Novel ex­plores what might have been

China Daily (Canada) - - ACROSSAMERICA - By AMY HE in New York amyhe@chi­nadai­

In the open­ing of Ed Lin’s novel Ghost Month, pro­tag­o­nist Jing­nan learns some hor­ri­ble news: his first love Ju­lia has been mur­dered, shot in the head and left by the road­side.

She was killed dur­ing Ghost Month, the seventh month of the Lu­nar Year, when it is be­lieved that the gates of the un­der­world open and spir­its roam about freely, and the liv­ing have to pla­cate the ghosts by mend­ing their ways — at least for the month.

Ghost Month chron­i­cles Jing­nan’s at­tempt to solve the mys­tery of Ju­lia’s mur­der at the be­hest of her par­ents, as well as cope with the dol­drums of life in Tai­wan, where Jing­nan has re­turned af­ter a short stint study­ing at UCLA.

Jing­nan laments bit­terly about how Amer­ica could have been the gate­way to some­thing bet­ter — an Amer­i­can Dream he could have lived with Ju­lia — but fa­mil­ial ill­ness brought him back to Tai­wan, leav­ing him in charge of the fam­ily res­tau­rant.

One rea­son Lin wrote Ghost Month was to explore what life would have been like if he had been born in Tai­wan, where his fa­ther’s fam­ily had lived for gen­er­a­tions, stretch­ing all the way back to the col­lapse of the Ming Dy­nasty in the 1600s. The 45-year-old au­thor pur­pose­fully named his main char­ac­ter af­ter him­self.

“This book is a re­ally per­sonal work,” Lin told China Daily. “As a mat­ter of fact, Jing­nan is my name. I was just imag­in­ing what it would have been like if I had been born in Tai­wan, and ended up con­tin­u­ing my par­ent’s busi­ness.”

In the novel, Lin’s fifth — and first set in Asia, Jing­nan de­rides the su­per­sti­tious na­ture of the Tai­wanese, who put so much stock in avoid­ing bad luck dur­ing Ghost Month, and how much more ra­tio­nal science-based Amer­i­cans were.

“We loved Amer­ica be­cause it was the kind of place where re­li­gion and su­per­sti­tion didn’t dic­tate the cul­ture. The US pres­i­dent didn’t burn in­cense to gods, bow down to idols in tem­ples and wor­ship his an­ces­tors,” the char­ac­ter Jing­nan nar­rates.

Jing­nan’s dis­con­tent with his birth­place is a fa­mil­iar one for Asian and AsianAmer­i­can youth, Lin said in the in­ter­view. “In the way that I’m kind of imag­in­ing what a Tai­wanese life is like, he is imag­in­ing what it’s like to live in Amer­ica. He thinks it’s go­ing to be so much bet­ter.”

is at­ti­tude is an in­verse of what it’s ac­tu­ally like to be an Asian in Amer­ica, and the re­al­ity is that be­ing Asian Amer­i­can back when Lin was grow­ing up in the 1970s was dif­fi­cult, he said.

Lin was born in Queens, New York, but moved to New Jersey at a young age and lived in Penn­syl­va­nia for a short while be­fore mov­ing to New York for col­lege. His fam­ily was one of a hand­ful of Chi­nese fam­i­lies in most of the neigh­bor­hoods he lived in.

“When you’re grow­ing up as one of the few Asian Amer­i­cans in your town, you can’t help but feel that it’s a hand­i­cap, right? As a young person, you just want to blend in, you don’t want to stick out, you want to be able to have al­most a cer­tain kind of anonymity to things — just to go into a store and buy some­thing and not hav­ing some­one go, ‘Hey Ching Chong!’” said Lin, who now lives in Brook­lyn with his fam­ily.

As a stu­dent at Columbia Univer­sity in the 1980s, Lin no­ticed that stu­dents from Tai­wan, Hong Kong or the main­land would come to the US for a de­gree and try to es­tab­lish them­selves in Amer­ica, just as Jing­nan wanted to do.

But at­ti­tudes to­wards suc­cess and achiev­ing that suc­cess as Asians have changed in the last few decades, Lin said, with peo­ple as­so­ci­at­ing Asia as be­ing a land of more op­por­tu­nity than be­fore.

“I sort of think if you’re Asian now, you have cer­tain ad­van­tages,” he said. Peo­ple now, Asians and Asian Amer­i­cans alike, have no prob­lem go­ing to Asia for jobs and ca­reer ex­pan­sion, he said.

For Asian-Amer­i­can writ­ers — like him­self, there are more Asian-Amer­i­can writ­ers now than ever be­fore. “Even 20 years ago, I could buy ev­ery sin­gle AsianAmer­i­can book that was pub­lished. I had a whole crate. Ev­ery time there was an Asian Amer­i­can who pub­lished a book, I would put it in this crate,” he said. “But now, I prob­a­bly need a whole room. I can’t even keep track of all the Asians who are pub­lish­ing. And it’s a lot of di­verse stuff too — it’s not like the same Chi­ne­seAmer­i­can rail­road story or a Ja­panese in­tern­ment story.”

Now, be­ing called an Asian-Amer­i­can writer, Lin said, is a point of pride.

“I love be­ing called an Asian-Amer­i­can writer,” he said. “It’s great!”

Ed Lin,

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