A Note from Angie Kim, Author of Miracle Creek:
I still remember the first day I picked up Tracey Lien's All That's Left Unsaid and started reading. The mystery in the beginning hooked me and drew me in: a Vietnamese Australian reporter tries to figure out who killed her baby brother during a high school graduation dinner and why. But what made me fall in love with the book were the characters and their relationships, as well as the gorgeous and insightful writing. The book takes place in Australia where I've never been, but as an Asian American immigrant, I recognized the family dynamics, the feeling of being an outsider, the desperation of wanting to belong. I tore through the book quickly, but when I neared the end, I slowed down deliberately, wishing I could stay in this world, with these characters who'd become real to me, for just a little longer.
The following questions were written from Angie to Tracey.
How did you come up with the idea for All That's Left Unsaid?
The idea for the novel came from my desire to challenge the myth of the model minority. Growing up in Australia, I was told from a young age that I was as Aussie as they come, that I belonged, that I’d get a fair go, and that Australia really values multiculturalism. But I realized at some point that this wasn’t quite true, and that it didn’t apply to me or to people who looked like me. I realized that my citizenship was conditional; it was conditional on my impeccable behavior; it was conditional on my gratitude, and if I ever stepped out of line, I risked being perceived as a nuisance or, worse, a threat. We’ve seen a version of this play out in the United States recently where Asian Americans, once considered the country’s success stories, were almost overnight seen as carriers of the “kung flu.” And to be on the receiving end of this kind of distrust and hate… it’s frustrating, confusing, and painful, but it’s also dangerous. So, that was the starting point for All That’s Left Unsaid… to tell a story that could help a reader understand how it feels to be burdened by that myth.
All That's Left Unsaid takes place during 1996 in the enclave of Cabramatta, Sydney, where a large portion of the community are Vietnamese refugees grappling with a heroin epidemic. How did you make the decision to place your characters within this setting and what was the significance behind it?
I had three reasons for setting my novel in Cabramatta in the 1990s. First, it was a moment steeped in tension: 1996 was the height of the suburb’s heroin epidemic, gang violence frequently made the headlines, and Cabramatta had an all-white police force despite most residents being people of color. I knew that the friction and high stakes of the time and place would lend themselves to a murder mystery. Second, 1996 was the year when a woman named Pauline Hanson was elected to the Australian Senate. In her maiden speech to parliament, she said that she was worried that Australia was being “swamped by Asians.” I was eight when I saw her give that speech. It was my earliest memory of someone who held a respected position of power expressing an overtly racist and hurtful sentiment with impunity. And it was emblematic of a problem I wanted to explore in the novel: that the actions that diminish us (both perpetrators and recipients) are often seen as above board, accepted, or excused. And, finally, it’s where I grew up. I wanted to show people, “Look at how complicated and messy and imperfect it can be. Look at how it’s still home.”
As the main character interviews bystanders who were at the site of her brother’s murder, we also get glimpses into their lives, their backgrounds, and what brought them to Sydney. Why was it important for you to include these perspectives?
We often hear of Asian Americans/Australians, or any ethnic, racial, or socio-economic group for that matter, being spoken of as if they’re monoliths when the reality is we’re all just as complicated as everyone else. And so, in All That's Left Unsaid, I wanted to show just how different members of the same community can be. Here is a group of people who all live in the same place, speak the same language, share a similar background, witnessed the same murder, and chose not to reveal what they saw… and yet, their reasons are very different from one another. Lulu is nothing like Flora, who is nothing like Eddie, who is nothing like the character Jimmy Carter.
A powerful scene that comes to mind involves Ky questioning her brother’s best friend, who struggles to face the truth surrounding his murder. Can you talk about writing this scene?
That scene you’re referring to, when Ky confronts Eddie Ho, is also my own explicit confrontation with the myth of the model minority. The big lie we’re sold as Asian Americans and Asian Australians is if we’re well-behaved enough, if we fit into a rigid mold well enough, and if we stay out of everyone’s way, we’ll be given a fair go. But what does it mean for us if we fail to meet any one of those expectations? Are we no longer deserving of fairness and respect? Is the violence we face then justified? Do we no longer belong in the only home we’ve ever known? And so, when Ky tracks down Denny’s best friend, demanding to know whether Denny was up to no good and whether he wasn’t, in fact, a straight-A student, Eddie Ho confronts her in return and asks, why does any of it even matter? Would it make you love him less? Would it justify his murder? Would it change whether he deserves a fair investigation? It wasn’t an easy scene for me to write because it unearthed that familiar feeling of conditional citizenship. It made me think of all the people in Australia and America who would readily be dismissive of me and other immigrants simply because of the color of our skin. It definitely put me in a funk for a while!
I love the alternating structure between Ky and the various witnesses. Why did you choose this structure, and how early did you make this decision?
What can be so fun about alternating points of view is that you can reveal and withhold information at the same time. You did it so beautifully in Miracle Creek; we got to learn about your characters’ backstories, their fears, their resentments, their motivations, all of which fueled the red herrings and added to the suspense of the story. Seeing how you, along with authors like Julia Phillips (Disappearing Earth), Barbara Kingsolver (The Poisonwood Bible), and Laila Lalami (The Other Americans) used alternating points of view to both go deep into characters’ lives while creating a propulsive and mystery-driven narrative inspired me to adopt a similar structure in my first draft.
Did you know the ending to the book before you started writing? If not, when did you realize what had happened to Ky's brother?
I’m not a planner, so, when I first started writing, I had no idea how the novel would end. In fact, I didn’t even know if I had enough material to sustain a novel. Coming from a journalism background, the longest thing I’d ever written was only a few thousand words in length, so the thought of writing 60,000+ words was incredibly intimidating. To overcome this fear, I adopted the process of writing three hundred words a day, every day. Every time I sat down to write I’d see a bit more of the story. It’s a bit like driving on a pitch-dark road: I could only see as far as the headlights shone, and if I wanted to see more, I had to keep driving. Or, in this case, writing, since I don’t actually know how to drive. All of this is to say that I always knew the inciting incident for the novel was Denny’s gruesome murder, but I didn’t know the why until I was quite far into the novel.
This book is, in large part, about the weight of responsibility and familial expectations placed upon first generation children. As a Korean immigrant (to the US) myself, I feel this keenly. I'd love to know your thoughts about how specific this is to Asian families. What is your own experience?
I think a lot of children of refugees and immigrants carry an invisible weight that sometimes, even they don’t realize, they’re carrying. It’s the weight of feeling responsible for your parents. It’s the weight of protecting them from the ugly side of a country that you, as a child, feel you have a better understanding of than they do. And it’s the weight of realizing that your parents aren’t infallible. There’s a point where every person arrives at that realization, but I think for the children of immigrants, that moment comes much sooner. And these responsibilities and expectations can be both very culturally specific and universal because, ultimately, it’s about the sacrifices we’re asked to make and the pressures to be someone we might not want to be. A lot of people, Asian or not, can probably relate to that.
A Final Note from Angie:
All That's Left Unsaid is a stunning debut, an unputdownable mystery combined with a profoundly moving family drama about the ways we hurt and hide from those we love most, and how we mend and strengthen those lifelong bonds. I hope you’ll pick it up at your local independent bookstore.