A writer assembles a debut memoir out of unsent letters, poems, and other drafts made and saved.
For over a decade, Chan struggled to write a memoir telling her peculiarly American story: how she spent most of her first years in Guangzhou, China, with her grandparents; how she returned to New York, where she was born, to live with her mother after the latter married a dentist; how her childhood in a tony Long Island town was marred by loneliness and emotional isolation. “I started writing emails to exes and notes that never left the app on my iPhone,” she recalls in her introduction. “It was then that I realized that my life couldn’t be captured with just one story or created with only a laptop.” She presents these fragments—sometimes prose, sometimes poems—as they are, offering a fractured yet comprehensive view of her mother, her dead birth father, her ex-lovers, her friends, and finally herself. What emerges is a portrait of a girl caught between countries, cultures, and possible futures, searching for a sensible narrative of her past and present. The section “DEAR MOM” includes a short prose piece called “Clue,” which begins: “I went through your drawers when you weren’t around.” A piece in “DEAR FATHER” includes a description of finding the death certificate of the man she never knew: “It stated your cause of death: gunshot wound to the chest.” Her parents’ trauma informs and mingles with her own, and the piecemeal nature of the manuscript reflects the trickle of facts she uncovers by investigating the truth of her origins. Chan’s poetry is plainspoken with simple rhyme schemes that are often a bit awkward, as here where she writes to her first high school lover: “I thought being with you / Could make you feel a bit lighter / But you’d come to find / Another star shines brighter.” Stronger are the prose sections, which benefit both from their brevity and the powerful direct address to their subjects. The author’s personal story is compelling, and her bold choice of presentation smartly captures the meagerness of the answers life offers and the challenge of getting them down on paper before they dissolve.
An ambitious and engaging work of creative nonfiction.