Hunger pinned her to the bunk. Starvation impaled her through the stomach, keeping her down on the thin mattress, resisting the momentum of her feebly raised head. Her neck strained to bring her vision to the requisite level such that she could observe the movement of sun against her prison walls. The sun was her way of telling time and estimating the next delivery of food.
Blurbs about THOUGH I GET HOME
“YZ Chin’s tender and furious debut, Though I Get Home, is a long gaze into a black sky; her characters are defiant enough to find light.” —Catherine Lacey, author of The Answers
“Sharp as an old wound that never heals, these linked stories remind us afresh of what it takes to survive in a brutal, racially fraught society.” —Shirley Geok-lin Lim, author of Among the White Moon Faces
YZ Chin's Biography
YZ Chin's debut book of fiction Though I Get Home (Feminist Press, 2018) is the premier winner of the Louise Meriwether First Book Prize. She is also the author of poetry chapbooks In Passing (Anomalous Press, 2019) and deter (dancing girl press, 2013).
Born and raised in Taiping, Malaysia, she now lives in New York. She works by day as a software engineer, and writes by night.
Interview with YZ Chin
YZ Chin’s debut novel, THOUGH I GET HOME, was published on April 10, 2018. Since the novel was published, I have interviewed her about her novel and her writing process. THOUGH I GET HOME is an intimate exploration of what it means to be an individual and a citizen within a state that wishes to control the narrative, which is a description that fits more countries than we would like to admit in today’s world.
Q - Please describe what the book is about.
YZ - Though I Get Home is a collection of interconnected stories that spiral inward to paint a picture of current-day Malaysia. The book is tied together by Isabella Sin, a young woman thrown in jail without trial for writing “controversial” political poems. Other characters include Isa’s grandfather, an immigrant to Malaya who becomes a butler of sorts under colonial masters.
Q - Where did you get the idea?
YZ - My great fear as a writer is self-imposed censorship. When I first started writing fiction seriously, it was pointed out to me that I was really holding back from writing about “taboo” topics like sex. I spent a lot of time exploring the roots of this self-repression, and I realized that I had been conditioned by a lifelong atmosphere of state censorship. That realization formed the seeds for Though I Get Home.
Q - What’s the story behind the title?
YZ - The title is from an Emily Dickinson poem (#199 Franklin; #207 Johnson). The poem is complex and full of turns, succeeding in being both emotionally heightened and ambiguous at the same time – which mirrors how I feel about the idea of “home.”
Q - No spoiler, but tell us something we won’t find out just by reading the book jacket.
YZ - There is a surprising development in the main character Isa’s story arc (Kirkus called it an “unexpected twist” in a starred review). There are also explorations of Isa’s relationships with her grandfather, her mother, her father and her best friend.
Q - Tell us about your favorite character.
YZ - Isabella Sin, the young woman who is thrown in jail without trial for writing “controversial” poems. Her grandfather immigrated to Malaya and served under colonial masters, and her relationship with her parents are strained because of their separation and her preference for dating women. She is dealt a poor hand by fate, but she does her best to add a personal touch to the roles she is given to play.
Q - Are your character based on real people, or do they come from your imaginations?
YZ - Government censorship of the arts is a very real threat. In recent years, dancer Bilqis Hijjas was arrested and charged for releasing yellow balloons bearing the words “Free media,” “Democracy,” and “Justice” during an arts festival opening. Cartoonist Zunar has previously been arrested, and is still under travel ban for his political drawings.
Q - How long did you take to write this book? (You can share about the timeline from drafting to publication)
YZ - The book took about five years and at least four drafts. I worked full-time as a software engineer (partly to maintain legal status to remain in America), so I could write only on the weekends and in the seams of workdays. Drafts took so long to write that by the time I reached the end of the book, I was already a subtly different writer than the one who wrote the beginning of the draft, and I would have to throw out the beginning to start all over.
Q - What kind of research did you do for this book?
YZ - Two books by unjustly imprisoned men especially informed my work: Universiti Kedua (“The Second University”) by Kassim Ahmad and Sengsara Kem Kamunting: Kisah Hidup dalam Penjara ISA (“The Tortures of Camp Kamunting: Life Behind Bars in the ISA Prison”) by Saari Sungib. And of course, the daily news coming out of not just Malaysia, but also the U.S. and beyond.
Q - Are you a plotter or a pantser?
YZ - I sometimes pretend to be a plotter, but the stories and characters inevitably bring me down endless unexpected paths. I follow them willingly.
Q - What is your favorite part of your writing process, and why?
YZ - Oddly enough, my favourite part of writing does not always take place when my fingers are on a keyboard or holding a pen. It can be in the shower, or while I am taking a long walk to clear my head – the magical moments when a beautiful sentence assembles on my tongue, or when an unassailable truth about a character makes itself known in my head, and my heart knows it to be real.
Q - What is the most challenging part of your writing process, and why?
YZ - Honestly, the most challenging part is finding enough uninterrupted time to write while working full-time in an office.
Q - Can you share your writing routine?
YZ - I write in dribbles before work and on the weekends. If I am feeling particularly inspired, I squeeze in bits of writing time during lunch breaks and after work, even though I am usually drained by then.
Q - Have you ever gotten writer’s block? If yes, how do you overcome it?
YZ - Explore another (short) project. Expand a dream into a scene. Flesh out a “what if” idea into a plot or a flash fiction piece. Flip through a notebook I keep of scattered thoughts, half-formed musings, and sentence fragments.
Q - Tell us about yourself.
YZ - I work as a software engineer coding in C, which is a programming language invented in the early seventies. My husband and I have the world’s most beautiful and softest cat named Meursault (after Camus’ The Stranger). I was born and raised in small-town Malaysia, and I left at 19 for an engineering education in the U.S.
Q - How did you get into writing?
YZ - I was a fat kid with a skin condition who was bullied at school (and Buddhist camp). For a while I had no friends. Books were my connection to the world. I want to extend that connection. Books also saved my life, and my hope is that someday my words can do the same for another lonely person.
Q - What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
YZ - Reading, of course. Exercise-wise I used to do a lot of weightlifting, and then I started doing more rock climbing. But I dislocated my elbow last year when I fell 15 feet during rock climbing, so I suppose I shouldn’t say it’s something I like to do anymore?
Q - Apart from novel writing, do you do any other kind(s) of writing?
YZ - I am also a poet. I have two poetry chapbooks published or forthcoming: In Passing (Anomalous Press, 2019) and deter (dancing girl press, 2013). And my very first longform personal essay will be appearing soon in a magazine!
Q - Share something about you most people probably don’t know.
YZ - I used to do weightlifting as a form of exercise. I once deadlifted 245 pounds, which was 2.5 times my body weight. Ah, the glory days.
Q - Which book influenced you the most?
YZ - Toni Morrison’s Beloved changed what I thought was possible in writing. It is a masterpiece that depicts extreme brutality with intelligence and utmost tenderness.
Q - What are you working on right now?
YZ - I’m working (for some reason) on two very different novels. One is about intimacy and the tough choices so-called “skilled worker” immigrants have to make, especially when facing health issues. The other I’m not quite ready to talk about yet.
Q - The book you’re currently reading
YZ - Jeremy Tiang’s State of Emergency. It’s a tightly woven story about the leftist movement in the immediate aftermath of colonialism in Malaysia and Singapore, told from multiple angles.
Links to YZ Chin