Kirstin Chen’s book, Bury What We Cannot Take, is a return to the historical era of early communism in China. Five members of a family struggle with choices they’re forced to make in a rapidly shifting political landscape: a grand matriarch set in her ways with a hidden loss, her clumsy, trusting 9-year-old granddaughter; her politically passionate 12-year-old grandson; her absent son; her obedient daughter-in-law — and each is pushed to face his or her worst fears in a story of survival, shame and abiding love. I had the chance to talk with Chen recently by phone about a variety of subjects, including the #MeToo Movement, focusing on her new novel and her writing process.
Jimin Han: Let’s start with the inspiration for Bury What We Cannot Take.
Kirstin Chen: A close friend of mine, whom I went to college with, was just telling me a story about his family. I don't even know why it came up. But it was such an amazing and captivating story that I just kept thinking about it. I called him, and I said, "I'm thinking of writing a novel, what do you think about that?" He said, "Yes, of course." And his whole family was so generous and really encouraging. I feel very fortunate that they let me draw from their family history for this book.
JH: How closely did you stick to what he told you?
KC: It really was just a premise. Almost all of it is in chapter one. I intentionally didn't ask my friend for more details because I really wanted to be able to imagine the rest of the story. So, it was really just the premise, the brother seeing the grandmother hammering the portrait of Mao and then reporting her to the authorities out of the naïve sense it was the right thing to do. And then everything else, I kind of imagined.
JH: Do you know what happened to his family as a result or did you not want to know?
KC: My friend’s aunt lives in America — in Nebraska, pretty close to his dad. And I asked if they get along. And my friend was like, yes, of course. I think that was really what was most intriguing to me about this story — about how some families are so resilient that they can deal with trauma. And every family has trauma to some extent, right? And so, I was really intrigued by that, the fact that a family can come together after an event like that [where a child is left behind]. The fact that all of us are in some ways always testing the limit of family — whether it's a small rebellion as a teenager or something as large as war or political strife and we're always kind of pushing against the limits with love. When I first started the book, I saw two threads. One would be in the present day and one would be in the past, or maybe that the book would unfold over, say 50 years and we would get to see the family 20 years later or 30 years later, something like that because I was so interested in how family deals with this kind of trauma. But then when I started writing, I saw that the historical story was so much more interesting than the contemporary story, so I scrapped that idea, decided to stick to the historical one and tell the entire story in the past and then compressed the timelines to just a couple of months.
JH: I have to ask what made you change your mind.
KC: I was reading a number of novels that had that kind of structure. One book that swayed me was Chang-rae Lee’s The Surrendered. It’s a brilliant book. It showed me that the contemporary thread had to be compelling in its own right, that just examining the kind of psychological trauma that was happening in the family wouldn't be enough to carry that thread. It pushed me to just sort of stick with the historical thread.
JH: What about the different points of view? How did you decide on that?
KC: I knew that in my second book I wanted to work with multiple points of view just because it was such a different task from my first book. My first novel was entirely in first person. And in fact, up until that point, almost every short story I'd written had been in first person. Just in terms of craft, I was really interested in exploring a different structure and solving a different problem. Initially, the brother was the first point of view that came to me and was the one that kind of came most easily. But very early on, I saw that San San, the sister, was going to be the character that bore the brunt of all the consequences. She's the one who really has to deal with the fallout from the actions of each family member. So even though the story was going to rotate through different points of view, San San still has to be the protagonist and she has the most pages in the book. At the same time, I definitely wanted the different points of view [of the family] because each character is guilty and — it's complicated in a particular way. What are the things that we tell each other — that we tell ourselves in order to be able to keep going — how do we find any kind of hope or any kind of forward momentum in the face of this kind of loss?
JH: I think the way that you described San San early on as a bit of a mess — she’s constantly wiping her nose with her sleeve — made me love her even more. I was also drawn into your book because of how your characters treat each other. The grandmother, the mother, the father — made me think about the conversations coming out of the #MeToo movement.
KC: I've been thinking about that too because when I started the book in 2011, I mean, it really felt like a historical novel. So exactly what you said about the #MeToo movement — I've been thinking about women who voted for Trump, I've been thinking about women who refuse to call themselves feminist, the way that the patriarchy pushes women to subjugate their own — it's the mother who decides to leave the daughter behind, and it's the grandmother who says to the mother, there's no other way. Like there are just these kinds of rules that are passed down through women. It's been really surprising to me how resonant it feels given our current political and cultural situation.
JH: Also the father’s physical abuse of the mother. I was so worried in my own book about having an abusive, violent Asian man. But now in light of #MeToo it opens up this reckoning of men as a whole.
KC: There's no way to point fingers anymore. Many people have been called out and nobody can delude themselves anymore. There is this stereotype of the Asian patriarch who rules with an iron fist and is very cold-hearted. But the father never seemed that way to me. The thing I identified most with him was that he was crumbling under the weight of his duties. And that's kind of the flipside of the patriarchy. It takes power away from women but then it tells men that they can't make a mistake and they can't ask for help, right? He cannot be vulnerable, and he lashes out when he finds himself in a vulnerable situation. His actions are unsympathetic in the eyes of many — and he makes a ton of mistakes and he treats people poorly in his life. But I think I really empathize with his struggle to fulfill his duties as the oldest son in the family and to also try to find happiness where he could. But I think you're right, that he does kind of fulfill a lot of the stereotypes.
JH: About the place — how did you come up with Drum Wave Islet as the home for this family? It’s close yet separate from mainland China and Hong Kong.
KC: It’s actually my family’s ancestral home. My great grandfather first moved to the island on my mom’s side and then my dad’s parents actually moved there first time. Both sides of my family come from this little island that is smaller than one square mile. Really, really small. Actually my grandmother, my father’s mother, lived out the last couple of years of her life on that island. I went to visit back in 2008 with my dad before I even considered this novel. Then when I decided to try to write this novel, my mind immediately went back to this island. It just seemed like the perfect setting for the family. I liked the fact it’s isolated — that for a child to be left behind there is really sort of a physical manifestation of her isolation and her abandonment. I also found it to be a really enchanting place. Part of it is the architecture. It was a foreign concession, so it has 19th century European architecture. A large part of the population migrated overseas to make money and sent money back to the island. For a while there was incredible wealth because of the overseas money that was sent back, and there were all these beautiful mansions that were built by these families and you can still see them today. A lot of them are kind of crumbling. When I visited in 2008, part of the island felt trapped in time. There aren’t any cars, you can’t even have bicycles because it’s so hilly. It was really easy for me to imagine what it would have been in the 1960s. Even today, you see construction workers pulling these huge wagons piled with building materials because that’s the only way to get stuff across the island. Once I started the novel, I went back a second time to do more concrete research.
JH: You've said that you didn’t consider yourself an Asian American writer because your family is Singaporean. You spent your early life in Singapore and then went to school here. You find yourself comfortable in both Singapore and the United States.
KC: Yes, but I do have different thoughts about it now since the election. You might have read that when I was doing publicity for my first book. I really did feel like an expat writer, by which I mean I'm a Singaporean citizen. I'm still trying to process this but the election was kind of a turning point, [before] I kind of felt like an expat — a long-term expat in the United States and after the election, I feel I would be deluding myself to think that because I don't vote, I have no responsibilities. I've come to see that I must be politically engaged, that I can't hold myself at a distance anymore. It now feels disingenuous. I just don't think that that would be realistic or sincere. So more and more I'm identifying as an Asian American writer, regardless of my passport, regardless of whether I vote or not. I can’t stand by with immigrants being mistreated — and how can I just say this is not my problem because I'm an expat, not an immigrant? That seems not only selfish but deluded. They are like me and I am like them. And it just seems like a false distinction. I'm still trying to process what exactly it means because I do feel like it's a real shift about how I've thought about how I live in the United States. That's kind of the lesson for me — that we're all in it together. Trump coming to power has shown me that the situation is dire. But again, it was always dire — it was never easy for people to migrate from the Middle East. Refugees have never been welcome in this country, that's the truth. And you're fooling yourself if you think you can be apolitical — especially me, as a female writer of color, everything I say is political. There's no point in pretending that you can remove yourself from that.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.