When you lose your mother, it is the loss of the first person you ever knew, the first person you’ve connected with on this earth. It is a loss of origin — a loss of self. A loss so disorienting, so devastating, it has taken many books through the centuries to explore the vast terrain of this grief and will still take many more. Two books out this year map parts of this landscape in two genres: Jenny Qi’s book “Focal Point” (to be released Oct. 13, 2021) takes the form of a poetry collection. “Seeing Ghosts” by Kat Chow (launched Aug. 24, 2021) takes the form of a memoir.
Both authors are Chinese Americans, lost their mothers at young ages (Chow was 13, Qi 19), and are debuting with books that explore these losses. Their voices and approaches are distinct and pull from unique aspects of each of their backgrounds. We brought the two authors into conversation with each other because of overlaps and contrasts in their stories.
They answered questions for Mochi Magazine over email.
A reporter best known as a founding member of NPR’s Code Switch team, Chow infuses her story with her mother’s macabre sense of humor. Her mother’s joke about wanting to be taxidermied and hung on Chow’s wall after death becomes a recurring image, and taxidermy itself becomes a theme as Chow researches and relays information about the practice, her journalism background shining through. She widens her lens to look at a cross section of loss through her family, particularly her infant brother’s death, and through history.
“Seeing Ghosts” is personal but unsentimental, sometimes holding the reader at arm’s length with its journalistic objectivity. Chow tells us over email, “A big part of my creative process is reading as much as I can about my subject, and I tend to gravitate to historic or scholarly materials in order to understand the things that confound or perplex me in my own life.”
If “Seeing Ghosts” holds the reader at arm’s length, “Focal Point,” winner of the Steel Toe Books Poetry Award, absorbs the reader into the narrator’s body. Within these poems, we can feel the hospital gown wet with tears, smell the smoke rise from paper cranes, hear our father’s voice insisting that our mother wants to live, and see the medical chart smattered with ominous signs.
Qi is a scientist as well as a writer and says she used to think that her science background didn’t inform her poetry. When putting this collection together, she saw how many metaphors and connections were from a scientific perspective, “because that’s what I was thinking about for many years.” She goes on to explain that “several of the poems in “Focal Point,” for instance, refer to lessons learned from growing cells in culture or reading about certain medical procedures. And sometimes there are specific terms in science that mean something very different outside of science, such as ‘focal point.’”
The first poem in the book is titled to define a focal point in optics (“Point At Which Parallel Waves Converge & From Which Diverge”), which acts as a key to understanding how all the poems in the collection connect. Qi chose the book’s title “because in the writing of that poem, I was grappling with the arbitrary and self-centered ways we internalize and externalize emotional pain and how it becomes the focus of all our attention, and I was thinking of how the different definitions of the term ‘focal point’ apply to pain. Loss is ultimately the focus of this book, and it’s also the point at which every moment becomes a time before or after loss.”
Chow views the idea of loss, rather than death itself, as the throughline in “Seeing Ghosts” as well. “So much of this book is about the protracted nature of loss, and how it reverberates over decades and through generations,” she says. “We sometimes inherit these losses from our parents, and when we mourn, we’re not always experiencing the loss of a person, but the loss of place or sense of self or home or country. I wanted “Seeing Ghosts” to reflect this, and so I included stories of people like Yung Wing — one of the first immigrants from China to graduate from Yale, and Neva Dora, who created an uncanny tomb for her young husband when he was suddenly killed, which let people see his body in a state of deterioration.”
By expanding her narrative through these historical accounts, Chow found context and words for feelings that were otherwise hard to articulate. At times, it seems she is writing for readers who are grieving in the way she is. Other times, it seems she is writing to her mother. “It was important for me to speak in direct address to my mother,” she says. “I liked the intimacy, but I also thought it was important to show the ways in which these ghostly figures are still a part of our lives in memory, even if they’re no longer physically present or we don’t understand them.”
The moment of loss marks the time when we no longer walk through the physical world with our departed loved ones, but it does not stop the evolution of our relationship with them. We asked both authors how their relationships with their mothers continued to live in the writing and publishing of these books.
Chow answered, “Grief is always shifting, and our relationship with the dead is never stagnant. Our memories of them take on new meaning as we enter new phases of life, and this can be simultaneously comforting and shattering.” Through the writing of this book, Chow was able to deepen her understanding of her mother. She shared, “When I first started on this book, I thought it was perhaps about her fear over the type of legacy she’d leave for me. And then I realized, partway through drafting “Seeing Ghosts,” that her fear likely was shaped by her own loss of her mother at a young age. Understanding this took many years, and I find it a welcome realization.”
Qi was also able to get to know her mother beyond the context of their life together. “I don’t know if this comes from writing or simply growing older or the passage of time, but I’ll never stop wishing we could have gotten to this point in person,” she says.
Part of her motivation in publishing this book was to “keep just a tiny bit of history alive” and to introduce her mother to those who didn’t get to meet her. “Many of the people who knew my mother are no longer in my life, either through death or simply the fading of friendships. My fiancé, my closest friends from college and beyond, my future children if I ever have any — none of them have ever known or will ever know my mother. What am I supposed to do with the weight of that knowledge?”
What Qi has done with that knowledge is turn the weight of her words into a pressure that feels more like an embrace than an encumbrance. Especially for readers grieving or anticipating such a loss, “Focal Point” and “Seeing Ghosts” are two books that will help bear that weight.
The Fall 2021 issue exists in the liminal space bounded by fear, superstition, and taboos in order to decolonize all that goes bump in the night. From taboos to tradition, check out Mochi’s latest issue here! And if you like what you are reading, please support us through our end-of-year Ko-Fi campaign.
Image credit: Tria Wen