Lillian Wang Selonick
“It should be the texture of your earlobe,” my mother says, pushing all her weight into the heels of her palms, working the dough against the countertop. “But not yet. Right now, it should be drier than you think it should be.”
My mother is torn between the desire to pass on our family’s secrets and the instinct to do everything for me. Her generosity to her children is fierce, almost aggressive in its selflessness. See, yeogi, I made this all for you. Don’t bother, you’ll mess it up. You can’t take this from me; I give it all to you. Sarang he, just let me do it.
But she lets me watch while she talks through each step, the recipe that is more in her bones than in her mind.
“Look, I shredded the Napa a little too fine. You don’t want big chunks, but you don’t want it to disappear in the filling.”
She lets me squeeze the cabbage dry after it has been salted. The brine runs over my clenched fist, stinging the dry cracks in the back of my hand. It is New Year’s Day, and for months the winter has bitten the skin of my hands, as it does every year. I don’t react to the pain, knowing it will prompt my mother to shoo me away and descend on me with tubes of expensive hand creams. She will take my hand in her hands like it is an injured puppy and massage thick ointment onto it.
It is a gentle, soothing gesture, but with it comes the accusatory look—how could you let your hands get so dry when you know it hurts me to see them like this? It is love that feels like a reproach. In the winter, I always hide my hands from my mother.
She tastes the squeezed-out cabbage.
“Here, taste it,” she says, reaching out to feed me a piece. It is barely salty.
“I didn’t use enough salt, so I’ll have to use more soy sauce to flavor it. Usually, most of the saltiness comes from the cabbage,” she says.
“You know, we call them mandu in our family, because that’s the Korean word, but this style is actually Chinese jiaozi, from the Chinese side of your grandmother’s family. There’s nothing Korean about these dumplings,” she says.
On top of the shredded cabbage, she dumps the finely sliced green onions and grated ginger. She mixes them together with her hand, a loose-wrist gesture like she’s washing hair at the salon that took her youth and gave her the American Dream. I used to be ashamed of the salon, all the ahjumas coming in after church for their identical perms while I did homework in the back and dreamt of a life that didn’t smell like shampoo and hair dye and hand cream. The salon gave me that life, too.
“If you don’t mix these before you mix the meat, the ginger clumps up,” she says.
She plops in the ground pork—expensive Berkshire pork from Mitsuwa. Her hand becomes a claw and she mixes it all together, squeezing, turning in the big metal bowl. With her other hand, she pours a little spiral of soy sauce.
The quality of our pork has been on the rise for decades. We used to use the bulk stuff that bulged obscenely through the cling wrap on bloody styrofoam trays from Walmart. This Kurobuta pork came vacuum-sealed in black and gold packaging from the Japanese supermarket, overnighted from Kagoshima prefecture.
“The best ingredients come from Japan,” she tells me, with the casual cognitive dissonance of the colonized.
She pours long glugs of Japanese sesame oil from the bottle.
“More sesame oil than you think.”
She lets me grind pepper into the bowl.
“More pepper than you think, too.”
“Smell it,” she says, holding up a clump of pork filling to my nose. “You have to tell by the smell.”
I inhale deeply and nod. I think I get it; I really do. “Smells good,” I say. She smells it, inhaling deeply, closing her eyes.
“Needs more sesame oil,” she says.
When it comes time to fold the dumplings, she tosses me half-dollar-coin-sized rounds of dough, which I roll out with a baton: pulling, stretching, rotating in quick, coordinated movements. This is the only part I feel confident about. I can deftly turn the little puck she gives me into a paper-thin circle. But then I watch closely. Every time I’ve made mandu before, with or without my mom, my way of folding has felt improvised, clumsy, inadequate. I fold from left to right, uneven pleats that yield uneven dumplings, elephant-ear dumplings, with floppy dough hanging off to one side. I try to hold it in my palm as I work, but it’s easier to rest the bottom on the counter as I fold.
“Not bad,” my mom says, watching me fold my second one. “But look, yeogi, here’s how I do it.”
She scoops a smaller amount of filling into the skin, then pleats and folds the dumpling in midair, from right to left. “One, two, three, four, five, six,” she counts. “Make six deep pleats, and squeeze shut as you go.” I watch her lightning-fast fingers. The tips of her fingers on her left hand are scarred by a hundred feather-light cuts from her razor-sharp stylist’s scissors. Flour catches in the tiny grooves, shrouding her fingerprints in a halo of white.
She has produced a plump, even crescent, a perfect little coin purse.
“Is that the way Grandma made mandu?” I ask.
“No, I learned this from my Chinese stepfather, the one who worked in the restaurants. Grandma had a different way of folding them, a way I could never quite get right.”
I try making a few my mother’s way. They look better than my first attempts.
“Good! If you make beautiful dumplings, it means you’ll have beautiful children,” she says. “Grandma makes them without pleats. She makes the dough smaller and fills them up more with filling.” She demonstrates. “She puts her palms together like this, and rests the dumpling in the middle, and then…” my mother squeezed her thumbs into her forefingers’ knuckles, pinching the dumpling shut with her whole hands, emitting a little grunt of effort. It was lumpy, but it was sealed, and it bore the imprint of her lifetime’s labor in the beauty salon, the hairline slashes and chemical burns that made her hands unmistakable.
“It makes a mold of her hands. See? You have to squeeze every muscle in your hands at once. I can never quite get the hang of it. It’s not as pretty as the pleats, but it’s more efficient. Mama makes them really fast. She just punches them out like an assembly line,” she says.
At some point, she starts using the present tense to talk about her mother, who died of a stroke twenty years ago. But she’s with her now, a voice in her head, the way my mother will always be present when I make our family mandu recipe, gently critiquing, correcting my technique, checking the backs of my hands for dry, chapped skin.
I was struck by Lillian Selonick’s winning short story, “Handprint,” on my first read. Like much great fiction, “Handprint” manages to capture a distinct moment while also feeling expansive and timeless. Selonick’s prose is precise and captivating, so I wasn’t surprised to learn during our interview that she works to keep her fiction compact. Like a perfect slice of pizza, “Handprint” is just warm enough, offering a delicious bite.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Aram Mrjoian: You’ve described your winning story as your “cheesiest, most earnest work,” which I love. So often we hear the need for conflict, but “Handprint” is filled with joy. In what ways do you think about emotion and tone in your fiction? What does it mean to write a happy story?
Lillian Selonick: I’m drawn to very dark and twisted stories in the fiction I consume—David Lynch, Philip K Dick, Park Chan-wook. To an extent, that finds its way into my writing, but when I write fiction that draws from my family histories, I try to traffic less in trauma and instead showcase the tender, the bittersweet, the quiet joy. That’s what feels truest to me.
America loves to flatten the immigrant experience into neat, easily digestible narratives. Asian immigrant stories in particular often follow a familiar arc of tragedy, trauma, and ultimately triumph. There is a tremendous amount of loss and sacrifice there– every immigrant family I know has immense tragedy lurking in the background. It’s built-in. If you came from Asia in the middle part of the 20th century, it’s basically guaranteed that you’ve been through some unspeakably horrific shit. But as an American-born, mixed-race Korean American, that’s not my story to tell. I want to tell the story of growing up with those kinds of stories, and what it feels like to be loved by someone who has suffered more than the usual amount, yet doesn’t frame their own life in those terms.
AM: “Handprint” is about a mother passing on culinary knowledge to her daughter and (aptly for the Pizza Prize) I think food can be a big part of how we talk about inheritance. How did you go about navigating intergenerational love and knowledge in such a small amount of space?
LS: As much as I love long, lyrical family epics—Look Homeward, Angel is one of the books that cemented my determination to become a writer—I believe that my strongest work comes in the smallest package possible. In the words of Strunk and White: Omit needless words.
“Handprint” started out perhaps twice as long, and then I cut away at it and rewrote it until I had what I believe is the shortest version of itself that still makes sense. Much like a good dumpling, it’s meaty and compact. There’s a lot going on there—you discover that you’re not just dealing with a Korean immigrant, but a Chinese Korean family that chose to preserve and pass down a Chinese recipe while living first in Korea and then in America. What kind of grit and determination does it take to preserve a foreign family tradition through Japanese colonization, through intermarriage, through emigration? And then how many lean years and myriad little indignities are suggested by the mother’s decades of salon labor? I hope all of that tension bleeds through, though little of it is made explicit.
This method of chiseling away until I’m left with only the essential story requires a lot of trust in the reader. I used to make the mistake of trying to explain, to justify myself to the reader. Now I trust that if I provide the scaffolding–in this case, a narrative dumpling recipe—and fill it with key details, a reader will experience the emotional response I was attempting to elicit. At least, I hope so.
AM: For your day job, you’re an editor at the National Academy of Sciences. I imagine that’s a very different kind of writing practice, but how does your job influence your creative work?
LS: My job doesn’t involve a lot of writing, unless you count infinite emails and like, performance reviews. I’m an assistant managing editor, which means I manage a team of editorial staff who facilitate the peer review process for the high-impact, multidisciplinary science journal the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. I fell into the industry of scholarly publishing several years ago, thinking that I would pivot to book publishing, but along the way, I got swept up into the world of peer-reviewed journals and now I’m stuck—turns out I care deeply about the many super nerdy, super niche problems and crises in the world of science publishing.
My professional work is mostly separate from my creative life, but sometimes there is some bleed over. I enjoy writing science fiction, and working for one of the most prestigious science journals in the world sparks story ideas from time to time.
I also enjoy playing with form—“Handprint” is basically an oral recipe, fictionalized—and my work has made me fluent in the artificial/constructed languages with which academics express themselves. For example, there is this stilted mode of writing that I’m convinced only exists in the cover letters that authors use when submitting revisions of scholarly articles. I’m working on an epistolary story that unfolds through these cover letters that I believe will be instantly recognizable to anyone who has ever worked with or published in a peer-reviewed journal. It’s essentially an inside joke with myself, but I hope that it’s more broadly entertaining as well.
AM: I know you’ve received several awards for your writing going back to 2010. Can you talk a little bit about how your writing has evolved and what keeps you motivated?
LS: That is a very generous framing of my writing accomplishments. I won three medals (a gold, a silver, and an American Voices medal) from the National Scholastic Art and Writing Awards when I was in high school. And then a long pause, and I won two awards this year. I think the national recognition from Scholastic, which I won when I was 16 for a story I first wrote when I was 14, was a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it was exciting to get that validation—I wanted to be a writer from a young age, and winning those awards, which had previously been won by the likes of a young Sylvia Plath and Truman Capote, made me feel like I was destined for literary greatness. The other winners and I accepted our medals at Carnegie Hall. It was surreal.
But on the other hand, meeting with early recognition of my potential as a writer was paralyzing. I wrote very little fiction in college and in my early twenties. I worried that, since it was my destiny to become a great writer, every first draft needed to be perfect, and I gave up quickly when that was not the case. I worried, absurdly, that my best work was behind me.
Eventually, I got over that fear. In 2020, I committed to practicing my craft and to start submitting work to literary magazines and contests, even if it wasn’t “perfect.” I wrote a lot of messy nonsense and I forgave myself for writing poorly. I gave myself permission to write badly and abandon drafts that had no future. I stopped thinking of writing as a precious, finite resource and started thinking of it as training. Two years later, that discipline and willingness to take risks is starting to pay off.
I love the act of writing. There is nothing better than the feeling of hitting a flow state while writing. But that period of bliss, when the Muse has arrived and is working through you—for me, that’s a tiny fraction of the time spent writing. Writing is very difficult for me. Exhausting, harrowing sometimes. I need multiple incentives to keep me motivated. There’s the intrinsic motivation from the joy of inspired writing, but I also crave the validation that I get from publishing or winning awards. I’m quite vain in that sense. I suspect most writers are, or everyone would just write for themselves and never publish.
AM: If you could make your perfect pizza, what style would it be and what toppings are going on it?
LS: Growing up in Chicago, you could get just about every style of pizza that exists. It’s not all deep dish there, don’t be fooled by the hype. I love them all—thin crust tavern, Detroit, Neapolitan, deep-dish, Roman, New York slice, whatever. But what I crave the most is this BBQ chicken pizza from a Brazilian restaurant called Fogo 2 Go. It’s closed now, but that was the best BBQ chicken pizza I’ve ever had. I used to add Chicago-style smoked hot links from Honey1 BBQ to it, sliced up. Thin, chewy, and crispy crust, bbq sauce, pulled chicken, extra smoked gouda, red onion, cilantro, mozzarella, hot links, and a ton of gochugaru (Korean pepper flakes). Dunk it in Carolina-style mustard BBQ sauce and ranch. It’s an explosion of flavor. I’m a pizza maximalist, not a purist.
AM: Delivery or carry out?
LS: Carry out, in general. The anticipation of driving home with a car that smells amazing is delicious. Plus, I don’t have to worry about my dog freaking out when the delivery person rings the doorbell. But there is something special about pizza delivery. Other cultures are much better at food delivery than we Americans are, but at least we do pizza well.
AM: You can invite any five living writers to a pizza party? Who’s getting a slice?
LS: First, the Koreans: Min Jin Lee, Alexander Chee, and Thee Pizza Girl, Jean Kyoung Frazier. Next, Neal Stephenson, who portrayed near-future, high-stakes pizza delivery so delightfully in Snow Crash. Finally, Kazuo Ishiguro, whose books are all infuriatingly perfect and precise.
On nominating another writer:
I started following Chiyeung Lau on Instagram a few years ago because he’s a powerlifter. Specifically, he’s an Asian powerlifter. When I started lifting about four years ago, I became obsessed with the social media community of badass powerlifting Asian Americans—strong men and women carving out a niche for themselves in a hobby traditionally associated with white bros. At some point, Chiyeung and I realized that we were both writers and he told me about his Asian American writing group. We swapped stories and I was deeply impressed with the grace and empathy of his writing, the way he embodies a voice. Since then, Chiyeung has invited me to join his workshop and has been so generous with his time. Chiyeung deserves recognition and a pizza!
Chiyeung is currently working on short story collection, set in the distant future and centered around the lives Asian Americans. His debut publication can be found in Issue 17 of Newtown Literary, and you can also find him on Twitter @chiyeung
Lillian Wang Selonick’s writing has appeared in Joyland Magazine, Ricepaper Magazine, Passengers Journal, America’s Emerging Writers: An Anthology of Fiction, and others. She works in scholarly publishing and lives near Washington, DC. Find her at lillianwangselonick.com or on Twitter @LillianSelonick.
© Variant Literature Inc 2021