Q&A with Cherry Zheng

A square photograph of Cherry Zheng, with long dark hair, a dark top, grey scarf, looking to the side, and making the peace symbol, is set against an illustrated banner. Blues and purples at the top, with wiggly lines, move down into an orange-pink colour. In the bottom left corner are green foliage-like illustrations. Figures of people, dancing and posing, are collaged across the bottom. ‘an interview with Cherry Zheng’ is written across the top of the banner.

CHERRY ZHENG is currently drifting around Asia. She recently completed her Honours thesis in Asian Studies at the Australian National University and edits for DEiFY, a grassroots QTIBPOC collective. You might find her flying around a pole studio, fighting sleep paralysis demons, or eating chocolate around a pile of unread books. She has previously been published in Overland.

Our Intern LinLi Wan talks to Cherry about her fiction piece, ‘The Magic Act’, published in #26: REVEL

The world building in ‘The Magic Act’ is just brilliant. You’ve weaved so many clever details into the narrative that really work to show off the complex magic system. Can you talk us through this world, how you came up with it, and what your process of writing it into the story was like?

A few months ago, I had a dream about learning to teleport in a pole studio. The in-dream logic was that you had to know your destination with total clarity, so it helped to start with somewhere memorable. Pole was perfect, since each trick has precise grip points and an airborne sensation that is alien to usual, everyday experience, and you practise them a bajillion times. So this magical feeling of teleporting from pole to pole in different shapes and heights stuck with me.

I wrote towards that image and the world unfolded around it: if you need to know your destination exactly, then the teleporter neighbourhood must be run-down, unchanged. If the teleporters are resistant to change, then maybe they’ve forgotten that there are different modes of magic, including Vale’s connection to people. I have notes on my phone with plot points that didn’t make it (a fire, and what Suli found in Hearth) and random lines, including the one which crystallised the heart of the story for me (‘The secret must be that we tether to what we love: that micro-universe where freedom and no choice overlap’). I changed the apparatus to silks and hoops, because with pole there is a politics of sex and desirability that I did not have room to unpack in this story.

One of my favourite things about writing fantasy is figuring out how to work in meaning. I don’t want my magic to be a neutral trick, I want to inflect it with culture and history. And teleportation is a nifty kind of magic to explore what authenticity feels like as a child of migrants. Vale and Suli wrestle with internal and external pressures of being teleporter enough. Just as the Chinese diaspora continually forms new connections to ‘Chineseness’, my characters make new magical tethers—which work, which are also authentic. But they are shamed for losing their roots. The teleporter community is afraid of being forever detached from this perfect Hearth of their imagination. Plus, their fear reflects a very real pain during the pandemic as borders sealed and separated people.

I absolutely adored Vale and Suli, who are the main characters of this story. Witnessing their relationship evolve over the course of the narrative was such a joy. Can you tell us a little bit about them and also about the significance of writing a queer story for the prompt ‘Revel’?

When I mentally committed to being a writer a year or so ago, one thing I grappled with was whether I could write ‘Australian’ fiction. I gravitate towards fantasy and sci-fi, which already means the literary world takes me less seriously. Part of the problem is that nowhere seems real enough to write about (as Vale says of teleportation). And part of the reason for that comes down to how very small my world used to feel, as a child of migrants who spoke little English. Of course, I have access to reams of diasporic writing now. But I remember disliking English class in primary school because I could not relate to the ‘real’ stories of Australia about larrikin rebelliousness or hanging out in the outback. I wrote about girls with blonde hair and names like Olivia, and I held my own life close to my chest, expressing it in abstract ways. Then in university I had the opportunity to spend time in China. This only led to more question marks; it was no panacea to questions of belonging. All this is to say I’ve been meaning to write a story about home, without it necessarily being a place. Home is a feeling you get from a country or a room, or an activity, or sometimes a person.

‘Revel’ was refreshing in that it prompted me to start from a place of maximum indulgence. What if it was safe to love as Vale does, even if it doesn’t last? What if I ‘waste’ my abilities like Suli does to dance? Queer joy is significant when so much of what defines us is layers and layers of marginalisation, pain, and uncertainty. So let them make eyes at each other in a way that is obvious to everyone else, let them be young and useless at communication. This story is not about Vale and Suli coming to terms with their queerness. Instead, it is the source of their magic.

Your essay ‘Libations’ was published in Overland last year, and you’re publishing ‘The Magic Act’ with The Suburban Review this year. After reading your work, I know that you will have many eager readers (myself included) anticipating your next piece of writing. What else are you working on at the moment and can you share with us anything about it?

Thank you so much, that means a lot! I’m proud of this piece because it’s the first one I have published since starting full-time work. I am going to have to think seriously about how to fit writing into my life, because, as cliché as it sounds, I struggle to find time to write.

The big goal is to novelise this world that’s been hanging out rent-free in my head for a decade, a post-apocalyptic fantasy with ghosts and demons in it. I have multiple versions of it lying around in my digital waste bin, because I have grown so much in these last few years that I keep having more and different things to say. Sometimes I spin off elements into a short story, like the phoenix feathers in Urban Gods. So maybe you will see another short story like that in the near term.