Global is­sues in­form story of griev­ing fam­ily

Im­mi­grant ex­pe­ri­ence un­der­lies Chia-Chia Lin’s ‘The Un­pass­ing’

San Francisco Chronicle Late Edition - - ARTS & ENTERTAINM­ENT - By Bran­don Yu Bran­don Yu is a Bay Area free­lance writer.

Chia-Chia Lin has some trou­ble dis­cussing her de­but novel, “The Un­pass­ing.” It’s been a cou­ple of weeks since the book was pub­lished, and Lin ex­presses a kind of am­biva­lence about the process of talk­ing about her work.

“I’m not good at it,” the Bay Area au­thor ad­mits some­what self-con­sciously.

The un­easi­ness is per­haps trace­able. The beauty of her new novel, about a fam­ily of Tai­wanese im­mi­grants wad­ing through the af­ter­math of a sud­den death, lies in its ab­strac­tions — its haunt­ingly po­etic lan­guage, the oblique re­la­tion­ship to mourn­ing, to fam­ily and to the Alaskan wilder­ness.

“It’s a fairly quiet book,” Lin says. “It doesn’t have a very ex­cit­ing plot.”

And yet, grand, top­i­cal ques­tions — no­tions of grief and im­mi­gra­tion — have sprung up fre­quently in Lin’s con­ver­sa­tions around the book.

“All of those el­e­ments are, of course, in my book,” she says. “But I think when you’re writ­ing it, the scale of your pre­oc­cu­pa­tion is much smaller. It’s re­ally this fam­ily I care about. And I’m not re­ally, at the mo­ment of writ­ing, try­ing to say any­thing re­ally sweep­ing about the state of im­mi­gra­tion to­day.”

For Lin, the story is steeped in the speci­ficity of one fam­ily’s ex­pe­ri­ence, fol­low­ing them through the eyes of a young boy named Gavin in the year af­ter his sis­ter, Ruby, the youngest of the fam­ily’s four chil­dren, dies of menin­gi­tis. The fam­ily, sup­ported by the fa­ther’s un­sta­ble work as a plumber, lives in Alaska, where the light changes dra­mat­i­cally with the sea­sons and the vast woods where they live can be both com­fort­ing and men­ac­ing.

In Lin’s telling, in the af­ter­math of death, ev­ery el­e­ment of the phys­i­cal world — nat­u­ral land­scapes, faces and ges­tures — re­flects a kind of dis­ori­en­ta­tion and sur­re­al­ism that nat­u­rally ac­com­pa­nies child­hood, but is en­hanced by grief.

“I think it’s about the ways we can feel just im­mensely alone even within our fam­i­lies and even when we feel ex­tremely close to them both phys­i­cally in prox­im­ity, as well as emo­tion­ally,” Lin says. “And some­thing large can hap­pen, that hap­pens to ev­ery sin­gle fam­ily mem­ber, and yet you feel like you need to find your own path for­ward sep­a­rate from your fam­ily.”

De­spite Lin’s re­luc­tance to­ward the fam­ily’s sym­bol­ism — “It’s not nec­es­sar­ily like: ‘I want you to think about Asian Amer­i­cans dif­fer­ently,” she says — their re­al­ity as im­mi­grants is in­nately wo­ven into their connection to tragedy. The book’s ti­tle, Lin says, can re­fer to the in­abil­ity to ac­cept the lit­eral pass­ing of a fam­ily mem­ber; it can also re­fer to the com­pli­ca­tions of mi­gra­tion. “I also like the idea of a sort of pas­sage, a jour­ney across an ocean, and the idea of not be­ing able to un­make that jour­ney and the ef­fects on the fam­ily from that point on,” she says.

Lin wanted to ex­plore the lack of a safety net for a fam­ily, a com­mon re­al­ity for new­com­ers to America. She also wanted to write about fail­ure. In the book, the fam­ily fights to keep itself above wa­ter fi­nan­cially, while strug­gling to process loss. Re­demp­tion or heal­ing is not built in. The re­sult is a deeply melan­cholic tale where a sense of alien­ation per­sists, wher­ever you go.

Lin is re­luc­tant to di­vulge specif­i­cally what parts of the book come from her own life, but the par­tic­u­lar emo­tional ex­pe­ri­ences are con­nected to her life, even as she may strug­gle to trace it.

“I think I’ve al­ways had this kind of feel­ing of un­set­tled­ness, and I can’t quite put my fin­ger on what is the ex­act cause of that. But I know that it has to do with the jour­ney of my fam­ily,” says Lin, who came to America from Tai­wan with her fam­ily at a young age. “I’ve never re­ally felt like I’ve found a place where I would def­i­nitely stay. I think I have this kind of shifti­ness, like I al­ways kind of need to keep look­ing.”

“I think it’s about the ways we can feel just im­mensely alone even within our fam­i­lies.” Chia-Chia Lin

F. Yang

Chia-Chia Lin em­i­grated to the U.S. from Tai­wan as a child.

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