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  • Writer's pictureStephen Dames

Renny Gong

By Stephen Dames

Illustration by Hart Hallos

I first met Renny Gong, CC ’24, two years ago while attending a potluck dinner for new members of 4x4 Magazine. Sitting on the floor, Gong (who is one of the recently departed Co-Editor-in-Chiefs of the campus literary magazine) continually badgered me with questions about myself.

While initially I thought he had been specifically assigned to do this—perhaps to gauge what type of new member I’d be—I later learned that this is just the way Gong speaks, probing those around him with the earnest kindness of a long-time talk show host. When a question comes to the surface, his face wrinkles slightly, and, looking right at you, he’ll shoot-off something like, “how far do you think you could jump?” or “are you free to play the balancing the egg on the spoon game this Saturday?” Gong loves questions so much, he even punctuates many of his sentences with them, often ending thoughts with a reassuring, almost plaintive, “you know?” But unlike many peoples’, Gong’s “you know?” invites a real response, imploring you to let him know what you think and feel.

Two years later, Renny Gong is still sitting on the ground. I’m speaking to him in the Woolley Lab: a Neuroscience lab at Columbia’s Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute focused on the way song-birds communicate, where he worked this summer. Gong’s hand is deep in a birdcage; his eyes darting back and forth, his body alert, all of his energy intent on catching one of the dozen or so finches flying around inside. After a tense beat, his hand flies forward, coming away with a small darkly colored bird grasped in his fingers. He looks up at me, beaming, and says, “Pretty cool right? You know?”

Startling at first, but comforting later, his proclivity for inquisitiveness feels quite natural in the context of 4x4’s editorial meetings, where, with a warm and keen sense of solicitude, Gong dives deep into others’ pieces, going through them line by line with a fine-tooth comb. Joining the magazine three years ago as a staff editor before becoming events editor—planning events such as 4x4’s S&M (submit and mingle) Valentine’s Day open-mic, and the magazine’s annual print launch party—last year Gong joined fellow editor Skye Levine, BC ’24, as Co-Editor-in-Chief, helping to publish 4x4’s tenth print issue.

Besides his editorial work with 4x4, Gong is himself a prodigious writer: his prose and poetry are published in Split Lip, The Potomac Review, Adroit, and The Longleaf Review, among others.

Despite this output, Gong’s innate sociability may seem at odds with his craft. As he puts it, writing is “necessarily, a lonely activity,” and he doesn’t quite fit the bill for the infamous image of the solitary writer; his wide smile and gregarious nature clash with a writer’s stereotypical cynicism and gruffness.

But reading Gong’s stories displays how his extroversion lends itself well to his sincere (and quite writerly) interest in character. While writing itself may be solitary, his stories are anything but. The joy in Gong’s writing is not found in his plots or settings—though these too are beautiful—but instead in the social worlds he builds. His characters drag you into their lives with casual wit and brutal emotion in equal measure. Rather than chase after a story that’s already been realized, they instead leap in front of it, the plot running to catch up with their self-constructed narrative momentum. His realism is not stark or ascetic, but warm and open—a feeling cultivated through dialogue that transcends true ‘reality.’ Such dialogue bursts Gong’s stories open, his words dripping with pathos, humor, and grit.

Gong’s interest and curiosity in those around him fill his stories with the same sincerity found in him as a person. As I profiled Gong, however, I learned that his preoccupation with those outside of himself is a double-edged sword. Indeed, his proclivity for asking about others is matched by a certain level of reserve when it comes to himself. While not “quirky” exactly, Gong’s character includes its share of quirks and cranks that are not always visible to an undiscerning eye and are, to an extent, hidden. Getting to know him involves finding hidden easter eggs, trying to pry him open while he’s even more interested in prying you open—and his pliers are almost always better than yours. For instance, it was just a few weeks ago that I learned of his bird lab escapade for the summer.

While explaining to me the process of trying to get two birds to mate, he insists that Marvin Gaye is the perfect finch aphrodisiac while also telling me that if it is going to be good, “this whole piece should really be about the birds, Stephen, nothing else.”

His peculiar interest in animal sex extends even beyond this experiment; he’s given an off-the-cuff speech about animal sex facts to the judges of the George William Curtis Prize in Oratory, and, before a fall meeting of 4x4, told anyone who would listen in the lobby of Hamilton Hall how humpback whales sometimes need a third to help keep the mating whales stable in the water.

As a creative writing major, his interest and expertise in animals may seem out of place, but, as his now long-time friend, I view this summer job as just another oddly colored piece in the rich mosaic that is Gong.

In a similar but unrelated vein, in the office of the Woolley Lab, there is a ping-pong table, yet another marker of one of Gong’s idiosyncrasies. For most of his childhood, Gong was one of the top youth ping-pong players in the nation, competing in such events as the 2015 table tennis US Open, and the 2013 US Junior and Cadet Open. While not a professional today, his level of play is still incredibly high, and when he plays casually with other people he often feels as if he’s just being watched, with people clamoring that “they want to see, they want to see—like I’m a spectacle.”

He also spent several summers at an intensive ping-pong training camp in China, which, also, just so happens to have inspired the setting of Gong’s first novel. Tentatively titled Ping Pong Kids, it takes place in a camp similar to Gong’s, but features characters like Big Wheel (a kid who smells like cheese, a food Gong says isn’t present in Chinese cooking but which still follows this kid around regardless), Jean-Pierre (a 12-year-old alcoholic who Gong says has “real issues”), and a character who specially-makes the glue needed for ping-pong paddles and is, as Gong puts it, “really ugly.”

During the second part of our interview—which took place in an over-touristed diner near Carnegie Hall after I turned down Gong’s suggestion of having it in the Times Square McDonald’s—I asked Gong about a favorite passage of mine from his story “Kissing My Father,” published in The Adroit Journal last year: “On the drive there, my father says nothing—I have never met anyone else who is able to sit so perfectly in silence. He has never desired accompaniment—not music with his drives, not ketchup with his fries, not even water with his food.”

After reading this passage back to him I asked, rather pointedly, what kind of accompaniment he needs—how he feels about the character here, in other words. He spoke vaguely for a while, stressing how he loved and needed accompaniment, but didn’t really know what kind. He gave me a long list of half-answers about what accompaniment is to him (one of the few specific responses he offered was that he needs near constant games of duck-duck-goose) but never landed on anything.

In this, I spotted what accompaniment might be to him. Being lucky to be Gong’s friend, I have more than once had the experience of him sprinting up to me, breathless—a few scrambled phrases reaching me almost before he does—because he just wanted to say hi. To me, this is what Gong means by accompaniment. An interaction casual in the moment (small enough to be a single sentence in a story, or, for that matter, an article) but memorable in the abstract. Deeply informal, but, in the end, profoundly moving.


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