Interview: Pik-Shuen Fung
Pik-Shuen Fung’s Ghost Forest was first a visual artwork that evolved into a manuscript, which then became her debut novel. The story is a lyrical and tender one written in vignettes about a daughter grieving her father. The unnamed protagonist, who is also an artist, reckons with the ambiguities of their relationship, which is not the father-daughter relationship typical of nuclear families. Fung, like the narrator, grew up with her mother and sister in Vancouver while her father stayed to work in their home city of Hong Kong to support the family.
This narrative is one of many centered on the astronaut family, which in Asian American Psychology: Current Perspectives, Yuying Tsong and Yuli Liu describe as “families whose head of household (usually the father) is living and working in the country of origin to pursue economic advantages, while the remaining family members settle in the host country […] The absent parent or the parent who returns to the home country is termed the astronaut, which is a derivative of the Chinese word taikongren, which can mean ‘a person who spends time in space.’” Fung’s understated and haunting story is also very much a matrilineal one, as the narrator pieces together her family’s past through questioning and listening to anecdotes from her mother and grandmother.
I first encountered Pik-Shuen Fung’s work when I attended the Asian American Writers’ Workshop (AAWW) Margins Fellows & Mentors Reading in 2019. She read an excerpt of Ghost Forest, one that is slightly different from the one used in the book about thirty pages in. Her mentor was the nonfiction writer Ava Chin, who introduced Fung’s work by saying, “She is drawn to experimental forms and her prose transverses the intersections between family, matrilineal lineage, and the experience of love and loss in the Chinese diaspora.” I loved it and was instantly drawn in.
We spoke over Zoom about grief, her video art, freedom and control, and love.
—Ruth Minah Buchwald
Ruth Minah Buchwald: The first iteration of this story appeared in The Margins in 2016. Since then, you’ve completed an AAWW Margins Fellowship and received other fellowships and residencies. Can you talk about the genesis of Ghost Forest in conjunction with the support of these organizations?
Pik-Shuen Fung: I started writing this book when I was in art school. I was at the School of Visual Arts doing my Masters in Fine Arts, which was an interdisciplinary studio program. I had started there as a painter after having painted for many, many years. Because of the different artists I was meeting and conversations with classmates, I started to question why I was doing what I was doing: why I was painting, what I wanted to make work about, what kind of artist I wanted to become. Through this questioning, I realized that I had only been painting because that’s what I had always done. I’ve been told since I was a kid that I was good at art, so I kept going with it.
In the summer between my first and second years, my father passed away. I was in this space of grief and, one day, I started writing and I felt like it was just the right medium for the mindset I was in.
I wanted to make it something I could show in my studio, so I recorded myself reading the text out loud and used that as voice-over for some video art. The visuals were fragments of this Chinese ink painting I took from a museum website. Over time, I realized I didn’t want to think so much about the visual elements anymore, so I kept writing more and more of the vignettes. Eventually, I had a short manuscript, [but] because I didn’t have a background or training as a writer, I didn’t really know the steps that most writers go through to publish a book. I submitted my manuscript to tons of small presses and it got rejected everywhere.
The Margins was the first place to publish my story, an excerpt of the short manuscript, so I always say that AAWW opened all the doors for me.
I thought my book would never be published and then, out of nowhere, I got The Margins Fellowship and that really gave me this sense of confidence and motivation to try again. During that year, I expanded my manuscript [in a] class I took at the Workshop that was a free part of my fellowship. One of my classmates was Nicole Counts. She really liked my writing and we kept in touch. She’s now my editor.
RMB: As someone who also studied art in an interdisciplinary program, I appreciated the passages wherein the narrator writes about her studies and practice. What was your framework like in interweaving your art practice with your writing practice? Has it always felt natural to you to discern through which medium you want to tell a story?
PSF: I’m going to start by saying that for a long time, I was really hard on myself for going to art school and not realizing until I was doing my MFA that I wanted to become a writer. I felt like I wasted so much time not studying the thing that I realized I actually wanted to pursue in the long term.
Especially when I was getting those rejections, it became a source of regret for me. But now that I’ve written this book and it’s published, I realized that it was really the foundation of my writing. My visual art education has become the source of my writing process and it is such an important influence. It helps me see writing in different ways and different approaches that maybe I wouldn’t have gained through a more conventional path.
As I was writing this book, I realized [writing] was the right medium for me because of how much I enjoyed it. I had more freedom and more control. In art school, I looked at my peers’ and my own experiences in deciding how to show an artwork, and the details and logistics of an installation. These were really difficult for me, and I would see my classmates just do it, and think, why? Why do I dislike it so much?
When I started writing, it felt [like I had] the freedom to make anything happen on the page and control it. Freedom and control for me are intertwined. The process of being intentional and meticulous about each word, the order of the words, and where the paragraph breaks—all of those things that maybe some other people would find tedious—I find really satisfying.
RMB: I also loved how the narrator talks about her art practice in relation to her family, as she stays with her father on her semester abroad and art is a major part of her matrilineal history.
PSF: Yeah, I was definitely thinking about it as something that was passed down through the maternal lineage. In particular, the grandmother is such a creative person because she writes a Cantonese opera and a poem inspired by that and she performs the opera. At the same time, there is so much hardship in her life and so much creative potential thwarted. Same with the mother who talks about how she always wanted to draw, but didn’t know how to draw well, and that’s why she wanted to take the narrator to so many art classes. I was really interested in showing this thread of creativity and innovation in these three generations of women in the family, and getting to see it realized in the narrator.
RMB: I love the opening Sandra Cisneros quote from The House on Mango Street that precedes the story: “I put it down on paper and then the ghost does not ache so much.” When in the writing process did you choose to include it?
PSF: The last minute. I didn’t think I was going to have an epigraph. I remember talking to my friend K-Ming Chang because she has two in her debut novel Bestiary, and I asked her how she picked [them] and thought about it more. So much of my writing process had this subconscious dreamlike quality, so I decided to take that approach for the epigraph as well. I said to myself, “I’m not going to force it. If I don’t find anything, that’s fine. I’m not going to try to search through a gazillion books.”
I just looked at my bookshelf and saw The House on Mango Street. It’s a book I looked up to while I was writing mine because it’s formally in vignettes and it’s about a young woman becoming an artist. There’s this theme of home as well. Whenever I read, if there’s a line I like, I underline it in pencil and [add] a sticky flag. There were two sticky flags in The House on Mango Street and one was the epigraph. When I saw it, it felt really perfect. It was a magical experience finding the epigraph.
RMB: It really is!
Ghost Forest is not just about the relationships between fathers and daughters, but also between mothers and daughters, as well as grandparents and grandchildren. What is your experience with consuming these types of narratives and your cultural understandings of these relationships?
PSF: One book that was really influential for me was A Feather on the Breath of God by Sigrid Nunez. I loved the way she wrote about the relationships between the narrator and her father and mother. I also love the book Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien because I thought that book captured so beautifully this feeling of devotion [to the] extended family. It was more common for me to read books about relationships between a parent and child, but in Do Not Say We Have Nothing, there are aunties and grandparents and all these webs of extended relations that I felt was so true to my own experience of growing up in a Chinese family.
What I really wanted to capture was this dynamic of the astronaut family, since the father works in Hong Kong and the family is split between Hong Kong and Canada. I wanted to capture the distance in this family geographically, culturally, generationally. Even though the family emigrated to Canada, and the narrator had to experience adapting to a new country and culture, her father never has that experience because he only visits once a year. It was important for me to represent that element of their relationship: it isn’t just a generational difference, but that they’re not having the same experience of immigration.
RMB: One of the most striking parts of the book is the passage of the grandmother saying that as a child she had to take broken rice bits given to her and her family from the Japanese army and grind them into a powder to boil with water for food. This is such a haunting anecdote that I wanted to talk to you about, since it feels akin to your writing style: creating something rich with very little.
PSF: That’s a really beautiful analogy I didn’t even think about. I guess the thing that pops into my head now is the piece of calligraphy the narrator writes for her grandmother with the characters meaning “heart like water.” That’s another image I feel captures the tone of the book not in any concrete way I can explain, but more so the feeling of it.
RMB: You mentioned being influenced by Sigrid Nunez and Madeleine Thien. Which other books and works of art were you consuming and meditating on while writing this?
PSF: I also was inspired by Sharon Olds’s poetry collection, The Father. The imagery in that collection is so vivid. Another really important book was Bough Down by Karen L. Green. It’s a beautiful book about grief [with] prose poems interspersed with her collage artwork. She is a visual artist writing this incredibly luminous elegy.
In terms of artworks, I was looking at a lot of Chinese ink paintings, specifically the Xieyi style, which I refer to in the book, where there’s a lot of empty space on the page. What I love about Xieyi painting is that it’s so lively and spontaneous that it looks really easy to make. It looks like the artist just put down their brush spontaneously and created this, but since I’ve taken classes myself, I realized that it’s so difficult to achieve that kind of decisive quality. I really admire that something simple is actually very complex underneath.
RMB: As much as this novel is about grief, I really gathered that it is a story about love. Love is something that the narrator yearns for physically, mentally, and emotionally from her family.
PSF: For so long, I thought I was writing this book about grief, loss, and death, but when I got to the end, I realized it is a book about love. Grief and love are completely intertwined in this book. I wasn’t only writing about the death of the father, but also about the love and the joy of living among these generations of women as well. It was really important for me that even though it’s a book about grief, it didn’t only feeldense and heavy, but also light and spacious and full of moments of joy and humor. I wanted to capture the complexity of grief and the complexity of talking to one’s family members and be able to show all these nuances from different angles and in different lights.
PIK-SHUEN FUNG is a Canadian writer and artist living in New York City. She has received fellowships and residencies from the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, Kundiman, the Millay Colony, and Storyknife. Her debut novel Ghost Forest is out now from One World in the US and Strange Light in Canada.
RUTH MINAH BUCHWALD is a writer living in New York City. She reads fiction for Okay Donkey Mag and is on the editorial and video/audio teams of SPICY, an online zine and creative collective led by women of color, and queer and trans people of color. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Electric Literature, The Margins, TAYO, and CRAFT. Born in Seoul, South Korea and raised in northern New Jersey, she received a BA in critical and visual studies from Pratt Institute and is a recent recipient of a Micro-Grant from Ma-Yi Theater Company. Find her online @ruthbuchwald.