An Interview with Chia-Chia Lin
Nur Nasreen Ibrahim
Photo Credit: F. Yang
The Unpassing is an immigrant story, a coming of age tale, a family drama, and also a heartrending voyage through the natural world. Set in the harsh landscape of rural Alaska, CHIA-CHIA LIN contemplates the transformation of a grieving Taiwanese-American family after the loss of their daughter, through the perspective of their ten-year-old son, Gavin. The characters, who are all missing something, question their place in an unforgiving world; questions that the novel does not try to answer for us. This sense of incompletion infuses the novel with melancholy, enhances the loneliness within each character, and forces the reader to confront uncertainty in all its forms.
For a writer who describes herself as always looking to the future, this story is steeped in retrospection. The Unpassing is Chia-Chia Lin’s first novel. Born in Boston, Lin’s family moved around a lot; she lived in Taipei, Hartford, and eventually settled in Pittsburgh. She graduated with an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop where she received the Henfield Prize for literature. Her short stories and essays have appeared in The Paris Review, NewYorker.com, The New York Times, and more. She spoke to me from her home in Northern California, about the nature of the immigrant search for a place of their own and how we can still keep a sense of wonder during our darkest moments.
Ibrahim: What is it about immigrants and wilderness that binds the two together? Was that your way of further accentuating the sense of homelessness the characters constituting this Taiwanese family already possess?
Lin: I didn't think about it from the outset but as I got farther along in the novel I came to realize there is something interesting in placing this immigrant family so remotely. They aren’t even as remote as one can get in Alaska, they were close to Anchorage, but they are still at the edge of the woods. There is something about that feeling of being so isolated that calls forth certain emotions of being an immigrant. They don't have a safety net, which a lot of immigrants don’t have; they don't have an established network. There are just afloat in the wild.
This book is very intentional with its setting. Each element such as the trees, the mudflats, the descriptions of their clothes, even the soup they drink, fleshes out the characters in the story. How do you start writing? Do you start with emotions and write into them, integrating the setting, or the other way around?
Thank you! It feels intentional, but that’s the result of many edits! It’s more necessary to have both place and character and what’s less necessary is plot. I might not have a clear idea of where the characters are headed or what’s going to happen to them, but I need to have a sense of who they are and where they find themselves. And for me that’s where this story comes from. What I try to do is to include details that are revealing not just facts, but something else, whether it is a state of mind or diving deeper into their experiences.
You spent many months working in Alaska and returned to do research. When you started writing what images and features in the wilderness supported you along the way?
I placed the family’s house in the woods, but the richest images in my mind were centered around the ocean. I spent a lot of time walking the coastline, and the mudflats were prominent in my vision of Alaska. When I was writing the book, those descriptions came easily to me. But I often got stuck when describing the woods. So when I returned for a few weeks, I purposefully went on a guided hike and asked the guide to name all the plants and trees we passed. I recognized the flora, but not having grown up in south-central Alaska, I didn't have the right language. That return visit was also helpful, more broadly, with generating mood and atmosphere—I needed that reminder of how massive the land is, that re-immersion.
One of the first scenes that I wrote was a scene with the mother where she tries to help push a beached whale back into the ocean. That's when I really felt there is enough in the setting here to carry an entire novel. That’s the moment I felt there was enough mystery in the setting that I wanted to stay there longer.
The mother’s actions in that scene feel emotionally inexplicable. She is really caught up with helping the whale. It brings us closer to her affinity with the ocean. What aspects of her actions and the whale in that scene did you latch onto?
When I was writing that scene, I sensed something propulsive in the interaction between character and setting. There is an element of danger in that scene. The mudflats are dangerous; you’re not supposed to walk out there. You watch the mother and realize the futility of her actions. She's using her shoes to scoop water and pour it onto the whale. At one point she tries to push the whale. Of course there is no way one person can do anything about a beached whale. And I found it interesting that the mother keeps trying anyway—in the midst of this obvious futility and danger—and I sensed something indefinable about her in that early scene, something large that I couldn't quite pin down. And in writing, when I sense this happening—something I can't explain, something that feels big—it feels like a confirmation of sorts, that this is a scene worth exploring. The mother has just experienced an enormous tragedy, and here she is, doing this inexplicable act, and I think it brings some hope to Gavin, who is watching her. Though his sister has just died, the world feels like it still has some kind of possibility.
That scene does showcase dueling emotions. In another scene, after the father is sued, he needs his coworker to write a necessary defense for him. He fails to do so, and once again disappoints his expectant family who are looking for some good news. They divert their anger with a game where Gavin has to jump to touch the top of the doorway. So there is immense disappointment and pain, followed by joy and wonder. There is one line: “In the voice he used for joking which sounded like despair wrapped in laughter.” How did you decide to establish these contrasts and why was this your choice of tone?