This is no. 49 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.
It can be helpful, at a certain point in a writing project, to change up elements that previously felt off limits. One of these elements is setting.
About ten years ago I came across a short news article about a woman in Japan who’d been arrested for sneaking into a man’s home and living in his closet. When the police asked why she’d done it, she said that she had nowhere else to live. I tried to find out more, but every piece I found recycled the same couple of paragraphs. It didn’t make sense to me that there wasn’t more to the story—there was so much more I wanted to know. I kept thinking, Who is this woman?
Her story became the basis for my novella “The Woman in the Closet”—the final story in my debut collection, Last of Her Name. For the longest time I’d kept the setting faithful to the article, to both honor the inspiration for the story and to help ground my fictional extrapolations in a culturally and socially specific context. But when I was working on the manuscript with my editor, Sunyoung Lee, we grappled with a couple of issues with the story. First: The other stories in the collection focused on Chinese characters. This story, with its Japanese protagonist and setting, was an outlier in that sense, and I twisted myself into knots trying to connect it to the rest of the collection. Maybe the protagonist, Granny Ito, was half Chinese? Or maybe she was Chinese and immigrated to Japan? It all felt rather strained. The other issue with the story was that, as careful as I’d tried to be, I’d still tripped up on certain details that Sunyoung, whose husband is Japanese, pointed out were culturally inaccurate, such as the kind of soup one would serve a guest in a certain situation. The casual reader wouldn’t have caught it, but someone familiar with Japanese culture and customs would, and I didn’t want to have anything in there that would be a distraction. I was prepared to go through the story again with a fine-tooth comb to try and catch other inaccuracies, but then Sunyoung asked, “Is there a particular reason why it’s set in Japan?” I bristled at the notion that it could be set anywhere but Japan, but at the same time my defense of the choice sounded, well, defensive, when said aloud. Sunyoung asked me to consider changing the setting, and if it didn’t feel right then we’d stick to the original and figure out how to make it work.
I relocated the story to Hong Kong, changing the names, locations, cultural references, and so on. Almost immediately I felt the story clicking along with more ease. But I soon encountered a different issue: Hong Kong, unlike Japan, doesn’t have tent villages, and tent villages feature prominently in the story. Then I thought, But it could…in the future. Given the increasing wealth disparity in Hong Kong and the city’s ongoing instability—though the current protests hadn’t started yet when I wrote this story—I decided it wasn’t at all beyond the realm of possibility. So the story moved from Japan to Hong Kong, from the present to the near-future, and Granny Ito became Granny Ng. Just like that, the story was infused with a different, subtly futuristic kind of energy that rippled back through the other stories in the collection—stories that also jumped around in time and place, but which all occupied the past or present. Ending the collection with a story set in the future felt right. Even now, when I imagine the two versions of the story next to each other, I see the original through a slightly dim, faded Polaroid filter, and the final version with the clarity of a bright, blue sky.
Mimi Lok is the author of the story collection Last of Her Name (Kaya Press, 2019), which was longlisted for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Short Story Collection. She is the recipient of a Smithsonian Ingenuity Award and an Ylvisaker Award for Fiction, and was a finalist for the Katherine Anne Porter Fiction Prize and the Susan Atefat Arts and Letters Prize for nonfiction. Her work can be found in McSweeney’s, Electric Literature, and Literary Hub, among other outlets. She is currently working on a novel. Lok is also the cofounder, executive director, and editor of Voice of Witness, an award-winning human rights/oral history nonprofit that amplifies marginalized voices through a book series and a national education program.