A Novel About the Anxiety of an Expiring Visa
YZ Chin, author of "Edge Case", on the tyranny of immigration paperwork and what it means to become Asian American
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In YZ Chin’s debut novel, Edge Case, Edwina, a Malaysian woman in New York City, comes home one day to find her husband has left her. As the novel progresses, she sifts through the memories of their relationship to understand all the ways their paths diverged and things fell apart. Seems simple enough. But against this backdrop, Chin’s protagonist encounters larger life uncertainties—a toxic workplace, an overbearing mother, but most of all, an expiring work visa that if not converted into a green card, will mean the end to the American life she has built.
The so-called, “skilled” immigration—where an immigrant moves to the US later in life via a work visa—is a harrowing but dull landscape of forms, delays, and visa stamps. Yet in Edge Case, Chin shows us that the monster here is not overt violence, it is simply the unknowable threat of expiring paperwork, and being beholden to unworthy corporations and immigration officers who hold one’s visa, and quite literally one’s life, in their hands.
I chatted with Chin over Zoom about the antagonism of the green card application process, why writing by writers of color is always presumed autobiographical, and what it means to become an Asian American writer.
Vanessa Chan: Edge Case explores the subject of so-called “skilled” immigration—the protagonist Edwina is seeking a green card to extend her life in the US. This is different than the more commonly written about American immigration story, where an immigrant comes to the US as a child, and faces discrimination growing up in white supremacy. Can you talk about those differences and what it took to show this on the page?
YZ Chin: I had an OMG moment when my first book, Though I Get Home, was published, and I saw it shelved under Asian American fiction. It’s not that I disagree with the categorization, it’s just that I realized I had never thought of myself as an Asian American. That got me thinking, what does it mean to be an Asian American writer? What do I know about Asian American literature? I started wondering to myself, if I am an Asian American writer, what are my contributions to Asian American literature? I’m an immigrant yes, but I don’t fully understand all the nuances of growing up Asian American in the US. Still, I do understand what it’s like growing up a minority. I’m a second-generation Chinese immigrant in Malaysia. I understand being a minority, and sometimes being unloved or being an outsider. It is interesting to port the context of being one type of immigrant to another type of immigrant and trying to fit that into the book was almost a second coming of age for me as an immigrant—going from one to the other. Also, sometimes immigration can feel like regret. One wonders: did I make the wrong choice in staying vs. going back? Or should I not have left? There is a shadow of alternate realities that certain kinds of immigrants live with that not everyone understands. When I got pregnant I told my husband, “There’s an American in my stomach.”
What I found really comforting is that Shirley Geok-Lin Lim, whom I love, is an Asian American writer who is also Malaysian. She has this lovely poem called, “Learning to love America” and it’s beautiful—the last couple lines are, “because it is late and too late to change my mind / because it is time,” and that helped me think about this.
VC: One of the reasons skilled immigration is not written about is because it’s dry and full of paperwork. But you did a really good job in Edge Case making it accessible for people who are unaware of the process.
YZC: Exactly. It’s not that you live here a certain number of years and you automatically get citizenship, which is what some people told me they thought this kind of immigration was like. There are so many things outside of your control. It all feels like an amorphous thing you’re up against, but there’s no one to fight. It’s a PDF file, it’s paperwork. But it is such a big deal.
VC: Ultimately this is a novel about microaggressions. While there are some big, frightening scenes where the characters feel powerless, the violence is not overt. It’s more simmering, and you feel a sense of worry and panic. What draws you to writing about that simmer?
YZC: Withholding the catharsis is parallel to immigration. You can’t kick and punch a PDF file. You can’t rebel against green card paperwork. The first time I applied for an H-1B work visa, I didn’t get past the lottery stage because of the cap on the number of work visas issued. When I was informed that I lost the H-1B lottery, I couldn’t take my anger out on anything. It was just zeros and ones telling me, “Nope sorry, we don’t want you.” There’s a lot of pent-up frustration in the immigration process already, which I thought was interesting to reflect as the central conflict in the main character’s life. The character is caught in many uncertain states because uncertainty is the main ingredient in this kind of green card-beholden immigrant’s life.
VC: A lot of this book is about leaving—a husband leaving his wife, a woman does not want to leave the United States. Can you talk a little bit about why departures inspire you?
YZC: Growing up, both my paternal and maternal sets of grandparents are from China. But they don’t really like to talk about why they left. Was it poverty, was it really difficult in China, were they just seeking adventure? Because of these four people’s decision to leave, I was born in Malaysia. You wonder, what if they had decided to stay, what would I have become?
And as far as myself, at 18, I received a government scholarship to study overseas. When you apply, they give you choices, select the top three countries you want to go to. The US was my last choice. I actually wanted to go to New Zealand. This was before Lord of the Rings, but I had this romantic idea of what New Zealand was like, with rolling meadows and tall cliffs. So I put New Zealand first, Australia second because it’s next to New Zealand. Then I put the US third because I was born on the Fourth of July. That’s literally why I am sitting here talking to you. All these years later I wonder, did I really make the choice to leave, or was the choice made for me? That’s maybe what Edge Case is about—people making decisions when it doesn’t seem like they have much of a choice.
VC: Another theme of the novel is Edwina’s fraught relationship with food—from the struggle she has with being called fat by her mother, to how her emotional unraveling is defined by her failure to stay vegetarian. She even meets her husband at a gathering where food is the central convener. What is your relationship to food in literature?
YZC: I notice that in America a lot of great writing by writers of color involves beautifully linking the relationship to food to cultural heritage, and that is great. But a side effect of that is that there are reader expectations where, if you are a writer of color, then food is the way to connect with you. You could go to a party, and someone asks where you’re from and you say, “I’m from Malaysia,” and they go, “Oh I love Asian food.” To me as a new Asian American, it’s a strange experience. I also don’t want to write what some people have called tour guide fiction—where you write about where you’re from and you describe every food and smell in painstaking detail—it can be very exoticizing. With this novel, I was trying to think of a way in which someone’s chosen identity was disrupted. Edwina chose to be a vegetarian, something she felt passionately about. What does it mean to not only lose that part of her chosen identity, but to be actively sabotaging it? I wanted to have her think, am I still me if I am not a vegetarian anymore?
VC: What part of your brain did you pluck Edge Case from? Did you always have an inkling of what it was going to be?
YZC: After writing my first book, which is set in Malaysia, I remember giving a public reading and after, a white man came up to me and said, “I can’t imagine living in a place like that,” because my first book is about political prisoners. That comment really stuck with me because I hadn’t intended to frame Malaysia as the most horrible place in the world.
People also started saying, “What’s your next book about? Are you going to write about the US or Malaysia?” It was a weird question, as though those are my only two choices. I heard the implication being “When are you going to write about American stuff that is interesting to me, the American reader?” These things sat with me, and a cheeky writing voice started coming to me when I wanted to address those questions. Then the main arc of the book became clear—someone is in the process of losing someone that they very much love and is in the denial. All of these things, stir them into a pot, and in the end, here we are.
I will say, there’s this burden of representation. Of course, we don’t always need to write likable Asian characters, but it’s always something I worry about publishing in the US because you are publishing to a default audience that may not have all the context. You don’t want to write tour guide fiction but you also have that burden of explaining. I also want to point out that though I did work in tech and go through the green card process, Edge Case is not autobiographical.
VC: It’s funny you mention that the novel is not autobiographical. Because that’s an assumption that a lot of white writers make when encountering work by writers of color—as though every grief in the book is culled from our lives, as though we have no imagination.
YZC: I was so shocked when people came up to me assuming my first book was autobiographical. It’s about a woman who gets thrown into prison, who is not me! If that happened to me, I would’ve probably written a memoir! People just assume. In fact, people are very opinionated about what I should write about! Like, “Oh you should write about my life!” Or, “Oh you speak Mandarin, you should write about this Tang Dynasty poet.” It’s a weird writer problem. No one goes up to a software engineer and says, “Okay, here’s what you should code.”
VC: I read your wonderful essay on LitHub about how even though you are multilingual in the way many Malaysians are, you chose to claim English as yours in your writing even though it is a “colonizer’s” language.
YZC: I speak Mandarin. I speak poor Cantonese. And I speak Malay, though my Malay used to be much better. I went to an SMJK (C), a Chinese language medium school in Malaysia. I read a lot of Mandarin literature growing up. So when I read English books, they felt like an escape from my real life because they felt so far away and impossible. In a way, writing in English afforded me a sense of freedom. Writing in Mandarin, I feel like the shadows of my parents reading what I wrote because Mandarin is their best language. For English, especially when I first started out, it was important for me to feel like, “This is just for me. This is my special, secret thing.” With English, I don’t have to answer to anyone or have any expectations weighing down on me before I finish anything. So, English ended up being where I felt more creative.
VC: The novel is written in an unusual form, a first-person direct address. Why did you choose this?
YZC: The overt addressing allows the character to engage in personal mythmaking. We all do this. When you talk to a therapist, you’re not being objective with yourself. You’re trying to present yourself a certain way—you may be seeking absolution or trying to justify your action—whatever it is, you cast yourself in a specific light. In Edwina’s case, she doesn’t know who she is anymore, but she wants to present confidence, so it’s her way of crafting this myth about herself. She gets to tell a stranger who is she is, and it’s vital for her emotional resilience to do so.
VC: Timewise, the book is set after Trump was elected, which was a very specific choice especially as it relates to immigrants. Can you share more about this choice?
YZC: I remember posting on social media when the first Muslim ban happened, about how outrageous it was. And a lot of my Malay Muslim friends said, “Oh biasalah, we always get detained at the airports.” That really got me thinking about how this degradation is something they just accept as part of existing. Which of course ties back to how much will you take to get a green card and what will you let slide in order to pursue your life in a different country? Setting the novel after the Trump election meant there was more at stake. That was the point people started having awareness of the kinds of indignities that immigrants go through.