This week on the Conglomerate, Grace Chao delves into her story "The Year I Became My Mother" from our latest issue. Her articulation of grief reads as an omnipresent, but not totalizing, undercurrent to the motion of daily life. In this interview, Chao talks about writing this portrait of grief, and how sharing stories can help us through.
—Carlos Zayas-Pons, Editorial Assistant
CZ: Part of what makes this story so rich is how you write about experiences and encounters with grief. Your main character, Lara, begins the story by detailing her plan to get over her twenty-something slump by living out her late mother’s dream life: “I would wear whatever I wanted, change my job, travel abroad, live without any rules or responsibilities.” It feels part manifestation of grief, part plan of escape—how did you strike—and then maintain—that balance?
GC: When I was writing this story, I needed to make sure that Lara’s pursuits—her physical transformation, her budding friendship with Ivan, her interest in the life of the chef Theresa Charleston—all still fed into the processing of the loss of her mother (and her mother’s life). I think her job as an obituary fact-checker and writer is key—as much as she wants to escape the loss of life, she can’t. Every Stanford alumnus’s obituary that she reviews reminds her of what her mother didn’t get to do or make. Even though Lara’s still quite young herself, the details of the obituaries also represent what Lara hasn’t yet done with her own life. And Ivan, a fellow twenty-something alum, sees his job at the magazine as purely a jumpstart or a placeholder, nothing more. Somewhere deep down, Lara knows that she doesn’t want to squander the sacrifices her mother made to afford her daughters more possibilities.
CZ: Beyond her haircut and clothes, Lara does not really begin to overhaul her life in the way she promised until the end. Is there self-deception there, or does starting smaller strengthen her to eventually write the false obituary?
GC: I think there’s definitely a level of self-deception present. I also think that, yes, Lara initiating her “project” with mostly superficial changes is what’s needed for her to make more significant changes: cutting off contact with her ex-boyfriend, confiding in Ivan about her mother, ultimately moving onto a different job. You know how they say that if you physically smile more, you’ll find yourself actually becoming happier? I don’t think it’s as simplistic as that, but it lies somewhere in that vein ….
Writing the false obituary is, of course, an act of deception in itself as well. Beyond the fact that Lara’s mother didn’t achieve any of those accomplishments, I don’t think Lara actually knows what would have made her mother feel accomplished, or happy, or important. But it’s the bravest thing Lara has done for herself, despite the fact that no one other than Lara’s father would have noticed the fabrication.
CZ: One of the most tender scenes in the story comes about halfway through when Lara interviews the widower of Theresa Charleston. While he initially fails to tell her anything she doesn’t already know, they eventually exchange a few intimate stories about their lost loved ones. This moment, along with Lara telling Ivan about her mother, read as the moments of greatest relief for her grief—how do you think community and sharing stories relate to how we process such losses?
GC: I think they’re both incredibly important. I don’t think we talk about personal loss—whether it’s the death of a loved one or something else—enough, and understandably so. In addition to worrying about social and conversational norms, there’s always the risk of having your loss, or whatever you’re experiencing, be diminished, even when you’re sharing your story with someone who’s experienced a similar grief. But holding back from sharing prevents any sort of possible connection. And if you love someone, you want that person to exist in other people’s memories and minds, too. Lara shares stories of her mother with Theresa’s widower and with Ivan because it’s the only thing she can think of doing at the time, and I believe her instinct is right.