Updated: Jul 22, 2020
Standing with tipped toes on a cinder block, Gavin looked through an abandoned trailer window. The small window was half obscured by brown paper bags from Carrs. Gavin’s eyes adjusted. There was a sink filled with debris- wrappers, cans, something like grapefruit peels. The bed was turned away, naked without sheets. On top of the bed was his older sister, Pei-Pei, barely a teenager, with her black hair splayed. Next to her was Collin, an older boy from her school, who looked bonier propped up on his elbow without clothes on.
Gavin turned away. Running down the path back through the woods, back home, he thought- I was leaving her. I would not be left.
Gavin Hsu, the boy spying on his sister, is the ten-year-old protagonist of Chia-Chia Lin’s first novel, The Unpassing (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Skinny with long dark hair and bangs, he is “small as a fingernail.” When he was three, he and his family left their home in Taiwan for Michigan and later for the wild of Alaska. Spring, winter, autumn. Seasons prior to seeing his sister in the trailer, Gavin came back from the brink of death only to become aware of a new tragedy within his immigrant family: the death of Ruby, his family’s youngest child.
Under another author’s pen, Gavin, could be described as the boy who lived à la Harry Potter or Jesus Christ. Lin takes a different approach. She doesn’t create a wizard or a god; she tells the story of a human. “I shy away from books about precocious children—ones in which the children are like adults and constantly reminding you of how smart and plucky they are—but I'm drawn to books that capture the childhood experience with complexity, ones that recognize that while a child's experience has marked differences from an adult's, it is equally rich and layered,” the author told me.
“I’m interested in family relationships—the simultaneous feeling of being both stranger and kin to your family members,” Lin continued over a series of interviews. “I’m interested in nature and the pressures it exerts on the individual. I’m also interested in basically everything I write about: science, the complex internal lives of children, alienation, acts that have generational effects, failure, and much more.”
Lin’s writing style represents a kind of alchemy. Her novel takes broad ideas, like grief, nature, and race, and sews so much truth into these nebulous concepts that her fiction becomes real, like life. Our interviews were my attempt to look beneath the hood and better understand this process.
In The Unpassing, mushrooms sprout in the bathroom, nights last nineteen hours long, greasy fingers are wiped on the underside of the kitchen table, pine cones and fragments of rib cages are found in the attic. The family’s house was built thirty miles outside of Anchorage as part of a subdivision that never materialized. Their cramped, confined home that looks as narrow as a two-by-four, is often juxtaposed with the wilderness of Alaska. The atmosphere of the book uniquely captures how easily a person’s mind can travel from an expansive sense of wondrous freedom to the shackled confinement of feeling psychologically isolated and stuck.
For Lin, the process of becoming a writer developed over a long period. Many of her family members have artistic leanings, and she first started writing seriously two decades ago while in college. When various aspects of her life were in flux- where she lived, her relationships, her desire to do a few different types of work- her aspiration to become a better writer remained constant. She used a two-year MFA program to test if a fiction-writing career would fit her capabilities and inclinations. It turns out it does. A fiction-writing career, however, is unique from other fields like medicine or law that might also make use of an advanced degree: nearly every writer she knows needs to have another job. (Her family, she thinks, has become resolved to the fact that her pursuits are unpredictable.)
To generate income while she created her novel, Lin also worked as a freelance editor, writer, and occasionally, as a writing teacher. In preparing her second novel, she is thinking about a different kind of supporting job that is not writing adjacent. Her hopes are to make space for her writing muscles to breathe and also to expose herself to new contexts. Whimsically, she told me that her ideal job would be monitoring migratory fish for the National Park Service and catching salmon with her hands to count them. “Of course, I don't really have the experience for that,” she told me. “And I think it was possibly unpaid, with a small piece of ground provided to pitch your tent. But you get the idea.”
Tellingly, Lin used a combination of research and intuition to create the atmosphere of her first novel. Many of the scenes in The Unpassing take place in nature: sinking into a mudflat, being pushed out of the way of a falling tree in the woods. To capture this context in words, Lin would physically go to the nearest woods (spruce woods if she was writing about those, or at the very least coniferous). Her research included frequent walks in the mountains, beaches, and wilderness that were nearby. She read news articles. The author told me, “It's all a very fuzzy process, even to me, but I can say that I spend an immense amount of time tossing out detail after detail, lamenting my endless clichés, until finally I arrive at something that feels a little bit more interesting.”
Lin also relied on journal entries and photos from when she lived in Anchorage in 2004 as well as from another visit a decade later. She found her notes so helpful that she often thinks she should establish a daily journal practice but often finds her quotidian entries cringe worthy. “In fact, a few years ago,” she told me, “I took all of my sporadic diaries and journals, including from my childhood, and tore out all the pages and composted them in my backyard.”
Notably, The Unpassing is not a straightforward book that hits readers over the head with facts. Instead, Lin trusts her readers to reflect on what she leaves unsaid, a trait that she attributes to the students and faculty of her MFA program. It is a skill that elevates her writing to the realm of literature and a reason for the many high profile positive reviews her book has received. Yet, for all of its nuance and beauty The Unpassing lacks the compulsive page turning plot of a bestseller. Lin told me,
“I have a fairly loose philosophy when it comes to readers. …of course the hope is that there are readers out there who share your aesthetics and are interested in your lines of questioning, who might find some kind of solace in your book, but I'm also very aware of the fact that there are so many different types of readers out there. I guess I didn't write the book with any specific intent toward readers, but simply a small hope that the book will cause a spark of recognition, a flash of empathy, a moment of clarity, with some. That's enough for me. It might sound like a rather modest or puny hope, but in fact I think it's the entire reason I read, and I think these moments of connection can be profound.”
Enduring Tragedy in the Wild
Aside from superlative world building and attention to detail, Lin excels at creating unique characters who respond differently to the same tragedy. When Ruby dies in The Unpassing, Pei-Pei, Gavin’s older sister gives him the news. “Ruby’s dead.” She says with the authority and directness of an oldest child. Natty, on the other hand, constantly asks for help. “Can you put on my socks?” “Can you turn on the light?” “Can you pull up my sheet?” asks the five year old. Their mother complicates the issue by insisting that Ruby is lost. Lin told me about the theme of grief,
“The Unpassing, as a title, is meant to have a little air around it; I wanted to leave room for interpretation. But certainly it gestures to the passing of Ruby, and the way that each family member veers off on his or her own journey of grief, in which the memory and idea of Ruby remain decidedly present. Each of their journeys looks extremely different, and I think this is true in life as well. …mental health was often on my mind, particularly the way that geographical and cultural isolation can exacerbate declines in mental health, and the ways that these declines can go unaddressed or even unnoticed by family members living in close quarters.”
Although the family’s immediate crisis is the death of their youngest child, the family also grapples with a loss in terms of their expectations. In Taiwan, the father in The Unpassing used to be a “genius” and earned an advanced degree. He dreamed, while in the Taiwanese U.S. information center, of reading Time magazines without pages blacked out or torn away by censors. In Alaska, he becomes a handyman of sorts, and the loss of expectations is reflected in his wife’s words. (“Plumbing,” the mother describes to her children, “is reaching your hands into other people’s toilets.”) Shame replaces hope. The father tells his son:
“You need to eat more. Who ever heard of a shrinking boy? If you don’t grow, you won’t have all the things you’re supposed to have. Or you’ll have to work harder just to get the same things. Every small thing, every tiny thing, like how to hold your wallet and how to scratch you head, you’ll have to study and learn. And even then you’re not really seen as normal. Even though you are better than normal, you are not even seen as normal. Do you understand what I’m saying?"
The father’s shame makes him turn inward. His grief turns off his empathy, and he begins to care about what people think only to the extent of their opinions of him.
A Flash Recognition
When Chia-Chia Lin was young, her mother collected seeds. Slurping the juice of a delicious fruit or crunching into a particularly crisp vegetable, Lin’s mother judged the value of her seeds based on the quality of the fruit or vegetable around it. Then, she would plant the seeds in pots around their house, filling their suburban home with greenery. “I used to think that was an Asian thing,” Lin told the audience at the McNally Jackson NYC stop of her book tour where I first met her. After getting older, she realized, it was simply a nuance of her family and not a reflection of Asian culture at large.
When does an individual family’s identity become an Asian identity? How can a person know the difference between something that is a racial or cultural characteristic versus a random behavior that a family engages in? Some moments in The Unpassing, like the sight of disposable cups that were reused instead of thrown out, give a flash of recognition as being Asian, but that’s not particularly analytical. Lots of folks from different racial backgrounds reuse disposable cups.
A more concrete example of a trait that is clearly cultural, and not individual, can be found in the language spoken. Gavin, the young protagonist in The Unpassing, speaks in English with his siblings and explains about his family: “My parents spoke Taiwanese to each other and a mix of Chinese and Taiwanese to us. …I thought of all the notions that got trapped. The expressions that caught and went stale before we could get them out.” Later, as an adult, Gavin’s mother tells him that his mood is bad using the phrase “sim-tsîng,” which he says means “situation of the heart.” Yet, while it is a cultural act to speak in Taiwanese, plenty of mothers and sons have notions between them that get trapped even when they are communicating in the same language.
For most of the book, I looked for clues about when Gavin’s family identity became an Asian identity by analyzing their behavior, like their language spoken, but the biggest flash of cultural recognition came at the Summer Solstice Sleepout. Harnessing the persistence of a fourteen year old, Gavin’s sister Pei-Pei, dragged her mother and brother to this cookout/talent show/cover band jamboree in the fields surrounding her high school. In line for the grill, their mother squeezed the bagged buns and flicked off a crust of dried mustard on a condiment bottle. “You are welcome here,” a freckled woman said as they scooted forward in line for patties. Their mother nodded soberly. “You are welcome, too.”
In addition to how Gavin and his family see themselves, there’s also a definition and an identity that others put on them. Or said another way, sometimes other people can label an individual more than he labels himself. Gavin and his family’s Asian identity isn’t only about their own individual behaviors or the way they see themselves; it also comes from how others see them externally from the outside looking in. The Summer Solstice is merely one example. At various points throughout the book, Gavin, or one of his family members, is identified as Chinese, Taiwanese, Oriental, not Vietnamese, Asian, or Huan-á (a phrase for white Westerner). Lin commented about this in our interviews as well,
“The Unpassing is a novel about a single family, and I'm wary of attempts to attribute various character traits to larger statements about race and culture. It's something that non-minority writers don't have to deal with; their characters can simply be allowed to exist as individuals, rather than portraits of a culture or either a confirmation or rejection of stereotypes.”
Many of the side characters in Lin’s book identify the Hsu’s story as a Taiwanese American family tragedy. Even as a reader, publisher, or critic, it is easy to do the same.