I picked up Diamond Head by Cecily Wong on a whim at the library a few weeks ago and ended up inhaling the entire thing over yet another quarantine weekend. (I seem to be getting a lot of reading done during cold and flu season! But I would really prefer that my family be healthy.) From the jacket description, it seemed like my usual cup of Asian American literary tea: multigenerational, multinational, historical family story. I wasn’t disappointed. But to my surprise, I saw several structures and themes that I plan to explore in my own work.
Alternating Time Settings
In every other chapter, the story of Diamond Head switches between “now”–1960s Hawaii–and several decades’ worth of “thens,” from pre-Republic China to World War II Hawaii. The present day story anchors the flashbacks until they finally merge with the ongoing events.
My story takes place in the not-so-distant future (c. 2028, yikes) with memory trips to the not-so-distant past: early 2000s campus ministry culture. (Double, triple yikes.) I lived that recent history, but from a different stage of life than my characters. Like Cecily Wong, I’m not writing historical fiction. But the history is a frame of reference that shapes the story in important ways.
Within the alternating timelines in the chapter structure, Wong weaves in three narrators at various stages of their lives: grandmother Lin Leong, her daughter-in-law Amy Leong, and Amy’s daughter Theresa Leong. I struggled a little with this complexity at first. Amy sometimes tells her mother-in-law’s story, while Theresa sometimes speaks for Amy. Names and titles change through immigration and time passing. But I wouldn’t change this part of the writing. After all, every parent was a child themselves once. Every person plays the lead in their own story, but enters and exits as a supporting role in the lives of others. The slight unreliability of each narrator shows how each of us can only hold our piece of the puzzle.
I’ve thought about including multiple narrators in my story. Artemis Huang is the central character, but the perspective of her son or ex-boyfriend might be worth exploring. The Snowflake Method of novel planning recommends telling the same story from the perspective of every major character. I’m not super confident (yet) about my ability to cohesively switch narrators, but I’ll try to practice.
Fate, Destiny, and Coincidence
Diamond Head‘s characters “try so hard to escape fate that they miss their destiny.” There is a family legend of a figurative red string tied between the ankles of destined life partners. Mistakes in love–dalliances with concubines or prostitutes, chance encounters missed, or wrong choices made–become knots that can be passed down through the generations.
The story I want to write hinges on one major coincidence. Of all fifty thousand students at Ohio State, does Artemis’s son really have to date her ex’s daughter?! I’ll be exploring how a mother deals with her own past as she tries to support her son.
The underlying question in both stories is whether children must always repeat their parents’ mistakes. The idea of generational sin is not a new one (read: the entire Hebrew Bible and most Eastern religious systems), but I’ve lately been thinking a lot about it in terms of (unresolved) cultural trauma as well as problematic learned behaviors and thought patterns. I have, uh, no definitive conclusions yet, but I think I’ll write a book about it.
It seems appropriate that Diamond Head happened to be on a display shelf the day I was at our public library. I’m glad I picked it up and saw another Asian American writer asking the same questions I’ve been pondering. I only hope my journey to answer them will be as productive as Cecily Wong’s.
Check out what else I’ve read for the Year of Asian Reading challenge here. Help me write my novel by signing up below.