What Passes Over
I’m positive my mother has gone crazy the minute I pick up the phone. “Your father isn’t really dead,” she says through a crackle of static, “he’s in the afterlife.”
“Where are you?” I ask. I’ve been home for an hour, doing my homework at the kitchen table, wondering where she’s gotten to.
“At the library,” she says. “That’s how I know. About the afterlife. It’s all right here in this book on Chinese customs.”
“Mom,” I say, “we’re not Chinese.”
“Do you think the afterlife is racist?” my mother demands.
Fire, my mother explains when she comes home, is the key. Flame opens the door between now-life and afterlife. The way she describes it, it’s the secret password, the one-way mail-chute. What burns passes over. I nod and smile but think, is the afterlife full of birthday candles? Matches? Cigarettes stacked like firewood?
“The Chinese,” my mother says, setting shopping bag after shopping bag down on the counter, “send their loved ones the things they will need in the afterlife.”
The book she has spent all afternoon reading is reference, so the librarians would not let her take it out. But she lectures as if she’s taken notes. From the bags she pulls board games, brand-new and shrink-wrapped. Monopoly. Life. Three sets of each.
Celeste Ng has an MFA from the University of Michigan, where “What Passes Over” was awarded an Avery Hopwood and Jule Hopwood Award in Graduate Short Fiction in 2006. Her fiction is forthcoming in TriQuarterly, and she is currently at work on a collection of short stories and a novel.
Q&A by Hannah Tinti
- HT: Where did the idea for this story come from?
- CN: I grew up with the Chinese custom of burning paper money at funerals and at graves. Whenever I visited my relatives in San Francisco, we’d go to the cemetery where my great-grandfather was buried and burn incense and paper money there. One day it occurred to me how strange this custom must seem to those who aren’t familiar with it, and the possibilities for a story just unfolded.
- HT: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
- CN: The ending. In the original draft, the story ended in a very different place, with Jenna sitting under the dining table with the address cards and the telephone. But the story didn’t seem to work in that form. It needed to move past that moment in order to reach some kind of resolution. Expanding that strand about Jenna’s friendship with Lena led me to the dance, which led me to the final scene. But even after that scene was written, it took a lot of tinkering with the final images before the story began to feel complete.
- HT: The image of the paper doll clothes is haunting. How did they enter the story? Did you ever have them as a child?
- CN: The paper dolls worked their way in through necessity—I thought about the items that the Chinese traditionally burn, and how someone like Jenna’s mom might “translate” them into items from her own world. But once the paper doll clothes were in the story, I discovered that they had all kinds of interesting possibilities! Jimmy Carter practically wrote himself into the story. I had only a few sets of paper dolls when I was young, and I didn’t really play with them—except sometimes to make up stories about them. They were all historical, dolls of the American Revolution and so on, probably given to me as educational toys. But they did give me the idea for the paper clothes in this story, so they weren’t wasted.
- HT: Do you think that American grief rituals are somehow lacking compared to other cultures?
- CN: No—but they are very different. I think the foreignness is part of the appeal for Jenna’s mother. The Chinese rituals I describe in the story are extremely concrete and prescriptive compared to American grief rituals. We don’t really have such detailed instructions to follow in today’s American tradition; we might wear black or send flowers, but there aren’t really any “musts.” You’re kind of left to find your own way. In the Chinese tradition, on the other hand, there are even more rules to follow than are mentioned in the story-from what you’re supposed to wear to what you eat after the funeral to how long you’re supposed to wait before you attend any celebrations. So the Chinese rituals are very comforting to Jenna’s mother because they’re so specific and because they let her feel that she’s helping her husband in a very tangible way. And once she feels like she’s doing something, she’s able to stop wallowing and begin to heal.
- HT: How long did it take you to complete this story?
- CN: I wrote a few sentences of it quite a while ago but didn’t know how they would fit into a story. Then I started thinking about paper money as Monopoly money and wrote the first draft in a few days, for a workshop in the spring of 2005 at the University of Michigan. After that I had to let the draft sit for almost a year before I knew how to revise it.
- HT: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
- CN: Two bits: One of my other advisors, Nicholas Delbanco, told me to write for at least two hours every day, which is a good goal to have. And then there’s the quote by Henry James: “Be one on whom nothing is wasted” (or something to that effect). To me, that means everything you experience goes into the storehouse of your brain to be used later on—so even when you’re not writing, and you feel like you’re wasting time, you’re actually preparing to write. I try to think of it that way, anyway, when I’m not meeting that two-hour goal. And then there’s the piece of advice I got from a fortune cookie the other day: “Do what you love, and the necessary resources will follow.”
- HT: What are you working on now?
- CN: I’m working on a collection of short stories, mostly about parents and children, and I’ve also started a novel.