Kristin Chen crafts a carefully constructed novel about a struggling Chinese family in ‘Bury What We Cannot Take’
By Lou Fancher
Dislocation disrupts home and family in San Francisco-based author Kirstin Chen’s second novel, “Bury What We Cannot Take” (Little A, $24.95, 286 pages). Alienation, disorientation, betrayal and swift-paced movement, intentional or forced, thread their way through the tale of a Chinese family in turmoil. Historic and contemporary themes related to refugees, immigrants and periods of social, political and cultural unrest add significance and immediacy to Chen’s fast-paced novel.
The book’s origins come from a real life story told to Chen by a friend. Intermingled are the 36-year-old Singapore-born and raised author’s ancestral history. Chen, 36, came to the United States at age 15. She is a Stanford University graduate and has a master of fine arts degree from Emerson College. Her first novel, “Soy Sauce for Beginners,” chronicled a young woman’s West-versus-East cultural struggles after a divorce and a return to her homeland in Singapore.
“Bury” is set in 1957, one year prior to Maoist China’s “Great Leap Forward” into modern industrialism. A rotating point of view deploys multiple narrators: primary protagonist 9-year old San San, her older brother Ah Liam, their parents and paternal grandmother. After Ah Liam reveals to authorities that their grandmother has smashed a portrait of Mao with a hammer, the imperiled family makes plans to flee tiny Drum Wave Islet and escape to Hong Kong. San San’s father is already there, having years before found employment—and a complicating love relationship. San San’s mother claims her husband is dying; a lie that provides three exit permits. Forced to leave one child behind as proof they will return, San San’s mother must choose. Leaving her daughter behind launches the family into spiraling action in which allegiances dissolve and family connections are tangled by resentment, suffering and eventually, only partial redemption and reconciliation.
Chen is a disciplined writer. “I live a life of routine,” she says in a phone interview. “Every day I don’t teach I write in my home office. Same time, no music, entire silence. I draft 1,000 words a day when writing something new. When revising, I work in chunks. Two hours is a good amount of time to focus, take a break, then come back and do another chunk.”
On days when 1,000 words won’t come? Chen says that doesn’t happen. “I’m OK with 970, if the words seem right,” she says, later amending the lowest limit to 980. “If I reach 800 and think there are no more, I just keep writing.” Drafts—eight for her first book, 10 for “Bury” — are at first 50,000 word sprints to reach the end. “Then I add and add. It might end up with 75,000 words.”
Her rigor is born out of tradition. Chen recalls Singapore’s high pressure public school system: tests from age 6, in first grade. “We were allowed to bring a book in case we finished early. I’d race through the tests so I could read. Sometimes, I forgot the last page of the test because of that. My mom told me I wouldn’t be able to take a book if I wasn’t more careful.”
An early impulse to break free of the mold was the first time Chen surprised herself with her writing. “When I was 9, there was a school wide poetry contest for third graders. The topic was to write a poem about an animal. Everyone wrote about a cat or a dog, because those words were easiest to rhyme. I wrote about a cat. I knew it wasn’t inspired, but I kept going. Suddenly a line came into my head, “My crocodile lives in the river Nile.” I remember thinking, I don’t want to write a whole new poem. But I did. I completed it, and I won third place.”
While working on “Bury,” Chen did extensive research. She read historic fiction set in China, memoirs, economic texts. She visited the island location and interviewed an aunt who’d lived in the region in the 1950s. Her next book, which will involve handbags, had her completing a residency in Guangzhou, China. “They’re the world’s handbag manufacturing capital. They have a gigantic shopping center filled with high-end fakes. The scale is unbelievable. Wholesalers come from all over. Some sell for up to $1,000 — for a fake bag. Imagine!”
Using imagination to craft fiction doesn’t allow Chen to ignore a writer’s responsibility. Foremost after deep research is creating believable, but flawed characters — the father’s toxic masculinity in “Bury” eventually derails his surface pride when family duty and personal fulfillment collide; San San’s “I don’t like eggs anyway,” demonstrates her strength in coping while only half-masking the roiling resentment she feels over her her more privileged brother’s receiving the family’s last, rare egg.
Cultural appropriation is a topic Chen considers most carefully. “Writing about a job I’ve never had or a race I’ve never been; these two are not equivalent. There’s historical context to race that you can’t ignore. It’s the writer’s responsibility to do everything they can to respect that.” Although conversations about appropriation around skin color are common because there are many book critics and educators of color, Chen wonders about other marginalized or exploited populations. “People with disabilities, gender-alternative people: If it’s incumbent on the group to speak up, what happens if they don’t have a strong voice yet? I don’t know the answer yet, I just know care should be given to be accurate, to