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In 'Seeing Ghosts,' Kat Chow Relives Her Mom's Death And What Followed

NOEL KING, HOST:

The writer Kat Chow had a mom who was funny and smart and warm and consistent. But when she was 13, her mom died, and Kat's dad became her primary caregiver. He was also funny but unpredictable, unmoored like her by grief, occasionally in need of a bailout. Kat Chow's new memoir is an archive of the two people who made her and of the people who made them. It's called "Seeing Ghosts," and it traces her family's sometimes mysterious journey from China, Hong Kong and Cuba to the U.S. and then to a kind of afterlife. I asked her what it was like to relive in such detail her mom's death and what came after.

KAT CHOW: It was hard. I mean, it was such a long process of writing these memories down and trying to preserve them with such detail. I really leaned on the levity and the playfulness of, for example, my mother because I think when I told myself that she was a person outside of the sadness and the grief that our family experienced, it really helped, you know, bring her to life, so to speak. And it was moments like that that really helped to balance it out.

KING: Kat Chow's new memoir is an archive of the two people who made her and the people who made them.

Let's talk about your parents because they are so vivid and so real and so human in this book. Both of them fled China, fled Hong Kong and came to the United States. And when they came, what were the lives that they wanted for themselves?

CHOW: They really wanted to survive and thrive. And these questions of survival and what it means to reach towards something that's a little bit more than that, those were some of the central questions in this book. There's a scene that I'm thinking about right now where I go to China with my dad and my older sisters for the first time. And I remember walking in the streets of Guangzhou with my dad. And to him, everything seemed so unrecognizable. And it really struck me how - and this is something I write in the book, too - all children are basically living in their parents' realities or the realities of those who raised them. And to be the kids of immigrants, in a sense, is varying degrees of living in our parents' remaking of the country - in my parents' case, China - in which they were born.

KING: Tell us about your relationship with your mother.

CHOW: My mother was such a dynamic and playful woman. She was so sharp. She was funny. And one of the images that I always write about her in this book is the funny face that she makes where she pulls her teeth down over her lip. And, you know, she was always just trying to find ways to tease my sisters and me and to really bring out different sides of us. And I think growing up with a mother like that, it taught me to not take myself too seriously. But also it just showed me the ways in which you can be so much.

KING: Your mom was a very reliable person. You were able to turn to your older sisters after she died. Your dad is the reason I will reread this book because he is a low-key tornado of a person. He is complicated. He is less than consistent at times. And it's very clear that you didn't always know what his needs were going to be on any given day. Talk to me about the relationship with your dad that developed after your mom had passed and it's essentially just the two of you at home.

CHOW: Right. We were forced in a way to have to interact with each other where we could no longer be on the peripheries of each other's lives. And this book attempts to capture the building of that relationship and the complexity, as you mentioned, of my father, how in particular I was experiencing my own grief of my mother while he was experiencing the loss of his wife and the differences in the ways we experienced that and didn't always go through it in similar ways, but how I learned from him in those respects and also how I watched him as a daughter try to survive. We both were trying to persist through this enormous loss.

And I think as an adult now, my father and I spoke for so many hours to - in order for me to write this book through so many interviews where we would FaceTime, we would get on the phone or I would email him questions. And I just wanted to understand him better. And even if we can't agree on certain things or even if there's still so much distance between us, it was so crucial for me to see his point of view and really be able to see his origin story, which was when he was young, he didn't know his father.

His father was one of thousands of Chinese immigrants who left China, the Pearl River Delta area, and went to Havana in Cuba to work in the '20s or '30s. And there's a big question mark of his father, I think, left so many things unknown for him. And he was very close to his mother, of course, who also passed when my father was in his 20s. And so seeing the ways in which there was so much distance growing up for my father and how he experienced the loss of parents really helped me understand him as an adult now.

KING: I will admit there were a couple times where I had a brief - brief moments of defensiveness on behalf of your dad, where I wanted to say, Kat, just stop poking around.

CHOW: (Laughter).

KING: He doesn't want to answer. And then I realized, I don't know that that's real. That's - you know, that's my reaction to him. How did your dad feel about you writing a memoir, of all things?

CHOW: (Laughter) My dad, to his credit, has always been of the mindset of it's your life. You can do what you want to do.

KING: Awesome.

CHOW: And I think the fact that we talked so much for this book and he did read a final draft of it...

KING: Wow.

CHOW: ...It really helped him understand what this was. And I think he sort of got a kick out of being a part of it and a part of this process. But also it really helped us all remember and really have this kind of collective family memory together. I mean, it was really important to, in a way, you know, create an archive. There's a big theme of taxidermy and there's a big theme of ghosts as memory in this book. And I was so drawn to it because, you know, it really brought me to these ideas of how do you keep someone or something who is no longer alive with us? And to me, it was in the memory itself, recalling it or speaking it, writing it, which is what I was doing. And, you know, we as writers become our families' archives.

KING: Kat Chow - her memoir is "Seeing Ghosts." Kat, thank you so much for being with us.

CHOW: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE AMERICAN DOLLAR'S "MOSAIC") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.