Q&A with Lucy Zhang

The white background is superimposed with the cover of The Suburban Review #22 on the right. In the centre is a photo of Lucy Zhang. She wears a blue top and sunhat, stands side-on and looks up.  Behind her are green bushes and blue sky. Illustrated, coloured shapes frame the photo, and an orange arrow points to the handwritten text ‘Lucy Zhang’. On the left, text reads ‘New Issue Out Now thesuburbanreview.com’.

LUCY ZHANG writes, codes and watches anime. Her work has appeared in Threadcount, GASHER, Superstition Review and elsewhere, and was selected for Best Microfiction 2021 and Best Small Fictions 2021. She edits for Barren Magazine, Heavy Feather Review and Pithead Chapel. Find her at https://kowaretasekai.wordpress.com/ or on Twitter @Dango_Ramen.

Our Intern, Megan Payne, talks to Lucy about her fiction piece ‘Cog’ published in #22: Organise & Mobilise.

In your story Cog, Xinyu invites the protagonist to ‘harness (their) inner robot’. In response, the protagonist switches their ‘brain off’ and an intimate joining of human and robot material ensues with their ‘fingers handling polymer-based materials’. I experienced Xinyu’s instruction as hopeful, where an inner robot could be akin to an embodied intelligence and capacities for new connections. But the repetitive action also loads and remodels the protagonist’s body. I’m curious what the instruction ‘harness your inner robot’ means to you? 

In some sense, humans aren’t that different from robots. Our bodies are like biological machines: systems of organs working together, burning calories as fuel, sending signals, regulating hormones and complex chains of responses. But that’s only if you’re looking at it from a mechanical perspective. Then you get into the more philosophical questions like ‘what is soul’ and the whole ‘brain in a vat’ scenario. I guess I was making an inside joke with that line, because in my mind, harnessing your inner robot just means to keep being human.

In Cog, your characters have been relegated to a robot-like status, but they expand on this status for themselves through make-believe. By pretending to be robots they enact having choice. They are able to sway and shape their identities. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the potential of make-believe, especially in those instances of make-believe shared with others?

I love writing about characters whose realities are a bit off from what the ‘general purpose’ reality of the story is. In fact, a lot of my stories get a bit speculative/sci-fi so I can really go wild with how they make sense of their places in the world. There’s so much that can be revealed about a character and their relationship to their setting through what their minds conjure, and how they are able or unable to separate this make-believe from their day-to-day experiences. But at the same time, it can be very isolating because it’s hard to fully share a perception. You see a similar clash in Cog where the protagonist is unable to comprehend Xinyu’s ability to put up with their work. 

As well as a writer, you are also a software engineer. How do you think about the materials and languages of words/writing and code/coding in relation to one another?

I’m often inspired by code when it comes to writing. On one hand, code is very cold and logical. I write something and execute it and expect it to work (hah). If it doesn’t work, there’s something wrong and needs to be fixed. Multiply that several hundred times. But the stuff I work on (installation and software update) also interfaces directly with a human and so we have to consider how someone will behave to inform our implementation. It’s not quite just 1s and 0s. In a similar way to how I find fairytale retellings effective from manipulating a set form, I like to use code—whether it’s the syntax or design or bugs or even just the jargon—to restrict my story in terms of content or language and figure out how to use those restrictions in new ways.