March Fiction: Excerpt from "Days of Distraction" by Alexandra Chang

March 30, 2020

The young Chinese American narrator of Alexandra Chang's debut novel is a tech writer in San Francisco who feels underappreciated, underpaid and largely unseen. Then her boyfriend decides to attend grad school in New York, offering a chance to move with him and start a new life. Told in a vignette form, DAYS OF DISTRACTION offers beautifully observed insights about race, relationships, family, technology and adulthood. We're so pleased to be able to share this brief excerpt with you.

-- Jung Yun, Fiction Editor



J works in a lab with scientists and mice. The lab breeds genetic deformities into the mice — bad eyes, basically. He observes the rodents, how they handle their disabilities, which ones can lead “normal” mouse lives, which ones become too ill. The goal is to make discoveries that will translate into curing eye diseases in humans. As someone with severe myopia, I should appreciate these small sacrifices for the greater good. He tells me there are protocols for how to humanely kill the animals. These protocols vary based on size and age. One option is to put the mice into a chamber and overexpose them to CO2 until they pass out and die. This is the most standard procedure and relatively efficient (five mice at a time), but they struggle for a couple of minutes before dying, and it is terrible to watch. Another is to euthanize the mouse with an overdose of chemical anesthetics, like the pound does with unadoptable strays and lost animals never retrieved. This is painless when administered correctly, but gets expensive and time consuming to perform with each individual mouse. Then there is the option to decapitate the mouse, if it is small enough, with a pair of very sharp scissors. This is cheap and fast. J has to lay a sheet of plastic and paper towels on his lab bench to catch the mess. Yes, small sacrifices for the greater good. This is what he wants to do for the next five or so years. It’s something I can believe in, in concept, but I would never be able to get my hands bloodied. His title is Research Associate II.


In bed, we talk of the future. Maybe we’ll get to stay. Maybe we’ll go to New York City. And then … But what ifHow about … We excite and exhaust ourselves with hypotheticals.

I tell J what Tim suggested.

He wraps his arms tightly around me and says, “You’re not going anywhere.”

“Exactly. I’m staying right here, and you’ll go somewhere else.”

“No! You know what I mean.”

“Right, that I’m not going anywhere and then you can come back to visit me in this house.”

He squeezes me tighter and I try to wrestle myself free. “You think you’re so funny,” he says.

“I am the funny one in this relationship!”

“Hey, stop wiggling so much. Be nice.”

I tuck myself into him, the way it feels right for both of us, my head on his chest and legs wrapped around his. We lie quietly for a while. He says, “Good night, little sweetheart,” and falls asleep. His body twitches. I’m not little, I tell him in my mind. My legs are thicker and stronger than yours. I close my eyes and listen to the movements inside him. It does not matter how many times I hear them, it is like receiving dispatches from another realm.


I, too, should apply to graduate school, according to my mom. About J, she doesn’t question whether I will follow him. (“You will cry if he is far away,” she says matter-of-factly.) If I am also in school, however, we can both be doing something productive and respectable at the same time.

“You can change jobs, go really work in technology. At a tech company that can pay a lot. Marketing. Or finance. Management. These writing people doesn’t respect you. They don’t pay what you deserve. You have knowledge about technology now. Business school likes that.”

“I don’t want to.”

“Why not? More money.”

“No. I don’t want to work with those people.  They’re  all weird and have social problems, too! Have you ever talked to one of them? You feel like you’re dying inside! Everything is, ‘How can you benefit me?’ I just want a fair raise and to somehow keep this job. I hate it when you tell me to do something that doesn’t make any sense and that I don’t want to do at all!”

“Geez, calm down. Why none of my kids care about making money? How did you become like this?”

“Sorry, Mommy.”

But something in her voice tells me she is at least a little proud.



Excerpt from DAYS OF DISTRACTION. Copyright 2020 by Alexandra Chang. Reprinted with permission from Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers

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Cover Image: Courtesy of Ecco

Author Photo: Alana Davis Photography