If Your History Is Full of Holes, How Do You Fill in the Blanks?
The characters in Belinda Huijuan Tang's novel confront the difficulty of defining home by the parts of it that are missing
Belinda Huijuan Tang grew up listening to her father’s stories of his ancestral village in Anhui, but as she writes in the author’s note of her debut novel, it wasn’t until she moved to China in 2016 that she began to think seriously about the one story he never told: “how the man who’d raised him went missing when [her] father was seventeen.”
Tang turned to fiction to try and fill in the gap in her family history. Though A Map for the Missing isn’t autofiction, it does contain autobiographical elements. The story follows a Palo Alto-based mathematics professor, Tang Yitian, as he returns to China to search for his missing father. Yitian arrives in a village he doesn’t recognize and struggles not only with a home that has become unfamiliar, but with a family and personal history—especially with his first love Tian Hanwen—whose facts change the more he examines them.
I chatted with Tang over Zoom about what home means to diasporic communities that are constantly urged to go back to the countries they have left, the impermanence and unreliability of memory, the subjectivity of history, the uses of topology, and more.
Elyse Martin: Your book focuses a lot on the idea of home. “Home” is such a fraught concept for people in the Chinese diaspora right now, with the uptick in racist violence and assaults, and the all-too-common insult of: “You should just go home.”
Belinda Huijan Tang: I had no idea when I was writing this book that America would look like this right now. I couldn’t have expected that. And that phrase, “you should go back to China,” is so interesting, because I think for many people who are part of the diaspora, that’s not what they want. They don’t necessarily view China as a place of home or belonging when they’ve been in America for this long. My parents have been here for three decades, and I think that time has created such a distance for them, from their “home” place. It’s really, I think, shocking to them, or shocking to other people like them, who have decided to make their home here to hear phrases like that—to hear, “you should go back home”—because that home is a place that they willingly chose to leave, and they’ve willingly tried to make their new home in America.
At the same time, I think for people like them, there has always been this kind of acknowledgment that they didn’t feel a sense of total belonging here. I don’t think they ever felt that their lives were completely free from small violences in the US. This moment is really bringing out a lot of the contradictions of diaspora and immigration that have always been there.
EM: That idea of “the home that they knew” reminds me of how my grandfather and his brother immigrated from China—so the China I know is the China from their stories, which is pre-Cultural Revolution China, not contemporary China. It also reminds me of the jumps between timelines in your book; it undergirds this idea that the home or the homeland becomes fixed in your mind as the home you had at the point when you left it. So it’s not just a location, but a time as well.
BHT: Yeah, as I was writing this book, I began to think of the idea of home as a place in your memory, more than a physical location. And this home was referring to the specific set of ways that you remember living life at a certain point in time, and a place where you felt belonging, rather than something that stays fixed.
Yitian has this idea of home as the place that he had come from; this place that was set back in the past and hadn’t developed. And then when he returns, he finds the place has moved on, in many ways that he would not have anticipated. People are going to the city, there are signs of development in the village that he would never have expected. A huge part of the sadness of being an immigrant is accepting the fact that you are leaving this place, and you will forever have to hold it in your memory, as a home, rather than as a place that exists that you can still be a part of.
EM: Exactly! You brought that out in the very beginning of your book, when Yitian’s trying to recognize his childhood home by the broken tiles around the roof. But in the time that’s passed, and due in large part to his own success in America, those tiles have been fixed for years.
BHT: He has, as you said, been instrumental in creating the changes that have taken his home away from the place that he once recognized. That’s interesting—that the image of home that existed for you is the one that your grandparents told you about, and it’s one that’s decades in the past. That was also very much the case for me, too. I had always imagined this ancestral village as the place that my father told me about from the 1970s and ‘80s. I had this very rustic image in mind. And when I visited as a student researcher, I did encounter some of those things. It certainly wasn’t developed like a big city. But it also was very evident that the place that my father was recalling to me no longer existed. And I had to confront that distance between what I expected and what was when I visited.
EM: You mentioned in your author’s note that that trip reshaped your understanding of home. Could you talk a little bit more about that?
BHT: My father was the first to leave China and come to America, so I grew up without any knowledge of what it was like to have family around. Going to China as an adult, and being so warmly received by so many members of my extended family, people who are very far off in the branches of the tree for me, was the first time that I had experienced that sense of belonging outside of my immediate nuclear family. I understood what it felt like to have a community that you can rely on in times of need, and what it felt like to always have support around you and that someone always has your back.
It felt like an immense load off my shoulders, not to have to do everything alone. It was just such a relief in a way that I didn’t really understand or anticipate: to live in a place where everyone just looked like me. My face was taken as a given for what people from this place look like. I’ve never been someone who’s really felt like an outsider in the US. I didn’t think I struggled with questions of identity in that way. But it became apparent to me that there was something in my body that just felt more at ease and comfortable when I was living in China.
EM: Using topology and mathematics, versus geography, was an interesting and unusual choice. What led you down that particular path?
BHT: I studied a lot of math in college and when I made Yitian a math professor, it was an opportunity for me to explore subjects that I really hadn’t looked at since college. The origin of the phrase “map for the missing” was this idea of trying to define an object in terms of the parts of it that are missing, rather than the parts of it that are there. When I read about it as a mathematical concept, it felt like such a perfect fit for some of the things that I was thinking about, like how Yitian is conceiving of the losses in his life. I felt like I had to put it in the book.
EM: Your book really explores absences and gaps, sort of like lacunae in texts. Did that make it at all difficult for you to write the novel? Because you’re writing around things so much?
BHT: That’s an interesting craft question that originates out of an interesting life question, which is: “How do we fill spaces when there are deaths in our lives, or when we have people in our lives who don’t give us the answers, or who don’t give us the clarity that we’re looking for?” That’s something that most people have to reckon with at some point in their lifetimes: creating meaning for themselves out of a lot of missing spaces. I tried to give space for the two major characters, Hanwen and Yitian, to do a lot of thinking around making meaning of their lives when there’s so much they don’t know. In fact, we, as the reader, know more about Yitian’s life and his family than Yitian ever finds out himself. We see that he has to make closure and meaning for himself through imagining, “What must my father have felt like, going through these sets of situations? What must my brother have felt like? And in what ways can I extend empathy to try to understand them?” It began as a difficult craft question but I think it ended as an opportunity for me to engage deeply with how we make meaning in the world when we don’t have that sense of closure.
EM: I thought this was particularly interesting given the Alzheimer’s subplot that appears later in the book.
BHT: Right? Alzheimer’s is something that I’d wanted to write about because it’s something that runs on both sides of my family, and it’s something that I’ve seen up close quite a lot. What was most striking in seeing people in my family go through it, was how Alzheimer’s is the loss of memory—but with that loss of memory came the loss of relationships, because all of these relationships were based in memory. And once that was gone, there was really nothing to keep those relationships or families together, because there was no history on which to base it upon. I was really curious about what happens when memory is lost. It can be tragic because obviously all that history is lost, but in the case of Yitian, who’s had such a difficult relationship with his father, it also presents a kind of freedom because all of that tragic history is lost. That sense of being wronged is also lost. That’s what happens between Yitian and his father at some point, the loss of memory almost provides the opportunity for the other parts of the relationship to rise anew.
EM: I’m struck by your saying that relationships start changing with the loss of memories, because when Yitian leaves, obviously, he stops making memories with his neighbors and the people in his village. When he comes back, he’s always telling people that he’s from the Tang village and trying to establish connections based on that, but people keep assuming that he’s American and trying to interact with him based on their own assumptions of who he is now.
BHT: When Yitian returns to the village, it’s shocking for him that people aren’t seeing him as the person that he once was. His identity, as he conceives of it, has been lost, and it’s been crafted anew by the people he once thought knew him intimately. They don’t see him any longer as one of them. They see him as an outsider. I wanted to play with that, in showing how these people who were once a part of him; how, when their conception of Yitian changes, it also really changes Yitian’s own conception of home.
EM: I think that ties into the way history is examined and played with in the book, because Yitian’s understanding of history is shaped and changed by the people who are presenting it to him, and also by the Cultural Revolution and its aftermath. What was it like writing with a sense of history that was not fixed, but rather is constantly changing and constantly being edited?
BHT: That really informs my writing, both in terms of the actual history in this book, and this idea of family history. As I was doing research, I had to really question a lot the sources that I was reading, because reading a Chinese government account of what life was like for the “sent down youth” was very different from reading a memoir published in the US, and that was different from reading a memoir published by a Chinese blogger. There are all these ways that people who are speaking are constrained by their understanding of history, and by how they should speak about history. The research process became quite fraught because I had to find the truth between what was allowed to be said and what wasn’t allowed to be said, and I had to try to come to an understanding of what reality I wanted to present in the book.
The idea of a fluid national sense of history was helpful for me in thinking of what it means to have a fluid sense of a personal or familial history. Yitian starts the book with one idea of what the history of his family is and why he’s estranged from his father. What he finds out throughout the course of the book is that a lot of the things he took for granted in his family were actually not true, and were assumptions that he had developed as a child. He then has to undergo this process of understanding the flaws in his conception of his family history.
EM: Let’s talk a little bit about Hanwen, then, because her understanding of her past relationship with Yitian is very different from his own.
BHT: I think that becomes really obvious when they come together again in the 1993 timeline after not seeing each other for fifteen years. Yitian views Hanwen as his first love. But because of the opportunities he’s been granted, he’s been able to put that story with her aside and say, “This was formative, and it’s also a time that has passed.” Whereas Hanwen has come to associate that time in her life with Yitian as representative and symbolic of something more meaningful, which was this great missed opportunity: “This was the moment where I could have gone to college and begun to determine a life for myself.” Even when we come to her fifteen years later, she’s in many ways still engaging with that memory as a point when her life really changed. Watching those two conceptions of how they’re holding the relationship clash was a point of conflict that I really wanted to explore.
EM: Anything else you’d like to add?
BHT: I’ve read a lot of a kind of book that has been really meaningful to me, which is the immigrant novel that’s set in the US about how life in the US is fraught because of feeling like an “other.” I really learned a lot from and love those kinds of books—but I wanted to write a book that was the opposite of that. I wanted to geographically center a different part of the world, because that’s a relationship that’s just not talked about as much in literature. I think part of it is because when we see immigrants come to the US, we make the assumption that where they’re from is a place they want to leave behind. But as we discussed, it’s still something they hold onto. What does it mean to have an idea of home that just is not there anymore because of the decision to emigrate?