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Windows Into Other Minds

A Q&A with the author of our September Storied pick—Bury What We Cannot Take

Published on:
October 15, 2018
Read time:
5 min.
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Kirstin Chen’s novel Bury What We Cannot Take is one of the most affecting books I’ve read so far this year. Not only does she craft great characters, but she also plunges readers into an arresting story. Naturally, it had to be one of our Storied picks, and it provoked some great conversation within our book club. Kirstin also made the time to answer a few of my questions about her book and approach to writing in general. I’m grateful to her for doing so and I hope you enjoy reading.

—Collin Huber

Every book has its publisher description, but I love to hear writers describe their own work. For those of our readers who have not read Bury What We Cannot Take, could you briefly describe what it’s about?

In a once-opulent villa on a tiny island in Southern China in 1957, a brother and sister catch their grandmother defacing a portrait of Chairman Mao with a hammer. The family gets in trouble with the authorities and must flee to Hong Kong, but when they attempt to get the necessary permits, they're forced to leave one child behind as proof that they'll return. Bury What We Cannot Take explores how we rationalize impossible decisions, persist in the aftermath of agonizing loss, and probe the limits of familial love.

As you’ve said elsewhere, the opening chapters of your novel are based on a true story you heard from a friend. Where does that true story end and your imagination begin? And what about this story stood out to you as one that needed to be told?

The premise of the novel—a child catching his grandmother hammering Mao’s portrait and turning her in, the family fleeing and being forced to leave one child behind—is based on my friend’s story, but the characters, setting, precise time period, and all the circumstances surrounding those actions are mine. In fact, I intentionally refrained from asking my friend for more details about his family story because I wanted to be free to fictionalize.

What stood out to me most about his story was the resiliency of family—and the extent to which every family must weather extreme trauma at some point through the generations.

How did you approach the process of writing this book? Do you have any particular practices and/or places you have found most productive in your writing?

In the early stages of drafting this book, I aimed to write a thousand words a day, just to push myself to get to the end of the story. At the end of each workday, I’d send my thousand words to my first and best reader, the writer Matt Salesses, and he’d do the same. We’d read each other’s words and respond with a simple thumbs-up or thumbs-down. The former meant keep going; the latter meant go back and revise. This quick check-in helped me stay motivated and focused, and it’s a practice Matt and I continue today.

In your essay “Am I Chinese Enough to Tell This Story?” you write about some of the obstacles you faced while working on this novel, especially your concern that perhaps you did not have the “right” to tell this story. Have you received any pushback for not being “Chinese enough”? Since your book’s release, have your thoughts shifted at all in terms of your initial concerns about writing it?

I’ve been really gratified by the response to my novel, particularly from readers with close ties to China. Since the release, I’ve grown much more confident in my research abilities and in my authority to speak about my story’s historical context.

As you’ve thought through the issue of cultural appropriation, what advice would you give to writers questioning their own right to tell a story? What is some of the necessary work required to confidently answer such a question?

This is a large and complex issue that I’ll try my best to address briefly. The first thing I’d say is that fiction writers are absolutely free to imagine characters who are different from themselves—that’s a huge part of the job. That being said, there’s a significant difference between my writing a character who is a dentist (having never been a dentist) and my writing a character who is of a different race. The latter is a much more complicated endeavor, and I have a responsibility to do my research and to fully understand how the history of inequality and exploitation in this country have affected the portrayals of people of color.

Writers writing outside their cultural identities should listen extra hard when readers of those identities offer critiques.

On a related note, there’s a significant difference between a white writer writing a character of color and a writer of color writing a white character. Because the writer of color has been exposed to the white perspective all her life through the media, academic curricula etc., she has, in some ways, already done years of in-depth research by the time she sits down to write her character. Obviously it would be difficult for the white writer to be in the same situation.

This is already getting too long, so I’ll just add that in addition to doing extensive research, writers writing outside their cultural identities should listen extra hard when readers of those identities offer critiques.

Questioning one’s right to tell a story can have a restraining effect—in the sense of avoiding appropriation—but in your case it also had a widening effect. In the essay, you described how writing this book reconnected you with an aunt who actually lived on Drum Wave Islet, or Gulangyu, where your story takes place. How did your interactions with her shape your approach to writing this book? Looking back, how would your novel have suffered in its final form had you not done so?

Being restrained can be a good thing if it pushes a writer to write better. In my case, my insecurities surrounding my authority to write this book led me to my aunt, and the stories that she told me gave me real insight into my characters.

Here’s a specific example. As a child, my aunt migrated with her family from Gulangyu to the Philippines. When she reached the age of fifteen or sixteen, she ran away from home and returned to China to rebuild the Fatherland. (In the early 1950s, a wave of overseas Chinese students—many still in high school—left their homes in South East Asia and returned to China.) Hearing her describe the idyllic early days of New China and her and her schoolmates’ hopefulness and idealism helped me understand how a boy like Ah Liam could believe so fervently in the Party that he’d betray his own family.

Many reviewers have noted the relevance of your book to current headlines. Though set in Maoist China, many of its themes (family separation, trauma, unjust government, etc.) feel eerily present. In your view, what can fiction do to shape imaginations concerning real-life issues, such as border separation? What do you hope readers will take away from your book?

It’s much harder to reduce people to numbers and statistics when you’ve seen and felt their innermost desires and fears.

One thing that separates literature from other art forms is that it enables you to fully inhabit the minds of different characters. It’s much harder to reduce people to numbers and statistics when you’ve seen and felt their innermost desires and fears. So, I hope my book offers a small window into the minds and hearts of refugee families and the devastating consequences of separating parents and children.

Who or what are some of the biggest inspirations for your work?

My daily meditation and ashtanga yoga practices have deeply influenced my approach to writing. Through yoga and meditation I have learned to be calm, steady, and focused but not obsessive.

With two novels to your name, what lessons have you learned along the way that you wish you would have known starting out? What advice would you give to aspiring writers today?

Two things come to mind:

1. Just get to the end of that first draft. Do whatever it takes to mute your inner editor to keep writing forward. There’s no point in revising chapter one over and over (as I did) if you don’t yet know what the story is.

2. Read voraciously and broadly. In my experience, it’s often the books that resemble mine the least that end up unlocking something in my writing.

Cover photo by Maxime Amoudruz.

Kirstin Chen
Kirstin Chen's new novel, Bury What We Cannot Take (Little A, March 2018), has been named a Most Anticipated Upcoming Book by Electric LiteratureThe MillionsThe RumpusHarper’s Bazaar, and InStyle, among others. She is also the author of Soy Sauce for Beginners, a Kindle First selection, an O, The Oprah Magazine “book to pick up now,” and a Glamour book club pick. She was the fall 2017 NTU-NAC National Writer in Residence in Singapore, and has received awards from the Steinbeck Fellows Program, Sewanee, Hedgebrook, and the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference. Her short stories have appeared in ZyzzyvaHobartPank, and the Best New Singaporean Short Stories. She holds an MFA from Emerson College and a BA from Stanford University. Born and raised in Singapore, she currently resides in San Francisco, where she is working on a novel about the counterfeit handbag trade.

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