Place as Potential: A Conversation with Chia-Chia Lin

Chia-Chia Lin graduated with an MFA in Fiction from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, where she received the Henfield Prize. Her short stories have appeared in The Paris Review, Glimmer Train, The Missouri Review, Zyzzyva, and other journals. Her first book, The Unpassing, is forthcoming from Farrar, Straus & Giroux in May 2019. She currently lives in Northern California.


K Ming Chang: My first question is about your process, particularly in terms of constructing setting and atmosphere in the novel. I’m incredibly haunted by your descriptions of Alaska and how they subverted my expectations of sterility and stillness. There is so much precariousness and tenderness and danger in the way the characters interact with their environments and landscapes. It also made me think of the weight of memory—the mother’s memories of her coastal village in Taiwan, for example—and how memory haunts the page and heightens grief. What was the process of finding and writing these settings, which feel as sentient and alive as the characters? How did it shape the story for you?

Chia-Chia Lin: Before I started this book I’d wanted to write about southcentral Alaska for well over a decade, and I think some of that pent-up energy was unleashed, for better or worse, in a good amount of place description. For me, the questions of who the characters are, in this particular place, and who they might have been in another place drove the writing.

The mother’s memory of her village is tied up in this. Her memories are heavily colored by her sense of wasted potential, and so even a memory as simple as carrying fish up a beach when she was a child is sort of encumbered. Place and potential become inseparable for her; in Taiwan, she had a future, and in Anchorage, she doesn’t. This isn’t exactly true, it turns out, but it’s how she sees the world for a large part of the story.

KMC: That’s amazing! I love the idea that place and potential become linked—and it also subverts the mythos of the American Dream, in which America is typically idealized as “potential.” In your novel, it’s subverted—she sees Taiwan as possibility, as future. That’s really incredible. What drew you to southcentral Alaska in the first place?

CCL: I worked in Anchorage for a short time about fifteen years ago. The landscape is so dynamic and varied—there are shores, mountains, birch forests, spruce forests, and more. Everything you see is on an epic scale. In the summer, the days are so long, you feel like you’re squeezing in extra life. It’s a place that felt really alive to me when I was there, and it hasn’t diminished in my mind with time. It had an impact on me I haven’t quite been able to explain, and I think that setting a novel there was a way to re-immerse myself.

KMC: How did you develop this family as a whole?

CCL: As the characters interacted, I wanted to examine how each family member has his or her own private world, and how even when you’re part of a family unit, you can be totally alone. Being in a family is such a strange thing. Your family knows you so intimately—they’ve seen you in your worst, most bared moments—and yet there are things you can’t say, connections you can’t forge or repair. You’ve known one another from the beginning of your life, which means that you’re interacting from inside these deep ruts. While writing this novel, I thought a lot about ways the family members almost connect. The near-misses are interesting to me.

KMC: You’ve really brilliantly rendered the multifaceted perspective of a young boy, with moments of his grown-up self as well—was this ever a challenge for you, or was the POV something that came easily to you?

CCL: Thanks for saying that. I’ve always loved stories told by children, but not the super voicey ones. You know, the ones that seem to claim they deserve more attention and more sympathy because they are precocious or whatever. Anyway, it wasn’t difficult for me to find his voice and his way of observing the world; what was more difficult for me was sustaining the entire story with those limitations. Sometimes I really wanted to show an event from the sister’s point of view, or the father’s, and I had to figure out how to get the same facts and emotions across in a way that this particular ten-year-old boy would register.

KMC: I love how you describe a process of re-immersion: the novel definitely retains that sense of immersion and wonder. One thing I loved about the novel—and didn’t even know how much I needed it until I read it—was the fact that there were Taiwanese Hokkien words in the book, which I don’t think I’ve ever seen. It meant so, so much to me to see them. I was wondering if you could speak about the role of language in the book and whether it was a conscious decision to include Taiwanese?

CCL: I am so happy to hear this! Yes, I knew as soon as I started writing about this family that I wanted a few Taiwanese Hokkien phrases to appear in the book. It’s a language that, for me, is enmeshed with childhood. And while I understand a little bit now, it’s mostly become a sort of lost language to me, so it feels good to see it in print. In Taiwanese history, it’s a language that was also banned for a time, and its long-term survival is precarious, given the prevalence of Mandarin Chinese. I want to add that other languages in Taiwan, especially indigenous languages, are even more threatened, if they have not already disappeared. Although it wasn’t necessarily a focus in my book, the idea that a language can be lost is one that moves me. If a language can be lost, what else can be? It seems that anything can be obliterated.

During the copy-editing stage, the editor who was giving my book a thorough scouring left comments on the Taiwanese Hokkien phrases. Comments like “couldn’t confirm spelling,” which made me laugh. I was like, “I can’t really confirm it either.” It’s a spoken language for me, and it’s not like it’s easy to take a class on Taiwanese Hokkien (I have heard of maybe a handful of classes in the country), and the romanization of the language is extremely complicated, given that there are different systems, resulting in different spellings and different use of accent marks. Also, the spellings are not always intuitive. (For example, the “ch” in my name is pronounced with what we are familiar with as the “j” sound.)  By a stroke of luck, I did find someone who had studied the language formally. Anyway, this is all to say that it’s an odd situation, to be asked to verify the romanized print form of Taiwanese Hokkien when it’s the nearly lost, intimate, spoken language of your childhood.

KMC: This resonates so much with me! I’m also someone who has “lost” languages in some way—I’m actually working right now on recording Atayal stories that my family has passed on to me and learning as much of the language I can so that I can continue to pass it on in the face of colonization. The lack of standardized romanization of Hokkien seems to me to be both troubling (in that it isn’t considered as “real” as Mandarin) but also possibly liberating in some way, because a non-standardized, oral language doesn’t seem to carry the same hegemony as an institutionalized language. I was also thinking that non-intuitive spelling can “resist” easy understanding in a way that might be interesting and productive.

I was wondering how people in your life have responded to the book so far, and whether the process of creating these characters have also influenced your own relationships to Taiwaneseness and to your physical environment(s), if at all?

CCL: That’s fascinating—I’d be so interested in hearing your thoughts when you’re done with those recordings. Actually, the only people who have read the book so far are other writers. My own family has no idea what is in the book, except maybe what is searchable online, since I’m notoriously secretive about everything. I’d prefer they not read the book at all, but I think part of the publishing process is simply learning to go.

I guess one way of looking at this is that my process of writing the book was one long exploration of my relationship with Taiwan, not so much as a country of origin or the country of the characters’ past—which I think is the more common investigation in immigration stories—but as a country of potential. What could have been the family’s trajectory if they had stayed? What did they give up that they can never regain? I don’t mean only the parents but also the children, who have no agency in the matter but who experience the ramifications just as deeply. I am not a nostalgic person by nature but whenever I visit Taiwan, I feel a profound sense of an alternate path.

KMC: Yes! This resonates so much. That idea of possibility and also the violence of having those possibilities change/be taken away from you is so, so poignant. I love these lines: “It was a kind of violence, what my father had done. He had brought us to a place we didn’t belong, and taken us from a place we did. Now we yearned for all places and found peace in none.” I gasped aloud when I read these lines: it felt like someone had finally found the words for an ache I never knew could be articulated. Thank you.

Those lines felt like one of the echoing chords of the novel. I love how tenderness and violence, love and melancholy, coexist in all these spaces and scenes. I was wondering how you wrote these lines and whether you have any specific moments, scenes, or lines that are your personal favorite or were your favorite to write?

I’d also love to know what you’re working on next and what you’re reading currently!

CCL: Yeah, I probably couldn’t have arrived at those lines without writing the hundreds of pages that came before. When I’m writing, it takes me a long time to realize what I’m writing “about,” if you know what I mean. My focus is so narrow—it’s just on these characters—and the larger themes take shape almost unconsciously. I think the lines you’re pointing out came at one of those rare moments when a realization was pushing its way through into explicit form, a realization about what the family was carrying into the future.

Hm, I’m not sure if I think in terms of “favorites,” but there were two long scenes that felt a little easier to write than others. In one, the father’s partner, Hoyt, visits the house. In the other, the brothers are visiting the Dolans, their neighbors, for dinner. In both scenes, we get some relief from the claustrophobic pressures on the family. The family members are forced to reorient themselves to these outsiders. We get to see what the family looks like in this context, and we can imagine them through these outsiders’ eyes. It felt like a little break for me as the writer, and probably feels that way for the reader, too.

I’m working on a new project, but it’s at such an early, still-percolating stage that I think it would fall apart if I tried to talk about it. I’ll say it’s really different from this book. I suppose every writer thinks that. But it is!

I’m reading During the Reign of the Queen of Persia, by Joan Chase, which was recommended to me by a friend. It was published in the ’80s and re-released by the NYRB a few years ago. It’s about several generations of women living on a farm in Ohio, and it’s got the mix of wildness and domestic exploration that I love. I’m also in the middle of, or about to start, a few books that are coming out later this year: Home Remedies, by Xuan Juliana Wang, which is fresh and often very funny; We, the Survivors, a new novel by Tash Aw; and Say Say Say, by Lila Savage.


K Ming Chang

K Ming Chang lives in NY. She is a Lambda Literary Award finalist in Lesbian Poetry. Her debut novel 'BESTIARY' is forthcoming from One World / Random House. She is located on Twitter @KXinming and at

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