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Meet Cecily Wong, 2023 Oregon Literary Fellow

We’re thrilled to introduce the 2023 Oregon Literary Fellowship recipients with individual features on our blog! Out-of-state judges spent several months evaluating the 500+ applications we received, and selected 13 writers and two publishers to receive grants of $3,500 each.  Literary Arts also awarded two Oregon Literary Career Fellowships of $10,000 each. Applications for the 2024 Literary Fellowships will open in June 2023.

Cecily Wong is the author of three books. Her debut novel, Diamond Head, was a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers Selection, recipient of an Elle Readers’ Prize, and voted a best debut of the 2015 Brooklyn Book Festival. Her second novel, Kaleidoscope, was a best book of the month at Buzzfeed, Apple Books, and Today.com. Cecily is also the co-author of the New York Times bestseller Gastro Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to Food. Cecily is a 2023 Oregon Fellowship Recipient in Fiction.

Q&A with Literary Arts

Who are some writers you look up to or who move you to write? 
My favorite writer at the moment is probably Mohsin Hamid. I love everything he does. He’s so charmingly clever, and it shows on a sentence level and in the intellectual impact he makes with these slim, muscular novels. But it never feels like he’s flexing. Hamid’s writing is playful; he writes sentences that are ostensibly simple but take a minute to digest, emotionally. That’s the kind of writer I really admire and strive to be. Other favorites are Jhumpa Lahiri, Elena Ferrante, and Min Jin Lee.

What are your sources of inspiration? Of joy?
Reading is always the most effective form of inspiration, yet I’m perpetually blindsided by the fact of it. Even when I’m mad at writing, a book that transports me far from myself is the most essential reminder of why I write, and what stories can do to revive a person. In terms of non-literary joy, I’m a food motivated person. I love making pasta, going out to sushi, lingering at happy hour for too long drinking wine and eating fried foods. And then there’s my two-year-old daughter, Zoe, who is the clowniest person I know and somehow has new jokes every day.  

How would you describe your creative process?
Steady. I’ve always tried to treat writing like a regular job. I’m a structured person, and I like the feeling of even, forward progress. I’ve been writing long enough now that I believe in the process, which begins with nothing, is followed by an extensive stretch of crap, and then steadily, when you are at your most despairing, starts to get exciting, to resemble what you hold in your mind. I always start by reading my last few pages, then try to skate off their momentum. I can write well for about four hours, then I’m just moving stuff around and eating chips.

What is most exciting about receiving a fellowship?
I adore the Oregon literary community. I grew up in Eugene, but I lived in New York for thirteen years before coming to Portland in 2020. I was nervous about starting over here, but there is such a talented, vibrant, supportive, intimate group of writers living in this city, and I am so extremely grateful to be here. The fellowship feels like a big hug from my home state. It’s an energizing affirmation in a career that can feel like yelling into the sky. It’s also a nice persuasive shove to get back to work.

What are you currently working on?
I’m working on a screen adaptation for my first novel, Diamond Head. I’m also in the early days of a new novel. At this stage, describing a book always sounds a bit like Mad Libs, but in general terms it follows a woman from an unnamed Asian country who goes to work at a mega hotel in Waikiki. It’s about the excess of tourism and vacation culture, and also about being an outsider, and the strange, arbitrary lines we draw around ourselves.

What has kept you writing?
My husband once called it the disease, and now I can’t think of it any other way. It’s a compulsion. It’s something that makes me feel, despite the frequent misery, alive and tethered to this world. It’s chronic. Those who suffer from it know what I’m saying.

What advice do you have for future applicants?
Rejection is so maddeningly, unfailingly arbitrary. Readers are humans, tastes are subjective, the application pool is different every year. The amount of celestial alignment that must happen to win something like a fellowship is beyond any math I know, so for me the key is to submit your best work, and then to try and forget that you applied for anything. Rinse and repeat. At some point, the planets will align, or you’ll get a solar eclipse, or wherever it is I have taken this metaphor. 

Any book (or movie, album, show, etc.) recommendations?

  • How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid – I think this is the gateway drug to Mohsin Hamid
  • Hacks on HBO – I am obsessed with the writing on this show, which is also a show about writing.
  • Break Point on Netflix – This tennis documentary is so much about mental fortitude, pressure, and self-sabotage. If you, like me, have trouble getting out of your head, this is a surprisingly good pep talk.
  • Midnight Diner on Netflix – This is a Japanese series that feels like watching quirky short stories in translation. It’s often aimless and weird, but I love it, and I think the readers of this blog might be that rare demographic where “like watching a short story” sounds like good TV.
  • Age of Vice by Deepti Kapoor – If you are in a reading slump, and you can stomach some gruesome scenes, this is a thriller crossed with a family saga that will get you reading again.

Excerpt from Cecily’s Work

They do not expect to be the only foreigners.

On the dusty platform, they wait beside men in jeans and collared shirts and their wives, in saris and gold, their thick hair braided down their backs. The train pulls in slowly, puffing low and steady down the track, and when it stops, everyone picks up their belongings and begins to shuffle toward their class assignment, walking forward to the upper classes or backward, like James and Riley, to the cars with SLEEPER stenciled across their flanks and short, square windows filled with horizontal bars and no glass. They find their names on a piece of paper taped to the outside of a middle car and climb aboard into the dull metal interior that is so grim and worn, with its barred windows and clean-scrubbed rust, it takes a minute to remember that they chose this option themselves, against the advice of the travel agent. 

A bus to Mumbai had crashed the week before, tipped while rounding a corner, tumbled into a ravine and killed eleven Russian tourists as they jolted from sleep. James and Riley had seen the newspaper in their hotel lobby, the bus’s nose smashed into the valley, doors flung open, glass everywhere, and a familiar trickle ran down their spine. They’d almost forgotten this feeling, which returned with knife-like precision, slitting them from head to heart. They waited eight days, stubborn and superstitious, when two seats become available in sleeper class for the overnight train to Mumbai.

Judge’s Comments

“Cecily Wong’s lush, intelligent prose unspools across the landscape of her fiction with such deep attention and love for all the earth’s pleasures but also its problems. Wong’s fiction touches a kind of vibrating curiosity about the both the natural and human world, a tension that runs shimmering through all her pages.”

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