In The Field: Conversations With Our Contributors—Annie Trinh
Your short story “Observation Notes on the Effects of the Vespa Mandarinia” from Volume 25 is about an entomologist battling an infestation of killer hornets in Seattle. What was the inspiration behind this story? How did it come to be?
First, I just want to say thank you for interviewing me and giving a home to “Observation Notes on the Effects of the Vespa Mandarinia.” I was really excited when the piece finally found a home in your journal, and as for how the story came to be—there are so many reasons. I wrote this story during my last year of my MFA at the University of Kansas, and it was during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, it wasn’t the first draft. The original piece was longer, the focus was immensely different, and it took place in the fall of 2019. It was also a frustrating piece too because I felt like it wasn’t going anywhere, so I put it away for a couple of months before I revised it again. The inspiration to write about killer hornets happened when I was reading the news about the COVID-19 pandemic and the state of it. Like everyone, I just wanted to know how as a country we were dealing with it and the spread of it. Then I came across an article about how Washington State found a large number of Asian Giant Hornets and it could pose a problem to the surrounding lands. And my first reaction was ‘Oh, no, I hope this doesn’t increase the number of anti-Asian hate crimes.’ Then the story came alive after that.
The heart of this story is the amplification of anti-Asian hate crimes, and it feels similar to what has continued to occur in real life in the US since the outbreak of Covid-19. The narrator says she feels safer wearing her lab suit because she fears being attacked not by hornets, but by people: “Maybe because the suits make me blend in with everyone else. I don’t have to worry about people attacking me when they see my face.” What is attractive to you about writing real life into fiction? Do you feel there is something about the genre that allows writers and readers to process real life differently?
What attracts me to writing real life in fiction is that it lets me see nuance in situations that I haven’t seen before. It kind of reminds me of the saying “write what you know.” I remember taking that literally—that you need to write everything that you know and only that. I also know that some writers are against it too; however, I take more of an abstract approach to that now. To me, it is more about finding the nuance in truths. So, to me it is to write what you know, write what you don’t know, and write what you need to know or to understand.
When I was at Mississippi State University one of my classmates asked a visiting professor about writing real life into fiction because she based it on her own personal life too much. He answered that the personal experience that you are writing into the story are events, but the fiction lies in the character development, the actions, and how they approach the situation. I would also add to this statement that it is the same for the reverse. I think that quote that you’ve pointed out is a great example of that and why the genre lets writers and readers process real life differently—it helps us understand our reality better. When I wrote that statement, it was not only referring to the anti-Asian hate crimes, but also experiences from other marginalized communities too. My experience as an Asian American will always be different from another person of color. I might not understand all of these experiences; however, I do experience macro and microaggressions and I use those emotions to write my stories when I put my characters into different situations. The events are not real, but the emotions are the truth, and it allows me to explore situations that I haven’t been in before and understand better. Then when I do face reality, I have a better understanding and perspective about the world.
Continuing from that previous question, something that I really love about your story is its fluid form; many times while reading it, I had to stop myself and ask if what I was reading was fiction or nonfiction. Can you talk to us about your process for blending fact and fiction, and your choice for structuring the story into segments?
That is an excellent question. In order for me to explain that I will need to start with the fiction and then go to the facts. These are things I know not to be true in the story: 1) hornets don’t grow up to a size of a bird (maybe); 2) an infestation that can cover a whole city can’t happen (maybe); 3) there is no way the U.S. would use DDT to kill an infestation at that level (maybe); and 4) people would really attack a lab just to get anti-hornet suits (maybe).
As you can see, I said “maybe” at the end of each statement, and here is why: 1) there are bugs that can reach the size of a bird or larger (check out the atlas moth; really cool, but scary); 2) infestations do happen, but more on a microlevel such as a hornet’s nest overtaking a house; 3) the U.S. still uses pesticides in crops today even if they are not at the same level as DDT; and 4) I think COVID has showed us that people do attack for various reasons. Each fiction that I have presented is very close to an actual event that happened—and that is how I usually blend it. It’s kind of like creating a thesis statement: the facts need to support the fiction. For example, if I wrote about hornets attacking the city, and then people become zombies—can that stand? It can stand, but that will require a lot of world building—and that is the key there. The facts that I have chosen don’t require an explanation because the readers are familiar with an event that is close to it.
In my original draft, the story actually had multiple points of views and multiple characters. It took me fifty drafts to find the structure of the story. I went from vignettes to diary entries to a typical narrative structure—nothing worked. It also didn’t help that the story was 5,000 words long too and it was unfocused. However, I started to realize that segments or a list story might be the best format for the narrative, especially since it is in a point of view of a scientist, and they had to be unbiased. Even with the realization, I had to figure out how long it was going to be and what I would focus on. That all became clearer once I read Lily Hoang’s “13 Remotely Related to South Bend, Indiana.” I love that piece because it centers on place as a character and what she was witnessing when she lived there; basically the facts were presented as segments. After that, I decided to do that in a similar fashion. I narrowed the perspective to one character and presented what she saw while working as an entomologist.
Your narrator is a complex character. What dialogue we get from her—both external and internalized thoughts—are bereft of emotion. Yet she works in a field with wide gender and racial disparities, she endures macroaggressions on egregious levels, and she climbs trees setting bait traps like it’s no big deal. This woman is a powerhouse! What was she like in draft versions? What was your intention with not naming her?
Those are great questions, and yes—she lacks emotions. It was a critique that I often got when I workshopped this story or submitted it to literary journals. The funny thing is that, in the earlier drafts, she had emotions. The reader saw both of her external and internalized thoughts. There was more of a sense of urgency from her in those earlier drafts; however, I took it out because the story became unfocused. I’m not saying emotions are not important—they totally are, but the story needed to focus on the surroundings and what she is observing during her job. We have to remember that she is a scientist—an entomologist that is doing her job to prevent an infestation of murder hornets. Like in every job, you want to separate your personal life from your job because that is how you get things done. Not only that, but she is also writing observational notes too, and those need to be unbiased as they can be. Most importantly, the lack of emotions made her a witness to all of the hate crimes that are happening within her community. Regardless of if there is a pandemic, infestation of bugs, or not—a lot of marginalized communities encounter these types of aggressions in their everyday lives and sometimes they just have to bear with it. For her not to have a reaction shows that these types of actions are normalized in her everyday life.
The lack of naming is important in this piece, but there is also the lack of information about the character in general. The only thing we know about her is that she is an entomologist and trying to prevent an infestation of murder hornets. We don’t know about her race, her family, or how she feels about the hate crimes happening within her own community. When she does, it doesn’t even add more clarity, just questions. She can be any person who is identified as Asian or part of a marginalized community. That’s why I didn’t give her a name. Yet, the lack of names for the main character has more of a darker meaning to it too. Within the story, people are performing these macroaggressions because they associate the name “Asian Murder Hornets” to Asian people. To us, we see her as an individual, a person who is trying to do her job, but to the people around her—she is just another person with Asian features; therefore, might be the cause of what is happening. However, it is more complicated than that because she is a scientist with all of this knowledge and doesn’t know what to do with it since people, in this story, don’t trust the scientists. Then what do you do when you have all of this information that could help, and people still don’t believe you? Basically, it is an erasure of your identity in the sense of race but in the world of one’s career.
Your story highlights the harmful legacy of spraying pesticides widely, in this case DDT. I’m very curious about the many paths of inquiry this recurring point in the story brings up, specifically pertaining to stubborn ignorance and blasé denial, about human consequence on the natural world. I’m wondering if you can talk with us about this. Why was it necessary for you to write this into “Observations…?” Do you often incorporate elements of science into your writing?
The funny thing is that I actually have a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, so science has been part of my identity since I was young. I still have a fondness for it even though I stopped continuing it, so to me science is like oxygen. I use it in everything I write. The science that I write is not heavy science, but it centers more on the ethics and consequences if one is not careful which is the reason why I wrote this story. This leads me to think of the quote “What is more precious than life?” The Earth, this land is the only home that we have, and we need to protect it. This is probably based on my own upbringing too. My parents are refugees from the Vietnam War, and they always taught me that my home and life is precious. If it is so important, then why don’t we do our very best to protect it? I think this came about when I was teaching an English composition class on visual analysis and one of the ads that I presented to my students had an endangered species ( I can’t remember, but I believe it was a type of whale), and it was wearing a mask of a panda—asking the audience, “Do you care now?” And then it made me realize, do we only care about the natural world if there is some value to us? For example, do we protect bald eagles because they are majestic birds and they are important to the environment, or is it because they have value to us as a nation and what it symbolizes? Then this leads me to think about the use of agent orange in Vietnam and in other countries, DDT and its effects on animals, and other chemicals that are used in warfare and displaced communities. We do this to benefit us—not the other way around.
This leads to another reason why I wrote it. In the story, there is a reference to space and how humans as a society have made leaps and bounds to understand the world beyond the Earth, but yet, we struggle understanding our own planet. Yes, the Earth changes constantly, so it is hard, but I don’t think that is a good excuse not to put in more effort into it. As humans, we need to understand how we can benefit and help the ecosystem around us (just like every other animal does) because if we don’t, it will be similar to what we saw with the pandemic, probably even worse. Therefore, it goes back to the question, “What is more precious than life?” If we as humans can’t even do that with each other, then how can we do that with the only home we live in? And that is really concerning.
Who are some writers you’re reading right now?
I am reading two books right now. One is by Paisley Rekdal’s The Night My Mother Met Bruce Lee. Because she is a poet, I really enjoy how she is using language and images in her nonfiction work. I admire writers who can write in different genres seamlessly, especially when the writer is playing with words. Plus, her work centers on identity and the relationship between her mom, and I also center my works on familial relations too.
The second writer I am reading is Max Porter. One of my friends recommended his novel, Grief Is the Thing with Feathers: A Novel, because I wanted to explore grief and how an individual confronts it. I love how he plays with multiple points of view and structure. One of my favorite characters is the crow, and Porter has an amazing talent in writing from an animal’s point of view.
You received a Steinbeck fellowship at San Jose State University in 2022. What projects are you working on?
Currently, I am working on my short story collection that “Observation Notes of the Effects of the Vespa Mandarinia” is part of. The collection centers on women’s bodies, magical realism, and retelling of Vietnamese fairy tales. I hope to finish this collection in a year or two, but knowing myself and how I am such a perfectionist, it will take longer. Another project that I am also currently working on is a novel that takes place after the Fall of Saigon and the boat people. I am at the research and outlining stage right now, but I am planning by the end of this year to start on a draft soon.
Annie Trinh is a writer from Nevada and has earned her MFA from the University of Kansas. Supported by Key West Literary Seminar, VONA, and Kundiman, her work has been published or is forthcoming in New Ohio Review, Passages North, Joyland, and elsewhere. She is currently a 2022-23 Steinbeck Fellow at San Jose State University.