Jade Song

On Myth Making, Artistic Lineage, and Her Debut Novel, ‘Chlorine’

Cover of Jade Song: On Myth Making, Artistic Lineage, and Her Debut Novel, ‘Chlorine’


Jade Song’s lyrical debut novel Chlorine follows high school swimmer Ren Yu on her quest to transcend her human form and become a mermaid. Ren’s story is gory, sexy, and fantastical, expertly blurring the lines between myth and reality, and pulling together themes of queerness, belonging, pain, power, and the body.

I had the pleasure of speaking with Jade via Zoom about their creative process, their writing community, and what it means to be joining a long lineage of myth makers and artists.


Emma Burger: First of all, congratulations on the release. I devoured [Chlorine] over two days and couldn’t put it down. It’s such a beautiful exploration of the body and the first generation immigrant experience in America. What have these last few weeks been like for you, since releasing the book out into the world? 

Jade Song: To be honest, before the pub date in February and March, I was very overwhelmed and anxious because it was obviously my first time going through the publishing process. I was unprepared for the level of publicity and work that it required. Now that the book has been out for two weeks though, I’ve had a chance to hear readers’ responses. Just knowing that it’s made people feel seen or less alone, or provided a sort of comfort in its dark horror, that’s what matters in the end, because so much of having a body and being alive is horror.

Those two months before the book came out though were really hard. I had to ask myself: If I’m going through hell, do I really want to go through this again? And the answer was yes, because I love reading. I love books. I love writing. I love stories and I love the way that stories can bring us closer together. Now that the book is out, and I see how people are reacting to it and how I feel about it, I do know that I want to do this again. That solidifying of my artistic dreams and goals really helped.

EB: You write really beautifully about the gore and blood and guts of having a body. Was that something that came naturally to you? Do you read a lot of body horror?

JS: I actually don’t read a lot of body horror, but I do love body horror movies. There are a few body horror books I love, like The Vegetarian by Han Kang and Sorrowland by Rivers Solomon is amazing.

It’s a fact that menstruation requires you to expel three to six tablespoons of blood a month. Right? How is that not horror? So if I were to write a coming of age story where someone, for example, gets their first period, or where an athlete is forced to expose their body in a swimsuit at a very young age, or is forced to obey the whims of a swim coach to mold their body into a certain form to have a better athletic performance, there’s no way not to make that body horror, you know? If I was going to write an honest portrayal of growing up, of coming of age, there has to be some form of body horror, because there’s no way to write an honest portrayal of that experience of growing up without including some of that.

EB: Your protagonist, Ren, has a complicated relationship with her swim coach in the book. You write, “no love existed as strongly as that of a coach for his athlete.” The athlete-coach dynamic is so interesting, and I haven’t seen it explored much elsewhere in literature. Why do you think that’s such fraught territory?

JS: The swim coach has their own dreams and goals, just like anybody. And athletes have their own goals and their own lives outside of their sport as well, of course. The athlete-coach relationship has to be close though, because that’s the nature of the relationship. The coach wants the best for the athlete, but what they think is best may not actually be the best for the athlete. It requires a sort of friction, conflict, and frankly, disappointment, because a lot of the time, athletic goals aren’t always reached, which can lead to a really interesting dynamic.

More generally though, the coach-student dynamic doesn’t even necessarily have to be in athletics. You can look at theater, for example. Theater coaches were written amazingly about in Susan Choi’s novel Trust Exercise. Any sort of high pressure, extremely competitive environment with a coach and a student who’s still growing up is going to lead to a really interesting dynamic that often includes an abuse of power.

EB: There were several scenes throughout the book that depicted depersonalization, or Ren’s desire to leave her body. Obviously the main theme of the book is Ren’s desire to leave her human form and become a mermaid, but there were a couple other instances where you write her leaving her body. In one, she gets high with Ess, a love interest of Ren’s. In another, Ren experiences depersonalization in a moment of assault. Can you talk a bit about her impulse to leave her body and how that came together as a theme of the book? 

JS: I think that’s a really beautiful question and a really beautiful term, depersonalization. I usually think of the term dissociation, but depersonalization is interesting because it carries with it the connotation that someone’s actually leaving their personhood.

In the context of the book, Ren doesn’t want to be a person. She wants to be a mermaid. So the sheer act of anything that will help her leave her body – whether it’s through the body horror transcendence in the girls’ locker room, through marijuana, or even through sex – that’s a very appealing thing, because it allows her to be less of a person and more of a vibe, or a feeling, or even a mythological being like a mermaid.

EB: I love how much of a focal point mermaids were in the book. What interested you about mermaids in the first place? Did you draw inspiration from any other mermaid-themed books or movies?

JS: I think mermaids are very fascinating mythological creatures. They’re having such a big cultural revival lately too, in music and with The Little Mermaid reboot coming out. I think Florence and the Machine has a new single, [Mermaids], that just came out too.

The Penguin Book of Mermaids [from Cristina Bacchilega and Marie Alohalani Brown] was very lovely and fun to read. They did a respectful job of tracing the thread of mermaids throughout time, and explaining their significance in so many different cultures. That book helped me sift through a lot of different legends, and understand how mermaids came to be and how they’re not all the clean-cut Disney version. There are mermaids who do all sorts of evil or diabolical or beautiful things, depending on your point of view.

EB: In Chlorine, you have adult Ren looking back at her high school years and telling her story in retrospect. What made you decide to take that perspective?

JS: To be honest, I wrote a lot of this without conscious craft decisions. I actually don’t think I ever initially write from a conscious craft point of view. It’s only after the first draft that I’m like okay, what exactly is it that I’m trying to say? How is it coming out?

What I will say is, the tone of Ren’s mermaid voice is very god-like, in a way that’s very powerful. It’s very angry. It’s very disdaining. It’s really her voice that comes through, rather than the structure of the story’s timeframe. I prefer reading translated fiction and other international works of literature, which tend to subscribe less to the western notion of fiction, which requires linear chronological time frames, taking readers from A to B to C.

A lot of diverse literature has a really interesting way of constructing a story. For example, in Strange Beasts of China, which is an amazing novel by Yan Ge, the story is structured in terms of different beasts that the protagonist encounters, rather than chronological time. That idea of structure is interesting, especially when you’re trying to write a mythological story. The concept of time, in myths, is fluid. Myth lives in all sorts of realities. So I think that was very important for me to make sure the book didn’t follow an A to B to C structure, but instead had this more dynamic, interesting relationship with time.

EB: That definitely comes through. It’s so character-driven in a way that’s really compelling, where the reader gets very invested in Ren’s inner psychological world. 

Now that your debut is out, are you working on any other books?

JS: I have a manuscript with my agent now, which is a short story collection, and I’m in second revisions for a novel I’ve been working on.

EB: What was your writing process like for the short story collection, and how did that compare to your process for Chlorine?

JS: Chlorine definitely came from a place of anger. It came from a place of catharsis. I think a lot of artists recognize that feeling, of creating work from trauma or anger. I don’t want to be consumed by trauma or anger though. I don’t want to be continually making work from that place because it’s not sustainable to think about it all the time, and it’s not a good way to live for me personally.

I’m very interested in making artistic work that comes from love or joy or happiness, or comes from a place of being more settled. I’ll say that a lot of this new work that I’m trying to make now, especially this new novel that I’ve been working on, comes from a place of love and understanding rather than a place of cathartic anger.

EB: I love that, and I can definitely relate. It’s nice to get that first big emotional piece out of your system and clear the way to work on all the other themes you want to explore. 

On that note, I read that you consider yourself an artist, and writing is just one component of that for you. Did you always want to be a writer? And more broadly, how do you think about your identity as an artist and how does your writing fit into that as a whole?

JS: I didn’t always want to be a writer. I didn’t even know people could be writers until 2020, honestly, which is when I started to write. Again, I loved books so much growing up. Fictional characters were my best friends. I love books so much. Frankly, I would rather be a reader than a writer.

Humans have always let me down. Books have never let me down. Even just to admit that books, which I loved so much, were written by humans – by writers – would’ve ruined that love for me. You know what I mean? So it took me a really long time to realize that writing was actually something people did, even though I had been reading for so long.

Again, I do consider myself an artist as opposed to a writer, and I consider writing a part of my artistic practice. I do think artistic practice is sort of constrained by the resources you have available to you though, whether it’s time, whether it’s space, whether it’s the connections you can make. And I know some writers will disagree with me, but I think that writing has one of the easiest barriers to entry, as opposed to any sort of artistic form in the fine arts field especially.

At the end of the day, you really just need a laptop and a wifi connection, or even just pencil and paper to write. There are so many extremely supportive literary magazines out there. With painting by comparison, there are barriers like needing a studio space and oil paints, which can be prohibitive. It requires more money and resources that I didn’t necessarily have at my disposal, especially as someone who doesn’t do well in an MFA structure or other higher education programs.

I’m a simp for New Year’s resolutions though! So in 2020, I was like, you know what? I should start a new artistic practice. I was trying to decide what it should be and my friend was like, you like to read, right? My friends and I are starting a writing group for fun. Would you like to join? And I was like, writing group? People do that? So I joined, and I just really loved it, and stuck with it.

EB: That’s amazing. I kind of assumed you’d been writing forever, so that’s really inspiring that it’s a relatively new pursuit for you. Your interest in fine art definitely comes through in your writing because your style is so visual and really beautiful. I feel like you write like a painter, if that makes sense. 

Can you tell me a little bit about that writing group, and what it was like in terms of being able to draft the novel start to finish alongside a group of other writers?

JS: That original writing group was a different one, but the one I’m in now I consider my writing family. We met in March of 2020 off the internet. We met at this cafe on Mercer Street, and even though we only had that one meeting there, we still call ourselves the Mercer Writing Group.

I just love them so much. We’ve been going strong for over three years now, and I truly consider them family because sharing your writing, especially your early writing, can be a very, very vulnerable thing. We really show up for each other, and we respect each other’s work. We share resources, whether it’s emails or links, or bypassing paywalls!

When I was very down about the publishing process in February and March, anytime I met with my writing group over Zoom, and we had two hours to talk about each other’s stories I was like ohhh, right. This is why I love writing. It’s that ability to talk about stories and be close to other people. They read parts of Chlorine when it was still just a doc on my laptop, before I even had an agent.

EB: That’s so nice to have, especially because you mentioned not being interested in the MFA path. It’s such a great alternative where you’re able to get that sense of community and people to read your work while it’s still in the drafting and editing process.

JS: Yeah, for sure. I won’t say it’s easy, creating a sustainable community over many years. It’s hard work. You have to check in, you have to schedule. You really have to show up, you know? But I think the sheer fact that we do is how it’s lasted this long. That’s how we’ve been able to maintain the vulnerability and respect that we have. They’re very important to me.

EB: I know you’re hosting a screening of Wong Kar-Wai’s Chungking Express, which is featured heavily in Chlorine. You also created an Instagram account (@chlorinenovel), which served as a moodboard for the book, and pulled in stills from movies like Jennifer’s Body, Black Swan, and A Better Tomorrow. It seems like you’ve incorporated a lot of multimedia references into your book launch as well as the creative process itself. Where did that impulse come from?

JS: Again, because I consider myself an artist, it’s very important to me that I’m able to join in a cultural artistic lineage that pulls inspiration from a variety of forms and sources. I want to pay homage to that lineage. No artwork these days is totally created out of a bubble. And if anyone claims it is, they’re either wrong, or it’s not very good art.

It’s a beautiful thing to continue a dialogue throughout many years. I’m not very eloquent about it, but there’s this movie called Night is Short, Walk on Girl. It’s a Japanese animated movie and in it, there’s a used book god who takes the main character by her hand, and walks her through a used book market. He walks her through the entire history of books, explaining how each one is connected. Even the books that seem unrelated, he’ll explain how one informed the other.

It’s just beautiful that you get to keep making art through time and history. It makes me very emotional to know that there are all these other artists making art and that you can join them in this conversation, and keep it going.

EB: I’ll need to check out that movie – it sounds amazing. I think it’s really cool how you’re participating so directly in that conversation between artists over time. You’re also bringing your readers into the fold and exposing them to movies they may not have known before. 

Are there other writers specifically who you’re reading now, that you’re really excited about?

JS: Akwaeke Emezi is my favorite contemporary living writer. I love them so much and they have seven books out at this point. I just finished their YA novel Pet, which was amazing of course, because everything they write is so good.

I also really love Hanif Abdurraqib, and I’m seeing him perform with some other poets in May, which I’m really excited about. I’m ready to cry all night! Those are my two favorite living contemporary writers. I love them.

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