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?
I’m glad to hear you describe it that way. The dominant reaction I am getting from a lot of the reviews is that it is just really depressing! I am happy you read moments of joy into the novel. It really wasn’t intentional to alternate those moments. I wanted to portray the weirdness of being in a family, and how the perspective of a child frequently smashes those moments of sadness and joy together. Children tend to bounce very quickly between emotions! There is fun in fluctuation and that is part of the strangeness of being stuck behind closed walls with people who know you so intimately and with whom you can share every emotion.
The parents are also opposing figures in this story. The father is fascinated by space, and the mother has an affinity with the sea. The story is also bookended by two disasters. The father is obsessed with the Challenger explosion (In 1986, a NASA space shuttle was destroyed a few minutes into its flight, killing its crew) and years later the mother is invested in the Exxon Valdez oil spill disaster. One disaster occurs in the sky and the other in the sea. What was the significance of these choices?
I’ve never had a question like this before! I do think there is a strange parallel in the father’s obsession with space and the mother’s need for the ocean. The father’s fixation on space exploration is very idealistic and optimistic. The mother in contrast needs the ocean on an instinctual, subconscious level. She might not be the sort of person who tells you she loves the ocean. Her need is more primal and for the father it is more theoretical. I didn’t intentionally include disasters in both spheres as a way of building on that but I was thinking about the year the story took place and what current events that would register with this family. The Challenger was an obvious one to me, and just a few years after was the Exxon disaster. I wanted to make those touch points where you can see what’s going on in the external world because the story is so compressed often within one house, I wanted to let a little air in.
In the novel, you say: “Home was a place you could see every detail of. Not-home was a void, the outside that crept upon you as you fell asleep--the thing you tried to keep at bay as you jolted yourself awake.” Could you talk to me about what you were thinking of as you described, “not-home?” It feels like a very horrifying description of a hauntingly lonely world.
We all wonder what home is and we all think about it at every stage of our lives. But for immigrants they think about it early in childhood and register certain concepts. The narrator felt a deep need for a home. He has a ghost home in Taiwan, floating in his mind that he doesn’t really remember the specific contours of and so he knows that it’s an important thing to have. It’s funny that you call it a horrifying thing (laughs). There is some truth to that for the narrator as a child. If there is something that you don’t understand, a memory of a place that you know is necessary to your identity, and brings with it a sense of loss, it becomes a very large, frightening thing in your head.
You’ve said in another interview: “it’s possible the mother realizes she doesn’t have a home.” The end of the book echoes this sentiment. I always saw her as a character searching for a home, and speaking more aggressively about her desire for home than others in her family. Your assessment carries an honesty that a lot of immigrant stories tend to romanticize or attempt to resolve by manufacturing home. Why did you choose to give her an unfulfilled conception of home?
Just from watching my own parents and my own family, I always found it fascinating and tragic. Once you move away, the home you used to have continues to change without you. You hang onto an old notion of that old home that’s just impossible to exist years later. Things change at such a fast pace these days, there is just no way that the world stays the same as it does in your head. You can return in some ways, but you can’t return fully. It makes the decision to leave that home even more weighted because it is irreversible. I don’t feel satisfied by certain immigrant stories where things are wrapped up so nicely. Actually any story that has a neat ending dissatisfies me.
NUR NASREEN IBRAHIM is a journalist and writer based in New York City. Born and raised in Lahore, she was a twice-nominated finalist for the Salam Award. Her writing has appeared in The Aleph Review, Salmagundi Magazine, Barrelhouse, in anthologies from Platypus Press, Catapult, Hachette India, and more. You can find her on Twitter @Nuri_ibrahim