“I didn’t think of my family as different. I thought, this is what Hong Kong fathers do.”
In the wake of the pandemic that has kept us at home and forced us to reckon with familial relationships, Pik-Shuen Fung’s timely debut novel Ghost Forest achingly captures the emotional nuances of astronaut families and the difficulty of having homes stretched across continents.
With one vignette per page, the narrative vividly weaves together a story of three generations of women, earnestly addressing the process of grief without reducing it to a monochrome of sadness.
Fung’s commitment to this multifaceted take on grief shines through in the moments of lightheartedness and joy that rub shoulders with the novel’s heavier themes. As she shares, “Grief is not only one note and flat, but is a very nuanced and ongoing experience.”
Separated by oceans themselves, Cold Tea Collective sat down on a video call to chat with Fung about Ghost Forest, rootlessness, writing strong inventive women into history, and the process of honing one’s craft.
Conceiving of home: an ongoing question
Ghost Forest reckons with the meaning of distance in intimate relationships. As part of an astronaut family, a family where the members reside in different countries across the world, the protagonist travels back between Hong Kong and Vancouver, breeding a sense of rootlessness.
Although the novel is a fiction, the emotions that Fung brings to it are true to herself. A question she wanted to surface in Ghost Forest was: “What is home if your family lives in two countries at the same time and you’re traveling between these places throughout your childhood?”
Writing Ghost Forest as a novel was Fung’s attempt at answering her own question. While she admits that she is still in the process of coming to a conclusive answer, Fung shares what she has come to realize.
“I really wanted to write for people like us that grew up in multiple places and two or more cultures,” Fung explained. “I’m realizing that ‘home’ doesn’t just have to be a place [. . .] it can be whatever I choose it to be, which is still something I’m figuring out for myself.”
As she continues to wrestle with this question, her experience of the pandemic and being stuck at home for longer periods of time has provided her with some insight. Fung explains that the blue green wall visible in the background of her video call was a recent development during lockdown.
“It seems like such a small thing, but even just seeing this colour we choose on the walls… it makes me feel like it’s more like my home,” she said.
She’s coming to realize that little things like this matter in feeling at home. Sometimes, they make all the difference.
Creating space through writing
The vignettes in Ghost Forest lend the novel blank spaces where emptiness speaks volumes. Though Fung spent some time attempting more conventional prose forms, she ultimately reverted to her original idea of vignettes because she wanted to create an experience unlike the hyper-paced, flashy, and shiny ones readers have become accustomed to today.
As she explained, “[It] was really important to me [. . .] to embrace the qualities of slowness and spaciousness.”
Fung stunningly evokes these qualities in her writing. The vignettes read like key fragments of memories, adrift in vague and foggy recollections of the past.
As the faceless illustration of the cover also suggests, Fung’s writing creates a space for the reader to bring their own experiences and emotions to the book. In this sense, the novel is not simply addressing Hong Kong astronaut families but extends to Korean gireogi appas, or any transnational family unit with comparable experiences.
“It was really important for me not to try to guide the reader to any specific takeaways or messages,” Fung reflected.
Three generations of Women
Another theme within Ghost Forest is of a matriarchal community, telling the story of three women across familial generations. Fung makes the intentional decision to expand beyond the voice of a single character, each character distinct and compelling in their own way.
“In a lot of Asian families it’s like a family. It’s not like each individual member. I wanted to represent that in the novel,” she said, on capturing the feeling of collective storytelling.
When asked whose voice she enjoyed writing the most, Fung chose the voice of the grandmother. She particularly enjoyed the humour and confidence that the character had, and it was important to her that these women characters are not only defined by their hardships but also through how funny, intelligent, and creative they are.
By imbuing her women characters with such poignant voices, Fung memorializes the strength and inventiveness of these women who are often silenced or erased from arcs of history.
From visual medium to the written novel
When asked about her journey from visual artist turned writer, Fung’s path seems circular rather than linear.
“I doubted myself so many times and because I had done both my degrees in visual art, [I] didn’t really try to change my career until I was basically thirty,” Fung said.
However, as she explained, her roots in visual arts and installation quickly became an invaluable asset. With them, Fung learned to consider how viewers enter artwork, and brought this way of thinking into her writing process. It is these experiences that now contribute to her style as an author.
“Things I did in the past that I thought were a waste of time, I brought it all into my writing. All of it just became the foundation of my writing practice, and I feel like it’s kind of a strength that I have.”
Experimenting with different creative outlets of sculpture, installation, and video through grad school, Fung explained that she ultimately found her calling to write in the space of grief after her father’s passing.
From this, the first of the vignettes were born. Now, seven years later, we meet them through her novel.
Still, the transition into writing was not without its own difficulties. Wrestling with the regret of not having discovered writing earlier and the feeling of falling behind, Fung overcame over twenty rejections before she found her publisher. In retrospect, however, the process was unquestionably rewarding.
“Now that I’m publishing this book, I feel like it wasn’t a waste of time, it wasn’t too late. I can’t imagine if I had gone down a different path” she said.
For readers who have finally come to read stories that hold space for them through writing that resonates, the sentiment is mutual.
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