Marcus Tan’s “All This is Yours to Lose” was selected by Kristen Arnett as the third place winner in our 2021 Summer Short Story Award for New Writers. Read his story, and then slip into this conversation conducted with Tan by assistant editor Melissa Hinshaw!
Please tell me this story’s origin story—how did it come to be? I’ve never read anything like this before.
There is a fascinating phenomenon in Asia, recently gaining prominence in China, where singles seek to “rent a partner” during traditional occasions such as the Lunar New Year to avoid yet another lecture from their parents about their lack of marital prospects. It had started as a funny dinner table topic among friends, but I quickly learned that nearly everyone I know has told a similar sort of lie to their family. None of us have gone as far as to actually rent a partner through one of the many available mobile apps, but who knows?
The story had originated as a way for me to explore why, within the Asian community at least, it seems easier to lie to your loved ones than to acknowledge you are different from their expectations. The topic of infertility propels “All This is Yours to Lose,” but in a broader sense, it’s about how the Confucian values of filial piety and familial harmony can sometimes act as opposing forces. Wenxiang is torn between breaking the heart of his mother or his wife—he wants to be a good son, but doing so means he has to be a bad husband. He cannot find an easy solution. And so he comes to the conclusion that the only way to make that internal friction go away is lie his way out of it. And of course, this backfires.
“All This is Yours to Lose” checks all the great thematic tension boxes: gender, cultural, generational, in-laws, science vs tradition. Did you seek to incorporate all of these or did they come to the story naturally?
There is a lot of cross-pollination in these themes. A conversation around science versus tradition in Asia is very much a conversation about generational differences, which is also a conversation about contrasting cultural mindsets. And in that same vein, the themes of the story had developed in a very organic way, so organically that there was a challenge of not letting these themes unspool within what had always been intended as a short, focused piece.
As far as tension goes, I wanted to take that one lie that Wenxiang had told and push it as far as I could, to put him in situations of increasing discomfort and escalating emotional stakes. His lie was never going to be sustainable, and a lot of the tension was written to lean into the reader’s expectation of some sort of blowup eventually.
What do you feel that the section breaks and jumps in time do for the story?
I had intended to create the sense of “connecting the dots.” Each decision Wenxiang makes in the present is informed by another decision he had made in the past. The story takes place over an afternoon in real time, but within the confines of those few hours, I sought to give as much emotional context as possible, and that meant taking the reader out of linear time. I had structured the story with section breaks as an attempt to maintain narrative tension. Each section is intended to have an “a-ha!” moment where the reader learns a little more about Wenxiang. And I wanted to have each of these sections later fit together for the final reveal.
This story is full of so many visceral moments where we feel the painful dramatic irony of an exchange between characters, perfectly triangulated between this couple and the matriarch. Did you design the story around those moments, or set up the situation and let them flow naturally?
The story was written almost backwards in the sense that I knew where I wanted the characters to end up, but didn’t know quite how they would get there. A lot of the writing was reverse engineering the final scenes of the story. There was also a bit of a filtering process where I had written more scenes than I needed, and later had to pare them down and select only sections that would contribute most to the dramatic irony that you have pointed out. As a reader, I enjoy dialogue in fiction, and so a lot of my own writing gravitates towards placing contrasting characters in the same space and having them converse with each other.
It was unique to read a story about infertility from a male point of view—even though the story is in third person we are in closer with Wenxiang. To me this feels important from a social perspective. How do you see this story as valuable for or in dialogue with the greater conversation about these issues in our particular cultural moment?
It’s really interesting that you’ve brought up the male point of view, because I had originally written the story from Leanne’s perspective. But as I was writing it, I found myself more drawn to Wenxiang’s role in the conversation. It’s not as common to read about infertility from the male perspective, as you’ve rightly mentioned. I believe this is because there are multiple taboos at play. There is infertility itself, and there is Asian masculinity, which is typically tied to fatherhood, or the male role in the family unit. Combine those, and it’s not surprising those conversations are rather invisible. Perhaps that is where fiction comes in. I’ve always found that fiction shines as a more indirect way of taking on a difficult topic. It forces us to become more comfortable with uncertainties and the lack of perfect answers to every question out there. I hope that my story has offered some new perspectives in the role gender plays in Asian families and the ways in which we express love to each other in difficult situations.
Interviewed by Melissa Hinshaw