In “The Unpassing,” a Taiwanese Family Grieves in the Harsh Wilderness of Rural Alaska
Chia-Chia Lin on how immigrating and pioneering are both ventures into the unknown
Why do we leave home and country? If all unhappy families are unhappy in their own ways, then there might be just as many reasons for emigration. Some leave because they have to. I became an immigrant to the United States somewhere along the spectrum between chance and choice. Reading Chia-Chia Lin’s The Unpassing brought back with force all the self-doubt, second-guessing, and dithering that has been part of my own long process, by no means over, of leaving home. After more than a decade away, the lure of undoing the journey still beckons, even as I understand rationally that no true return can be possible.
In Lin’s novel, a family of five emigrates from Taiwan to Alaska because of the father’s ambitions. There, they are shortly joined by a sixth, the baby of the family. But tragedy strikes, and the youngest of them passes away just as the space shuttle Challenger disaster shakes America. What follows is narrated by Gavin, the middle child, himself fresh from a narrow brush with death. Lin’s evocative passages and brilliantly observed details place the reader in a landscape rendered at turns foreboding or desolate by the family’s calamities. There is much to savor in her deft ability to conjure atmosphere. Garth Greenwell raves: “Maybe once or twice a year, I read a book that’s so good I want to proselytize about it. […] When I finished it I felt like I couldn’t breathe.”
I talked to Chia-Chia Lin about her debut novel, exploration, and child narrators.
YZ Chin: I really admire the title. “Unpassing” is a word that can’t be found in Merriam Webster, but feels familiar enough that readers would have some idea of what they think it means, only to second-guess themselves. It perfectly captures the instability and precariousness that permeates the novel. Is there a story behind the title?
Chia-Chia Lin: I’d always thought titles might be the one eureka moment novelists get to look forward to — since, you know, writing a novel isn’t exactly a process overflowing with confidence and certainties. As it turned out, “The Unpassing” came to me about halfway into the first draft, but I kept fidgeting with it and trying out other titles. The previous title, which I’d held on to for over a year, gestured at scale — both small and large — because in that version of the novel, the narrator was obsessed with the infinitesimal while his father was gazing upward and outward, at the stars. But I became preoccupied by other explorations, and the title no longer fit. I do think there is something about the “un” in “unpassing” that made me eventually settle on it. It evokes instability, as you said. It also suggests a haunting. It’s not the same as a negation — there’s still a ghostly imprint left. Like the word “unspeak.” It’s not the same as not having spoken at all, and in fact it highlights the impossibility of undoing speech, of rewinding an action or taking it back.
YZC: How would you feel about sharing that previous title? Its ghostly imprint?
CCL: I would feel embarrassed, now that I’ve talked it up.
YZC: Another way “The Unpassing” intrigues me as a title is how it ties in to Gavin traveling to Taiwan near the end of the novel. It’s like he’s trying to undo the journey he was brought on by his father, an “unpassing.” How did you settle on Alaska as a counterpoint of sorts to Taiwan?
CCL: The first pages I wrote were set in the woods of Pennsylvania, where I spent a lot of my childhood, but they were missing a certain energy in the landscape — something I’ve realized I need, in all of my writing, in order to proceed. Plus, since the novel’s family had immigrated from Taiwan, as mine had, there were just too many similarities, and the story kept collapsing into nonfiction, which for me spells death.
Many years ago, I published a story set in Alaska (but in the interior, where it is wilder), and I’d grown dissatisfied with it. I’d lived in Anchorage for a short but meaningful time, about 15 years ago, and I wanted to explore what it was that kept the city so alive in my mind. So I changed the woods to a white spruce forest on the outskirts of Anchorage, taking a bit of license and creating a fictional community there, and as soon as I did that, resonances started to appear: Immigrating is a venture into the unknown, and so is pioneering. The mother grew up in a seaside village, and now she was walking a vastly different, but also strangely familiar, coast. When she dug for clams on the Kenai Peninsula, she was surprisingly in her element. And so on.
YZC: I wanted to talk to you about that, the mother character. In the novel, everyone else in the family has close calls with death (illness, falling tree, mudflats etc.). The mother seems to be the only one relatively unvisited by danger. She fishes, gets firewood, keeps everyone alive. She’s also the only one who actively tries to cultivate ties to their home country, making phone calls and telling stories about Taiwan. Would you say that’s her source of strength, given she doesn’t want to be in Alaska?
CCL: It might not be an overstatement to say I wrote the entire book trying to understand the mother. I wouldn’t say that her strength comes from her ties to her home country, but it may be true that this is what she thinks. In the beginning of the story, the narrator observes that she’s shy around strangers, especially when speaking in English, despite the fact that she’s a huge, dominating personality at home. As the novel progresses and the pressures on the family increase, I began to realize that the mother, regardless of what she herself might claim, is actually the character most well suited to the environment. There are times when she even thrives. Although she’s the one harping on a return to Taiwan, when she’s finally given the chance, she doesn’t take it. There’s a note of irony when you compare the father — the one who wanted to be a pioneer — and the mother.
YZC: Along the same vein, we see Taiwanese Hokkien quoted in original only in conversation between the narrator Gavin and his mother. As someone who understands some of the language, I read those scenes as Gavin using it to distance himself from her, which I found heartbreaking. When he’s rude to her in Taiwanese Hokkien, she almost praises him. But when he talks back in English, she says “Don’t talk to me like that.” Do you think we are potentially different people when speaking different languages? How does that affect the characters’ abilities to connect with each other?
CCL: When we grow up hearing a mixture of languages, we learn at a young age to distinguish which circumstances are appropriate for which language. We come to associate particular emotions with a language. In my own life, Taiwanese Hokkien has been associated with safety and familiarity (since I spoke it only when I was very young), but it was also what was used for the kind of fighting you would unleash only within closed doors. For me, Mandarin Chinese is sometimes spoken at a greater distance; it’s what I used when I traveled to mainland China for work, or to speak with my in-laws, and it’s a language I’ve studied formally.
Almost certainly when we speak in a particular language, we are falling back on unconscious patterns and associations. I think the result is that expressing ourselves in a different way using that tongue requires greater effort. It requires us to take down some walls. In my novel, the characters often do not do this, which I think is realistic and also fascinating, in the way that missed connections are fascinating.
YZC: That resonates with me, the habits enforced by languages. How would you describe Gavin’s relationship with English? On one hand, he comes up against the legalese of lawsuits and eviction notices, and on the other, he’s experiencing kindness from his Alaskan neighbors.
CCL: I think the impenetrability of the legalese has to do more with Gavin’s age than any issue of language. He thinks in English, so it’s a private as well as a public language for him.
YZC: The ten-year-old narrator’s vulnerability really lent itself to the atmospheric passages of the novel, and for me his vulnerability comes not from the simple naiveté of a child but a kind of suggestibility. Why did you decide to tell the story through Gavin? Does it have anything to do with him being a middle child and thus (as the stereotype goes) more overlooked, more unpredictable?
CCL: The middle child positioning is part of it. I wanted him to feel some responsibility — for his younger brother, for example — but I also wanted him to be a child rather than a teenager, to be an age when he was still relying wholly on others: his older sister, his mother, his father. I think his age is important. He’s ten in the novel. To me, this is an age that allows for full complexity of thought, but retains a world view that still feels separate from adulthood. I was wary, though, of presenting him in a way that would get him tagged as precocious. I love novels narrated by children, but I usually don’t love those types of novels.
YZC: What are some of those novels narrated by children that you love? What did they accomplish that wouldn’t be possible with an adult narrator?
CCL: Family Life by Akhil Sharma; The Gangster We Are All Looking For by lê thi diem thúy; The Dream Room, by Marcel Möring (especially the first chapter — it’s only four chapters long; the last chapter is slightly baffling). These are wildly different books, I might add. But they examine family difficulties at a slant that makes everything seem new. It’s not wonderment — I hate that word. It’s more like how when you lie down on the floor, you notice different things about a room. The novels don’t sacrifice nuance simply because a child is doing the looking.
YZC: You said earlier you wrote the book to understand the mother. I love the idea of writers exploring what confounds them through writing. Were there any unexpected realizations from finishing the book?
CCL: I had a lot of insights into the characters that surprised me. I’ve had similar experiences while writing short stories, but nowhere at this level of magnitude. I think it’s simply the amount of time spent with the characters, the quantity of pages written and thrown away — you begin to see congruences and contradictions everywhere.
YZC: A cheeky question, but do you have a response ready for when people inevitably ask: How autobiographical is your novel?
CCL: No, I don’t have a response ready! Most of the facts are not autobiographical (by intention), but many of the emotional situations are. Was that obfuscating? I hope so.
YZC: Good for you! I think sometimes there’s this expectation that immigration novels feature a tussle, especially for second-generation characters, between the “old culture” and the “new culture,” with some kind of resolution at the end that’s a compromise between the two. The Unpassing is a departure from this arc. Was it at all your intention to write a different kind of immigrant novel?
CCL: Haha, I would never set out with an intention to write a different kind of anything, mostly because it would incapacitate me. But I do think I’m interested in an aspect of migration that I haven’t seen explored in depth in fiction (though if you told me it already exists I wouldn’t necessarily be surprised either). What I’m interested in is how family migration — when it’s a decision rather than an absolute necessity — is often spurred by one person, and how one person’s desires or choices have huge ramifications for every other family member. For children, who have no agency in the matter, migration thrusts them into a place where they may feel they don’t belong, and yet they may not have any other place of belonging, since they were often young when they left their country of origin. They’re lacking the memories and the history. And this leaves them floating, in a way. Searching.