Sigrid Nunez’s “Chang” and “Christa”

Lavonne Roberts
Feb 17 · 4 min read

Write Right — notes from an MFA candidate

Sigrid Nunez

To read Sigrid Nunez’s “Christa” and “Chang” feels like the theme of identity has taken seed and is germinating. The narrator’s German mother, Christa, always wanted to go back home, although finally, she said she couldn’t go back, that Germany was no longer her home.

At first, I felt Sigrid took so many turns in her storytelling that I couldn’t find a thread to connect because I look for an arc without knowing I do. Once I let go and gave myself the freedom to just absorb the narrative, I began to appreciate Nunez’s ability to weave chaos into an unknown, perhaps hybrid, style that dealt with displacement, nostalgia, memory, and loss in a way that felt up close and personal. It was as if we were completing a jigsaw puzzle together and at times she delivered a missing piece, and at other times my assumptions felt validated. In other words, I had a vested interest in her characters even when they drove nuts. I did think of Nabokov, in the sense that he managed to capture beauty in the midst of great suffering. Maybe it was the butterflies that fluttered between grandparents that grew into one another that captured pain and loss juxtaposed by anguish, worry, and torment. The sensory elements of Nunez’s story delivered an almost cinematic experience. I was able to imagine wool scratching at the sound of an opera, or the red face of an angered policeman who barely ducked a typewriter.

I loved that Christa is always speaking, to the point that her silences evoke fear. Reading about Grimm’s fairy tales and seeing the influence on Nunez’s mother had on her storytelling is notable (the witch likeness comes to mind. In an interview, Nunez said, “I felt that I had at last found a way, a form, the words, and the will, to deal with a past that haunted me. And I suppose people who go into therapy, particularly therapy where you’re encouraged to talk about your past, are doing something like that. I mean they’re telling the stories of their lives, in the hope of talking themselves into a cure.” For anyone consumed with a memoir like myself, those words offer a form of hope for redemption for an affliction that works its way out through the practice of writing.

As writers, especially memoirists, we spend so much time fearful of unknown emotional terrain when dealing with inherited trauma. Then we’re told our trauma must be shaped into literary quality, but it’s not therapy, which it shouldn’t be. And yet, we so often forget to acknowledge that the art of writing is therapeutic and can be literary. Because of my interest (I teach workshops for female victims of violence, the homeless, and low-income schools) in working with the disenfranchised, I looked up the title of Sigrid Nunez’s first novel. I learned that it comes from the 12-century mystic and writer Hildegard of Bingen, who regarded the process of creation, particularly writing, as the ultimate healing.

I had never thought of weaving fragments into storytelling and have to admit that I’m frustrated after having had it drilled into me that I “must remain faithful to a single moment,” or not to “bounce around” through time periods. I read and re-read Nunez’s passage about her mother’s homeward journey as a schoolgirl because it was so vivid. I kept looking for clues or bombs to dodge, as all the while she built a case for a family bound by their alienation from America. She captures the plight and suffering of an immigrant who inevitably is forced to deal with the disillusionment that comes from chasing the elusive American Dream. Nunez’s portrayal of Chang, her hauntingly sad father, a Chinese-Panamanian immigrant, is done so well that you can feel the disconnect between the father and his children as much as the father and his wife, and at the same time a later sense of regret for what never was permeates the prose. Mostly, what I loved is the way that the author unsympathetically wrote harsh characters with layers of complexity in such a simple manner.

These two pieces make me appreciate what it is to be an immigrant in Trump’s world of chaos. We live in a current political climate in which the only way to make sense of the nonsensical is to follow the schizophrenic movements of our time is to do what Nunez did — simply account, rather than draw a narrative arc. Some stories are plot driven, whereas many succeed as character-driven. I found our two stories to be in neither category solely. It was as if Nunez threw as many things as she could into a fan and then waited for the broken pieces to settle long enough to trace the individual parts in hopes of finishing the puzzle we started. When I pieced together the two stories, there was a sense of incompletion, or rather longing for something more. Mostly, I felt a little less lost knowing being lost is a state of mind for Nunez.

Lavonne Roberts

Written by

Caffeine-based, aggressively-optimistic Texan telling tales, who plans road trips around culinary adventures, coastlines, friends, and independent cinemas.