BackStory: Five Questions with Lixin Foo

Lady Gouyi (Zhao Jieyu)

BackStory: Five Questions with Lixin Foo
Author of The Consort of Closed Fists

What inspired you to write ‘The Consort of Closed Fists’?

I bought a book on famous women from Imperial Chinese harems in high school. As I was flipping through it a few months ago, Lady Gouyi’s story jumped out at me – and I just had to try my hand at reinterpreting it in fiction! I’d also been meaning to practice writing flash…when I saw FlashBack Fiction’s upcoming submission cycle pop up on my Twitter feed. So really, “The Consort of Closed Fists” is the product of a trio of stars aligning!

Who are your favourite historical fiction writers and why?

Marguerite Yourcenar, for her intimately fictional autobiography of Emperor Hadrian. The story of her decades-long journey of drafting, burning and finally finishing Memoirs of Hadrian — being so tied to her own experience of life — sounds like it could be the subject of historical fiction itself.

I also enjoy popular Chinese web fiction such as Ruyi’s Royal Love in the Palace, many of which are more poignant than their titles may suggest at first glance.

How much research did you do while writing and editing this piece? Did you discover anything that surprised you?

I was surprised that I couldn’t find any scientific explanations regarding Lady Gouyi’s titular closed fists, since it’s the characteristic which gave her that iconic nickname. Although I was first drawn to Lady Gouyi’s story because of her tragic end and its reflection of contemporary succession politics, I wanted to use the opportunity to flesh out her characterization. Unfortunately, as is the case with many harem women of Imperial China, there is scant information about her private life for us to reconstruct her personality. Therefore, I tried to create a rational explanation for her perpetually clenched fists with the remaining details about her early, pre-palace life.

You provided versions of ‘The Consort of Closed Fists’ in both English and Chinese. Could you tell us a bit about the process of translation? Are there any differences between the two different versions?

For this particular translation, I prioritized stylistic suitability over strict alignment with the original sentence structures. Since this flash is set in Ancient China, I wanted my translation to read like a Chinese period piece instead of retaining an English style, which would be more suitable for original materials based in Western contexts. One thing I didn’t expect was to rely on translation services quite so much. Translation programs have a notoriously bad reputation. But I’ve found that they can be useful for swiftly returning basic terms that then inspire the most suitable phrasing – through more conventional means – given a level of fluency in both languages. Sometimes you really just need some extra help to find that sweet counterpart to a specific word you first thought of in another language!

What do you think is the most challenging and/or rewarding aspect of writing historical flash?

“The Consort of Closed Fists” is one of the first flash pieces I’ve ever written. The most challenging part was the conceptualization stage, where I had to actively restrain myself from developing the plot beyond the scope of within 500 words! For historical flash in particular, world-building without lengthy exposition is an exercise in concision. Focusing on only a single point in time is a skill I’m still trying to acquire — but it is immensely rewarding to look back and take in this microcosmic interpretation of a time gone by. To me, historical flash is living proof that history can be accessible to everyone!

Lixin Foo is a Psychology undergraduate at the National University of Singapore. She co-founded and is the current design director for PLAYSET!, a literary magazine for youths, by youths.

You can connect with Lixin via her podcast on ancient history here:
Twitter: @ancientparallel; Instagram: @ancientparallels
Illustration of Lady Gouyi (Zhào Jiéyú / 趙婕妤) via Wikimedia Commons from the Qing dynasty book, Bǎi měi xīn yǒng / 百美新詠, edited by 顔 希源、王翽.