Literary MagNet: Cleo Qian

Dana Isokawa
From the September/October 2023 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

In the first version of her debut story collection, Let’s Go, Let’s Go, Let’s Go (Tin House, August 2023), Cleo Qian focused on girlhood while writing coming-of-age narratives about teenagers and early twentysomethings. As Qian wrote more pieces, though, her characters became older, and the book’s themes shifted to loneliness, fear, and technology. “There were more adult concerns about work, success, aging, keeping up with your peers, the consequences one starts to face, emotionally and physically, for choices and patterns from your youth,” she says. “The book became a bit darker and scarier.” With precise imagery and a voice both sharply observant and yearning, the final collection depicts the sometimes blurry lines between girlhood and adulthood, admiration and attraction within female friendship, and the surreal and real in online interactions.   

Cleo Qian, author of Let’s Go, Let’s Go, Let’s Go.   (Credit: Casper Yen)

In crafting her stories, which predominantly feature characters from the East Asian diaspora, Qian sought to sidestep expectations to write narratives of immigrant trauma and Asian stereotypes in favor of “the freedom to just write about a normal human drama like the horrors of the internet or the wistfulness of a summer situationship.” She adds, “I felt that freedom and acceptance from POC, and particularly Asian, readers.” She also found this ease with Shenandoah in the editorial care of Jenzo DuQue, who was building a fiction portfolio for the online biannual as a 2021 recipient of the Shenandoah Fellowship for BIPOC Editors. Qian praises DuQue’s “insistence on stories that are trying anti-traditional techniques and which are transgressive, whether in content or in mode.” Qian’s story “Monitor World” appeared in the fall 2021 issue, alongside poetry by January Gill O’Neil, nonfiction by Tracy Lum, and comics by Aidan Claire Daniel. Shenandoah was founded in 1950 and is housed by the English department of Washington and Lee University. Submissions are currently closed; the $1,000 Graybeal-Gowen Prize for Virginia Poets, given for a single poem, opens in October. General poetry submissions will open in the spring.

Qian published her story “We Were There” in Witness, where she says then-editor Robert Ren understood the story’s dreamy tone and narrative structure inspired by East Asian manga and media. Qian says Witness publishes stories that have “a really great sense of the craft of storytelling.” The Black Mountain Institute at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas publishes Witness biannually. The spring print issue focuses on a particular theme while the fall/winter issue appears online without a theme. The editors seek to showcase poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and art that “highlights the role of the modern writer as witness to their times.” Submissions for the spring issue, on the theme of “Crush” open in September.

Qian was glad to place “The Virtuoso” with Hyphen, an online publication of Asian literature and culture writing. The story features a high school student and piano player who is preoccupied with getting into college; Qian felt Hyphen’s readership would “see the humanity and vulnerability of the character and empathize with the systems in which she is trapped, rather than using the story to confirm their own stereotypes of the model minority.” Hyphen, which is run by volunteers, publishes content about Asian American culture with “substance, style, and sass” online and sometimes in print. The magazine was established in 2002 after A. Magazine, a groundbreaking publication covering Asian American culture and politics, shuttered. Hyphen is currently on hiatus.

In 1997 filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola and writer Adrienne Brodeur launched Zoetrope: All-Story, a print quarterly of fiction, one-act plays, and essays on film. Each issue includes only a few pieces and is designed by a different artist; a recent issue, designed by Aaron Rose, featured stories by Jamel Brinkley, Elizabeth McCracken, and Yiyun Li. The publication runs an annual fiction contest; the winner receives $1,000 and is considered for representation by major literary agencies. In 2022, Ling Ma selected Qian’s story “Chicken. Film. Youth.” for the second-place prize, although it was not ultimately published in the journal. Qian had submitted to the prize at least three times before and had admired the “real attention to freshness and craft in the winning pieces.” While not open for general submissions, Zoetrope is currently accepting entries to its short fiction competition, which requires a $30 entry fee, until October 2.

“I got the sense that the journal really nurtures young talent,” says Qian of the Adroit Journal. “It has published work by amazing authors and early work from authors who have gone on to have amazing careers.” Adroit published Qian’s “Zeros:Ones” in its forty-fifth issue, published in April and edited by Emily Cinquemani, a poetry editor. Peter LaBerge, the online quarterly’s editor in chief, started the journal in 2010 while he was a high school student; Adroit also administers a summer mentorship program for writers in high school or taking a gap year, annual writing contests for student writers, and annual scholarships for poets and fiction writers who have not yet published a book. Submissions open in September.


Dana Isokawa is the editor in chief of the Margins and a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.