Bookforum talks with Chia-Chia Lin

Chia-Chia Lin

Chia-Chia Lin’s debut novel The Unpassing follows an immigrant family from Taiwan as they adjust to life in Alaska and grapple with the death of the family’s youngest child, Ruby. Exploring the fallout from this tragedy and the family’s attempts to create a home in the US, Lin describes their struggles in hauntingly beautiful prose. The never-ending winter mornings are “dark and joyless but with a scrap of a promise: more than this, there would be more than this.” In the immediate aftermath of Ruby’s death, Lin’s narrator remembers of his mother, “I could still hear her cracking voice, saying again and again to us: Never cross the train tracks. It’s dangerous to cross the tracks. Promise me you will never cross the tracks. Promise. Promise me.” Her words speak of more than just the unforgiving Alaskan outdoors or the black depths of a mother’s grief—they also reflect the difficult passage that the family has encountered in their journey to the US. I recently spoke with Lin on the phone about the inspiration for her novel, the complicated relationships between her characters, and the larger-than-life role that the setting plays in her book.

Was there a specific moment or experience that inspired you to write The Unpassing?

I knew that I wanted to write about a family, and I wanted the story to be told from the child’s point of view. It seemed natural to me that it should be an immigrant family from Taiwan because that’s the family that I know, even though this novel is not otherwise based on the facts of my own life. Pretty early on, I also realized I wanted to write about south-central Alaska and about a house on the edge of a forest. I wanted it to be an intimate indoor space, but I wanted the outdoors to creep in.

There was also this one newspaper article I encountered that inspired some fictional excavation—maybe as close as I ever got to a flash of inspiration. A young boy had gone missing in the mountains or woods in Japan, and it took his parents an abnormally long time to report it. I think the parents searched for him on their own for two days before finally turning to the authorities, who then located the boy. I never looked for that article again, so I might have the exact details wrong—I didn’t want the actual facts to stamp out the questions that had been sparked in my mind. But there was a lot of mystery in those spare facts: What had the boy been doing all that time? Why did the parents wait so long to seek help? What could have been happening in their family that would have led to this?

Why did you set the novel in a secluded Alaskan town?

I lived and worked in Anchorage for a few months, which I know is a pretty brief time, but it left a huge impact on me in a way that I can’t quite explain. All my memories of that time are extremely vivid. I think that setting my novel in south-central Alaska is an attempt to return to that time.

The challenges of the Alaskan landscape also force the characters to draw on what resources they have, and to test themselves in ways they wouldn’t have otherwise. There are scenes where the characters’ lives are quite threatened and where nature gets the better of them. That’s also true of my own experience in Alaska, as well as in other places where I’ve had to fend for myself—all that beauty is hard-edged. It’s always laced with potential dangers.

The family is isolated by more than just the geography—race plays a large role in the family’s struggles to adjust to life in the US.

The fact that the family is a different race from most of the community definitely contributes to their isolation. In this book, I’m not addressing these concerns head-on, but I do think that there’s a fixed perception of the foreignness of this family. For the most part, people don’t reach out because of it. And when someone does reach out, even when it’s in a clumsy way, it has a real and lasting impact.

When you’re writing characters that are people of color, how do you create characters that both feel authentic but don’t fall into caricatures or stereotypes?

My focus when I’m writing has always been not “what do immigrants do in this situation” but “what would this specific character do.” There are certain traits associated with Asian immigrants in particular, like pluck and resourcefulness, or being hard-working and putting your head down. To an extent, those qualities are present in my characters, so in one way you might even say that certain stereotypes are present. But I don’t think about any of this during the writing phase—I just want to get each character onto the page in her full complexity. So the mother is resourceful, but it’s a very specific sort of resourcefulness. She’s from a seaside village and now finds herself on a different coast, where she starts putting some of her skills to use. I think focusing on the individual leads the way through and past stereotypes.

Why did you choose the older son Gavin as the narrator?

Maybe this is counterintuitive, but I chose him as the narrator because I was really interested in the other family members and how they were dealing with the same tragedy. So the way into his head for me was not to constantly think about him, but to think about how he was seeing the other characters.

I grew up in a relatively large family, so my memories of childhood are tied up with sibling interactions and the way we created our own world that was separate from, and somehow freer or more artistic than, the adult world. The interactions children have—they’re almost adult-like, but not quite, and I find that difference to be really fascinating. It’s not that they understand less, but that they understand things differently. And I’ve always loved stories about siblings. How do they carry their shared childhood understandings into adulthood?

At the end of the book, Gavin moves back to Taiwan, with a hope that he’ll feel more “at home” there. But that feeling never really materializes for him.

One of my preoccupations while I was writing this book was what happens when people move from one country to another, and what it looks like when they never quite “make it” in the new place but they can’t go back to the old place. That feeling of being stuck—it interests me. So does an entire family’s trajectory as the result of a handful of events.

How did you decide on the title?

I tried out a few different titles, but I liked the looseness of The Unpassing. It left some room for different people to read into it what they wanted. For me, it has a few meanings. The book kicks off with the death of the youngest child who passes away. Each family member goes on to deal with the death in his or her own individual and very private way, and she continues to haunt all of them. So there’s that aspect, but also the aspect of assimilation—they can’t quite pass as Americans or Alaskans. The narrator never feels a sense of belonging, but he can’t undo the passage to find a home. I wanted the title to gesture to that as well. But I’m open to, and even hopeful for, other meanings.

Gloria L. Huang is a freelance writer. Her fiction has been accepted for publication in literary journals including The Threepenny Review, Fiction, North American Review, Arts & Letters, Washington Square Review, Gargoyle Magazine, and the Antigonish Review. She received her B.A. in English Literature from Stanford University.