When I sat down to read Kat Chow’s debut memoir Seeing Ghosts, I expected a meditation on what it means to live a life shot through with grief.
After all, the central ghost the title refers to is Chow’s mother, who died less than two weeks after being diagnosed with cancer in 2004, when Chow was 13. I have read so many grief memoirs over the years, looking for reflections of my sorrow in others’ reckoning with immense loss. My mother died of cancer when I was 12. Two years later, my father died of cancer, too. Their deaths cleaved my life in two, and in the after, grief always hovers overhead.
Chow does distill what it feels like to grieve well beyond the initial shock of death in Seeing Ghosts. “I feel like I always miss Mommy,” she says to her sisters when suddenly sobs wrack her body years after her mother’s death. “It perplexed me then how grief could still be there like that, injected into my body as if some preserving agent, indistinguishable from my insides.” I’ve felt that bone-deep sadness, that weight of grief, the way it sneaks to the surface when you’re least expecting it.
But while Seeing Ghosts would not exist without Chow’s grief — while Chow would not be the person she is now without that grief — her project here aims for more than just mapping her primal anguish. The ghosts in the title are plural, and after the book calls Chow’s mother’s ghost into the room, it pays visits with relatives she never got to meet in life: her maternal grandmother, who died when her mother was four; her older brother, who died an hour after his premature birth; her paternal grandfather, who immigrated to Cuba to work in restaurants and died there when her father was six. In telling these ghosts’ stories, Chow considers what we owe our ancestors, how generational grief’s root system pervades our lives, and the melancholia of loss — not just of people, but of places and identities.
Chow was one of the cofounders of NPR’s Code Switch, and her reporting background and deep interest in race, identity, and cultural history drives her memoir’s larger project. She writes that she learned her family’s story, which spans from southern China to Hong Kong and Havana and finally to the United States, “in passive voice, these events falling from the sky…revealing so many holes that I would need to fill, might not ever be able to fill.” In writing about her mother’s life and death, and what came before and after, Chow excavates her history and the ways that distance and longing refract across generations.
Chow’s parents — her mother, Bo Mui, who later went by Florence; her father, Wing Shek — were both born near Guangzhou, their families moving to Hong Kong when they were small to escape Communist rule. They both emigrated to the United States for college, meeting in the 1980 in suburban Connecticut, where there was no real Cantonese community. Chow considers the melancholic nature of forming an identity as an immigrant: “The immigrant family tries to preserve a history and a life that the surrounding resist. They try to invent a new way of being while always seeking a home within the negative space.”
In Connecticut, the Chows would speak English at home with their daughters but still celebrate Lunar New Year with rituals like burning tissue paper cut-outs of clothes in a “postal service for the dead.” As a child, Chow barely understood these cultural traditions, but after her mother’s death, these ways of caring for her spirit took on a different weight — Florence’s ghost kept following Chow around.
Chow describes visions of her mother popping up before her, much as when they played hide-and-seek during blackouts when Florence was still alive. She appears when the family installs her tombstone nine months after burial: “You took months to make this? You jabbed a finger at your stone as if we could have missed it.” She follows Chow across the country for college: “This is such a stereotypical Seattle situation, you in a kayak…Your lips curve and the corner of your eyes crinkle with roguish pleasure.”
For much of the first half of the memoir, Chow writes directly to her mother in this manner, trying to understand what she wanted out of life. By writing her mother “into being,” Chow pays a debt for the silence that accrued after Florence’s death. She brings Florence’s mischievous nature and macabre sense of humor to life on the page, relating how her mother once asked Chow to have her taxidermied when she died: “I want you to get me stuffed so I can sit in your apartment and always watch you.”
Memories like this, though startling, inject levity as Chow grapples with all she cannot know about her mother: if she was content in her marriage, which was filled with bickering and money problems; if she felt responsible for her own mother’s death of uterine cancer (her mother put off treatment to give birth to her); if Chow would have been born had her brother lived; if she would have lived longer had she prioritized her own health and had access to affordable care.
Though Seeing Ghosts jumps back and forth in time, its overarching narrative is linear, and as Chow moves closer to the present, the ghost she is most concerned with is one that is not yet dead: her father. His motivations — for leaving his career as an engineer to run a restaurant that bankrupted the family, for hoarding newspapers and broken-down cars, for attempting to taxidermy a fish — elude deciphering, and his stubborn nature has put up walls. Chow interviews her father like a journalistic subject, and his answers evade the heart of her questions — they talk past one another.
But even though her father can’t or won’t talk about his feelings, even though his most frequent answer is “I don’t know,” Chow persists in trying to piece together his life and his family history. At one point, after talking to her father about his parents, Chow writes, “I am struck by how few details my father knows about his parents, in their lives and in their deaths. And how for so many years, I have been this way, too.” Chow helps her father correct the gaps in his knowledge of his own father by traveling with him to Havana and connecting him with researchers in the Barrio Chino. In this way of unearthing and preserving an ancestor’s memory, Chow and her father both fulfill filial duties.
At the end of the book, Chow, her sisters, and her father finally make good on their last promise to Florence: that they would have her son’s remains cremated and buried with her. While driving to the cemetery for the internment with her oldest sister, they talk about how they think of their mother daily. “That is what it means to lose someone, understanding how, after all these years, memories shift and shape us,” Chow reflects. “How we cannot exorcise someone as much as we try; we must learn the ways in which we preserve parts of them in ourselves.” In Seeing Ghosts, Chow has, in a way, preserved her mother, satisfied her request to be taxidermied. But she has also given up her ghost and released it to the world.
Kristen Martin’s writing has also appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Believer, The Baffler, and elsewhere.
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