Novelist Kirstin Chen Delivers a Political Drama Perfect for Uncertain Times

Kirstin Chen.

I am one of those readers who loves to pair books to weather. I reach for heavy classics in the winter: Tolstoy, D.H. Lawrence, Juan Carlos Onetti, Virginia Woolf. For summer, I prefer books with some bite. It is my belief that one should be casually disturbed at the beach and in the bathtub, so for this purpose I drag out books by the likes of Alexandra Kleeman, Joyce Carol Oates, and Samantha Hunt.

But now? We’re having confusing weather in the Bay: There's steamy, sunless heat, temperamental rain, angry wind, and sunny glimpses. One 19th century dictionary defined weather such as this as gleamy. 

What does one read on a fitful, uncertain day?

I’ve been trying to figure it out for weeks, and I’ve finally settled on a type. It's the tragic, international, political drama, and the greatest specimen of the season is San Francisco author Kirstin Chen’s Bury What We Cannot Take, which takes place in early Maoist China.

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To the patter of rain, streaks of sunlight, and howling wind, I fell into this novel — Chen’s second, following the popular Soy Sauce for Beginners.

In Bury What We Cannot Take, a misjudged moment of anger uproots a family. The very beginning of the novel finds twelve-year-old Ah-Liam and nine-year-old San San returning home from school to discover their grandmother kneeling before the family altar and crying, her skirt partially hiding a hammer. Overlooking the room is a portrait of Chairman Mao “smiling  benevolently at all who gazed upon him, oblivious to the spiderweb of cracks that scarred him.”

As recently as 2015, an individual defacing a portrait of Chairman Mao faced a sentence of 14 months jail time. In Bury What We Cannot Take, Ah-Liam and San San imagine much more dire consequences. While San San tries to process her grandmother’s "treasonous capitalist act," her older brother Ah-Liam, fervent to become a member of the Maoist Youth League, writes to the party in secret to confess “the horrific manner in which his grandmother had insulted the Great Helmsman.”

The Ong family tries a ruse to flee — but the government will only give an exit visa to one of the children, and the family is forced to choose who to leave behind, Ah-Liam or San San.

This is just the first five chapters of the book — what follows is a page-turning drama of a divided family struggling to be free, both from capture and from their conscience.

Chen is a precise writer, with enviable control on the page. Bury What We Cannot Take is completely immersive, and the only times I stepped out of the story was to admire the perfection of her word choice. In one instance she writes: “The heady scent of honeysuckle tickled San San’s nostrils, and her sneeze punctured the silence.” I find Chen’s choice of "puncture," so close to "honeysuckle," to be absolutely enchanting. And here’s another majestic precision: “With her back pressed to the high stone wall lining the street, she crab stepped down the hill.” I’ve been equally pleased watching a puzzle piece fitting accurately into place.

Bury What We Cannot Take is a joy to read, inclement weather or not.

Kirstin Chen celebrates the release of her novel at the Bindery (1727 Haight in San Francisco) at 7:30 p.m. Bar opens at 7:00 p.m. More information here

The Spine is a biweekly column. Catch us back here in two weeks.

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