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Appease the Spirit

Kat Chow explores themes of memory, loss, grief, and identity in her memoir, Seeing Ghosts.

Kat Chow has always been attracted to stories of loss, especially from communities of color that investigate the impact of this loss across generations. She explored such stories (and many others) as a founding member of the Code Switch team, a project of NPR that investigates identity and culture.

Chow has also written about grief for The Cut and Lenny. Her debut book, Seeing Ghosts: A Memoir, which Alexander Chee calls “a daring, loving, searing debut,” is just the next manifestation of her journey to understand the intersections of grief, family, and identity.

In Seeing Ghosts, Chow and her family process the untimely death of her mother. The narrator Kat continues to see an apparition of her mother into adulthood and uses these appearances to explore the haunting nature of grief. The book also connects the loss of her mother to the traditions surrounding death and the larger role of loss in her Chinese and Chinese-American family.

We spoke to Chow about her book, which will be available on August 24 from Grand Central Publishing.

The concept of ghosts seems to evolve throughout the memoir. Was the idea of ghosts a touchtone you intentionally returned to?

Yes, it was so hard to figure out how the role of ghosts—as memories, as taxidermy, as family folklore—could weave throughout the book. But I knew I wanted it to be, as you said, one of the touchstones that guided the narrative.

My mother told me when I was a kid that when she died, she wanted me to get her stuffed so that she could always watch over me and my future apartment. I remember I was so afraid when she said that. I kept returning to this image of her as this ghostly figure because, to me, it really mirrored grief in general and the ways that when you have lost someone, their memories—they come to you in ways that are startling and in ways that can feel really profound and visceral. So I wanted to have that be a big part of the book, and I wanted this ghost figure to evolve also.

This was a really complicated thing for me to write and weave together, because I also wanted to weave it in with the Chinese belief that when the dead pass, they become spirits. As a child, I was always told that you must appease the spirit or else. So I’d always seen the concept of ghosts or dead ones or loss as a threatening promise instead of something to exist with and redefine your relationship with. But by the end of the book, I really wanted the relationship to these ghostly figures—whether it's my mother or, toward the end, there’s another ghost figure—to be more tender to reflect the way I see grief now, which has taken a long time.

You did a lot of interviewing of family members for this book. Did they read earlier drafts or did you ask for their approval of the finished manuscript? What was that process like?

Something that I was always thinking about throughout the process was that this was not just my story—it was my family’s story, as well. Even before I sold the book, I had a conversation with my sisters and my dad about what I wanted to write and how I wanted to write about them and our story and our loss. They maintained from the very beginning that this was my perspective and my version of our story. And I was lucky because this also made them so open to being interviewed.

We had so many conversations about memories, and I understood that not everybody would remember the same thing. But, for example, I interviewed my sisters and my dad and anyone who could remember about my brother Jonathan who passed away just a couple hours after being born. (I was not around for this experience.) I remember walking away from those interviews feeling like I was juggling so much because everybody had different memories and having to weave their narratives together into something that still felt true to their experiences. So I wrote into that space often of: This isn’t just my story, this is our story, but this is my perspective, and that was helpful.

Appease the Spirit

My sisters did read a very early draft because I was feeling really vulnerable not just about what I was putting in the pages, but what they also have been encountering in their own lives around loss and grief and our family. They were so supportive. It showed them that they could trust me as a memoirist and not just as a journalist. They could understand and have proof of what I was trying to do with this book.

My dad actually read it very recently. His reaction was as I would have imagined. He emailed me over a list of things like, “Oh, I was actually here in the car on page 252,” things like that. And I read that as I’m not going to get an email that says “Great job” or, “Oh, this is how you’ve been feeling about our relationship?” But the fact that he sat with it and read it so closely, that was really meaningful.

What was difficult in making the switch from journalism to memoir writing?

It didn’t seem too hard of a shift, but maybe [because] it was so gradual. I think actually what helped me a lot was, multiple times over the years, I would sign up for a fiction class. I did one through Catapult with the writer Danielle Lazarin and then another one through CRIT with Tony Tulathimutte and being in these spaces that were part class, part workshop allowed me this ability to escape whatever ideas of writing I had before and to just try something different. But in terms of writing something so personal, I’ve always seen my journalistic work as coming from a very specific point of view. I don't really believe in objectivity as a journalist.

As a journalist, I think your role is to interrogate where you are coming from—what your perspective is—and to try and tell as true of a story as possible. This is something that I would always think about when I was reporting for NPR. And when writing a memoir, I was hyperattuned to why I was interested in certain stories or anecdotes or why I was asking certain questions.

Can you tell me about the timeline for writing this book and the career decisions you made along the way?

The stories that I was drawn to, even as a journalist, were circling these themes of loss and generational loss. For example, one of the episodes I did for NPR was about this idea of blood quantum or how in a lot of Indigenous communities, citizens are defined as being part of a certain tribe. And these families I was talking to were really grappling with this idea that they might not necessarily agree with in practice. So what it means to live within these systems that you don’t agree with and how that filters into loss and the personal choices that you make.

For so long, I wanted to write a story about loss, and it seemed like all of my work was coming back to these themes. And there was just this moment where it became crucial for me.

I started working on the proposal in 2015 or 2016 and published a couple of personal essays and felt I really wanted to take this on as a next project. It felt so meaningful for me, but also a challenge in the best way—that I would really be pushing myself to produce a book that hopefully I loved and was proud of.

So I had been working on the book proposal for two or three years but still had not written the book, but I was thinking about it a lot.

(Chris Bohjalian: The WD Interview 2021)

So did you leave NPR to write the book?

Yes, I took book leave from NPR for nine months and [after nine months], I was like, “I'm not done, but I love book leave,” so it felt like this leap of faith. I mean, making a life as a writer … It feels both freeing but also very stressful in a lot of different ways.

I remember paying for college on my own and working so hard so I could have a job, like what I had at NPR. To walk away from that to write a book was very scary. I love NPR and still do assignments with them, but the idea of leaving something that felt stable to pursue something that I think I would have found a way to write anyway, it felt as though I was really allowing myself to be who I wanted to be and do what I wanted to on my terms and not ask permission.

I don’t want to romanticize being a writer, but sometimes it truly feels as though getting to work on this book felt like an act of reclamation. And that is so exciting to be able to give yourself the power to do that. Writing always feels like a risk, not even in terms of being vulnerable. It’s really hard to choose to commit time and space to write something like, for example, your family story.

How does it feel to be finishing up the book right now?

This feels so surreal. Editing most of this book during a pandemic is strange because I have been working on this book for a long time, but the final push came in 2019 and 2020. It’s interesting to be writing about grief when it feels as though I’m in a community of a lot of people who are grieving. It’s hard, but at the same time, it makes everything less isolating. Grief can be very lonely, and one of the things that I’ve always tried to do in my writing, not even just for this book, is identify the shape of grief or loss because it’s so difficult to put into words. You’re feeling a negative space, but what filled that space before and can you ever feel it again?

I had read about this idea of racial melancholia before the pandemic, but it felt as though in early 2020 when lockdown was just starting, a lot of people were bringing it up, and it just kept getting bumped back into my process. Racial melancholia comes from Freud’s idea of mourning versus melancholy. And for the melancholic who is grieving, they know they’ve lost something, but they don’t know quite what is—that’s my understanding of it. I thought that was so apt for both grief in general, but a pandemic too, because looking around the corner in early 2020, we had no idea what was going to happen.

I got to interview the poet Tracy K. Smith for an NPR podcast. And in our conversation, she and I were talking about grief, and she mentioned that we all have our own language for what we’ve lived and what loss feels like. And understanding that helped me write the story that I did. It’s also a phrase that I come back to a lot during this pandemic. And writing about grief in such a time of loss, that’s such an important reminder.

(Katie Crouch: On Blending Research and Experience)

How did you take care of yourself writing this book?

By being gentle with myself. When writing some of these harder chapters. I wrote in the form of memories first. And I remember when I first sat down to write this, I was wondering how to even begin. How do I turn this into a compelling story that I also find beautiful and that is true to me and my family’s experiences?

I remember sitting down and writing these memories and just letting them be for a while and then allowing myself to step away from them and then return to them with a new eye. And I’m the type of writer who is always trying to pull different threads together. So one example is one of the chapters I write about this fish that my dad has taxidermied himself and the discovery of this fish and [at] first being a little bit afraid or surprised or startled or disturbed by it, and then seeing it as this kind of exercise in preserving something and showing your grief. But when I first wrote that chapter, it was mostly just about the discovery of the fish. I don’t think I understood why I was so drawn to writing about this. But over the course of three years or so, I just kept adding to that essay.

And taxidermy itself is fascinating! I also read Rachel Poliquin’s beautiful book, A Breathless Zoo, which is about the history of taxidermy and why people are drawn to it. And layering that into my understanding of why we long for certain things, or why we create these tokens to memorialize animals, or, in a way, people were talking about ghosts again. And I allowed myself the space to return to these ideas over and over and over again. It made it a lot easier because I felt as I was in conversation with myself about it, and I was giving myself this magical ability to be very vulnerable while also knowing that even though I was being vulnerable, I was still reworking these ideas and trying to complicate my understanding of what this fish means. And what does it mean that my dad has taken it onto himself to taxidermy this fish in memorial to himself? That’s a really good example of how the evolution of writing something difficult takes shape.

Did you think much about where your book would fit in the tradition of grief and Chinese-American memoirs?

If you had first asked me before I started writing this book what it was, I’d say it was a grief memoir. And, it still is, but it’s so hard for me to categorize it. I’ll let other people do that work because, in a way, I’m telling the story about the loss of my mother. But I feel as though I’m trying to write toward the space of expressing what it means to grieve someone who is still there, my father. I wanted to examine the way my parents grieved or how loss affected their lives and how I then took that from them and how that became a part of my own narrative, both as a child and as an adult. So I’m not quite sure where it fits into either of those.

Categorization is always tricky, especially for writers of color. In an interview, Toni Morrison mentioned that for Black writers, their work is often seen as a sociological lesson versus the actual literature it is. And oftentimes that happens to Asian American writers, as well. So I hesitate to put those categorizations on myself. Also, as a debut writer, I’m still trying to figure out what my voice is and what type of writer I am and how I’m evolving. 

Research, interview, and explore the subjects that interest you. Then write about what you've learned in Writing Nonfiction 101: Fundamentals. Writing nonfiction is a great way for beginner and experienced writers to break into the publishing industry.

Research, interview, and explore the subjects that interest you. Then write about what you've learned in Writing Nonfiction 101: Fundamentals. Writing nonfiction is a great way for beginner and experienced writers to break into the publishing industry.

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