beside the stove, to a small black fire pit in the center of the backyard. We’d strung the trees with bulbous paper lanterns hours before. Now, in the dying light, they glowed like embers. Beside me, Mama cradled a worn shoebox to her chest.

I clung to Mama’s apron, a corner of the fabric bunched tightly in my fist. As she perched herself on the edge of the nearest lawn chair, I hovered over the fire pit, gazing into the yawning blackness of the basin. I couldn’t have described it at the time, but there was something maw-like about that fire pit—like if you stared hard enough, you might be swallowed whole.

“Xifeng.” Mama’s voice stirred me from my thoughts. “Nu er.” Daughter. She waved me to the lawn chair on her right, held out the shoebox like an offering. In the soft, warm glow of the lanterns, I could see both the glimmer in her eyes and the crinkled skin that framed them; she looked both younger and older than she really was. “Xifeng,” she said again, pressing the shoebox gently into my hands. “You open it.”

Luna Hou

Luna Hou is a Chinese-American writer studying English and Creative Writing at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She was a 2020 Scholastic Art & Writing Awards National Gold Medalist in Flash Fiction and has work published in The Lumiere Review, the blue route, and elsewhere. When she isn’t writing, you can find her inhaling a dirty chai latte, scouring the poetry shelf of her local secondhand bookstore, or godmothering her friends’ pets.

Patrick Ryan on “Railroads”

In “Railroads,” our final issue of One Teen Story for 2023, a second-generation Chinese American teen named Xifeng attempts to forge an identity with her classmates while at the same time honoring her heritage and ancestry. Every April, Xifeng and her mother participate in Qingming—a festival that involves writing to your ancestors and then burning the letter. When Xifeng becomes old enough to participate by writing a letter of her own, she finds herself unsure of what to put down on paper.

Meanwhile, Xifeng is trying to blend in at school—something that isn’t really possible for her, especially since no one can even pronounce her name. As she grapples with wanting to be one of the crowd, she also worries about disappointing her mother, who wants her to take the Qingming Festival more seriously.

In the days leading up to festival, Xifeng endures a lesson in her history class about the “Orientals” who constructed the Transcontinental Railroad. She knows from listening to her mother’s stories that her grandparents worked on that very railroad, and the conditions had been horrible, the work dangerous, the laborers’ lives constantly put at risk. Suddenly, Xifeng’s letter begins to take shape.

One Teen Story is delighted to publish “Railroads” by a promising young writer named Luna Hou. Be sure to check out our Q&A, where Luna talks about the origins of the story, and how she fights the lure of perfectionism.

Q&A by Patrick Ryan

PR: Where did you get the idea for “Railroads”?
LH: I’d been wanting to write a story for a while that engaged meaningfully with my cultural heritage and inheritances as a second-generation Chinese American, though I also found the prospect of writing such a story daunting. Often, when I set out to write a story, I begin with a few distinct images and concepts in mind—for this story, the first to click into place were language, Qingming, and the act of burning—and the first draft allows me space to realize these fascinations into characters and scenes, to transform them in all these different ways and discover how they connect. Of course, railroads are also an important part of this story, and I’m proud to attribute that image to my dad; his parents were railroad workers, so the profession of Xifeng’s grandparents began as an homage to them. When I first started writing, I had no idea how central that image would become to the rest of the story—but figuring out how it fit was absolutely one of the most exciting moments in my drafting process.
PR: How long did the story take you to write?
LH: I’d been mulling over the idea of it in my mind for a while before I sat down to write, but once I did, I actually crafted much of the first draft in one sitting—through the late hours of the night, hyped on inspiration and caffeine and also (to be completely honest) an impending deadline for my introductory fiction workshop. I’d say the first scene took me the longest time to get right (which it often does—it’s how I work out what I want the overall vibe of the story to be). But once I’d set up all the dominoes in those first few pages, the rest of the story seemed to fall naturally into place.
PR: Were there any surprises for you in the writing process? Is the story that exists pretty much the story you first envisioned, or did it change?
LH: Yes! Along with the emergence of the railroad motif, it took me several drafts to find the right conclusion for this story. Without straying into spoilers, I ultimately realized that in earlier drafts, I was perhaps trying to write an ending that felt too neat and clean to be true. The ending Xifeng reaches now is a bit messier, which feels right to me.
PR: You write about Qingming beautifully. Were you tempted to write more about it in the story? And were there any scenes you wrote for “Railroads” that you ended up taking out?
LH: Thank you so much. The opening scene was where this story first sparked in my mind, and I really enjoyed writing it—I think you can tell I wanted to linger in the lushness of it as long as I could. But, as I let myself discover where the story wanted to go, it ended up moving in a different direction. I’d like to think this story is haunted by its beginning, though, even as it enfolds other parts of Xifeng’s life. I wouldn’t say there were any scenes I wrote for “Railroads” that I took out; I originally drafted the story in four sections, and in all the drafts that have followed, that overarching structure has stayed the same. But there were certainly many aspects of these scenes I reworked. I’d say the scene where Xifeng and Casey first meet and the ending were the sections I struggled the most to get right, while the opening was the section that stayed most true to my original imagining of it.
PR: The mother and Casey are such strong characters. And they’re so distinct. Do you write with a very clear picture of your characters—their faces, specifically—or do you keep them malleable in your mind?
LH: It varies from story to story, but for “Railroads,” I remember having an especially strong sense of their characters when I first started writing. Xifeng’s mother’s character—particularly the ways in which she expresses her love for her daughter—was very much inspired by my own parents, and words they’ve said that have stuck with me, growing up. And Casey was actually born from a song I’d been listening to on repeat at the time—“Strawberry Blond” by Mitski! I think starting with a clear mental image of my characters’ faces can make the writing process a lot easier, but they also always end up revealing more of themselves to me as I write.
PR: Have you written other stories about Xifeng? Do you think you will write more about her?
LH: I haven’t, and I’m not sure I’ll write any more stories specifically about her, but sometimes I’ll hear the ghost of her voice appearing in other stories I’ve written, or feel her presence hovering over my shoulder as I set out to write something new. As far as characters go, she’s very much a part of me. I’m proud of her—and I’d like to think she’d be proud of me.
PR: What did you do when you found out you were one of our Teen Writing Contest Winners?
LH: I had to reread the email like four times before processing that I’d won—honestly, I still don’t know if I’ve fully processed it!—and then I was dancing around my dorm room and frantically texting all my friends and crying on the phone with my dad. It’s such an honor to have won, and to be published alongside so many writers I admire, and to have gotten to work with some of One Story’s incredible staff to bring this story tangibly to life. I’m so grateful.
PR: So are we! What are you working on now?
LH: Right now I’m enrolled in an advanced fiction workshop, so I’m still deeply engaged with reading and writing short stories. I just finished the first draft of a story thinking about grief and dragonflies and ghosts, and in what ways the worlds we imagine can bleed into the real world. I’ve also recently been writing a lot of poetry, about birds and love and light.
PR: What’s the best piece of advice about writing you’ve ever heard?
LH: That’s so difficult! Today, though, I think I’ll quote the professor in whose class I drafted “Railroads,” Dr. Karen Tucker. I’m very much someone who struggles with perfectionism when it comes to writing—which is dangerous, because the second you get too into your head about whether your writing is good enough, you won’t write. But something Dr. Tucker said that’s stuck with me is that the key to fighting perfectionism is to write about something so meaningful that how “good” you are no longer matters. These days, I’m always looking to find those writerly fixations—wisps of stories so luminous I can’t turn away.