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Fiona and Jane Reader’s Guide

By Jean Chen Ho

Fiona and Jane by Jean Chen Ho

READERS GUIDE

Introduction

An Introduction to fiona and Jane

“Years later, I’d think back and remember this night, this moment, standing at the foot of the stairs outside Won’s apartment. The night-blooming jasmine giving off its sweet heady scent, carried through the air on a gentle breeze. A dog barked somewhere down the street, twice. Then it was silent again, except for the steady thrum of midnight freeway traffic, the sound of fast cars cutting through the dark. A fake ID in my back pocket that would’ve fooled no one. Fiona’s idea. Always Fiona’s ideas, and me, saying yes. My best friend. We shared everything, I believed. Still, she was the one in the driver’s seat. I rode shotgun.”
 
When Jane Shen is a high school senior, she flies to Taiwan to visit her father. Over noodles on a humid night, she meets his old friend from college. She’s unnerved by their playful intimacy, the wordless language they seem to speak with each other. When her father tells her that he is in love with this man, she feels betrayed, seeing with new eyes his motive for moving to Taipei and leaving her and her mother in California. This sense of abandonment intermingles with a sexual experience of her own, a fleeting relationship with her piano teacher, an older Chinese girl. When Jane returns home, she acts on a split-second impulse she will regret for decades and tells her mother about her father’s relationship.
 
Meanwhile, Jane’s beautiful and brilliant best friend, Fiona Lin, can’t wait to get out of California. She follows her college boyfriend to New York in an attempt to widen the distance between the life she has known and the one she aspires to, falling out of touch with Jane in the process. Over the course of her twenties, she dates men who end up using and hurting her—one who cheats, another who drains her bank account, both, perhaps, echoes of the father she never had. Weathering heartbreak and hardship, she drops out of law school, the East Coast life she imagined for herself still out of reach.
 
Each story finds Fiona and Jane at some point along their two-and-a-half decade friendship, coming together or drifting apart, grappling with the mounting resentments and everyday betrayals that mark even our closest relationships. With emotional clarity and humor, Fiona and Jane shines a light on the nuances of Taiwanese American identity, the parts of ourselves that we withhold from those we love the most, and the dizzying, exhilarating experience of growing up in contemporary America.

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. Fiona and Jane betray each other over the years, but in the end, their friendship endures. They are both able to accept the past, forgive each other’s mistakes, and recognize the ways the other has changed and grown over the years. Do you think they are able to forgive themselves?

2. Jane grew up solidly middle-class. Born in the US, she is an only child with college-educated, professional parents. Fiona, on the other hand, helps support her single mother, who is a card dealer at a casino. How do you think class affects their relationship as teenagers? How does it change their relationship as they became adults?

3. Teenage Fiona is remarkably ambitious and self-sufficient. She saves up enough money to buy a car in high school, then she moves to New York and gets into law school. But after her breakup with Jasper, she seems to flounder. She drops out of law school and a dodgy boyfriend drains her bank account. What do you think causes this shift in her character or trajectory?

4. Jasper, Willy, Gabriel, Aaron, Bobby; Carly, the various Korean men, Julian, Naima. What do you think Fiona and Jane seek in romantic partners? Do you think what they look for changes over the years? How much do you think their past informs these attractions (and the relationships that ensue)? 

5. When the girls are in high school, people call Jane Fiona’s “bodyguard.” Throughout the collection there are a number of occasions in which Jane tries to protect Fiona. Where do you think this instinct comes from? When does it succeed and when does it backfire? And where do you think the line between friend and guardian falls?

6. How do you think Jane’s relationship to her father’s queerness shapes her own attitudes toward identity, dating, and romance? How do you think his struggles with mental health affect her sense of self-worth?

7. Won was such an important friend to Fiona and Jane during their teenage years. What impact do you think he has on their lives? What do you make of how their relationship with him evolves? Have you had a friend like Won, someone who added a special, invaluable element to a dynamic? Are you still in touch? 

8. Fiona grew up with a single mother and immigrated to the US as a young girl. How do you think her childhood affects her later desire to escape her family dynamic—to move to New York and forge a new life for herself? In what ways was she successful? In what ways did she create similar, toxic patterns as an adult?

9. Before Fiona moved to New York, she stole five thousand dollars from the pastor’s office at Jane’s mother’s church, while Jane stood guard outside. How do you think this incident changed the girls’ relationship?

10. When Fiona and Jane are in their twenties and living on opposite sides of the country, they fall out of touch, the bond of their teenage years marred by unspoken distance. But when Fiona moves back to California in her thirties, they reconnect and their friendship deepens. What do you think causes the distance between them, and how do you think they are able to overcome it? Have you ever had a relationship that withstood fallow years and was able to grow stronger? Do you think there are benefits to taking friendship breaks?

11. Fiona and Jane both have complicated, often-fraught relationships with their mothers. How do you think these relationships affect the girls’ sense of home and their place in society? Do their relationships with their mothers change over the years? How are the lives they seek different or similar to the lives their mothers sought?

12. While reading these stories, what surprised you about Fiona and Jane in regards to Asian American identity and the way it intersects with race, class, gender, and sexuality? What do you think is the role of fiction in addressing these social, political, and cultural issues in the US today?

About this Author

Q&A with Jean Chen Ho

Fiona and Jane follows the evolving friendship of two Taiwanese American women over the course of two decades. Did you always know you would write about female friendship? Are there any writers or books that have made you think differently about how to tell these stories?

I’ve always been interested in writing female protagonists, whether in view of friendship, romance, children and family situations, sexual relationships, work dramas, etc. Asian American women’s lives and thematic explorations of race, class, gender, and sexuality is fertile ground for me. Fiction, however, must always begin with compelling characters, so rather than thinking about “friendship” (or anything else) as an organizing principle, I began writing Fiona and Jane by simply being avidly curious about who these women were, as people. The foundational groundwork of their friendship is laid in their youth, and part of the fun of reading the stories in Fiona and Jane, I hope, is in seeing them find their way back to each other, as adults.

A major influence on Fiona and Jane is Toni Morrison’s Sula, a masterpiece work about two childhood best friends, Sula Peace and Nel Wright. The intimacy and rivalry between them, and the delight they take in one another, is narrative energy that electrifies me every time I revisit the novel.

Why did you decide to tell the story of this friendship, and these women, from the two alternating points of view? Did you find that the story form allowed you more freedom to explore these characters?

Writing in the first person comes naturally to me, so the stories from Jane’s perspective were a matter of figuring out her voice, how she sounds at different stages of her life. I chose to tell the stories about Fiona in the third person as a way to more thoroughly mine her interior depths, because this character felt more mysterious and unknown to me; the third person allowed me to take my time and really look around, to pay deep attention to her mind. A first-person story still has the quality of performance to it, because the narrator is telling you this story that’s happening to her; a third-person story can take on a more direct feeling. I wanted to use these different manners of storytelling to reveal the two women throughout the book, perhaps to show that things aren’t always as they seem—with distance, with time and reflection—and that form in fiction can both mimic and subvert that experience.
 
Fiona and Jane are both navigating the traumas they have inherited, trying to reconcile the circumstances of heritage with the lives they desire. What was it like to write about mental health as it affects different generations of Asian American immigrants?

Culturally competent mental health services are so important, and not just for Asian Americans—for everyone. I live with depression, and it’s made a world of difference to work with a therapist who understands my cultural background. Mental health is a process, I’ve learned; it’s generational and historical, and I believe that the journey to heal a part of your own story, your own person, has ripple effects throughout your community, and through time. In Fiona and Jane, I wanted to show that healing is nonlinear, just as I’ve experienced it in my own life.

Set in Los Angeles, New York, and Taipei, many of the stories in Fiona and Jane explore the push and pull of home. You were born in Taiwan but grew up in Southern California. How has your relationship with these places changed? Do you ever feel the need to escape California, your family, or your home?

Well, as I’m answering these questions for the purposes of the Readers Guide, I’ve lived in some version of quarantine/lockdown for more than a year (due to the COVID-19 pandemic), so yes, I do feel the need to escape California, my apartment in Los Angeles, sometime soon! Please! I’ll go anywhere—!

In all seriousness, my relationship to Taiwan has certainly changed as I’ve grown into adulthood (I left the island, with my parents, when I was eight years old). Most of my family still lives in Taipei, including my father, and so I’m lucky to still have people who love me there when I return for visits. My Mandarin is passable, but my Taiwanese Hokkien (the language of my maternal family) has been lost to me. When I hear my mother speak it now, her words make up a familiar song whose tune I can’t sing. There’s a melancholy that comes with the loss of your first language—the language you spoke with your grandparents. Still, I’m the person I am today because I grew up in California, in the US. I can’t ever return to the Taipei I knew, as a child; quite literally, that city no longer exists. So the best I can hope for is to continue discovering Taiwan as a place in the now, each time I return. And that’s pretty good.

Do you have a friend from childhood who inspired the decades-long friendship between Fiona and Jane? Has this friend read the book?

This story collection isn’t inspired by one unique friendship, but rather the many different kinds of close relationships I’ve experienced with smart, funny, interesting women throughout my life. I do have a group of best friends who I’ve known since my reckless teenage years, and while none of the particulars in Fiona and Jane are taken from our lives, many of the feelings I’ve tried to excavate in these stories come from a place of reverence for those treasured friendships.
 
 
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