Former NPR reporter and journalist Kat Chow had a fear of death growing up which only made the death of her mother hit harder. In her debut memoir, Seeing Ghosts, Kat attempts to preserve her mother and her idiosyncrasies while also recounting her family’s grieving process. Kat and Zibby discuss the process of mourning and memorializing those who have passed on and how the collective grief from Covid has impacted them.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Kat. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss your beautiful memoir, Seeing Ghosts.

Kat Chow: Thank you so much for having me on. It’s great to talk with you.

Zibby: You too. Would you mind letting listeners know a little bit about your book? Then I’ll dive in and ask you my zillions of questions.

Kat: Seeing Ghosts is a book about loss, and specifically the loss of my mother when I was thirteen years old. In it, I try to trace the ways my parents grieved and learned to grieve through the losses of their own parents, but also being immigrants from Hong Kong and China. It’s a lot about the inheritances that we have from family over generations, but also the idea of what we owe, what we owe to ourselves, to our parents, to our culture to some degree, and also to our ideas of home. That’s really what I was trying to answer and get at with Seeing Ghosts.

Zibby: Wow. This is one of the best descriptions of a person. The way you described your mom was so vivid and real. The little details that you sprinkled throughout, the little things that she did and her body when she’s putting on her stockings and just all these — I got such a sense. The way she smiled with her teeth in her lips, I could see it.

Kat: Yeah, like this.

Zibby: I could see the whole thing, the little things. It was a vivid elegy, almost, to your mom.

Kat: Thank you for saying that. When writing about my mom — when someone passes, they just become this kind of unknown entity. I think that’s one of the hardest things about loss, is that you no longer have access to this person. In writing Seeing Ghosts, I was trying to keep my mom alive in this memory of her. One of the things that I really wanted to try to do was recreate this image of her, and especially her body and the physicality of it because that’s one of the things that’s lost in grief. As a writer, that was something that I was really trying to push myself toward.

Zibby: So interesting. Well-done. Really great. It’s a great example of this show, don’t tell. Even my own trying to write about stuff, the little details, those are what makes a person in the end. That’s what makes them into who they are, and so easily forgotten. I just loved that. You also have little scenes. I wanted to just read this one. You said, “Careful, you said, as I eased the zipper away from your skin so it wouldn’t catch. I smelled a whiff of the strawberry shampoo and conditioner you bought from Walmart knocking a half dozen bottles into your cart whenever there was a sale.” That’s such a perfect detail. You know what shampoo. You’re not just like, my mom used this kind of shampoo. You’re not even saying, my mom was the type of woman who shopped at Walmart. Your use of the second person throughout the narrative I also found was super effective. Everything was, you did this, you did this, you did this. How did you decide to do that?

Kat: That’s such a great question. I knew from the start that I wanted to merge this idea of my mother as a memory or as a ghost with a couple of different elements, one of them being this really macabre joke that she made about taxidermy when I was a young girl. She knew I was afraid of dead things. The joke basically was, before she even knew that she was terminally ill or sick, “When I pass, I want you to put me in your future apartment and have me stuffed.” That’s such a strange joke to retell.

Zibby: I copied that whole thing. “When I die, you said as you made that face, I want you to get me stuffed so I can sit in your apartment and watch you all the time. This is the first and would be the only time that you would address your death with me.”

Kat: Zibby, one of the funniest parts of this — then I’ll answer your question. One of the funniest parts of this, as I was writing this book, I was trying to tell this story to someone I didn’t really know that well. She got this really concerned look on her face and sort of shifted uncomfortably in her seat and was like, “Wait, do you have your mother in your apartment at home?” I was embarrassed, but I thought that was so funny. Also, oh, my gosh, could you imagine? It’s definitely a joke. In the narrative of Seeing Ghosts itself, I try and use it as — well, I’ll leave it to the reader to decide if these ghosts are imagined or if it’s a metaphor or how real they are. I loved this idea of death and taking this fear of my mother and this joke she made. Also, there’s this idea in a lot of East Asian cultures but also Chinese cultures that my own family prescribes to, which is, the dead are meant to be appeased. Otherwise, their spirits might be restless. As a child, that is such a scary concept to hear about your own mother or relatives who have passed. I wanted to merge all of that into a way to structure this book around this ghost who I address sporadically and very frequently. I loved that. I’d always wanted to try and write this book this way. It was only this attempt with Seeing Ghosts that I was really able to do it.

Zibby: Wow. I have to say, as a mom of four, I worry about my death all the time, only in relation to how much they’ll miss me.

Kat: They would miss you so much.

Zibby: Not to pat myself on the back, but yes, my kids would miss me a lot. That’s the part I worry about all the time. Then I was reading your book and I was like, huh, a stuffed version of me for their — my dad was involved for a little while with the wax museum. I can’t remember what it’s called. Madame Tussauds Wax Museum. As a gift, they gave him a wax statue of himself with one of his actual suits and ties and shirts.

Kat: Oh, my gosh, no.

Zibby: Yeah, tailored in the same way. He always wears his pants a little too long, so he looks a little schlumpy in the bottom. I shouldn’t even say that. And his hair and his smile. Literally, he has it in his house. Every time anyone walks by, it’s like, ahh! So freaky. I’m like, I do not want to inherit that ever. No, no, no, not this thing.

Kat: That’s exactly the type of thing that I think would be really hard to throw out too. I think you would donate it or put it somewhere.

Zibby: Yes, I would donate it somewhere not in the kitchen.

Kat: Over your kitchen table with orange juice just waiting, asking Zibby how you’re doing.

Zibby: It’s life-size too. It’s not even like I could hide it somewhere. You also wrote about grief in general a lot. You talked about, so sad, your brother’s, not stillborn, but he only lived a few hours, which is the saddest thing imaginable, at birth. You wrote, “This is the thing about grief. Despite how much we want to forget, how much we try to ignore, the dead are still here waiting, watching. I try to commit the exact location of my mother’s photo to memory — one, two, three, down; one, two, three, four, over — when a temple employee flicks the lights on and off.” Not exactly related to Jonathan’s death. Anyway, tell me about grief in general.

Kat: The part that you just read was actually this scene in this Buddhist temple in New York where my family has, basically, a shrine or a memorial or something, photos, to my mother and her parents. Visiting for the first time as an adult was such a strange feeling. For many years, the way that my family had dealt with my mother’s death, “dealt” in air quotes, was just to not really address her. Going to the cemetery, for example, it was really painful. This idea of having to face the dead was really crucial in terms of writing this. You can’t look away. It’s something that is an ongoing measure or an ongoing thing that you’re already trying to challenge yourself to do. I really thought that was an important thing to show. In Seeing Ghosts, there’s such this giant theme of where remains might be with my dad and his search for his own father or my brother Jonathan, who you mentioned, who died just a couple hours after he was born. I really thought it was important to play with the idea of the physical nature of grief and how a lot of what was really important in my process of dealing with loss was figuring out ways to grieve in the absence of a physical grave or in the absence of being able to bring myself to the cemetery. I keep thinking about this in terms of COVID just because we have all gone through so much loss in this past year. One of my uncles who I write about in this book passed suddenly last April. Not being able to physically be there for his funeral because of safety reasons was so, so difficult. It was painful, but being able to rely on my family’s rituals that I have taken and adapted as my own as an adult was really beautiful. I burned some incense. I just think that it shows this ongoing nature of loss and grief and how you learn to make ways for yourself to experience those things.

Zibby: Yes, we had a lot of Zoom funerals during COVID. It was the worst.

Kat: It never gets easier.

Zibby: No. I’m really sorry for your loss and your mom, all of it. Could we discuss your dad going to jail? That came out of nowhere in the story. I could not believe that part. I know it’s just such a minor thing in the midst of the greater scope. The way you and your two sisters rallied and also, this whole pressure, both with paying his bail, but also the staggering healthcare costs of your mother’s illness, I feel like both your parents felt so, responsible is maybe the wrong word, but just felt so guilty that tending to them was costing you all so much money and the imposition it placed on the family. Just tell me a little bit about that.

Kat: Those two anecdotes that you mentioned, my father going to jail and then also my mother and her deciding to take on less-effective healthcare for money reasons, those were two examples of how I really wanted to play with the idea of — at some point, a lot of people reach these ages where they realize that they’re the ones who have to caretake for their parents. For my father’s story in general, that was one of the pivotal moments where my sisters and I realized that we had to come together as a unit and really assemble, as you mentioned. One of the themes in Seeing Ghosts that I mentioned earlier is about the idea of what we owe and what our debts are and also this idea of survival and the sacrifices that we make or the concepts that we adhere to in order to feel as though we can survive or be successful. For my father, this was this concept of property ownership which he learned from his mother in Hong Kong and in China. For my mother, it was this idea of self-definition and also reaching toward a higher class or this idea of money or wealth as a way to prove to her father and other people that she had made it in America. The difficult thing to grapple with as I was writing this was realizing that for my parents, these ideas of success or survival had not really been realized for a lot of different circumstances. My father’s property ownership did not go as he’d imagined. My mother and her successes financially did not go as she had imagined. They all came at great expense. That was something that was really hard to reckon with as a writer and also in my own lived experiences as a daughter too.

Zibby: How do you approach life differently knowing all this? I feel like people who have gone through grief and loss, there’s something intangible that sort of shifts. The view just crystalizes or something. Do you feel that because of your loss some things are just obvious to you that might not be to other people? Do you live your life a little bit differently?

Kat: That’s a really good question.

Zibby: Thank you.

Kat: It’s really provocative. I would like to say that I do live my life differently. I feel like that’s something that I would aspire to. In the moments and day to day, I can still feel and experience the grief of my uncle’s passing, my mother’s passing, other people’s passing just so much. One of the things that I strive to always remind myself is how grief can be really protracted. It can stretch over time. Also, to try and remember the loss of someone in this big-picture way where they’re not just their death. They’re the moments that made up their life. Trying to ground myself in those memories of the little idiosyncrasies that made up my mom, the toothpaste, for example, or the speech patterns that she would fall in, those are the things that I found really important to preserve. Even right now, I notice myself, I think it’s probably a response to COVID, just being so afraid of the uncertainty, sort of like what you mentioned with the kids. I find myself trying to be more intentional about my relationship with people and the things I remember and am grateful for. With my dad, we have a complicated relationship, of course, but I try to remember his sense of humor, as subtle as it is. I try to find compassion and empathy in the way that he can be so stubborn, and also me too, and how I learned these things from him, and with my sisters too and my husband CJ and everything. Going through so much loss at a young age taught me how to see things big picture. As an adult, it taught me how to zoom in on the tiny details.

Zibby: I love that. That’s one thing I feel like I’ve learned more in COVID, is zooming in, focusing on today. So far, I feel like it’s kind of a hack, but it’s working. It’s mitigating my anxiety in the short term. I’m like, maybe I’ll just go with this.

Kat: It helps you not doom scroll for hours.

Zibby: Well, I don’t know about that. Are you working on anything else now? What are you up to? What’s your day-to-day like and all that?

Kat: My day-to-day is really just a mix of getting ready for this book launch and hopefully working on some other projects in the works that I’m not ready to talk about. In the future, I’d love to write more books. I’m a reporter and journalist by nature. I’m so excited to have the space to get back into reporting. One thing that I’m really looking forward to is seeing what happens now. When you focus for so many years on a project like Seeing Ghosts, it takes everything from you. At least, it did for me. I’m looking forward to reacquainting myself with the world as someone who is not writing this book.

Zibby: How long was it, start to finish?

Kat: I sold the book in 2018, so since then. Really, I’ve been working on it for so many years. I’d say between eight to ten years, I had this idea in my head. It’s just something that I’ve always wanted to do. I’m glad that it’s coming out.

Zibby: How great. Congratulations. This is amazing. What advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Kat: One thing that a very good friend, Mariya Karimjee, told me when I started writing Seeing Ghosts was, writing a book is a series of trust falls. I loved that idea so much because there are so many opportunities for you to be afraid. Having trust in yourself, in the process of being a creative person or a writer is so important. Having trust in the people around you, whether they’re friends or an editor or your publisher, that’s also just as important because publishing can be such a machine. Also, writing an entire book is really hard. Having faith that you can ultimately do it and that you will be satisfied because it is yours is really crucial.

Zibby: Very true. Amazing. If you could just name one thing you miss the most about your mom, what is it?

Kat: I miss her hugs. That’s all. I’m going to tear up a little. That’s a really nice question. That’s one of the things you can’t get back, is physical touch. It’s a lovely image, so thank you for that.

Zibby: I’m sorry. I’m sorry to make you, at the very end —

Kat: — No, it’s nice to think about these things too. It’s just a reminder of what’s not there, but also everything that we still have with the people who are still present.

Zibby: Kat, thank you for this talk. I’m really excited for you and so rooting for you with the book launch. Good luck. Thank you for chatting today.

Kat: Thank you, Zibby. Thank you so much.

Zibby: Bye.



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