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Book Review: Tomb Sweeping by Alexandra Chang
an extraordinary and deeply-moving short story collection of the ordinary. It will make you think, feel, and remember.
Every Tiny Thought is where I share bookish thoughts on diverse stories from around the world (occasionally before publication), tiny joyous things, and finding home in America. If you are new here, welcome!
I received an advanced reader copy of the book in exchange for my honest review. Publication date: August 8, 2023.
Alexandra Chang’s Tomb Sweeping is an endearing and deeply-moving short story collection that explores the intricacies of everyday relationships with parents, siblings, friends, and even strangers. Through poignant and heartfelt short stories of, often Chinese women, across the US and Asia, Chang delves into the often overlooked and mundane aspects of the life of those young and old, from immigrants to those who never left home.
A teenage girl finds solace in her father’s passing at a strange funeral held for a dying man yet still alive. A recent college grad mourns her fading college friendship with another second-generation immigrant girl. An adult daughter, monitoring her aging parents through a high-tech camera, realizes that no technology can bridge the emotional distance. And complex dynamics of a strained sibling relationship within a mixed-status family come to light. These are only a glimpse of witty stories in this book that examine our relationship with life, mortality, technology, those we love, and those who love us.
In one story, A Visit, an elderly Asian immigrant father moves in with his adult daughter temporarily for a few months. He brings her Mexican blankets brought in Texas at a huge discount and asks her, Guess how much? - a universal question that Asian parents love to ask to show off for scoring a good deal and, hilariously, also the name of Jimmy O Yang’s new stand-up special. The father expresses his love in typical Asian fatherly ways: fixing appliances around the house, commenting on the upgrade that she should do, and maybe not so typical, burning a stick of incense in his daughter’s almost-dead houseplant soil (maybe to pray to bring peace and safety to her home). The father apologizes for having stayed too long when he’s leaving, and the daughter says no no no, you can stay as long as you want, and feels suddenly empty inside. These ordinary father-daughter interactions, filled with slight awkwardness and prolonged silence, made me think of my own dad who can be annoying and awkward but still expresses his love for me in his own endearing ways.
In the namesake story titled, Tomb Sweeping, the protagonist writes about her experience visiting her grandparents’ graves with her parents.
Life without my grandparents, especially my grandfather, had been both sad and liberating to me. I had lost their comforting presence, but also didn’t have to think about anything beyond school, my friends, and the daily chores my mother and father gave me.
As I was flipping through the pages, I wondered if my dad had felt something similar after losing both of his parents one after another over the past few years. When my grandmother was sent to a care facility after she could no longer live alone due to her worsening Alzheimer’s, and when, just a few years after her passing, my grandfather was hospitalized after a stroke, his sadness seeped through our phone calls. He tried to sound cheered up for me, but I could feel him being weighted down by something heavy.
Perhaps it was the profound sorrow of witnessing his parents' passing, so close in time. Maybe it was his fear of navigating life as an orphaned adult, unsure of how to move forward. Or maybe, as the only child, he did not have anyone else to share his burden with. Fast forward to today, he appeared to be back to his cheerful self, busied with starting new business projects after retirement and traveling to conferences. I wonder if he’s happier now because he’s now free from the burden of caretaking. Regardless, I feel happy for him.
Tomb Sweeping (扫墓), also called the Qing Ming Festival (清明节) the 15th day after the Spring Equinox, is when Chinese families visit the graves of their ancestors, clean the gravesites (thus tomb sweeping), and make ritual offerings to honor their ancestors. I have not gone back to China to visit my grandparent’s graves since they passed away. I have only mourned them in my thoughts, in very abstract terms. I worry that I won’t be able to continue this ritual that holds so much value in my culture. And I suddenly realized that tomb sweeping might be the only cultural ritual I cannot carry on here in the U.S. where I am far away from my homeland, where my ancestors are buried.
Radically empathetic and human in her storytelling, Alexandra Chang writes extraordinary stories that delve into the ordinary experiences of human relationships, our relationship with ourselves and others, and the ultimate question of what makes life worth living. Reading Tomb Sweeping has made me think, feel, and remember, and I am sure it will do that to you too.
Thank you NetGalley and Ecco for sending this book for review consideration. All opinions are my own.
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Tiny Joyous Things
One of my happiest moments this past week was attending the Bay Area Book Festival and hearing Tricia Hersey speak about her book Rest is Resistance, which I wrote about a few months ago. If you have not read it, here it is:
My tiny publication reached over 100 subscribers a few weeks ago. When I started writing here four months ago, I would’ve never imagined other people taking an interest in what I say. Thank you to those who have been here and to those who are new.
Tell me in the comments, what have you been reading and what has brought you joy this week?
Until next time,