Sally Wen Mao

Sally Wen Mao

Sally Wen Mao

Sally Wen Mao is the author of the debut fiction collection Ninetails: Nine Tales (Penguin Books, 2024). She is also the author of the poetry collections The Kingdom of Surfaces (Graywolf Press, August 2023), a finalist for the 2023 Maya Angelou Book Prize, Oculus (Graywolf Press, 2019), a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and Mad Honey Symposium (Alice James Books, 2014). Her work has appeared in The Best American Poetry 2013 and 2021, The Paris Review, Granta, Poetry, A Public Space, Harpers Bazaar, The Washington Post, and others. 

“Shapeshifting and Seduction,” an interview with Sally Wen Mao

This interview was conducted via e-mail by Interview Editor Phoebe Nguyen. Of the process, she said, “Sally Wen Mao’s Ninetails is unlike anything I’ve encountered before. Mao’s prose is brilliant and searing as she invites readers on an enthralling journey into the essence of femininity. She gracefully confronts themes of vengeance, enlightenment, and the feminine experience through a cast of unforgettable characters. Through Ninetails, Mao bestows upon readers a rare gift.” In this interview, Sally Wen Mao talks about marginalized bodies, the endurance of the fox spirit, and a writer’s need for everlasting curiosity. 

Superstition Review: The stories of Ninetails are based on the Chinese folklore of hulijings, encompassing fox spirits, fox demons, fox seductresses, and huxians, which are fox spirits that have achieved transcendence. Can you elaborate on your decision to center these stories on this folklore?

Sally Wen Mao: I meant to write one story about a nine-tailed fox, and in doing so, fell down a fox-hole into the world of fox spirits in Chinese folklore. I realized I wanted to stay there for much longer. Fox spirits seduced me with their shapeshifting abilities, their beauty, their monstrosity, their brilliance, and mischievousness. They demanded that I expanded the story into a whole collection. What I love about the hulijing is how she has survived so long (thousands of years!) through shapeshifting and seduction, and that even though the fox demon trope is borne of misogyny and misunderstanding of women, the fox spirit’s characteristics—of shapeshifting, possession, extracting human essence, transcendence and crossing borders—also signal a gleeful, joyful resistance.

SR: The experience of reading “Love Doll” was truly electrifying, offering a raw and unique perspective I had never encountered before. What inspired you to write from the point of view of a “love doll?”

SWM: Thank you! That story began with a memory: in 2007 I was wandering in a huge mall in Hong Kong, and I found a love doll on display, sitting behind a window. It was a very uncanny experience, as the technology for love dolls at the time was expanding and expanding to render them as lifelike as possible. Ten years later, I got the idea to write a story from the doll’s point of view—it just came to me because the memory had resurfaced at an odd time. That image, that moment, of looking at the doll from outside the window, haunted me and I decided to lean into it.

SR: You shifted from prose writing during your undergraduate years to focusing on poetry, resulting in the publication of your three poetry collections: Oculus, The Kingdom of Surfaces, and Mad Honey Symposium. With Ninetails being your debut fiction collection, I’m curious to learn about your experience returning to writing prose.

SWM: I have always loved writing fiction. As an undergraduate, I volleyed between genres often. There’s a certain amnesia that arises when you stay focused on one genre: soon after my fiction workshops I enrolled in poetry workshops. I happened to be writing poetry when I applied to graduate programs, so by then it felt like genre was a defining make-or-break choice. After I wrote two poetry collections, I wanted to venture back into fiction even though I hadn’t written it in a while. It felt invigorating, yet frightening—I didn’t feel as confident, my sentences felt wobbly at times, and that lack of confidence kept me on my toes. Perhaps I felt that because I didn’t study fiction in my graduate program, I had more to learn. After a few years of writing fiction, however, I recognized what fiction also has in common with poetry: the process of writing and tinkering and revising, the obsession over sentences, language, and order. And then the other stuff began to materialize—plot, character, sequence, story, all of which felt new and invigorating to me.

SR: In your interview with Asian American Writer’s Workshop, you highlighted the duality in response to Asian women’s bodies, noting that they, and marginalized bodies in general, “have always existed at the intersection of attraction and revulsion.” What aspirations do you hold for the portrayal and treatment of marginalized bodies, both in literature and in broader contexts? Additionally, how do you believe Ninetails contributes to progress in this direction?

SWM: I definitely find that Ninetails continues with these themes I’ve been exploring in my previous poetry collections. The Angel Island novella in Ninetails, in particular, speaks to the history of marginalized bodies—how immigrants who were detained at the Angel Island Immigration Station were subjected to invasive medical procedures because their stigmatized bodies were believed to carry diseases. These marginalized arrivals were immediately isolated and not allowed to cross that border, and so I hope that portrayal helps us critically examine our current politics and realities. To return to the fox spirit, I think foxes recognize the artificiality of borders. The fox spirit feels progressive, in that sense. 

SR: This collection traverses time, moving between narratives set in the 1910s, like “The Haunting of Angel Island,” to the event of the “Turtle Head Epidemic” of 1967, and to stories firmly grounded in the present, like “A Huxian’s Guide to Immortality.” How did you determine the arrangement of stories in Ninetails?

SWM: I arranged the stories in an order that I felt captured the marvelous abilities of the fox: beginning with “Love Doll,” in which the fox is not physically present but a haunting entity bent on possessing bodies, then moving to other more physical formulations of the fox spirit. The collection moves closest to the actual fox spirit in “A Huxian’s Guide,” which is right at the center of the book.

I think I wrote stories set in different historical points to show the endurance of the fox spirit. After all, this creature is thousands of years old. Actually, I feel that the historical timespan should be even wider, as the earliest story is set in the 1910s! Originally there was a story I wrote for the collection set in the future, too. The setting of “Turtle Head Epidemic” refers to an actual epidemic in Singapore, 1967, as well as the Angel Island story. So I wanted to keep the timelines historically accurate, but other elements of the stories are fabulized. Although! The koro disease mentioned in “Turtle Head Epidemic” was actually attributed to fox spirits and folk beliefs in foxes—so I did do research in all of the historical pieces. I read medical journal articles about this disease. As for the arrangement of stories, the biggest and most radical risk I took was splitting the Angel Island novella and interspersing it throughout the book—that felt to me accurate to the splitting of families and fracturing of lives that took place on Angel Island.

SR: You have taught writing classes and workshops at institutions like Cornell University, Hunter College, and the National University of Singapore. Can you share some of the advice you offer to aspiring writers during these sessions?

SWM: Teaching is generative for me. When I started teaching a speculative poetry class, the revelations I made with my students really helped me think about the speculative in really exciting ways. They teach me as much as I teach them, perhaps even more. One thing I always try to do is impart everlasting curiosity. If you are not curious or inquisitive or itching to know more about something you have absolutely no idea about, then you cannot also expect to write. Also, to read a lot a lot a lot, and see how your favorite writers do these things. How they write a sentence, how that sentence is shaped, what coffee they drink, what their sleep schedule is like, what they do for revision. Read their interviews, read about their routines. I’m not saying you need to copy them, but keep all of that wisdom somewhere stored for you to look at when you want to pull your hair out because of an empty white page. Have another creative practice where the pressure to excel or create “good” art is turned off, and you’re just purely trying and experimenting with new things, new shapes, new connections. The condition of learning is lifelong for a writer.

SR: Having discovered your work through Ninetails, I have become an ardent fan, eagerly anticipating your future endeavors. As your audience awaits your next project, could you provide us with any insight into what we can expect next from you as an author?

SWM: Thank you, that means a lot to me! My next project is still in the works, and it will test me and my ability to further shapeshift as a writer. I’m hoping to write a novel, but because it’s so early, I can’t tell you much about it. All I know is I’m always trying to capture a feeling, and the feeling in this novel is much closer to my skin. I hope it takes shape soon.