“When I was writing ‘Fiona and Jane,’ I felt like each of the stories addressed some kind of concern or question I had,” explained Jean Chen Ho.
Ho was this week’s guest speaker at the Scripps College @Noon, an interactive series that brings together the Scripps community as well as the consortium to engage with scholars, writers, activists and artists to learn and be inspired.
New York’s bestselling author of the novel “Fiona and Jane,” Jean Chen Ho has made a name for herself in the literature community and has been continuously featured in such publications as The New York Times, The Cut and the LA Times. Ho was nominated as the 2023 Mary Routt Endowed Chair of Writing at Scripps.
Oprah Winfrey herself described the book as “sparkling and irresistible.” The story of “Fiona and Jane” uncovers the friendship of two Taiwanese-American women who grew up together in Southern California, bonding over the experiences of having immigrant parents, struggling with identity and navigating romantic relationships.
During the one hour talk, Ho read a few excerpts from the book, dove deeper into dominating themes surrounding the two protagonists and answered questions from the audience.
“As I was writing these stories, I thought so much about how the larger social forces exert themselves onto these women in terms of class [and] identity, like the Asian American identity or [first-generation] in Southern California identity is very close to my own,” Ho said.
Ho was originally born in Taiwan. Her family moved to Cerritos, a small city in the greater Los Angeles county in the ’80s, where she spent the rest of her childhood and adulthood. She attended the University of Southern California, where she received her doctoral degree in creative writing and literature and discovered her passion for writing about Asian-American womanhood and identity.
“It’s inspiring to know that you can write something really specific about your life and there will be at least one person out there who can connect to it, even when you’re not expecting it,” said Belinda Fang SC ’23.”
“I grew up around Koreans … as well as several Asian American people even though I didn’t think of that necessarily or subconsciously in high school,” Ho said. “So even though the part that I read from [the] “Go Slow” chapter, the story of them being teenagers, getting drunk, learning how to drive and going out, sort of emphasizes the idea of testing boundaries of what it means to be a young person, which I am very interested in … it also talks about who I am in terms of ethnic identity.”
Without trying to spoil too much of the book, Ho also touched on Asian-American identity and how it played a huge part during the process of writing “Fiona and Jane.”
“It’s only in writing these stories that I considered how expansive and complicated the Asian-American identity can be and must be in fiction, I didn’t want to just write about one particular part of Taiwanese-American identity,” she said. “I didn’t want to focus on a first generation immigrant family … or the trauma that came with it. We need to start telling stories of these experiences and identity as a whole.”
Ho said “everything, so many things” inspires her to keep writing in this field, and she finds inspiration by talking to people and getting that feeling of being alive from them.
“I love to eavesdrop, the way people talk to one another and show their intimacy and history is so interesting to me,” Ho said. “ I have some characters that started out as either a version of someone I know or a composite of people that I know. And through subsequent drafts as I get to know the character, that character is always going to tell me who they are, just like how people always tell you who they are. If you’ve done a good job of knowing that character, that character will speak to you and reveal itself to you. And that’s the magic of fiction.”
Belinda Fang SC ’23 attended this event because she was interested in hearing about what Ho had to say about the book.
“I saw that she was teaching a class here this semester and I wanted to take it but didn’t have space so I thought this would be cool to see what she is working on. I found it very interesting because I’m from nearby and I’m pretty familiar with the town of Cerritos,” Fang said. “It’s inspiring to know that you can write something really specific about your life and there will be at least one person out there who can connect to it, even when you’re not expecting it.