#KollabSFGetsLit with Kirstin Chen, Author of Bury What We Cannot Take

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For the first time in its 53 year history, the Munich Security Conference (MSC), a key event on the global political agenda that invites world influencers such as United States Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and Microsoft Co-founder Bill Gates, included fiction writers as part of its program. This rarity happens when the world is under such volatile change, that only writers of fiction can think outside the box to help us anticipate the unforeseeable future such as George Orwell’s 1984. People like American writer and professor Roxane Gay turns to reading as a guiding light, “I am not avoiding reality when I read fiction; I am strengthening my ability to cope with reality.” When I personally think of a writer that has the trait of helping people cope with our political climate, I think of Kirstin Chen.

Kirstin Chen’s new novel, Bury What We Cannot Take, is set on a tiny island on the coast of Southern China in 1957 and a family gets in trouble with government authorities and has to flee very quickly to Hong Kong. In the process of this, they are forced to leave one of their children behind as proof of their intention to return. Readers and reviews have given positive reviews as well as pulling parallels of the book with present day’s political climate. Elle praises Kirstin’s book “Chen brilliantly captures the complex and terrifying post-Trump world we’re living in, as families torn apart becomes more of reality than ever before.” Kirstin does a great job of not telling a historically accurate story, but an engrossing engaging book that tackles a heavy subject. Book Riot writes “I just don’t understand how a book can be this good and this beautiful and this heart-wrenching all at once, and if you only read one of the books on this list: make sure it’s this one.”  The book has been listed in Most Anticipated Upcoming Book by The Millions, The Rumpus, Electric Literature, Harper’s, and Bazaar. Writing a book of this magnitude was not easy for Kristin as her literary journey leading up to this writing Bury What We Cannot Take was an amazing story in it’s self.

Her first novel, Soy Sauce for Beginners, was a Singaporean story that she never saw written before. The story follows 30-year-old Gretchen needing a break from life in San Francisco, her home for 15 years, and flies back to Singapore. Killing time, she helps out at the family’s artisanal soy sauce factory, Lin's Soy Sauce. The lead character Gretchen was based on Kirstin. "I began by wanting to write about a girl who is trying to find her home,” She tells USA Today. “That part is very autobiographical." The book was well-received as it is a Kindle First selection, an O, The Oprah Magazine “book to pick up now,” and a Glamour book club pick. However there was one particular critique of her work that remarked it wasn’t authentic enough. In her essay “Am I Chinese Enough To Tell This Story?” a woman shared her initial thoughts about her book at her book reading, “I’m looking forward to reading your novel, but I don’t think you’ve spent enough time in Singapore to speak Singlish.” No matter how great any creator is, no one is invulnerable to criticism. Especially if one’s story is said to not be authentic enough.

Her second novel Bury What You Cannot Take was written based on research. Kirstin left no fact unturned as literature, films, history and economic texts were academically absorbed. After reading everything the library and internet can offer, she turns to her own family. Her aunt was only one that had first hand experience in that time and helped with the book. This historical content that she gathered gave her the confidence to silence the fear of cultural appropriation and the mental endurance to complete such a great novel.

While her writing approach evolve with this second novel, she also evolved her perception of herself too. Only seeing herself as Singaporean writer before, that shifted as she could now identify being an Asian-American writer as there is more urgency for the public to be politically engaged. She tells Hyphen Magazine, “I'm still trying to process this but the election was kind of a turning point, [before] I kind of felt like an expat — a long-term expat in the United States and after the election, I feel I would be deluding myself to think that because I don't vote, I have no responsibilities. I've come to see that I must be politically engaged, that I can't hold myself at a distance anymore.”

Looking back while I was doing my research to find Asian-American writers for #KollabSFGetsLit, we at Kollaboration SF are very fortunate that Kirstin has participated in our ongoing conversation Asian-American issues in Arts and Media. She has been one of the most supportive and excited authors about our series. She even corrected my spelling of Kollaboration with a “K” at one of her book events I attended. On the phone with Kirstin, we talk about her essay writing (to which I enjoy them tremendously), being Singaporean, and the feeling of the life or death of your first novel.

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Do you have a balance between adding your personal experience as to doing research when you're doing your writing?

I think it really varies from project to project. This particular novel required a lot of research because I was writing about a region and a time period that I knew very little about. In fact, I had to do several months of research simply to figure out precisely which year the story would take place. My personal experiences came into play in writing the characters, even though, on the surface, they’re all really different from who I am. I tried to give each character a trait or an experience from my own life as a way of accessing their psyches—even the character Ah Zhai, who’s a terrible husband and an absent father and a failing businessman, and who seems about as far away from me as possible.

You started writing your book in 2011 and our political climate has shifted tremendously by present day. In your interview in Hyphen Magazine, you changed your outlook of yourself from not being an Asian-American writer because you were Singaporean citizen, to having a bigger responsibility to be politically engaged. How did you separate your feelings while writing this book?

I tried as much as possible not to view my characters through a modern lens. Obviously it’s very difficult to put aside my personal biases and experiences, but I tried not to psychoanalyze my characters from the vantage point of 2018. I tried not to impose my own beliefs onto them, and I tried not to let whatever was happening around me color the way that I was telling the story.

During your research, you mentioned you’ve used your families stories as reference. Most Asian-American families and communities have a fear of transparency. Did you personally have any struggles getting these stories from your family?  

That’s a great question, and I think that the struggle was really my own reluctance, although I don’t know that I would have been able to verbalize that if you’d asked me back them. My aunt was the person I interviewed and because she knew the time period and region first-hand, she was instrumental in my research, but I really didn’t turn to her until I’d exhausted all other resources. Now in hindsight, I can say that I held back from seeking her out because I’d internalized the reluctance of my family to talk open about what she’d been through.

A quick summary: my family immigrated to the Philippines in the 1940s, and when my aunt was a teenager, she ran away from home to return to China to rebuild the country. She ended up being separated from her family for two decades. My parents had never really explained why my aunt had been in China on her own, and I’d somehow known not to ask for more details.

I have to say that once I reached out to my aunt, she was incredibly forthcoming and easy to talk to. She worked as a journalist for much of her life, and had often been told that she should write a memoir, but she was never interested. Still, I think she really understood what I was trying to write and was just so willing to share her story.

I have read most of your work and I think you write amazing essays, but you say you aren’t a natural essayist?

Essay writing is very difficult for me. Part of it may be that I grew up in a very private family. You know how in Asian families you don't air your dirty laundry? Additionally, I think I've always been drawn to writing because I love to imagine, so fiction seems the natural fit. I love imagining settings and characters and situations, and I guess essay writing doesn't fulfill me in the same way.

Furthering your essay on cultural appropriation “Am I Chinese Enough to Tell This Story?” do you have any advice for Asian-American musicians?

I don’t think I know enough about Asian-American contemporary music. In terms of writing though, the first thing I would say is nobody's here to tell you that you’re not allowed to write something. That's the first thing to get out of the way because some writers hear the phrase “cultural appropriation” and immediately bristle because they think it’s telling them you're not allowed to write outside of your own race. The job of a fiction writer is creating characters who are different from you. That being said it's important to understand that when you're writing outside of your own race, there's a whole historical context that you have to be aware of. If you don't then you're not equipped to write a character that feels real and complex, which is ultimately what all fiction writers are trying to do.

What I’ve got to witnessed firsthand is the Asian-American community is very supportive. How do you feel about the Asian-American writing community?

I feel so incredibly fortunate that that I have a very tight-knit community of writers: writers of color, women writers of color, and Asian American writers of color. I mean it's just incredible that we have that support. There are issues in academia and in publishing that are very particular to women writers and to writers of color. I can’t describe the level of affection I have for these Asian-American women writers. They’ve really enriched my life and my writing in innumerable ways.

Growing up in Singapore until you were 15, was there any kind of fiction that you wish you had?

Singapore was a British colony and English is our first language for the most part, so, all through school we read British and American writers. And when you don’t encounter writers and characters who look and sound like you, the message is that people like you don’t get to tell stories. And then when I moved to the US and started reading Asian American writers, like Maxine Hong Kingston and Amy Tan, they also seemed foreign to me because the Asian American experience was not the experience of a girl growing up in Singapore. I loved Joy Luck Club but I don't think that reading it was revolutionary for me in the way that it was for a lot of my Asian American friends. For them, it was maybe the first time they'd seen their story being told in fiction. Coming from Singapore, we still don't have that much. But we do have a thriving literary scene now, and more and more there are Singaporean writers who are publishing internationally. A couple great books just came out recently by Rachel Heng, Sharlene Teo, Thea Lim, and Clarissa Goenawan, so it’s changing.

So one of the reasons I set my first book in Singapore was simply because I just hadn't ever really seen a story like mine in print. It was important for me to portray the Singapore I knew, which meant resisting the push from editors to exoticize my hometown.

We have a motto on the website “Empowerment Through Entertainment.” With your new sense of being politically engaged, what are your thoughts of activism through art and will this impact your work in the future?

I really love that slogan “Empowerment through Entertainment”. Literature is really the only art form that lets readers access the deepest thoughts and emotions of a character. It's so powerful to be able to understand and empathize with a character who on the surface may seem completely different from you.

As for the second part of your question: The book I'm working on right now is about immigration and the Asian-American experience and the myth of the model minority, but it’s too soon to tell how that will pan out.

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What was the fulfillment of writing this second book Bury What We Cannot Take, as Soy Sauce for Beginners was your first book?

Writing Bury What We Cannot Take taught me that I had the stamina to take on the research this book demanded. I’ve now learned never to rule out a subject because I don't think I know enough about it. Additionally, writing the second book has allowed me for the first time to envision a career in writing. With my first book, everything felt like life or death.

:: We both Laugh::

Like if, I don't know, I don’t find an agent I'll never write again or if I don't sell this book I’ll never write again!

That's what makes us romantic right? Thinking in All or nothings.

It’s true. The stakes were very high with the first book and at any moment I felt like my career could be over. Now with the second book, I can think about the future. I trust that if I put in the time and effort, the writing will come.

So how has the reception been and your takeaways from it?

I’ve been so gratified by the response to my book, especially from readers with ties to China who know the time period I’m writing about. I’m so grateful when those readers tell me they could relate to my book because for so long, my biggest insecurity was that I wouldn’t be able to do the research to fully understand the complexities of the time.