Sharing Some Ancestor Hunger

I deliver the second draft of my book in early June, and I’m still deciding exactly what I’d like this newsletter to be, so I wasn’t sure when I’d start sending dispatches. But today is my granny’s birthday. She was born on April 23, 1905. Twenty-one years after her death, she feels more present to me than she has since she died. Back then I only felt the horror of losing her. So this seems like an auspicious day to begin.

Ancestor Hunger has been the working title of my book for several years now. Some people like it! Others, including my agent, think it’s confusing. My agent is always right, so chances are the finished book will have another name. I’m happy to have a place for the working title here.

Thinking of the book in terms of “Ancestor Hunger” has helped me stay focused over the years on what I care about most. I’ve delved into so many complicated and arcane areas of history, philosophy, science, psychology, religion, anecdote, etc. (a great deal of etc.; you should see the floor of my writing room). During one bleak period, it felt as though I’d spend the rest of my life lost in antiquity, wandering the writings of Aristotle and Pythagoras, trying to figure out exactly what the ancients thought about how parents passed traits along to their children.

As I’ve emerged from each period of immersion in these disparate areas and disciplines, I’ve kept Ancestor Hunger as a guiding light. Does what I’m writing feel true to me? Does it feel vital? Does it get me closer to describing the appetite I have for understanding my ancestors and myself in light of them, what all of our ancestors mean for each of us and all of us? Does it conjure any fraction of the messy magic I see in it all? If not, cut, regroup, find the right way in.

My ambitious have been big, some might say grandiose, some might say flaky, but a wonderful thing about signing with my agent some years ago has been that reflecting on work she’s represented that I’ve loved has allowed me to move toward a kind of writing that I didn’t realize I’d always longed to do. I’ve always been independent, with (if I do say so myself) an individual perspective and distinctive voice, but at times I also wanted to be taken seriously in ways that were incompatible with the work I care most about producing during my time here. “Ancestor Hunger,” and my agent, my editor, my writing partner, and some other good friends and generous readers (special shout-out to Elizabeth Bachner for wading through each chapter as I sent it to her), have helped me keep returning to the spirit I want to work in.

Back in 2014, I started an interview series at the wonderful Tin House blog. It was centered on writers and called The Family Tree. I sent each author a few questions devoted to their own work, and a selection of questions about family from which they could choose a handful that were most appealing. After only four installments, I realized that, between my (other) job and the book, I wasn’t going to have the time to do the series consistently the way I wanted it to be, even with this simplified format. It would turn out, over the ensuing four-and-a-half years, that I didn’t have the mental energy to write much of anything apart from the book and what my day job requires. I hadn’t anticipated that the book would draw so much from the part of my brain that writing about tax law does.

Though the series was short-lived, I’m so glad the writers agreed to be interviewed. They, their writings, and the thoughts on ancestry they shared with me then have continued to inspire me, in some cases all the more so since the 2016 election. And so, for the first several newsletters, I’ll draw in part from these interviews and some of my other older writing and thinking on ancestry.

The first Family Tree interview I’m revisiting is with Celeste Ng. At the time she wrote these answers, her stunning first novel, Everything I Never Told You, was still new. Since then, she’s published the possibly even more excellent Little Fires Everywhere. If you haven’t read both, I wish you were here so I could press them into your hands.

Everything I Never Told You opens by revealing the first of many secrets: “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.” Her family has called the police because Lydia is missing, but no one apart from the reader knows her fate this early-on. Unbeknownst to her parents, Lydia’s schoolmates and their neighbors by and large view the family as a kind of dubious experiment to be watched from afar. As her mom, dad, brother, and sister contemplate Lydia’s disappearance and her death, and all the ways it seems she misled them, they keep coming up against their own secrets that have prevented them all from fully knowing her and each other.

For Family Tree, Ng discussed family secrets and repetitions, in her first novel and in her own life. Some of my favorite parts of what she said are below.

Maud Newton: In Everything I Never Told You, as in life, every character has secrets— worries or ambitions or misdeeds no one else knows, mostly because no one is paying the right kind of attention. Only the reader knows exactly why Lydia ended up drowning in the lake. Did you intend from the outset for this to be a book about secrets in families?

Celeste Ng: Yes—they fascinate me.  We tend to think of family secrets as big, earth-shattering things: a child out of wedlock, finding out your father isn’t really your father, etc.  How can you not be fascinated with those?  A few years ago, I learned that my grandmother had a sister who was kidnapped by bandits. She was never heard from again, though there were rumors that she was alive and living with the bandits.  But she was seldom mentioned in the family after she was taken. Those memories were just too painful, so those things stayed secret by default.

But there are small secrets too, things that aren’t intentionally kept private but just never end up being shared. When I was about ten, I took a trip to China with my parents, and we visited the house in rural Canton where my father was born and spent his childhood. It had been uninhabited for years, but as we walked through, my father told me little tidbits about his life there: how his father used to catch fish in the nearby river for the family to eat, how he and his brothers would jump down through the hatch in the kitchen ceiling to scare their mother.

Were these stories important, life-changing family secrets? No. But they helped shape my perception of my father, and where my family had come from—maybe even more than the “big” secrets. He hadn’t kept them from me on purpose; he’d just never had an occasion to remember them, let alone tell them to me. Often, things go unsaid and get lost because there’s no occasion to jog our memory or nudge us to reveal them. So I’m fascinated by the big secrets, yes, but I’m just as intrigued by what information gets transmitted—and what information gets lost—as stories get handed down over generations.

MN: Do you know of other writers in your family background?

CN: The bio on the inside of my novel’s dust jacket says that I come from a family of scientists.  This is definitely true.  However, there are also a number of writers in my ancestry, especially among my Hong Kong relatives, who were bilingual because Hong Kong was a British colony at the time.  My great-great-grandfather Luk King Fo published An English Grammar for Chinese Students in 1896; apparently it was the first such book of its kind. My mother recently told me that her fifth aunt, Ada Luk, is also an author; she was the editor of the Chinese Student Weekly, an English-language youth magazine in Hong Kong in the 1950s and 1960s, and, according to my mother, helped to translate Peanuts comics into Chinese.

A bit closer to home, I have an aunt who loves to write poetry and stories for young children, and my mother herself has always enjoyed writing.  As a teenager, she had a column in the “Children’s Corner” of the South China Morning Post.  In fact, if it weren’t for that column, I might not exist: after reading her columns, other teens would write to her at the paper and become her pen-pals, and one of them introduced her to my father.

MN: Did you ever have the feeling your family was trying to hide some aspect of your lineage?

CN: Like most people of Chinese descent in the U.S., some of my ancestors immigrated as “paper sons”—i.e., under assumed names—as a way around the Chinese Exclusion Act.  From 1882 to 1943, when the act was repealed, all Chinese immigrants were barred from the United States. The law was based almost entirely on racism against the Chinese, as other racial groups were not banned; in fact, it’s the only law in U.S. history to deny entry based on a specific nationality.  The only Chinese who were allowed to enter the country were those who were already U.S. citizens or the children of citizens. So, those seeking to immigrate would claim to be the sons of Chinese men already in the United States, and would take on new names and new identities.  The result is that many families, including mine, lost a lot of family history when they came to America.

My paternal great-grandfather came to the U.S. in the early 20th century as a paper son.  He returned to China a few times, to marry and then to visit his wife, who remained in China. But he stayed in the U.S. for the rest of his life, working at a boarding school in Iowa (which helped inspire Lloyd Academy, the school in my novel) and later serving in the army during World War I. Meanwhile, my grandmother—and later my father—grew up in China not knowing him. They didn’t come to the U.S. until decades later, when my father immigrated legally as a student and became naturalized, and was then able to bring his parents and siblings over as well. In the 1960s, the U.S. government offered amnesty to paper sons, and my great-grandfather, like many other “paper sons,” gave a full affidavit and was granted citizenship. He’s buried in the Chinese cemetery in Sacramento, California, where I visited his grave many times as a child. But I didn’t know the details of this story, nor did my father, until I wrote to the INS for a copy of his file when I was in college.

So, like many Chinese immigrants, my family did have to hide things (at least for a time), and I don’t know much about my ancestry on that side before my great-grandfather. Traditionally, each Chinese family has a poem that records its lineage: each generation takes the next character of the poem and uses it in the names of everyone in that generation. If you know the poem, you can tell who’s in your family and which generation they’re from.  But we don’t know our family poem anymore; it got left behind somewhere along the way. In rural China, I think records were always somewhat spotty, and when the Communists came to power, a lot of records were destroyed. I’m not sure if we’ll ever find out much more, and that’s both a huge loss and a space for imagination.

MN: Those of us who attempt to trace our ancestry: what do you think we’re seeking?

CN: Reasons. It’s natural to wonder why things are the way they are and why things happen. You really only have two choices. You can believe everything is totally arbitrary—either because the universe is governed by random chance, or because the universe is run by God’s will (which is essentially another way of saying it’s arbitrary: we can’t understand it via our own logic).  Or, you can believe the universe is run by cause and effect—which means the reasons for the present lie in the past. And in that case, what better place to turn to understand yourself than in your own ancestry?

Thanks for reading, and see you next time,