Nothing Destroys a Family Like an Inheritance

Today is the writer Alexander Chee’s birthday. Some years ago, he showed me his family’s jokbo—gorgeous bound genealogical books. The dandy with the flower above is one of his ancestors, and the resemblance to Chee delights me.

In his most recent book, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, Chee reflects on another inheritance: a trust he received as a very young man after his father died suddenly. He hadn’t intended to write the essay, but his editor suggested it. The draft was filled with mentions of the trust, Chee told me the editor said, and she sensed a deeper story there. She was right. It’s impossible for me to settle on a favorite essay in the collection, but “Inheritance” is up there.

With the trust, Chee bought an Alfa Romeo—in honor of his dad, who’d loved fast cars, and in defiance of his mom’s advice that he spend it on his education. The trust also funded his schooling and his internship at a magazine. It paid for his health insurance.

For the nine years that the trust lasted, he “felt both invulnerable and doomed, under the protection of a spell I knew to be dwindling in power.” As the money ran out, the car broke down in Poughkeepsie and Chee abandoned it on the street, where it was soon “covered in unpaid tickets,” then “impounded and sold by the state to cover the towing and storage costs.” The money gone, he surrendered to life “without either the trust’s protections or the car.”

Looking back, he reflects on the ways the money became entangled with his grief over the loss of his dad, and how it fit in the context of his paternal’s family’s wealth.

“Nothing destroys a family like an inheritance,” Chee writes. His grandfather was a “self-made millionaire with an international fisheries conglomerate” with “seven children who would, after his death, sue each other repeatedly for a decade.” In their last visit before his grandfather’s death, the old man him, “‘You are a poet, which means you will be poor, but very happy,’ and then he laughed uproariously.”

As the eldest son, Chee was supposed to be his father’s jongson, the son who receives the largest share of the inheritance, keeps the family records, and cares for his parents in old age. He’s also expected to perform the jesa – “a ceremony held annually to honor one’s ancestors – and tend the graves of the family’s ancestors,” to look after “the entire family, the living and the dead.”

Eventually, decades after his father’s death, Chee performed his first jesa, one of his own design. He created an altar to his ancestors, made an elaborate Korean meal, poured soju. He wrote a letter “telling them how angry I was with them, asking them to tell me what they wanted from me. Then I burned the letter, to send it to them.”

Maybe for obvious reasons, I love this ad hoc ancestor ceremony most of all.

If you haven’t read Chee, it may seem as though reading the essay would be superfluous after everything I’ve just told you about it, but no one who knows his work would never make that mistake. The layers are endless, the language a marvel. An adaptation was published last year at Buzzfeed, but you’ll want the whole book.

All good wishes until next time,