ZHANG: I’m more and more interested in finding books that seem unique, that try to do something new. I have just re-read “L’Amant” by Marguerite Duras. It’s so short, so intense and so reluctant to explain itself.
BOOKS: How has the pandemic influenced your reading?
ZHANG: For much of the past year, I’ve found reading short stories a lot. It is a form that allows history to further preserve its central mystery. We have lived through a time when so much is mysterious or resistant to logic. Immerse yourself in a good short story that embraces who is beautiful.
BOOKS: What were the highlights of this reading?
ZHANG: “Likes”, by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, which is very realistic but with a magical thread that runs through the stories. More recently, I read two first books, “Land of Big Numbers” by Te-Ping Chen and “Milk Blood Heat” by Dantiel Moniz. It’s a beautiful book about childhood and the stresses black and brunette girls face. “Land of Big Numbers” is a vast collection with many stories set in China today.
BOOKS: Do you make a point of reading Asian or American-Asian authors?
ZHANG: I don’t choose a book because of that but I feel like we are living in a golden age of Asian and Asian American authors because there is so much out there. I’ve read more books in general translation, like “Stories from the Sahara” by Taiwanese writer Sanmao. She was huge in Asia when she was alive, but this novel just got translated here about a year ago.
BOOKS: What is the first book you read with Chinese characters?
ZHANG: I was born in Beijing and read very young. I read children’s literature and Chinese poetry. Then we moved here when I was four and didn’t meet an Asian character in American literature until I was nine or ten when I read “In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson” by Bette Bao Lord. It’s the realistic story of an immigrant family and a girl who loves baseball. I didn’t read that at school. Almost all of the books I read in school didn’t have non-white characters. We read “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry” by Mildred Taylor which is an amazing book about a black family.
BOOKS: Do you read westerns?
ZHANG: There are a whole slew of new literary westerns that interest me, like “In the Distance” by Hernan Diaz and “Outlawed” by Anna North, which is a feminist and speculative western narrative.
BOOKS: What are your favorites among classic westerns?
ZHANG: “Lonesome Dove” by Larry McMurty. It has an extremely epic landscape and epic human emotions. I lived in Salinas for a short time, so Steinbeck will always be essential for my understanding of the West, and California in particular. I don’t know if most people would call “The Mountain Lion” by Jean Stafford a western. It takes place in Colorado and involves about two children. This novel has one of the most distinctive voices I’ve come across as well as one of the best endings I’ve ever read.
BOOKS: What is your ideal setting for reading?
ZHANG: I like to read in bed, half under the covers, really hidden. For years I tried to take a book to a cafe. I can not do it. My brain does not calm down.
BOOKS: When you read in bed, how can you not fall asleep?
ZHANG: I often do it right after waking up. When you leave this trance-like dream state, you can more easily slip into the world of reading. It’s a much better start to the day than reading the news.
Follow us on Facebook or Twitter @GlobeBiblio. Amy Sutherland is the author, most recently, of “Save Penny Jane»And can be reached at [email protected].