Stories Within Stories Turn S. Qiouyi Lu’s In the Watchful City into a Cabinet of Curiosities

Author photo: © S. Qiouyi Lu

It’s no coincidence that one of the main characters in S. Qiouyi Lu’s In the Watchful City carries with ser a qíjìtáng, or cabinet of curiosities. Lu’s novella is, itself, a cabinet of unusual mementos, with many smaller objects carefully folded into the larger structure.

On one level the plot is simple. The qíjìtáng is full of stories, and its owner, Vessel, who hovers between life and death, needs to add one more story to ser collection in order to have a second chance at life. (Vessel’s pronouns are se, ser and sers).

Read excerpts from my conversation with S. Qiouyi Lu on Literary Hub.

So se asks Anima, one of eight people who provide surveillance for the city-state of Ora, for aer story. (Anima’s pronouns are ae, aer and aers).

But Anima’s life isn’t so simple. Ae serves as a node in the city’s Hub, which ae monitors by entering the consciousness of animals (including a gecko, raven, and wild dog during the course of the story). In this way, ae can travel anywhere and yet aer body is fastened by a stem to a tank of amniotic-like fluid.

Lu likens Anima’s experience of being both fixed and all-knowing to our relationship with the internet. “We’re sitting in front of a computer, and, physically, our body is stationed in front of this machine. But through this network, we’re able to explore so much,” Lu says. “We’re able to go to faraway lands, see through the eyes of someone else.”

The topics ae covers in aer New Books interview include aer inspirations for the novella (such as China’s facial recognition technology), aer interest in linguistics, including neopronouns, and aer fascination with experimental narratives.

Lu is also a poet, editor, and translator and runs microverses, which publishes speculative flash fiction, poetry, and other short forms of storytelling.

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