At nine years old you pin him to the soil, knees around ribs, center your two fingers together between his eyes and shout bang, bang, you’re dead, you’re fucking dead. He is writhing, trying to escape you; your sounds…
At the end of 2019, I faced an uncomfortable question. I was a semester into my MFA program and had written a number of short stories that touched, only briefly—in the gentlest, most agreeable spots—on the kind of queer fiction I knew I wanted most to write. It was the best I could do. I was not yet out to large swaths of people in my life. I was not yet out to myself. While attending class, reading work by Justin Torres, Garth Greenwell, Alexander Chee, I felt inauthentic, writing stories that made references to ‘a boyfriend,’ a queeny neighbor, that had a small, stilted coming-out scene, and the like, without much substance behind them. I was writing about queerness in a way that might have appeared normative but was in reality as guarded as it could possibly be.
Aside from the personal goal I set for myself in this story, I needed a reason to write another queer story. I needed something that made it feel different to me than other stories I’d read that are similar, something I think about every time I try something new. It was important to me that “Ariel” portrayed its narrator’s queerness as more internal than external. The rage he feels toward the story’s end is not an outright anger at being outed (his parents and community take the news better than many closeted young people see today) but rather because Ari has forced him, unwittingly, to confront his own identity, and taken, more or less, the easier way out for himself. I struggled over the line, “you used me to become you,” thinking it too on-the-nose. I found it to be the trickiest part about dabbling with the political—the tendency to over-explain.
I wrote “Ariel” over the span of a month once I decided, concretely, to sit down and write it; the plot and characters arrived easily because it is, in some ways, an idealized scenario I’ve carried with me long before I ever wrote, something I think a lot of people visualize for themselves. Falling in love with one’s best friend felt beautiful and simple. I’d adopted sparse prose, perhaps as a defense mechanism, in my writing before this, and I needed a place to put my exaggerated sentences. A goal was to make every inch of this story something I found beautiful. I believe most stories begin with at least some goals, even if they are implicit or unspoken.
JINWOO CHONG is currently an MFA candidate for fiction at Columbia University. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Salamander, Tahoma Literary Review, The Forge, No Contact, and others. He serves as Fiction Editor for Columbia Journal. Twitter @jinwoochong