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Novelist Kirstin Chen Delivers a Political Drama Perfect for Uncertain Times

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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.


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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