The Figurative Void

On Absent Mother Narratives in East Asian American Literature

Find My Friends, Ghostly Afterimage, the Mahjong Table, Opium-laced Dumplings, Ingratitude, Melancholia, Orientalism, US Empire, Essential and Flat Notions of Motherhood, An Inability to Be Stilled or Settled, Worst Nightmares, Crying in H Mart, The Pursuit of Literature, Debt, A Filial Ideal, Impossibility

Panel from This Is Not a Feel-Good Movie, courtesy of Teresa Wong

My mother rarely, if ever, picks up the phone when I call her on the first try. Once, she didn’t return my call for days, after which I learned she had been bed-ridden with a cold. The fact that she lives by herself on the other side of the country from me only increases the amount of guilt and worry I feel whenever I’m unable to get a hold of her. After all, I was the one who chose to move away. But as an only child, I know the responsibility falls on me to check up on her. I started using Find My Friends, an iPhone app, to keep tabs on her, following the suggestion of a friend who had done the same with her mom. During a visit home last year, I activated the feature on my mother’s device, which she handed over willingly, though I doubt she fully understood what I was doing. In any case, it gives me some peace of mind to be able to open up the app to see her location whenever one of my calls goes to voicemail, which is always full because she doesn’t know how to delete old messages in her mailbox.

Nancy Jooyoun Kim tugs on the thread of this very real anxiety in her debut The Last Story of Mina Lee, out last Tuesday. After being unable to reach her mother Mina, 26-year-old Margot drives from Seattle to Los Angeles, wondering why her mother won’t pick up the phone. The ominous question is answered when she finds her mother lying face down on the floor of her childhood home, dead. Yet, The Last Story of Mina Lee is not a straightforward story about grief. There are suspicious circumstances surrounding Mina’s death. As Margot investigates what happened, she uncovers many things she didn’t know about her mother’s life as an orphan in Korea and an undocumented immigrant in America. The reader is privy to this secret history told through Mina’s perspective. But without access to those chapters, only stray clues, Margot finds herself “haunted by visions of her mother.” Just as the ghostly afterimage lingers for Margot, decades earlier Mina can’t stop thinking about the life she left behind in her home country. In a flashback, she ruminates, “Absence was always present.”

The absent mother permeates narratives by Asian American authors, particularly those written by women of East Asian descent. This motif is certainly not exclusive to them, but its recurrence is something I’ve noticed in literature and onscreen. Recent examples of mothers who abandon their children and families, however briefly, appear in Celeste Ng’s novels, both in 2014’s Everything I Never Told You and 2017’s Little Fires Everywhere. (The latter was adapted into a miniseries that premiered on Hulu earlier this year.) The most formative precedents can be traced back to Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club (1989), which so famously helped to define the first-generation Asian American mother in pop culture that, in retrospect, she’s almost become a caricature. The first chapter opens with daughter Jing-Mei Woo being asked to assume her late mother Suyuan’s seat at the mahjong table. The game provides a storytelling device for the interlocking vignettes about four Chinese immigrant mothers and their American-born daughters. Long before reading the book as a high school student, I had watched the 1993 movie alongside my own mother. Burned into my memory were the mothers’ stories of loss, particularly that of An-Mei who loses her mother not once, but twice—first when her widowed mother is coerced into becoming a wealthy man’s concubine, and again when her mother dies by ingesting opium-laced dumplings. Beyond simply making visible the suffering endured by generations of women, Tan’s stories also celebrate their strength and ability to survive. 

In many ways, these missing mothers are the antithesis of mothers who are sometimes too present, who take up outsized emotional and psychological space in the lives of their children. Waverly’s mother Lindo exemplifies this proud and disapproving figure in The Joy Luck Club. The archetype of the overbearing mother has also become familiar in memoirs such as Maxine Hong Kingston’s feminist mythologizing The Woman Warrior (1976) and Amy Chua’s stereotype-enforcing Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (2011). It’s worth noting that both The Woman Warrior and Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother received polarizing responses from Asian American critics at the time of their publication (and continue to, years later). Likewise, Tan’s work continues to elicit mixed feelings from Asian American readers. The previous dearth of mainstream Asian American voices certainly contributes to hand-wringing over the fear of perpetuating stereotypes like the “tiger mom,” which feeds into the model minority myth. While it’s still unclear how the missing mother trope will reverberate both within and outside of Asian American reading and writing communities—and what the implications of these depictions might be in the short and long term—the contrast between this figure and the overbearing mother creates a fascinating juxtaposition in the canon. Wanting to avoid such traps may be a reason for writing around the missing mother figure, as powerful of a force as she is. Ironically enough, she is compelling—perhaps even consuming—in a way that’s not entirely dissimilar from the more domineering stereotype. Her pull is different, yet comparably commanding. Even The Woman Warrior, subtitled “Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts,” pays deference to phantom mother figures, including a dead and disgraced aunt—a “No Name Woman” offered by the family as a cautionary tale. Perhaps it is because of how much the missing mother’s presence overshadows her descendants’ lives that it is only possible to appraise her through some mediated form. 

Even before examining the stories closely, we already know these mothers’ voices lack immediacy because they are being filtered and translated through their daughters’ accounts in English. Because of a tendency to assume that all writers of color write autobiographically, it’s important to clarify that this impulse to excise the mother figure is not always based on lived experience. In novels The Leavers (2017) by Lisa Ko and The Tenth Muse (2019) by Catherine Chung, mothers go missing as a consequence of political and historical events. That includes mothers separated from their children at the hands of immigration officials acting on draconian policies, as well as mothers who are persecuted and abused in the context of colonialism and war. Underlying these topical issues are racial and economic injustices, not to mention power imbalances related to gender—all of which have real-world implications.

This dynamic suggests that for children of immigrants, daughters in particular, there is something about the relationship with our mothers that feels especially difficult to confront, and perhaps can only be addressed indirectly. In her text of literary criticism, Ingratitude: The Debt-Bound Daughter in Asian American Literature (2011), erin Khuê Ninh examines the titular figure, and suggests that this difficulty to reconcile our mothers may very well be a result of our own anxieties or guilt as disobedient daughters. Ninh explicitly singles out daughters, as opposed to sons, for the universal ways in which female bodies are policed by fathers and mothers alike, and how patriarchal values are reproduced in heteronormative family structures across cultures. Because as much as these stories represent experiences of mourning and nostalgia, anger and resentment are often embedded, too. 

As I prepared to speak to Nancy Jooyoun Kim prior to the publication of her novel, it occurred to me that she was not the first Asian American woman author to feature a motherless protagonist. Soon it became a much larger question—one that I also reached out to Lisa Ko about—warranting its own consideration. In trying to find symbolic meaning in the absent mother figure, I’m aiming to understand why the trope resonates for so many writers, myself included. Additionally, this is not to say that relationships with fathers aren’t just as potent, if different, deserving of their own books and stories (see: Kingston’s China Men and Sigrid Nunez’s A Feather on the Breath of God). For Kim, she told me that writing The Last Story of Mina Lee was a way to dramatize one of her “worst nightmares.” When I asked about the significance of the missing or dead mother in a broader context, she mused, “Whether or not [the trope is] literally a part of our lives, it’s almost like a part of our imaginations.” Even removed from the narrative, the missing mother infiltrates the story in absentia.

In fiction and nonfiction, Asian American women writers explore the many layers of loss. Across genres, readers can observe an overlapping sentiment between writing hypothetically about a departed mother and recounting firsthand experiences. In The Melancholy of Race (2000), literary and race scholar Anne Anlin Cheng links the condition of melancholia, which “alludes not to the loss per se but to the entangled relationship with loss,” to our identities as minority subjects. The connections we have to our parents and our cultural identity are obviously complex and varied, which makes losing them that much more painful.

The elasticity of fiction potentially allows writers more freedom to fold in multiple meanings and extend the trope of the missing mother to her relationship with a son. Like Mina in Nancy Jooyoun Kim’s novel, Polly in Lisa Ko’s The Leavers is a single mother and undocumented immigrant. When she fails to return home to the Bronx apartment that she shares with another Fuzhounese family, 11-year-old Deming Guo finds himself secretly relieved: “He didn’t want her to be dead, never ever, but it seemed preferable, in a fucked-up way, to having her leave without a good-bye.” It’s not the first time Deming has been left behind by his mother. As a baby, he had been sent to live with his grandparents in Minjiang, China, while Polly continued to work in New York City—a practice not uncommon among Chinese immigrant families. When I emailed Ko, who’s Chinese American and grew up in Queens, asking what drew her to this story, she answered:

I was initially inspired to write fiction about the emotional impacts of state-sanctioned family separation as a way to complicate dominant narratives that privilege wealth and whiteness to bolster Orientalism and US empire. But I also wanted to complicate essential and flattening notions of motherhood…

In Polly’s case, becoming a mother is not a choice she deliberately seeks out. Despite her unplanned pregnancy, Polly decides to leave her village and travel to America. Her ambivalence toward motherhood defies gender expectations. In Deming’s eyes, his mother’s nomadic tendency reveals something deeper—“a restlessness to her, an inability to be still or settled.”

Deming grows into adulthood grappling not just with his birth mother’s disappearance but also a cultural loss. He is eventually adopted by white foster parents who, believing school “would be easier with an American name,” rechristen him Daniel. The alienating experiences of a transracial adoptee described in Ko’s fiction mirror writer Nicole Chung’s real-life search for her biological family. In her 2018 memoir All You Can Ever Know, Chung writes poignantly about her sense of disconnect from her Korean identity: “To me Korea was little more than a faraway country, less real to me than a fantasy, and my own Korean family existed in an alternate timeline I could hardly begin to imagine.” Chung projects a longing for her lost cultural roots onto her biological family.

For many daughters, cultural authenticity gets projected directly onto the mother, who is often the most immediate, if not only available, figure for comparison. The loss of one goes hand in hand with the loss of the other. Michelle Zauner, who records music under the moniker Japanese Breakfast, ruminates on her mother’s death in melancholic albums like her 2016 debut Psychopomp and in the widely read New Yorker essay “Crying in H Mart.” The title refers to a Korean supermarket chain where she shops for groceries, hoping to feel closer to her Asian identity. Being biracial further accentuates the enormity of her grief. She writes, “When I was growing up, with a Caucasian father and a Korean mother, my mother was my access point for our Korean heritage.” For Zauner, her “Korean half” is bound inextricably to the memory of her mother.

The biracial identity of Catherine Chung’s protagonist in The Tenth Muse also carries with it lost histories. Tracing the life of a world-renowned mathematician named Katherine, Chung devotes early chapters, about her childhood in the 1950s Midwest, to narrating her fascination with her Chinese-born mother, Meiying. After her mother leaves her father, revelations about Meiying shatter Katherine’s understanding about her own origins:

I felt as if my whole past was lost to me—that there was no ground to stand on, and my mother was no longer mine, and never been mine. And if that was the case, then I was Katherine-from-no-one, Katherine-from-nowhere, Katherine-doomed-to-be-lost. 

Later, while pursuing a fellowship in Germany, Katherine embarks on a journey to unravel the mystery of her parentage—a history that intertwines the Holocaust of WWII with Japanese imperialism in Asia. Through Katherine’s story, Chung draws a parallel between these legacies of trauma. 

But it’s not only physical absence that writers contend with. In these narratives, there seems to be something emotionally or psychologically inaccessible, as well. Integrating sociology with autoethnography in Haunting the Korean Diaspora (2008), Grace M. Cho studies how trauma can create a feeling of loss even when no literal loss has been suffered by children of immigrants. She recalls her mother’s silence at the dinner table as one example of her “being both there and not there.” Accounting for this figurative void, Cho reflects: “Despite the presence of my mother’s family during much of my childhood, there was still an absence of a story about my mother’s family and her life in Korea and the circumstances under which we had moved to the United States.” As a Korean War bride, Cho’s mother embodies the yanggongju, or former comfort woman, whose traumatic past is frequently erased in history books and untold family histories alike. Here, the absent mother personifies the erasure of that trauma.

Recognizing immigrant trauma as inherited trauma can help explain the conflict inherent in the relationship between first-generation mothers and second-generation daughters. And given the intersections of gender and race, it makes sense that through the eyes of the daughter cultural wholeness becomes tied to the figure of the mother. Although reluctant to make generalizations in our conversation, Nancy Jooyoun Kim conceded, “I think mothers and daughters are really complicated because not only do mothers serve as mirrors for daughters, but I think daughters serve as mirrors for mothers, too.” She inadvertently summarizes Anne Anlin Cheng’s observations about this reflexive relationship articulated in The Melancholy of Race: “The daughter is a melancholic echo of the mother. To speak against the mother is also to be the mother.” Fear of becoming like the mother invariably leads to the daughter’s rejection of her. In The Last Story of Mina Lee, Margot views her life in Seattle as “a rebellion against her mother, against all that her mother represented to her—poverty, tastelessness, foreignness, uncleanliness, a lack of control.”

Rebellion precedes guilt, at least for those of us raised in a culture of “filial obligation,” as erin Khuê Ninh argues in Ingratitude. In her 2018 essay “The Bitter Regrets of a Useless Chinese Daughter” published in The New York Times, Shanghai-born fiction writer Jianan Qian laments not only being far away from her mother when she suffers a stroke, but also her chosen career. Choosing to be a writer in the US means that she lacks both the financial resources and social network to help with her mother’s healthcare in China. Qian’s predicament perfectly illustrates why, even with supportive parents, “the pursuit of literature” symbolizes “the antithesis of a filial ideal,” to use Ninh’s words. For Qian, whose mother via cellphone video insists, “Pursue your dream in America,” there is no perfect solution. She concludes, “Whether I choose to go back home and take care of her or stay in the United States and keep reaching for my dream, sooner or later, I will regret either choice.”

The looming concern over her mother’s health, like the worst-case scenario that Nancy Jooyoun Kim forces her characters to face, ultimately speaks to the anticipation of a future loss. Acknowledging the sacrifices her mother has made, Kim said, “I feel like for me, it has to do with debt and the fact that I will never pay my mother back in time.” As soon as she uttered this in our conversation, I felt the piercing truth. Listening to and reading all these writers attempting, and maybe struggling, to capture the Asian mother and what she represents, I understand why she remains an elusive figure not just on the page but in the imagination. I’ve often thought that my mother is beautiful in a way I will never be. She is Chinese in a way I can never be. And she has survived more hardship than I will ever know. Like Kim, I feel indebted in a way that’s overwhelming because I already know that paying her back is impossible.

At some point during quarantine, I opened the Find My Friend app on my phone only to discover that my mother’s location is no longer visible to me. I have no idea when or why it stopped working. Uncertain when it will be safe enough for me to visit her, I’ve started calling and texting her more often. I ask if she’s eating enough, remind her to take walks and, of course, to wear a mask whenever she goes outside. I joke that my transformation from Asian daughter to figurative Asian mother is now complete.

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