“Ghost Forest” is A Fragmented Story About Family Separation
Pik-Shuen Fung on living between countries and her writing process
Near the end of Pik-Shuen Fung’s debut Ghost Forest, the narrator laments: “…I am overcome with envy for the people who live where they were born and raised. Why is it that I have to choose?” I thought about this dilemma—the privilege of choosing where one lives—but I also wondered if it wasn’t a false choice, particularly for children of immigrants. Obviously, we cannot pick our place of birth. We have no say in whether our parents decide to leave their cultural homeland and raise us in another country where we must assimilate.
In the case of Ghost Forest’s unnamed protagonist, she comes of age in Vancouver, Canada, alongside her sister, mother, and grandparents, while her father remains behind in Hong Kong. Through short vignettes, she pieces together her memories as a young child and anecdotes passed down from the women in her family. While a college student studying painting, she encounters moments of quiet conflict with her father that continue to reverberate into her adulthood.
The novel presents a familiar immigrant narrative of split families and split identities told by a fresh, contemporary voice—a perspective many diasporic readers will recognize. Entangled with the struggle for wholeness that underlies the main character’s experiences, what scholar Anne Anlin Cheng describes as “racial melancholia,” another more immediate and palpable feeling of loss takes hold as she recounts her sick father’s final days and her family’s visits to the hospital.
Over a video call, Fung and I spoke to each other from our respective homes in New York, a city where we both ended up after childhoods spent on the opposite coast and a world away from relatives in Hong Kong. Marveling at many of the parallels we shared, I told her that my own father passed away two years ago. I felt grateful to Fung for so poignantly articulating the process of grieving and recovering family stories. In a literal sense, her incorporation of Cantonese mirrored attempts in my own fiction to replicate a language I grew up hearing but not writing. Our conversation, much like the emotions of joy and sadness that bubbled up for me while reading Ghost Forest, offered an opportunity to not only see each other, but also feel seen.
Mimi Wong: Where did the novel begin for you?
Pik-Shuen Fung: I was actually in art school, so I was doing my master’s at the School of Visual Arts, and it was the summer between my first and second year, and my dad had just passed away. So I was grieving. I was just in this mindset of making artwork. One day, I wrote out a vignette, and since I was in art school, I thought about how I could turn it into something I could show in my studio. I recorded myself reading it out loud. Then I turned it into a voiceover for a video project. The vignette I had written had a sort of circular quality, and I really enjoyed that. So I wrote a few more [vignettes], and then I made it into a type of short film.
MW: What were the visuals accompanying the film?
PSF: I tried a lot of different visuals. In hindsight, it was really apparent that I just wanted to write. But because I was in an art program, I was thinking about it visually. I tried appropriating some random footage I found on YouTube. Then ultimately, I found this really beautiful Chinese ink painting from the Yuan dynasty by a painter called Ni Zan, who was considered one of the Four Great Masters of the Yuan dynasty. There was a painting that he made the year his wife passed away called Wind among the Trees on the Riverbank (1363). I took fragments of that painting and matched it to the fragments of my voiceover.
MW: I love the way you play with fragmentation because I thought it was such an appropriate way to reflect how many of us learn about our family stories. They come to us and like bits and pieces over our lifetime. Our parents tell us some of it, but usually not anything in full. I’m curious to hear you talk a little more about how you were playing with that form.
PSF: I think that because that was the form I began writing in, and because I was continuing to experiment with the video, I decided to continue writing in fragments, and not in any particular order. I just wrote whatever was most interesting or charged for me. Then I would print them out on tiny pieces of paper and then rearrange them on my floor many, many times. And that’s how I grew the book. It was an intuitive decision in the beginning, and over time I also saw that it really worked, as you said, to capture the way that our families tell us or don’t tell us their histories, and also the experience of grief and memory.
MW: How did you go about digging into these memories? Especially young childhood memories, I feel like it can be really difficult. How did you kind of get in touch with your younger self?
PSF: Since it’s a novel, I didn’t feel limited to the experiences of my own memories. I think that what I was interested in doing is mimicking the experience of memory. And to me that is non-linear, it’s associative, and sometimes one image brings up the next image. Also, in my experience, memory isn’t always full of detail. Sometimes certain details really stick with me. But other times it’s like there’s only one detail that is salient.
To answer your question, I probably wrote most of the childhood scenes in my editing process. That was what my editor pushed me to do more of. It was really trying to choose which moments in the narrator’s childhood I felt were emotionally resonant, and not just because the book is so short. I really wanted every part to have some kind of emotional resonance. I think the difficulty was probably just in choosing what to add in during that stage.
MW: I also really love the way that you use Cantonese in the novel. For me, there’s something so inherently nostalgic about hearing it and seeing the way that the character is absorbing it. Was there any sort of approach you had in mind about how you wanted to use this secondary (or first) language? Were there any pitfalls you wanted to avoid?
PSF: Cantonese is my mother tongue, but I feel much more comfortable expressing myself in English. Also, my reading and writing level is really, really low, like elementary school level. I think for me choosing when to use Cantonese came down to whether I felt like it could only be expressed in Cantonese. So in my book, it’s a lot of the proverbs. There was a period when I went through this very complicated process of converting the Cantonese I wanted to use. I would convert it into pinyin, which is because I studied Mandarin in college, so I could write in pinyin, and then try to find the simplified character, and then convert it to the traditional character, and then put that into the manuscript. It took me so long.
By the end, I had this realization, I wouldn’t even be able to read this, and I’m really writing this book for people like me. So I went and changed it all back to the Cantonese romanization because a lot of times when I read romanization, I immediately know what is being spoken in Cantonese. Whereas if I had seen characters, I probably would have just, I don’t know, maybe put it in my Google translate app or something.
MW: One of the examples that I thought was really interesting in terms of it being something that was almost not translatable occurs in the second chapter, or the second fragment, where you talk about “gwaai” (乖). I immediately recognized it. I feel like there are a lot of connotations to that word that you can’t translate. What was your kind of understanding of what that term means, and how did you experience it growing up?
PSF: I think I really disliked the word. It’s like this combination of good, obedient, well-behaved, and respectful of your elders. Or it’s like the child embodiment of filial piety. Actually, I have a story about this word. I remember talking to my mom years ago. We were talking about this visual artist whose parents did not support her becoming an artist. So she ran away from home, and made it on her own, and became really successful as an artist all by herself. And my mother said, “Oh, she’s so lek.” [Meaning] impressive or talented. And then I looked at her, and I was like, “Do you think she’s gwaai?” And then she just completely changed the subject because I think that it just doesn’t fit into that concept of gwaai.
MW: To talk a little bit more about the characters of the different family members, I thought it was so interesting that they all kind of comment on their temper, or each other’s temper, especially given the fact that a lot of them seem to actively trying to control their emotions. I got the sense the narrator was not feeling certain things or pushing down certain things. How did you try to convey these different emotions even when maybe the characters themselves aren’t fully in touch with them?
PSF: Growing up, I didn’t realize my family was always talking about tempers. Tempers was just such a frequent topic. The first time I saw that reflected in a book was in Weike Wang’s Chemistry. And I was so happy to see someone writing about that as a trait that might run in a Chinese family.
In my experience, there’s so much focus on this idea of tempers, and having bad tempers, and that being inherited. But at the same time, I’m not writing about most other emotions openly in the novel. That’s the one emotion that’s focused on. As for the characters in my book, I think that I wasn’t so interested in how to convey the emotions that different characters were feeling. I was more interested in leaving that unexplained or leaving space for the reader to draw their own connections. I wasn’t as interested in describing the interiority of the characters.
MW: That’s interesting that you were reading Chemistry and recognized something that made you think, “Oh, I hadn’t thought to verbalize it this way, or even identify it.” I think that’s what’s really cool right now about reading so much new fiction by second generation or 1.5 generation writers who are trying to articulate what this weird experience is—growing up with immigrant parents in a country that’s not your homeland. What does it mean to you to be part of the Asian diaspora?
PSF: For me, just having more types of representation in general for 1.5 generation, second generation, people like us, is exciting. Being Asian American or Asian Canadian, a lot of times it’s like people just look at our faces and assume that we’re a certain way. To have more of us writing about our experiences and be able to recognize ourselves in all our forms, to me that’s what is exciting about what’s happening now in fiction.
MW: What I really enjoyed about the experience of reading your novel was, on the one hand, it was very much an individual experience. I was stepping into the main character’s experience and stepping into this other person’s shoes and seeing the world through their point of view. But then I also loved all the things that I did recognize and that felt familiar to me. That was a new feeling, and it made me wonder, “Oh, is this what other people get to feel all the time?”
PSF: Oh my god. Yeah. Have you read Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien? When I read that book—reading about a Chinese Canadian girl in Vancouver—I just started crying because I realized it was the first time that I’d seen my particular type of experience represented in a novel. Until recognizing it, we don’t even know that such a big experience has been missing from our reading lives.