Jonathan Truong is a writer from Southern California. His work has been recognized by the National Youngarts Foundation, Poetry Society of the UK, the Claudia Ann Seaman Awards, and the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards. He is an alumnus of the Adroit Summer Mentorship for fiction, and the founding editor of Hominum Journal. He is an undergraduate at Columbia University.
What images or themes do you find yourself veering back to in your writing? What questions (if any) is your work attempting to answer or reconcile with?
So much of my recent (unpublished) work deals with human disconnection. I’ve always been interested in narrators that are somewhat alien to the world they’re living in, especially when they outwardly fit in and participate. This dissonance between the interior self and exterior self deals with a different kind of disconnection, but one that lends itself to exciting and provocative characters.
Alienation has always been the most interesting lens with which to view the world in my fiction.
Lately, I’ve been trying to steer away from Weltschmerz (literally: world grief), a literary emotion that’s led me to many dead ends in both fiction and my own life. It’s difficult to be a writer and not to be world weary, but lifting my head up from the ugliness of the world every now and then has been infinitely rewarding.
Your body of work holds a wonderful focus on the short story. What draws you to short fiction versus other forms?
When I first started writing I was really disinterested in what’s generally accepted to be the most fundamental elements of fiction: characterization, world-building, plot, etc. Even after enrolling in a few classes focused on fiction writing at school, I had this nagging feeling that narrative wasn’t for me, that I should be writing poems. But I found a kind of magic in living in these imagined worlds—most of which were only a degree of separation from my own—in visualizing them and rendering them on the page. And this brief residence in landscapes imagined and unfamiliar gave me the ability to assume so many voices I didn’t know I possessed, some of which were my own but others inherited or borrowed in my 18 years of living. There was a magic in this that I never found in any other form or mode.
If you had to recommend one short story to our readers, what would it be and why?
Very tough question. “Making Friends” by Joy Williams, which was published in The Paris Review, has lingered in my mind since I read it—so I might suggest that one? Any of her short fiction, really.
In an interview with Vice, Williams lists the “8 Essential Attributes of the Short Story,” the first being “a clean clear surface with much disturbance below.” This is what I admire most about her work, “Making Friends” being a perfect example: there is a false transparency which betrays the tragedy lurking beneath.
What inspired you to found Hominum Journal?
Originally, I felt called to amplify youth voices in writing. But I realized soon after that there were many projects that were more well suited to this mission statement—projects which went beyond the typical accept/reject model of online publications—so we pivoted, and began accepting work from emerging and established writers alike. Having a mapped out direction has always been really important to me, so allowing the vision to not just evolve but change entirely was daunting. This change was important, necessary even, and made the work more meaningful to me.
As an editor, what does your ideal submission look like? What separates the good pieces from the truly extraordinary?
Reading has always been what I’ll describe as an embodied process to me. Even when I was younger, particularly beautiful constructions of language would trigger a bodily response, like “frisson” (aesthetic chills). I look for work that excites me in this same way, that elicits some kind of psychophysiological response. Of course, this is a big ask as an editor. So I guess the question becomes, what is it in a piece that triggers such a response? I’m still looking for this answer, but the most accurate response I can give right now is that I’m looking for work that resists simplification. The most striking pieces to me are those which surprise me, which often means they are unwieldy and erratic and controlled, all of these things without contradiction.
Conversely, what are your personal turn-offs in a submission? What should potential submitters to Hominum revise before sending in their work?
There are no absolutes for me in reading submissions, but something that’s bothered me recently is work that is excessively heavy-handed. I think most pieces that come into my submission docket could benefit from the subtraction of weight, from language and from the very structure of writing, a rule-of-thumb I’ve borrowed from Italo Calvino. This is a practice I’m actively trying to implement in my own work: I think, how can I write about the heaviness of the world from a vantage point that finds humor in sorrow, or beauty in suffering? Still, I’m cautious to offer any prescriptive advice on this, and I’d hesitate to tell potential submitters to “subtract weight” from their work when so many writers handle weightiness swiftly and with finesse.
What’s been your biggest challenge in working with Hominum? Biggest Joy?
The greatest challenge is always saying no, especially when that piece has made it through numerous rounds of discussion on the editorial side. I’m constantly questioning the decisions made, which is sometimes illuminating and other times torturing.
There’s no greater joy than hearing positive reader responses to some of the pieces we publish—Twitter praise, a line about a poem in a cover letter, etc. It’s a great reminder of my role, which is ultimately to serve as an intermediary between writer and reader, and so hearing these praises is affirming in that regard.
The process of submitting is a vulnerable one. What advice do you have for maintaining mental health within the context of the publishing world?
It’s hard to offer prescriptive advice on this subject as someone who rarely submits. I might add that the impulse to submit is there, but nowadays I’m selective about what I send out into the public eye. Perhaps this is my first suggestion: be conscious about what you submit. Don’t publish work that might compromise your safety, and first and foremost write for yourself. The most meaningful advice anyone can give you is not to conflate your self-worth with the publication/accolade/honor, but this has become a platitude in the writing world that never failed to make me roll my eyes. Detachment is the obvious goal, but how do we get there? How do we sever the unconscious association between publication and self-worth? I’ve found much more meaning out of sharing my work with close friends and classmates than I ever have from publication, and a mentor’s praise will always mean more to me than an award does. So find your close readers and keep them close.
Christian Butterfield is an 18-year-old poet/essayist/totebag-enthusiast from Bowling Green, Kentucky. In 2019, he served as the National Student Poet of the Southeast, and his work has since been published/recognized by Best Teen Writing, the YoungArts Foundation and The Adroit Journal. He reads for EX/POST Magazine and was a 2020 Adroit Mentee in Creative Nonfiction.