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It starts like this: you, staring at the stick balanced precariously on the edge of your bathroom sink and praying, Please God, I’ll do anything, but you can’t think of what to say after that, what to offer that might be a fair trade for not being pregnant. When the pink cross appears, it feels like a confirmation of what you’ve known all along—that God, if he exists, does not give a shit.
But once your initial panic subsides and you’ve managed to catch your breath, you begin to feel tender toward it, this un-asked-for clump of new cells that seems so determined to live. You find that you sleep better at night, comforted by the presence taking root in your body, unfurling itself one piece of genetic information at a time. You buy yourself fresh fruit and vegetables at the market. You take vitamins. You hold yourself more carefully on the subway.
This is ridiculous, you think, but instead of making a decision, you go looking for signs.
Gina Chung is a Korean American writer from New Jersey currently living in New York City. She is the author of the novel Sea Change, which was longlisted for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize, a 2023 B&N Discover Pick, and a New York Times Most Anticipated Book, and the short story collection Green Frog (out March 12, 2024, from Vintage in the U.S. and June 6, 2024, from Picador in the U.K.). A recipient of the Pushcart Prize, she is a 2021-2022 Center for Fiction/ Susan Kamil Emerging Writer Fellow and holds an MFA in fiction from The New School. Her work appears or is forthcoming in The Kenyon Review, Literary Hub, Catapult, Electric Literature, and Gulf Coast, among others.
Will Allison on “The Arrow”
This month, we’re happy to present a story that brought at least one member of our editorial staff to tears, and that’s always a good sign.
The protagonist of Gina Chung’s “The Arrow” is a single, 35-year-old Korean American woman just scraping by in New York City, “living paycheck to paycheck in an apartment [she] cannot afford, in a city that feels increasingly unfamiliar to [her].” And then she gets pregnant—with three possible fathers, none of whom she wants to raise a child with.
When she surprises herself by deciding to keep the baby, she has nowhere to turn for support except to her estranged mother, who unexpectedly drops everything and flies cross-country to be with her daughter for the duration of her pregnancy. What follows is one of the most touching mother-daughter stories I’ve read.
“The Arrow” is also interesting craftwise, in that it’s told in the second-person point of view. If you’re one of those readers who sometimes finds second person off-putting (as I do), then you’re in for a treat. Chung’s handling of the viewpoint is masterful as she explores a relationship that is by turns painful and fraught, tender and redemptive.
Here’s hoping you enjoy “The Arrow” as much as we did, and keep a box of tissues handy, just in case.
Q&A by Will Allison
- WA: What inspired you to write “The Arrow”?
- GC: I’ve always been fascinated by motherhood and the relationship between parents and children, particularly as I’ve gotten older. While I don’t plan to have children myself, I became interested in the idea of what it would be like to write from the perspective of a character who at first dreads the idea of becoming a mother, and then gradually warms to it. At some point, I decided that I needed to bring the character’s mother into the story as well, to provide context for her ambivalence about motherhood, and that’s when the story really began ticking for me. And it’s actually through that process of considering becoming a mother that my character is able to understand her legacy as a daughter as well, and come to terms with what she has inherited from her mother.
- WA: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
- GC: One of the most challenging parts of writing this story was actually figuring out the timeline for my character’s pregnancy. I did a lot of math and googling to figure out what would or wouldn’t have been possible with the different side effects my character experiences during her pregnancy, and during the editing process I had to change around some of those details to keep it grounded in reality. I will say that doing that research gave me even more respect than I already have for pregnancy and the bodies of pregnant people. The human body is so fragile and yet so powerful, and pregnancy—not to mention childbirth—is metal as hell.
- WA: I love your handling of the second-person point of view. Why did you choose second person for “The Arrow”?
- GC: I love the second person and how propulsive and intimate it can feel. Some people don’t like second person because they think it feels distancing, or presumptuous—but I love how it locks you in and implicates you, as the reader, in what is happening in the action of the story. I first encountered the second person in the short stories of Lorrie Moore, and reading her work forever changed my ideas of how a story could be told. I think the second person is particularly helpful when you’re telling a story that involves a lot of pain or trauma. It creates a level of remove that, somewhat counterintuitively, actually allows you to dig even deeper into that pain. It also really helps me, as a writer, to slow down and think about the physicality of a character, and how their feelings or thoughts are sitting inside their bodies. The first person is another POV I love and use often, but sometimes I feel it can lead to the sensation of a floating, anchorless “I.” Whenever I start to feel like I’m becoming untethered from my characters, I try using the second person to get back to them again, even if it’s just for a paragraph or two that I might eventually scrap, and it always helps.
- WA: I also love the humor in this story. Could you talk about the role of humor in your work and in this story in particular?
- GC: Humor is one of the most important tools we have as writers, and yet it’s also so hard to talk about humor, I feel, because it’s often quite intuitive and subjective. I’m always pleasantly surprised when someone finds something of mine funny, because I worry that everything I write is dark or difficult, but it’s also true that finding the humor in a situation is something that I think I’m actually pretty good at doing in real life. Humor comes from tension and surprise, which are two things I’m always striving for on the page. In this story in particular, humor is a coping mechanism for the narrator. She feels quite abject at times, and is clearly not where she wants to be in life, but she’s still able to see the ridiculousness of the situations she finds herself in, which is also her way of maintaining a sense of agency. I also think that humor probably wouldn’t exist were it not for the difficulties we face in life. For me, a large part of my sense of humor, both as a writer and as a person, comes from those darker moments.
- WA: The protagonist of “The Arrow” makes choices that some readers might find questionable. Did you ever worry that readers might not relate to her?
- GC: I don’t think I did, mostly because I think we’ve all made some pretty questionable decisions in our time! I do think I’m particularly drawn to messy characters who make a lot of mistakes, and are often fully aware of what they’re doing but seemingly unable to act otherwise. I’m interested in characters who have a certain degree of self-knowledge, and are perhaps even introspective, but who still struggle to understand why they keep making the same mistakes again and again. There’s something about that conundrum—the “smart” character who does “stupid” things—that fascinates me. It’s like, how far can you go and how messy can you get before the consequences of your decisions catch up to you? I really love being able to explore that in my fiction, in a way that I probably would never do in my personal life, because I’m much more of a scaredy-cat than most of my characters.
- WA: “The Arrow” is a very New York City story. How would you characterize the protagonist’s relationship with the city?
- GC: Her relationship to the city definitely changes over time, the way all of our relationships to the places where we live are shaped by external forces outside of our control. My protagonist is thirty-five when the events of this story happen, and she’s at the point in her life when she’s beginning to question her ability to continue living and surviving in New York City. New York City is a tough place to live unless you have a great deal of money, which she certainly doesn’t, and it’s also the kind of city where people are always asking you what you’re up to next, and where it’s easy to compare your life to the lives of others. My character’s friends are all outpacing her, in terms of the traditional markers of adulthood like salary, marriage, parenthood, etc., and she feels a bit lost in comparison. I think the city no longer feels quite as exciting and fun as it did for her when she was younger, when she and her friends were on more of an equal playing field. But when my character’s mother comes to stay with her, she starts to see the city anew, through her mother’s eyes, and that also changes her relationship to the landscape of the city, as she begins to soften to the world around her.
- WA: Your debut novel, Sea Change, came out earlier this year. How did the experience of writing a novel compare to writing short stories?
- GC: This is an extremely obvious thing to say, but it just really took so much longer. I have a very dopamine-based writing mindset. So, for a short story, if things are working and I have the time, I can bang out a rough draft of something in a relatively short amount of time, and that thrill of finishing something (even though it’s of course not in its final form yet) is honestly one of the best highs I know. Revision, and going over things again and again until you get them right, is another kind of pleasure, but definitely a slower one. So when I began work on Sea Change, I knew that if I didn’t want to become totally overwhelmed by the process of drafting something much longer than a typical short story, I’d have to outline and divide everything up into manageable chunks and tackle them that way. So even though my novel follows one continuous arc, rather than several discrete arcs, the way my short story collection Green Frog does, I still thought of each chapter as an opportunity to tell a particular aspect of the story, to zoom in or out of a situation, feeling, image, etc. as much as I wanted. I found that I really enjoyed getting to linger in the world of the novel while working on it, and I think that is a real luxury that the novel form provides.
- WA: How long did it take you to complete “The Arrow”?
- GC: I think the first draft of the story took about a month to complete, and then I sent it to some trusted readers for their thoughts. Once they got back to me, I sat with the story for another few weeks before revising it and answering some of the questions they’d brought up. There was another, shorter editing process with my agent and with my editor once the story became part of the manuscript for Green Frog. So across all its iterations, the story has probably taken about three years to get to where it is now, but the core of it—the circumstances of my character’s pregnancy, her realizations about her relationship with her mother, the ending—has stayed relatively the same.
- WA: What are you working on now?
- GC: I’m working on my next novel at the moment. Tonally, it’s a bit of a shift from Sea Change and my shorter fiction, but it will continue to explore themes like family, loss, survival, bodies, and transformation.
- WA: What is the best bit of writing advice you’ve ever received?
- GC: Mira Jacob, who was my thesis advisor at The New School, told me while I was working on Sea Change that “There is no way to do your first book except to just keep moving forward,” which really stuck with me while I was working on that first draft and is something I come back to whenever I feel stuck. Like many writers, I can be quite precious with my work, and almost afraid to touch it at times, especially when a project is in its early stages, as if it will run away from me if I look at it funny. But Mira reminded me that the only way to finish it was to move forward, and that it was okay to move through that first draft quickly without worrying too much about things not making sense yet, because doing so would teach me what the rest would require of me. She also reminded me that taking breaks from the manuscript is important and necessary, which is absolutely true—for me, the swiftest pathway to creative burnout is to push myself past my limits and try to force things, and I’ve learned over the years that stepping away can actually be really good for the work too.