My father had been gone a year when I read Pik-Shuen Fung’s Ghost Forest, but I was only just starting to feel his death. Grief returns us to ourselves in new shapes, especially when the person you’ve lost is a parent—no matter how close or estranged you were. In her spare, haunting, moving debut, Fung seems to understand this intuitively. Ghost Forest is surreal in the ways that grief and loss are surreal. It skews reality in how it uses space, blankness, the understated, the said and the unsaid.
The novel has been called “an elegy to all that’s been lost between countries” and a “quietly urgent call to love what we have.” It centers on an “astronaut family” from Hong Kong, so named in the 1980s when Chinese families migrated abroad and sent earnings home to support those who had stayed behind. The novel’s unnamed speaker lives in Canada—her father, like many fathers, is the one traveling back and forth—and she grapples with what it means to be from two worlds. There is an implicit cost in the split, but, too, there are gifts—a family guided by women, art, a strong sense of self, loyalty to Chinese tradition. There is the tender, unflinching impulse of protecting one another, felt in Fung’s attentive gaze and her deft prose.
Ghost Forest is driven by questions. While characters regard each other with fondness and intimacy, they are often startled by one another. A father does not understand why his daughter does not greet him properly on the phone. A daughter decides to carry out the rites customs traditionally assigned to the eldest son, though her relative worries that by accepting she may never get married. There is a heart-wrenching scene when the speaker desperately hopes her father will be proud of the painting that has been selected for an exhibit: “My dad stood in front of the painting for a long time, holding his hands behind his back. Without looking at me, he said, I think there is something wrong with you that you’re making art like this.” There are surprises and epiphanies between characters, too. Sitting with her father’s friends, the narrator learns his nickname is, “Sir.”
Pik-Shuen Fung and I talked recently about the characters she loves, the power of innovative structure, the novel’s sociopolitical realities, and the many expressions of Ghost Forest.
The Rumpus: The book opens with a family’s emigration from Hong Kong during the 1997 transfer of sovereignty that ended 156 years of British rule in the region. Disregarded and failed by social institutions—governmental, medical, occupational—the family must band together. In what ways is the “astronaut family” in the book similar to other Hong Kongers who settled in Canada, the US, Australia, New Zealand? How do their stories converge and diverge?
Pik-Shuen Fung: “Astronaut family” was a term that the Hong Kong mass media invented—to describe families where one parent, usually the father, stayed behind in Hong Kong to work, while the rest of the family members immigrated abroad. So the parents were still together, but they lived in two different countries, and the astronaut parent would fly back and forth, spending a lot of time in the air. The term doesn’t apply only to Hong Kongers anymore. It’s a fairly common arrangement, especially across Asia. Just as every immigrant family has its own story, every “astronaut family” has its own story, too.
I grew up in an astronaut family myself, and my father visited once a year. But I had classmates whose astronaut fathers visited once every few years, or more than six times a year. Some of my classmates had to fly with their mothers to Hong Kong every spring, summer, and winter break, even though they would have much rather stayed in Canada to hang out with their friends. The experience is really different for each astronaut family, and depends on what the parents agree upon and what’s feasible for them.
What I hoped to capture in the book was this family dynamic in which the father never has to adapt to the new culture. When an entire family immigrates together, there are generational differences in the way parents and children assimilate or don’t assimilate into their adopted countries. The immigration is a shared experience. But in the case of the astronaut family in the book, the father never has to adapt to life in Canada. He doesn’t see what it’s like for his family to adjust to a completely different culture, and they don’t see what it’s like for him to live alone in Hong Kong to provide for them. In that way, there’s a great distance between the daughter and her father, not only generationally, but also geographically and culturally.
Rumpus: Distance is something the novel seems to grapple with in both content and form. I love how questioning becomes its own motif in the work, and a vehicle for possible connection. The speaker, desperate to understand the people she loves and her place among them, asks for memories, biographical data, insight, answers. (“Your mother, what was she like? Not good. But she was beautiful.”). How does questioning get us closer, and yet no closer, to what we are seeking?
Fung: I was interested in the act of listening. To me, the starting point wasn’t using questioning as an active driver or way of seeking. Instead, I wanted to explore what was possible when there is space for curiosity, wonder, and listening. This is one reason why I chose to have the mother and grandmother characters speak for themselves, instead of having the narrator tell the entire story from her own perspective.
Also, it was important to me to not guide the reader towards any specific message or conclusion. I use a lot of questions in the book because I wanted to create a space for the reader to have their own experience.
Rumpus: The speaker, perhaps in homage to her mother, who would have loved to have studied drawing and as a way to experience her own history, learns the spare technique of Chinese ink painting, Xiěyì. In addition to exploring the written word, you’ve also worked in multimedia. Do you find the written and visual forms conversant? Complementary? What does the visual medium allow that writing, especially in long form, does not—or vice versa?
Fung: What I really love about writing in long form is the experience of time. A painting can be seen in its entirety in one glance, though we can choose to sit with it and savor it. I did enjoy making video art for a while because it’s time-based. I think time-based work allows me to explore a subject in a deeper way and, hopefully, to create an experience that unfolds for the viewer or reader. I’m not saying that it’s not possible in painting—I’m only saying that I couldn’t figure it out myself as a painter. My background in visual art definitely has a big influence on my writing, probably in more ways than I even realize, but I found that the medium of writing really suited me, based on a combination of my strengths, weaknesses, and temperament.
Visual artists have to think about so many factors. Will the painting be on canvas, paper, or wood panel, for example? Will it be miniature or mural-sized? When it’s time to install the painting for a show, will the painting hang at eye-level on the wall, or near the ceiling, or will it lie flat on the ground in the corner? What will the color of the wall be? What kind of lighting will the space have? I found all of these considerations very difficult.
Whereas with writing, I felt I simultaneously had more freedom and more control. I loved using a lot of empty space in this book and thinking about how the letters looked on the blank page. I loved writing it in a non-linear structure. And getting to think about whether a word sounds better before or after another word—I felt a lot of satisfaction in tinkering at the sentence level. I realize that this is also the kind of thing that some people might find incredibly tedious.
Also, another aspect of time I’d like to talk about is the time it takes to complete a project and show it to the world. The visual art world moves significantly faster than the literary world—I mean, it’s not uncommon for a writer to spend seven years working on a book, and then even after selling it to a publisher, there’s another two years before the book actually comes out. This kind of timeline feels really rare in the visual art world. Deep down, I’m a slow kind of person, so this pace suits me well. This is not to say I never felt impatient or frustrated, because I definitely did, on many occasions. But now that I’m on the other side, it just feels incredibly rewarding to devote so much time to a single project, to sit with it, and ponder it from every possible angle and light.
Rumpus: As an immigrant and a reader who recently lost my own father, I was deeply moved by the work as a whole, but especially by the late passages, which are full of air and blank space and beautiful imagery and fantasies about eating pizza with the person who is gone. It seems you might be working out of the tradition of the vignette—what French printers in the nineteenth century called the “little vines” that decorated their title pages. Can you talk about form?
Fung: Thank you so much! I didn’t set out to write a book in the tradition of vignettes. When I first started writing, I was doing my MFA at the School of Visual Arts and I was trying to find my voice as an artist. I’d arrived at graduate school as a painter, but I began to question why I was painting. Did I want to remain a painter? What did I want to make work about? What kind of artist did I want to be? As you can imagine, it was a bit of a debilitating state to be in. But I began experimenting with soft sculpture, installation, and stop motion videos. Then, the summer between my first and second years, my father passed away. I was grieving, and one day, I wrote out a vignette. Since I was in art school, I thought about how I could turn the vignette into something I could show in my studio, so I recorded myself reading the vignette aloud, and used the audio recording as voiceover for a video work.
I really enjoyed the experience of writing the vignette, because I felt like the vignette had a circular quality, so I wrote more. Eventually I accumulated around twenty of them, and I showed them to a teacher I’d studied with in college, and she encouraged me to expand them into a book-length project.
Rumpus: Why might a traditional structure fail this book?
Fung: There was a period when an earlier and shorter version of my manuscript got rejected by tons of small presses, and I decided to try writing my book in other structures. I tried, very briefly, to write my book in a traditional structure, and the honest answer is that I was very bad at writing that way. It was terrible. And then there was a time when I thought that maybe if I wrote the book in the form of faster paced vignettes linked by asterisks, perhaps it would have a bigger chance of getting published. But ultimately I felt like I lost my voice and style because I lost the sense of spaciousness and slowness at the core of my writing.
I was following my impulses in writing this book as nonlinear vignettes. Maybe because I’m trained as a painter, working from impulse is ingrained in me. When I was painting, each brushstroke on the canvas led to the next one. Of course, I had a big-picture vision of how the painting would turn out, or the kind of feeling that I wanted the painting to have, but I never really knew until I put the brush down and stepped back, what the final work would look like. Whether something works or doesn’t work is based on a gut feeling.
It was only in revision that I put on my analytical lens and thought about why this form was the right form. It’s a book about grief and memory, and neither of these are linear. To me, memory is associative, the way that one image in a memory can call up a memory from a completely different time and place. And my own experience of grief felt like I existed in a kind of liminal space. During that time, I dreamed a lot and most of my memory is hazy.
Rumpus: During that hazy time, what were some of your favorite moments to write?
Fung: One of my favorite scenes to write was the one where the family is in the hospital and the father tries to communicate with them by writing out letters with his finger. It was really fun to play with the design of the layout for this chapter. Even though it is an emotional scene, I wanted to create a sense of beauty and wonder at the same time.
Rumpus: The cover of the novel, designed by Donna Cheng, is another iteration of the speaker’s ghost forest. A woman, faceless, in trees, with bird and flower. You mention in your Acknowledgements Page that you love it “beyond words.” We love it, too! What does this artist’s work seem to recognize about your own?
Fung: Donna Cheng is immensely talented and the cover process was so delightful. To give you a bit of background: I’d put together a nine-page Keynote presentation, in which I outlined two potential directions for the cover: abstract or surrealist. My first choice was the abstract cover, which I envisioned as a painterly artwork with a haunting and dreamy quality, where some parts were dark and watery and translucent, and some parts were bright and saturated and sharp. There would be a sense of movement and you’d see the gesture of the brush. I realize this sounds a bit ridiculous now, but in my mind, it was really cool at the time. My second choice was the surrealist collage, which I envisioned as having an uncanny and mysterious quality, and the feeling of being suspended in time. I thought perhaps the fragmented imagery could echo the fragments of the text, and it could be an opportunity to play with some of the recurring images in the book. Also, I completely contradicted myself because I provided images of book covers I love, most of which had women on them, and then I expressed that I would prefer not to have any people on the cover at all.
The first time I saw the cover, I was so excited that Donna somehow intuitively interpreted that I wanted a woman on the cover, but I just didn’t want a face. I loved that the hair could represent the daughter, the mother, or the grandmother. I thought that was so brilliant! And, in hindsight, I could see that the surrealist collage was much more suitable for the book than an abstract painting. I was so delighted that she selected the images of the bird, the tulip, and the cypress leaves, which are all emotionally resonant images in the book. The wildest thing is that the arm on the cover looks almost identical to my arm. I actually spent a few seconds wondering how she managed to get a photo of my arm in that position, because I’ve never met her, until I realized that my bracelet is a different shade of green.
I’m especially grateful to Donna for highlighting both the maternal lineage in the book—with the hairstyle, the jade bracelet, and the cypress leaves—as well as the lightness of the book, using the bright chartreuse background color. Deep down, I had been afraid that because the book is about grief and the death of a father, that the cover could easily turn out somber and heavy. So, besides having a brilliant eye and sensibility, Donna must be telepathic because she managed to take my contradictory notes and turn them into the cover of my dreams.
Photograph of Pik-Shuen Fung by Benjamin Taylor.