Bookish: The Practice of Attention

Writing isn’t just about producing—it’s about sitting in the stillness of overlooked spaces, says Simon Han
Man sitting on grass in front of building
“It has been rewarding to be able to make a connection with complete strangers—to know something filtered through my mind and made it to someone else’s, and they created an entirely new story out of that,” says Simon Han. Photo: Alonso Nichols
October 5, 2021

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Bookish is an occasional Tufts Now series of interviews with authors from the Tufts community.

Late one night in the suburban town of Plano, Texas, a young girl named Annabel Cheng walks slowly down an empty street.

It’s a quiet moment, one that passes unnoticed by almost everyone—including Annabel herself, who is sleepwalking—but it starts a series of events that throw the Cheng family, and their neighborhood, into turmoil.

Such moments are central to Nights When Nothing Happened, the debut novel of award-winning writer Simon Han, whose short stories and essays have appeared in The Atlantic and Virginia Quarterly Review, among others.

These quiet moments also form the core of Han’s approach to writing and teaching. A new professor of the practice in the Tufts English department, Han is teaching two fiction writing workshops this semester, one introductory, one advanced. He hopes to share with students some of the things he most loves about creative writing—the power of attention, the intimacy of conversation, and the potential for anything to happen.

Listen to a conversation with Simon Han. Audio: Monica Jimenez and Jandro Cisneros

Tufts Now: How did Nights When Nothing Happened come to be?

Simon Han: Most of what I write starts from a feeling, or a question. With Nights When Nothing Happened, I had the idea of a sleepwalking girl and her brother following her at midnight. There was an image of being surrounded by symbols of safety—like streetlamps, neighborhood watch signs, and sidewalks—but still feeling unsafe and alone. That was often the experience of childhood I had, especially growing up post-9/11 in a Texas suburb.

I kept poking at this image and asking questions—why is her brother following her? Where are her parents? Why is she sleepwalking? Eventually the setting came out of these questions: Plano, a boring Texas suburb where I grew up, where I had never set anything before. I didn’t think I had a story there.

I wanted to write a book that had no easy answers, that allowed us to see everyday people who happened to be Chinese immigrants in a loving way, but also in honest, vulnerable, messy ways. I also wanted to write about the quiet thrills of angst that occur in these spaces that might otherwise be overlooked. It’s called Nights When Nothing Happened, but of course things happen. You see the invisible gears working in everyday life.

I hope it’s a different experience for every reader—once you put your book out into the world, it’s up to each individual reader to interact with it in their own way, through their particular context.

Are there themes you often find yourself returning to in your writing?

I find I often write about the presentation of the self, and Erving Goffman’s idea that we are all performers in everyday life. What does that mean? What are the boundaries between performance and who we are? In my work that often relates to being an immigrant, a Chinese American, as well as a brother, sister, son, mother, father, or spouse.

Interestingly, writing has served to bridge the gaps between me and my family, not only in America, but in China. I was born in China and grew up in Texas—two vast places with incredible histories, that are also wrapped up in a lot of mythmaking. Writing was a way to dig deeper into that, not only through research, but by talking to my parents about what it was like growing up during the Cultural Revolution.

I write a lot about family, and what it means to be a member of a community that might not actually want you to be a part of that community. I’m interested in the small, intimate moments in domestic life and space, and how that stuff can actually be super weird and surreal, as we’ve learned these past two years.

I hope people see me as a contemplative writer who’s interested in language, writing about the drama of everyday life.

What’s your philosophy of writing?

Writing is a practice of attention. It’s about not only being able to focus on something, but also knowing how to orient your attention, and being able to pay attention to things you might have skipped over otherwise. This is really important to me personally because it’s so easy to be pulled in every direction nowadays. To be able to sit in the stillness of writing—that to me is a really important practice.

Writing is also a conversation—with myself, with writers before me, with my characters and sentences, and if I’m looking to publish a book, with my readers. It has been rewarding to be able to make a connection with complete strangers—to know something filtered through my mind and made it to someone else’s, and they created an entirely new story out of that.

And writing is a job, which I very much try to tell my students. People wait for ideas and strikes of inspiration, but really a novel is just a thing you see through to the end. It’s a test of endurance, in spite of not knowing whether a thing is going to see the light of day or not.

Society is focused on productivity. What I love about creative writing is it’s really the antithesis of that. It’s a slow, reflective process that gives us space to contemplate and learn. It really isn’t tied to a lot of the ways in which we ascribe value in the world. And it’s something we can bring into other facets of life.

What books have been most influential for you?

When I was a kid, I really liked Sherlock Holmes. It was comforting how each mystery would introduce a question that would hang in the air for most of the story, but in the end the genius Sherlock Homes answers it. It was deeply satisfying when as a kid you have so many questions about so many things that don’t make sense.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found a lot of inspiration from writers who create a bit more ambiguous work that explores the gray area. Shirley Jackson’s writing is just so sharp on a sentence level, and I also think she has a great ability to create stories that are very unsettling, but in a subtle way—for example her novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle, or her short stories. She’s often thought of as a horror writer, and horrifying things do happen in her work, but they sneak up on you. And often the most horrifying thing is human nature.

Another book I think about a lot, one of my favorites, is Edward P. Jones’ The Known World. It’s masterful in how it uses time—it’s not written chronologically—and it goes in and out of many perspectives. It’s a big novel that always inspires me to think about writing something beyond the traditional linear structure.

I also like Gish Jen, a writer a college professor introduced to me, and one of the first Chinese American writers I read who wasn’t Amy Tan or Maxine Hong Kingston. There are so many more Chinese American and Asian American writers now, and it has been very cool to see that conversation deepening and gaining so many layers.

What do you hope to teach students about writing?

For intro to fiction, I really want to give students the opportunity to stretch and exercise their writing muscles, to create the habit of it, and to become attuned to their own specific processes.

Students write original works of fiction, but it’s not the whole goal to produce polished gems. A lot of it is learning from writers before you—from Chekhov to Octavia Butler to exciting new writers like Xuan Juliana Wang, going word by word, learning what they are doing on the page and why, and approaching fiction with curiosity, generosity, and attention.

One book I’m recommending to students this semester is Matthew Salesses’ Craft in the Real World. It has really challenged me to think about the assumptions we bring into writing and reading, which are often predicated on white, Western, male conventions. It shows us how the way we teach writing depends on the way we were taught ourselves, and it teaches us to ask more interesting questions and subvert expectations.

For me, success in the class means leaving with the feeling that you have farther to go; with a sharper understanding of what makes good writing for you; and with more confidence in your ability to get there. Anything is possible when you’re facing the blank page, and those possibilities can be scary but they can also be empowering.

Teaching for me is less about pontificating and more about creating space where conversations can thrive. When you put 12 to 15 curious, smart, creative people in a room, something interesting is bound to happen. And even though I teach many of the same stories over and over, I always learn something new from my students.

Monica Jimenez can be reached at monica.jimenez@tufts.edu.