Global issues inform story of grieving family
Immigrant experience underlies Chia-Chia Lin’s ‘The Unpassing’
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
Chia-Chia Lin emigrated to the U.S. from Taiwan as a child.