Back in the day, as an undergraduate at Stanford, I interviewed the writer Lan Samantha Chang about her work. I was 19, she was probably in her late 20s; I wasn’t a writer yet, and she wasn’t the acclaimed short story writer and director of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. Sam (as she was called back then, and maybe still is), told me something I never forgot: “I write about my family, people I have deep, deep feelings for.” I’m paraphrasing here, but the point she made was that writers have intense, complicated feelings for their parents, perhaps even more so than for their lovers.
Samantha’s point resonated with me very deeply, and over the years I discovered other writers who felt the same way. I paid particular attention whenever I heard a writer dedicate a book to their parents instead of husbands (Malcolm Gladwell, Janice Lee), or who chose to write about their parents in their fiction. This seemed particularly true of ethnic writers, who conflated parent with nation, and used each to gain insights on the other. In Nam Le’s remarkable short story “Love and Honor and Pity and Compassion and Sacrifice,” for example, the narrator cannot separate his understanding of his father with his father’s memories of his childhood in Vietnam. Vietnam=father=story.
Why do writers obsess so much about their parents, especially their mothers? To me, the answer lies in Amy Tan’s THE JOY LUCK CLUB, in the section where Waverly Jong, the chess prodigy, loses her powers. Up to that point, prodded by her mother’s proud and unblinking gaze, Waverly wins match after match. Then, one day, after a fight with her mother, Waverly begins a losing streak from which she never recovers. Tan implies that Waverly’s ability did not come from herself, but from her mother, who gave her those powers through her belief in her. In Hinduism, this is known as “power karma,” in which a parent’s thoughts provide a protective shield over the child, and can propel the child’s success. I suspect it is really a metaphorical way of thinking through the financial and emotional investments done for one’s child, but I think it’s fun to reinscribe parent-child relations within mystical, other-worldly language. In the immortal words of Rosie O’Donnell’s character in Sleepless in Seattle, “I know it’s not true, but it feels true.” In some of this literature, it really does feel like a parent’s thoughts can affect the child’s destiny.
Right now I’m reading Jean Kwok’s glorious novel GIRL IN TRANSLATION, about a teenager working at a Chinatown sweatshop while attending a prestigious Manhattan prep school. The book is based on Kwok’s own experiences, and for me, the passages describing her mother moved me the most. The narrator never romanticizes her mother, even though the mother is a tragic figure: a former music teacher in Hong Kong, she spends her time “finishing” skirts in a dust-filled room, in slave-like conditions. Kwok never asks the reader to feel sorry for the mother, who is filled with dignity, self-respect, and who will do *anything* to help her child succeed. She is self-sacrificing in a matter of fact way, as if it were as much a part of her job as placing the skirts onto hangers.
Kwok seems emblematic of a recent generation of writers who write fictionalized versions of their mothers: Nami Mun’s MILES FROM NOWHERE comes to mind, as well as Eugenia Kim’s THE CALLIGRAPHER’S DAUGHTER. Both novels imagine their mothers’ experiences, in an attempt, I suspect, to recover their suffering and sacrifices, and provide consolation through the redemptive powers of representation. Both who is being consoled here? Is it the mother, whose experiences gain a validity in the public realm that it previously lacked; or is it the writer, who can finally expiate some of her own guilt as the recipient of the parent’s sacrifices?
In Le’s short story, the narrator’s father eventually throws away the manuscript that the young man is writing about his father. The point, perhaps, being that representation cannot possibly make up for the sufferings of the parent. No matter how hard the writer son tries to understand the father’s sorrows, it cannot do justice to the reality. But the son tries, and spends the entire short story taking different stabs at writing that story, ultimately landing on a post-modern solution that calls into question the very strategies of representation. Ultimately, he cannot let go of the father, and seems more bound to him than the parent himself.
Sociologically speaking, immigrant children often benefit from their parents’ sacrifices, and end up landing in a different world than the one their parents inhabited, in terms of class, opportunity, and resources. The myth of the Korean seamstress whose daughter goes to Yale may be a myth, but at times is the reality, too. It’s a story that resonates because of its reaffirmation of the American dream, though that’s only on the outside–the neat resolution that celebrates the logic of capitalism. On the inside, there’s the inherited grief of the child, who emulates the parents’ traumatic wounding of immigration, of self-denial, of loss of identity. There is a lot of pain there.
Immigrant parents make the kind of sacrifices only expected of lovers in traditional Western fiction–traversing lands, enduring suffering, persevering over obstacles. They’re culturally conditioned to do so–though in return they expect their child’s duty and obedience. They’re bound to each other. When it comes time to write their stories, it does not surprise me that these writers cannot separate themselves from their parents–the stories are too bound-up together, too messily feeding each other.
My own novel, THIS BURNS MY HEART, was inspired by my mother’s experiences. This would seem obvious to anyone who reads it, and wonders how I came to mimic a woman’s point of view the way I do. My mother is now a character, Soo-Ja Choi, a character that I created and invented. I love the topsy turvy quality of that, the notion that the son can “create” the mother by offering her a version of herself that did not previously exist. Ultimately, the writer ends up giving birth to the mother, who has been gestating for years in her son’s creative mind.