Talking grief and Goodreads with "Seeing Ghosts" author Kat Chow

“Is writing an act of preservation, or exorcism? I don’t think that’s a question that has an answer."

Hi friends, and happy Tuesday!

You know a midweek Links can only mean one of two things: Either I have finally lost the plot and believe that it is Friday, or … I have something really special for y’all to read. This midweek edition, I’m psyched to say, is definitively the former. I’m dropping into your inboxes a few days early to share a Q&A with the author, reporter and haunted-chair restorationist Kat Chow, whose gorgeous debut book Seeing Ghosts is out today. (And free!, hello, to five Links subscribers.)

Seeing Ghosts is a startling, generous, multilayered memoir — a study of every kind of grief and how it shapes and shadows us, transcending generations.

In it, Kat — a former long-time reporter at NPR and a founding member of Code Switch — wades through the layers of grief that envelope her family, from their longing for her vibrant, unknowable mom, who died when Kat was young, to the larger heartache that became a sort of legacy when her parents fled China.

Full disclosure: Kat is not just one of my favorite writers — she’s also one of my dearest IRL friends. So it’s really a joy and honor to share this space with her today and to share her work in this ~special edition.~

You can read more about Seeing Ghosts, which is almost definitely available at your local bookstore, over at NPR, The New York Times and USA Today.

And if you’d like a signed copy of Seeing Ghosts, I’m giving away five — fill out this form by 8 p.m. EST on Thursday.

— Caitlin

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Okay -- I have two questions to start, both a little meta. First: Books take a long time and a lot of effort, everyone knows that. But *you* have been working on versions of this book since you were ... basically a kid. Can you tell me a little about the emotional process of tying a knot on a project that has occupied so much of your brain for so long, and how you feel now that it's about to go out into the world?

Kat: Before we begin, can I just say how stoked I am to be featured in this newsletter! Links I’d Gchat You If We Were Friends has been a staple of my media diet for almost a decade. As you know, I read it regularly before we even became … Gchat friends and IRL friends, and I’m so glad you’ve brought it back. [Ed. note: Lol has it been a decade?? We are ancient.]

I've been trying to make sense of what protracted grief looks like for so much of my life. For so long, I’ve been unsure how to even describe this feeling. The idea of melancholia and racial melancholia feels closest, which I write about in the book, and which details that extended nature of grief where it becomes a big part of you, inextricably so. I've always felt that grief—and in particular, the death of my mother when I was 13—has been such a pivotal part of who I’ve become. If grief is the act of survival—trying to make it through an enormous loss—then it makes sense that it would be defining. 

And since I was young, I’ve always been interested in how my family members grieve. My parents and my aunts and uncles came to the U.S. by way of Hong Kong, where they fled after the Communists pushed them out of Guangzhou. I’d always been attuned to how loss for them wasn’t just something they experienced via the death of a person, but it also manifested as the loss of a place or sense of home or security. As an adult, I realized I was applying those questions about grief and loss, and everything that comes from it, to all of my reporting and day-job work. That was when I knew I was ready to start writing this book.

But finishing this book was, of course, a process. Probably for somewhere between 40-85 percent of it, it felt like dying. I’m kidding, and I am cry-laughing (emphasis on laughing) while typing this. But it was excruciating at certain moments. I kept wondering if I could actually pull off this ambitious thing I’d promised my publisher, and if I had the emotional fortitude to stick with it. There were some moments at four a.m. where I wondered if I’d have to give back my advance if it turned out I couldn’t really write the book I wanted. I’d just gone on sabbatical from NPR, which I wound up quitting to focus on this book. So it felt like the stakes were especially high. The question of, “Am I going to fail doing probably the most important thing I’ve ever tried to do?” was very present. This sounds, maybe, dramatic. But this book was so personal that I just felt immense pressure to do right by it. 

That being said, turning this book in and being “done” with drafting it and editing it was incredibly difficult. The process itself of writing it—getting to lean into my curiosities and having the chance to interview relatives about my mother and their origin stories—was a challenge, but at the time, it was exactly what I needed to be doing. It felt special, and the whole time, I was aware of how rare a thing this was, getting to talk to family and figure out this history and tell this story. I feared that finishing this book would mean I wouldn’t be able to talk to my family that way, or that I wouldn’t be able to sit with these ideas. But there’s really no expiration date for these interests, and I don’t think that they’ll go stale for me. Maybe funkier, more interesting.

This is kind of relates to a major theme of the book, no? Like, is writing an act of preservation or catharsis, and in that case -- does publishing feel amazing and liberating, or is it another type of burden?

Yeah, one of the questions I ask in this book is: “Is writing an act of preservation, or exorcism?” I don’t think that’s a question that has an answer. I don’t feel as though writing this book was cathartic. It was grounding, yes, and being able to sit with certain feelings forced me to have new perspectives — it allowed me to write with so much more empathy about my father and uncle in ways that I might not have before I began work on this book — but it wasn’t cathartic. T Kira Madden, the author of the memoir Long Live The Tribe of Fatherless Girls, wrote this fantastic essay about catharsis, arguing against the idea her book was a cathartic or therapeutic experience. There was so much that she put into shaping it into a narrative and the best story that she could. 

There’s something so vulnerable about putting this book out in the real world. You and I have talked about this a lot. But I’ve come to realize now that this book isn’t really mine anymore—it belongs to whoever reads it. Readers will project their own ideas and stories of loss or family or grief or race or identity onto this book, and I’m happy that this will happen. It gives this loss new life.

We've also talked a little about this idea that there’s a gap between the narrative of the book and your “real” life: The book is a memoir, and it’s true, but it's not your life per se. Can you talk a little bit about that differentiation and how you navigated it? 

It was really important for me to make a distinction between Seeing Ghosts and the life that I am experiencing every day — the entirety of my life, with all of its textures. A memoir cannot be everything, of course, and this is basic knowledge. But telling myself this, and allowing myself to lean into this, helped me not feel as self conscious about what I was writing. It let me write for myself, rather than an imagined audience, which was a gift. 

Everything in this book is true, and it happened, but it is also not every single thing in my life. It’s a story bound together with a narrative and a collection of fragmented memories, mirroring grief itself. This distinction is necessary to protect myself, though. People can read it and know me on some level, in that this work—which is a creative endeavor and a product of many, many hours of labor—is such a huge part of me. But is it all of me? Nah, not at all. 

Tell me about the role of taxidermy in the book — and how people have generally responded to that (!). The cover, for those who haven’t seen it, is like … a terrifying neon taxidermied fish.

I knew from very early on that I wanted taxidermy to be a big part of the book. I’d always been terrified of taxidermied animals as a kid. Couldn’t deal with the taxidermied bear at the L.L. Bean store in Maine. Couldn’t deal with the stuffed raccoons at my town’s nature center. And my mom, who had a very specific, macabre sense of humor, once joked when I was a kid that when she died, she wanted to be stuffed and put in my future apartment. This was, of course, before any of us knew that she was terminally ill with cancer, and so when she did die, this image of her stuffed and in my future adult apartment lingered with me.

As a narrative device, I loved this image of my taxidermic mother — it made the recollection of grief less serious, and I liked that it felt both subversive and kind of gruesome, mirroring my mother’s humor. But I also was drawn to it because it played off of this belief in my family—and in some Chinese and East Asian families—that the dead are meant to appeased and venerated, otherwise their spirits might grow restless. As a kid, hearing that my mother’s spirit might never be at peace because my father, sisters and I had failed to do X or Y thing—that really stuck with me. And so the taxidermy—which wound up being something my dad was drawn to later in life with his attempt at taxidermying a fish himself—became central to this story.

But, yeah, people haven’t always responded well to this!

A few years ago, I had coffee with an acquaintance, a really lovely neighbor who wanted to reconnect and talk about writing. We’d both lived in neighboring group houses in Columbia Heights, and had run into each other somehow. She asked me to describe the book, and I brought up the story of my mother’s joking request to be taxidermied. But as I told the story, I noticed that this woman had grown quiet. She seemed uncomfortable—probably some shifting in her seat, worried glances. We both sat in silence for a bit, until she finally said, very slowly: “So, wait. Is your mom still in your apartment?”

I knew then that I needed to find a better way of describing a work-in-progress. 🤦🏻‍♀️

What about the ghosts in Seeing Ghosts — how literal are those? (I think this was one of my notes to you when I read the draft, and I don't think you ever told me!!)

I did not tell you this! And I will continue to not tell you! What do you think it is?

I want this to be a choice that the reader makes on their own, whether these taxidermic ghosts are metaphors, imagined, or something more real — or some combination of this all. 

It is very reporterly of you turn that question around on me. I thought they were metaphorical, in part because I don’t believe in ghosts and don’t think you do either (??) … but it feels like the height of narcissism to impose your beliefs about ghosts on someone else’s memoir.

So let me leave you with one last/very least question — and it must be asked, because this is nominally a newsletter about internet culture tell me how you, a serious author but also a Very Online Person, are dealing with Goodreads/other internet feedback.

I absolutely do not want to be checking Goodreads, but in the lead-up to my book release, my Zombie brain would check those ratings and reviews even though I knew this was a Bad Idea.

I think often of this tweet that I can’t find right now, but to sum it up: Basically, this person tweeted that one of her friends got hammered at a book event and ran up to a friend who had rated his book ⅘ stars on Goodreads. He shouted, “WHERE’S THE FIFTH STAR, BITCH???” and the two of them apparently never spoke again.

(As a side note, there was this fascinating article in Time about Goodreads’ extortion scams. As another side note, I find star ratings for something like books or food kind of confounding; it’s all so subjective, and I don’t really think there’s such thing as a “good” or “bad” book, rather just something a reader personally did or didn’t like based off of taste.)

Anyway, now that the book is out, I don’t think I’ll be reading Goodreads anymore!

🐠👻