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Keeping Time

A collage of conversations between Shruti Swamy and Meng Jin

Over the course of three months last fall, the two of us had multiple and simultaneous conversations over email and text about art-making, the self, the relationship between writing and life, and our latest books—Meng’s story collection, Self-Portrait with Ghost (Mariner Books, 2022), and Shruti’s novel, The Archer (Algonquin Books, 2021). We met in 2015 at the first Kundiman fiction retreat, and are now in a writing group together with other friends. We read each other’s writing before it is bound and sold. We quite like to talk about writing and books and life. Given a more formal venue, and The Margins’ encouragement to venture into multi-modal territory, our conversations got a little out of hand. At the time, Meng was in New York and Boston, and Shruti in San Francisco. We conversed in great sporadic bursts across distances in space and time. But this felt true to the way we write: in messy, entangled, disjointed conversations with each other, other books, artworks, artists, with family and friends, and nature—the world. This way of conversing made trivial and uninteresting the myth of the writer as sui generis. 

Our conversations felt related to each other, but how, we wondered, to braid them? At one point, Meng said, “We need a branching tree of conversations or something,” and Shruti said, “Yes, I am a little overwhelmed!” We are writers, not multi-modal artists, so we didn’t know how to make a branching tree. Instead, here is a kind of clunky collage, an imperfect attempt to cohere and contain many sprawling conversations that are always and already ongoing. 


Shruti Swamy

Can we start with the Self, as your book title does? Some—I wanted to say many, but then I went back and counted—of these stories are coming-of-age stories, of one kind or another. In some, like “First Love,” it’s as though the self is being lost in love as it is being formed; in others, like “Three Women,” “Phillip Is Dead,” and “Selena and Ruthie,” the self is formed through encounters with the violence of desire or the violence of invisibility, or, in the title story, the violence of being seen. I think I wanted to say many because the coming-of-age story often makes the expression of the self the most visible, and the visibility of self seems very much to be the subject of this book, whether the narrator is peripheral or the focus of the story. And then there’s the character Ling, in “Suffering” who says: “Self, what self—what kind of nonsense is that?”      

Tell me about the “self” in Self-Portrait with Ghost—what drew you to the idea of self as an orienting element of the collection?

Meng Jin

I love this connection you make between coming of age and “the Self.” It makes me wonder, what is “of age” anyways? There are legal definitions, of course, and the frameworks our societies have given us. But perhaps when we say “coming of age” what we really mean is coming into self, and that’s what gives many of these stories the feeling that they’re coming-of-age stories even when they’re not. When I think of my experience of childhood against your question, I think of that feeling of waiting for your life to start—“if only I could get through this (childhood), I can start really being alive!” My experience of adulthood, or of coming into self, has been the simple, obvious, yet profound discovery that I really am alive, and have really been alive all this time.

This understanding of really being alive—is that what selfhood is? I’m asking—this isn’t a rhetorical question!

I want to turn this question back to you because when I think of your work, I also think of coming into self. One of the reasons why I love The Archer so much is because it feels to me like an archetypal coming-into-self story. I feel like you invented a coming-into-self story that did not yet exist, and then executed it so elegantly, from character all the way up through to form and language, that it became its own archetype. In the beginning, Vidya is narrated to us in third person, and the great drama of the novel happens simultaneously with the emergence of an “I”—one that Vidya discovers, then seeks, in dance. There is this feeling, as the narration shifts from third to first person, that Vidya is dancing her Self into existence. That she is insisting on the existence of her Self against a world that denies it. And this is what I’m interested in too, in Self-Portrait, telling stories of selves that insist, in spite of. What do you think? Is the “I” emergent or created? What drew you to writing about coming of age / coming into self?


Oh, I like this alternative to coming of age, “coming into self.” I wonder, this idea that you’re waiting for your childhood to end so that your “real life” can start—which I’ve felt too—has in part to do with this cultural understanding of this one singular coming of age, a moment in time that’s highlighted by this form, and what lies on either side of it is less visible or real. “Age” the idea that you come just once into adulthood—that doesn’t feel right to me. We don’t come of age once, or at least I didn’t. I can point to so many moments, small and large, difficult and joyful, where I again and again “came of age”—leaving my family home for college, watching the dissolution of my parents’ marriage as an adult, falling in love, becoming a mother—those are the more dramatic ones. There are moments that are marked only by myself where I make a different choice than I thought I would (this happens with parenting a lot, like, no one notices when I don’t yell, but wanted to) that also matter to me, and which I think my stories are especially interested in tracking. I wonder what coming-of-age moments await me in my future, in a culture where we do not really have a lot of rituals or awareness to mark these moments in older adulthood. And this is exciting to me because the coming-of-age idea represents a sort of stable adult self, which I don’t think any of our books really believe in. “Coming,” though, feels right. It’s not “the arrival of self”; it’s the movement towards it. The emphasis is on the journey, not the destination.

Now, tell me about the word “insist.”


Oh, “insist” used to be one of my favorite words. I felt so much pleasure whenever I wrote a sentence like: “In the window, a light insisted” or, “Her hunger insisted.” Say it out loud: “insist” insists! It really is a great word.

But I have been trying to move away from my love of this word. Because I don’t want myself, or any other selves, to have to insist against the world. I want all our selves to be in and with the world. There’s a Buddhist koan gifted to me by Ruth Ozeki’s amazing novel A Tale for the Time Being: “To study the Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be enlightened by all the myriad things.” I would like to be enlightened by all the myriad things! I can only hope that all my insisting in this book is part of a motion toward and through this koan, that I might insist hard enough to enter into a lighter way of being. I hope that the movement of the collection follows this too: the first story insists quite insistently, and the last one knows what it is, I hope, without insisting.

Another way to put this is, I’ve started to wonder if this line of insistence was actually my way of mastering “the master’s tools.” But I don’t think I could have arrived here without writing my book and reading books like yours. So I’m wondering, since publishing The Archer, has your understanding of the questions in it changed, and how? Are there any modes of questioning you are trying to move through and beyond?


Yes, I think that’s true for me too. Archer is in some ways engaging in a conversation that even as I was writing it earnestly and trying to understand it, I already felt suspicious of—I mean, this is a pretty reductive way of looking at the book, but this idea of “can she have it all?” is certainly in there. Like the way we have been talking about motherhood in this culture as a zero-sum game. I must acknowledge that there are a lot of structural reasons, like the lack of accessible childcare,  that a lot of us feel stuck looking at it like that, and also acknowledge that there are many mothers who have been taking a radically different approach—many Black feminists in particular—whose voices were not as loud in the mainstream. The book in some ways is a refusal of the question, and it does not attempt to explore an answer. I had to write that book, to walk with Vidya to a new way of looking, in order to get to the work I am doing now, exploring that question. Also, as a mother and writer, living it too.

[Flick is Shruti’s kid]



Your Self-Portrait is also about the creation of art, and the troubling ethics of looking. In “Phillip Is Dead,” the lawless artist is ready to destroy—literally—the subject of his looking, of his art. In “Suffering,” the narrator, with her “ugly writer’s hand” notes that she distorts what she depicts, in order to contain—or bear—the unbearable. The title of course, playfully brings this into a meta level—is this book a self-portrait of the writer (what book isn’t?), and what does all this looking mean when the gazes turns around onto the looker? Tell me about looking, seeing, about creating to destroy and destroying to create.


Wow, I love this: “the troubling ethics of looking.” Because I feel troubled all the time when I am writing, which is, I guess, my way of looking. Fiction troubles me. Adorno wrote that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” When I write, long after Auschwitz and amidst present, past, and future human-made disasters of immense scale, I often get a similar feeling—that to make beauty or drama from suffering is wrong (the question of “Suffering”). Sometimes I feel intensely that to write fiction after fake news is wrong. Story is my art, but story today is also branding, marketing, and much worse. You can find excellent, convincing stories behind humanity’s evilest deeds. And yet, I love and crave and need story, beauty, drama—even the little dramas of the self, which can seem so petty compared to the news of disaster that comes at us from everywhere all the time. How can I reconcile my love of and revulsion to story?

Maybe turning the gaze back to the looker is a way to eat my cake and have it too. I wanted these stories to reveal their mechanism, to shout their fictionality, and to still enthrall and enchant in the way that fiction can. I think of the Wizard of Oz: I want to make the beautiful mirage and also tear the curtain back, showing the reader the ugly little person fiddling at the controls. Is it less captivating if you know how it works? If you know it’s fake? Perhaps this can make my stories a bit unwieldy, inelegant, too complicated. But it was the only way I could write them without hating myself. And the hope—the hope is that readers will come out of them better consumers of story, better equipped to see the mechanisms behind the more sinister stories permeating our lives out there in this strange world, and so decide for themselves to what they will be enthralled.

Do you ever feel troubled when you look? Or perhaps, when you feel that you are watched? I’m thinking, in particular, of the nature of dance as performance—something that requires a gaze. And in The Archer, there is this beautiful scene of Vidya dancing The Lotos Eaters when two lovers—one past, one future—gaze upon her, one through the lens of a camera, the other through tears.

Recorded by Meng Jin. From The Archer by Shruti Swamy. Used with permission of the publisher, Algonquin Books. Copyright © 2021 by Shruti Swamy.


Oh yes, there are definitely times I feel troubled when looking, and disconcerted being watched. There is something a little troubling on the other end of this for me too, a wild, even desperate desire to be seen! I think I started writing because I felt so invisible to the people around me and to the culture at large that I had to find a way to see myself—weirdly, I am just putting this together now, almost exactly like Vidya, though not quite so dramatically. And that moment that you locate in the book is such a wonderful example of exactly this kind of looking: Vidya is performing, inviting the gaze, wanting to be seen not for her technical excellence but for the expression of herself, or soul. And she is being seen. Her pleasure in that moment comes from the equal satisfaction of expressing something so essential, and watching it being received by these people who are so important to her.

One time I showed you a draft of a story, and you underlined one sentence that had come out of a moment of great pain. I felt so seen by that underline and the little note you wrote beside it, which felt to me like you were responding to both the story and to my real pain. This is a sort of heightened expression of what moves me to read and write, this crossing over between friend and reader. When I see you in fiction, it’s such a pleasure—your voice is familiar to me, but I am also surprised and invigorated by where your mind and where your sentences go. And speaking of sentences:

Recorded by Shruti Swamy. Excerpted from the book Self-Portrait with Ghost by Meng Jin. Copyright © 2022 by Ge Jin. From Mariner Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Produced by permission.

These sentences are so smooth, clear, cool, controlled, and effortless, they have a sort of lulling effect—you keep trusting them until you wind up with a knife in your heart. It’s like walking over a frozen pond, mesmerized by the fish you can see beneath the ice, until suddenly you’ve fallen in the water. I’m trying to say, I think, these stories are beautiful and dangerous, and so much is happening in the voice of them. Can you talk about writing on the sentence level, what you’re holding in your mind when you make sentences?


I think this may be one of the most beautiful and gratifying descriptions of my writing . . . ever. Thank you. The phrase that just popped into my head is one you hear often in writing workshops, and which I try not to teach myself because I don’t believe it, “surprising yet inevitable.” I know that life is surprising. But I don’t think it is inevitable. Scientifically, isn’t life accidental, incidental, the result of chaos and randomness? It can feel inevitable to us (humans) because of the social systems we are stuck in. And on a more basic level, it feels inevitable because of how time moves through us, linearly, one moment after the other, accruing all the random incidents leading up to now into a moment that looks back and seeks coherence. So perhaps when I am writing sentences, I am trying to put the feeling of inevitability, the feeling of living in time, into the language and syntax. Is time a kind of syntax for life? You’ve talked about hearing and following a voice, and the importance of rhythm—that has always felt right to me. Now I’m wondering if the intuitive desire for rhythm in prose is simply that: keeping time. Then, everything else can be surprise.

As for the knife and the ice—I am trying to move towards a kind of storytelling that surprises you with something else—a wild poppy? A chocolate bath? Sorry about the cold knife.


I do think you surprise us with a wild poppy sometimes! But I come to fiction for the knife too—the clarity, that piercing knowledge.



Do you think about keeping time? I think you must. Your prose is made of these long, luxurious sentences that sometimes spin and spin and spin—like a dancer, or like a mystic entering a reverie, a trance.


The idea of keeping time is really apt, and also pleasurable for me to contemplate, because I feel like my very long, twisting sentences reflect my distrust of linear time. I’m interested in circular, cyclical time, the ways we return to the past even as we move away from it, the way that inhabiting a moment might, through sense and memory, mean inhabiting several moments. I often think about this Kate Bush line, “Don’t ever think that you can’t change the past and the future.” Actually, I went and looked up the lyrics to that song just now (“Love and Anger”) and realized I’d never read them before. This line comes at the end of the song—we are building towards this moment with her, she’s singing about a thing that “lay buried here, so deep inside / I don’t think I can speak about it”—and then here at the very end, Kate Bush is joined by a chorus of voices:

Well, if it’s so deep you don’t think that you can speak about it
Just remember to reach out and touch the past and the future
Well, if it’s so deep you don’t think you can speak about it
Don’t ever think that you can’t change the past and the future

The past and the future! This is in our current framework, a sort of science fictional way of moving through time, and yet, this is a totally realist accurate description of how I experience time in so many contexts (and also, presciently, how EMDR works), one of them being motherhood, where you are sometimes unexpectedly hurtled back into your own childhood, inhabiting it in the exact same moment you are trying to move your child through a situation in the present, with the knowledge that one day she might return here, that your choice will shape that future her. When you make a different choice than your mother did (your mother also made a different choice than her mother), in some way you do change the past and the future. It’s also remarkable to me that this song is clearly about a feeling so terrible it can’t be named or shared with anyone—and yet, it’s so joyful. I am always aiming my work there.


While we’re on the subject of time, I wanted to ask about the right now-ness of so many of these stories, which take place in the time we’re living in, one of great upheaval and pain. What called to you about this present moment, and how were you able to enter a space so close to the ones we are inhabiting through fiction?


How was I able to enter this space similar to the present moment but not exactly? This phrasing makes it seem like an impressive act, when I feel it as a kind of failure. Sometimes I wonder if I am only able to enter the fictional space, and not the real one. Because the real space is very painful and confusing to inhabit. As everyone knows! There’s a musician in my story “In the Event” who begins to hide from the world inside her compositions, and starts to think of her underground windowless studio as a bunker. Writing is my bunker. Tove Ditlevsen describes it like this: “long, mysterious words began to crawl across my soul like a protective membrane.” I feel this intensely. And perhaps this describes the lulling effect of my sentences, that they feel right to me when they unspool around me like a protective membrane. Sometimes I think I am enchanting myself, casting the spell I need to survive. But sometimes I wonder if it is a moral failing, that I spend all my time wrapping myself up in sentences about fake worlds when the real world is so pressing—escapism, cowardice, delusion?

What do you think? What’s the line between “bunker” and “sanctuary”? What do you feel in your body when you know the sentences are good?


A few days ago, I was talking about how hopeless I was feeling about the state of the world, how meaningless it felt to continue being alive to my therapist (shout-out to my therapist, shout-out to therapy), who asked me, “So your life has no meaning?” and almost instantly I said, “No!” It was easy to see how taking care of my daughter had meaning, but I also felt very strongly that my writing had meaning, like my work writing and thinking and talking about ideas and stories had meaning. Not like, it will change the world or anything—i.e., not like it might matter to other people—just that it mattered to me. I was extremely surprised to locate that I felt this way! Of course there are so many better, more productive ways to be spending my time than reading and writing and thinking. Maybe it has something to do with how much pleasure I feel when I’m deeply engaged in this work—I trust pleasure. I don’t think it’s a moral failing to write stories that help you understand how to be alive right now—I don’t think your fake worlds are divorced from the real ones. When we say writing is hard, it’s because we have to sit there with our whole selves, our anxieties and fears and insecurities, sitting with them, turning them around, moving through them. It is the opposite of hiding. Isn’t writing a way of being in—of understanding—of loving the world?

Two friends ❤️