“It’s distressing to realize that you’re changing. You can see yourself changing in the eyes of the people closest to you.” Zibby is joined by YZ Chin to discuss her first novel, Edge Case. While the book is not autobiographical, YZ explains which elements of her own immigration journey inspired parts of the story and shared how obtaining her green card allowed her to finally pursue her dream of writing a novel. The two also talk about how the book portrays issues like mental illness and gender dynamics in the workplace with honesty and compassion.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, YZ. Thank you for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Edge Case. Especially as a mom to a nine-month-old baby, thank you even more so.

YZ Chin: Definitely relate hard. Thanks for having me.

Zibby: Edge Case, congratulations on this beautiful novel. Would you mind telling listeners what it’s about?

YZ: It’s a story told in first person by a so-called “skilled worker” immigrant. Her name is Edwina. She is from Malaysia. She works for a tech startup in New York City. She lives with her husband who is also in similar shoes, a skilled worker immigrant. They are both on work visas that are rapidly expiring. They will require green card sponsorship soon. At this important juncture in their lives, Marlin deserts their marriage, essentially. He walks out. He disappears on Edwina. The story is Edwina telling a would-be therapist about her experiences, how she got here, what her current situation is, what her future plans might be as she searches frantically for Marlin.

Zibby: I love how Edwina and Marlin later on said they used to compete for who would be sponsored first from their different jobs.

YZ: The competition might be more one-sided. Maybe it’s more Edwina thinking — maybe she has a complex. She has a chip on her shoulder because she used to study literature, so she’s entering the tech world a little bit through an unconventional path, whereas Marlin is your more traditional engineering student, now a software engineer. Maybe she feels like she has to prove herself a little bit and not be “a green card wife,” perhaps.

Zibby: Part of this book is the search for Marlin until she — I won’t give anything away. I love how you include these lists and then kind of check them off as you go. I mean, she, her, the character. Even from a structural point, you’re going through it. Okay, crossing this one off. Okay, now we’re crossing the next one off and trying to figure out why he’s left and then all of the flashbacks of their lives, really, and how they got there. Even how you interspersed the chapters and today and two days from now and back — I just love that when it’s all mixed up in timeline. What made you write the book? How did you come up with the form and everything like that?

YZ: Maybe I’ll answer the second question first because I was nodding along as you said this. I’m so glad you like it. Like many novels, this one went through a lot of drafts. The structure sort of crystalized after a lot of discussion with my really great editor, Sara Birmingham. She’s responsible, I think, for a lot of the brilliant ideas for how to organize the story. From the start, I think you can sort of see a hint of the structure taking the form of these past-life stories. I know we haven’t talked about that yet. Edwina’s mother who lives in Malaysia really believes in past life and is — I don’t know if this is the right way to say. She’s like a connoisseur of past-life stories. There’s this really powerful force behind this idea that who you are now, every action you’re taking now can be attributed to something that happened in the past. There’s a reason for everything that’s happening now for your actions.

This past influencing the present, that mirrors the structure a little bit. Here’s how we met. Here’s what happened at this point in the past. That’s why I’m here now telling you about this latest event, this upheaval in my life. That’s the structure. I think it does help show you how desperate Edwina is for a narrative to, how did my life get to this place? Why am I here? Then how I came to write this book, I think there are so many entry points into the book. It’s sort of difficult to talk about neatly. One factor is that — I tell this anecdote a bunch. I moved to New York City in my twenties. I was standing on a dark street corner. I was trying to get a cab home. I was living in Manhattan at that point. It was sort of dark. Then I stuck my arm out. A yellow cab slowed down near me. The driver poked his head, looked at me, and then said, “Oh, I’m not going to Queens,” and just sped off.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh.

YZ: There’s a lot of context wrapped up in this very quick, two-second encounter. Not everyone might know, why did the driver say that? What is it about Queens? A lot of Asians live in Queens. I later realized, disturbingly, that I understood everything about this encounter instantly. That made me realize that I’d been internalizing a lot of stereotypes and tropes and potentially racist ideas about how I’m supposed to be seen, how I’m supposed to move through New York City, through the United States as a whole. I hadn’t even realized that all of these ideas had been inside me. I actually understand a lot of my supposed place in this new country. I am from Malaysia. Although, this story’s not autobiographical. That’s one of the things that I thought about on and off over the years. That’s one germ for the novel.

Zibby: I’m assuming it must have really come about when you were trying to cut into some sort of spaghetti squash or butternut squash or something because I love — you should brand the type of knife that is in this book, the knife for difficult fruits or whatever, fruits and vegetables, because it is so true. When I think about how many times things have been slipping off the table, watermelons, it’s so hard to cut those things.

YZ: Yeah, it’s tough. In Malaysia, people eat a lot of durian. In every household, there’s at least one expert durian hacker. I’m not that person in my family. You’re used to the idea growing up that there’s this delicious fruit that may hurt you and is very hard to cut open.

Zibby: A metaphor for life. We can take this really far and deep, but I’ll leave it at that.

YZ: It’s the reason they call it fruits of your labor.

Zibby: Exactly. There you go. You also really write well about, I would say, the tenuous state of our minds. What is mental health? When are you super clear? When can you trust somebody else’s thoughts and feelings when they lose touch with reality? How do you handle that? How do you reconcile especially your innermost relationship when someone is living in more of a spiritual world or has different conceptions? How that impacts the relationship in different ways, tell me a little more about that.

YZ: That’s what Edwina struggles with most. I think that’s the thorniest part of the narrative for Edwina. There’s this snippet in the book that reflects how not well-accepted or well-socialized mental health services is in the small town Edwina grows up in. She has a hard time finding mental health support. I think that might be true also for many Asian Americans. There’s potentially stigma in seeking therapy still. I think we’ve obviously come a long way, but that has been true in the past. That’s something that she bumps up against, which is the idea of seeking therapy but also mental health in different forms. Her mother believes in past lives. That’s a completely different framework for discussing explanations for your behaviors and how to adapt them. What happens when Edwina might not necessarily agree with either framework, the behavioral talk therapy — maybe she doesn’t really believe in that. Maybe she hasn’t seen that as an option. She also can’t really accept this other framework her mother presents. There’s this complicating factor of where, on green card applications, they ask applicants about mental health status. Edwina feels this paranoia that she cannot engage in — she has to seem really normal, first of all. Then she cannot risk having a record where she officially goes see a therapist. She’s just consumed by all these paranoid worries. Mental health is her biggest struggle. That’s why she ends up talking to this bootleg therapist in the novel, which seems really sketchy and I hope suffuses a sense of precarity gently in the background.

Zibby: Yes. Who is she really talking to anyway? Swipe right on a therapist. You’re like, I’m a therapist in training. I mean, I could say that. Actually, you end up with a lot of great stories that way, I have to say. If you’re looking for story ideas…

YZ: Don’t tempt me.

Zibby: In exchange for story ideas, use me as your therapist. You did a great job, also, of showing what it’s like for a woman in a male-dominated tech environment and what that’s like with the culture and how you even point out, individually, maybe these guys would be great, but the culture of them all together — I think we all have been in situations with the frat boy culture where you’re one or you’re in a group. The group dynamic sort of overtakes the will of each individual. Edwina faces that every day in her work life. Tell me where that came from and everything.

YZ: I think you’re spot on with the group dynamics part. It’s structural. People say one bad apple or things like that. It’s not. It’s the lack of accountability, perhaps. Obviously, there are good people, like you said. Individually, they can be very decent. Anyway, where this came from, I don’t think I’m breaking new ground here. There have been many news reports about — like Susan Fowler and Uber. There’s lots of material to mine. I did work in a couple of startups. Those startups were dominantly male. I’ve had some sketchy encounters as well. I had a coworker once joke about putting date rape drugs in my coffee. I’m laughing nervously. I’m not laughing because —

Zibby: — I understand.

YZ: Edwina’s experiences aren’t my direct experiences, but I can obviously very well relate to what happens in the book. It’s no stretch of imagination to describe what she goes through. Also, the follow-up to my personal experience there, the story is, my manager at the time was very supportive, was very sympathetic. There are definitely ways to address issues well. Unfortunately, in Edwina’s company, she doesn’t have that support. That’s where all of that came from.

Zibby: I feel like you should also do something with the branding of the suitcase in this book. The suitcase is such a visual. Maybe on your paperback, you have to — I don’t know. Especially when — I don’t want to give anything — at different times, it has different absences or different places and whatever. You could just so see it. I wanted to know, where is the suitcase at the end of the book?

YZ: There are a lot of branding ideas, huh?

Zibby: Yeah, a lot of branding. Okay, I’ll stop. I have fun thinking about this stuff.

YZ: Gears turning. I should probably do something with them.

Zibby: No, no, I find that super fun. Why did you write this book?

YZ: I wrote it for many reasons. One major one is just because I left Malaysia when I was nineteen, came to the United States when I was nineteen. I would have these regular weekly Skype calls with my family. I think it’s sort of distressing to realize that you’re changing. You can see yourself changing in the eyes of the people closest to you. You might not like the way that you’re changing. You might realize that being in a new place, having to learn your new place, and these rules and regulations that might apply to you as an immigrant might feel like they’re pressuring your personality. There’s rare situations where an individual, especially minorities everywhere in the world, you realize that you are being changed by systemic forces maybe into someone that you don’t really want to be but you feel that you have to be in order to, whatever, get a better job or get that visa, things like that. You start to maybe see your identity as transactional, almost. I think that’s a very interesting state of mind. I wanted to capture that instability, that knowing and yet not wanting to know, but then painfully also understanding that you are in the process of being transformed.

Zibby: That was a beautiful answer. Have you always written? What made you write a novel at all? Where did this come from? Did you write as a little kid? Tell me about the journey here.

YZ: My mom worked in an insurance office. She would sometimes take me to work. Just to let me occupy myself, she would put me down in front of a typewriter. Yeah, back then, typewriters still existed. I would just go at it. Maybe it started off as me pretending to work, trying to fit in with all the adults around me. I don’t know. Stories have always been important for me. I am socially awkward, like many authors, many writers and readers, socially awkward, hard to make friends, nose in book. Then when I came to the United States, I studied computer science, but I also had the opportunity to double major in creative writing. I actually started off in poetry, took a few turns, and here I am with a novel, somehow. It’s a little hard to believe.

Zibby: That’s amazing. You know, I just heard last night from a new friend of mine that there’s a way to make friends on Bumble. Did you know this?

YZ: No.

Zibby: It’s not just for dating. There’s a BFF Bumble or something like that. You can put in the things you’re interested in and swipe on friends. She’s made some good friends this way, not sketchy at all, real highly accomplished women who have similar interests. I found that fascinating.

YZ: Actually, I did know on dating sites you can say, I’m just looking for friends, but I never heard of someone using that earnestly and actually having great results. That’s really good for her. That’s awesome.

Zibby: Anyway, sorry, that was a totally random point, but just on your making friends comment.

YZ: That’s great.

Zibby: How long did it take you to write? Where did you do it? I’m looking in your room or something. Were you sitting on the bed there typing away? Tell me about it.

YZ: Oh, yeah, I didn’t introduce, but that’s our cat. I think the very first lines of the novel were written in 2017. From the beginning, the past life stories were a big part of the novel. I think I started off with a much bigger focus on the past life stories and then slowly iterated through working with my agent and working with early readers getting a sense of what works, what doesn’t. What is it now? 2021. I guess it’s been four years. Went through many drafts. I actually published a book before the novel. It’s a fiction collection called Though I Get Home. I wrote that while I was working full time due to visa requirements. As part of having a visa, I’m required to work forty hours a week, at least. That book came out in 2018. That was also the year that I got my green card, which allowed me to work my day job part time instead of full time. Once I switched to part time, I found that I had some ambition in me to write a novel. I thought to myself, now I have more time to dedicate to writing. I want to write a novel. I want to tackle character voice. I want to write a unique voice. I want to write something challenging. I usually write at the kitchen table. Nothing super glamorous.

Zibby: It rarely is, but I was interested. How about now? Are you working on something new?

YZ: In my head, yeah. Writing absolutely in my head.

Zibby: That counts.

YZ: It’s a little hard with an almost nine-month-old. I’m thinking up plot events, thinking up a line here, a line there, crisscrossing words all in my head. Then when I get a chance when baby’s taking a nap, for example, I’ll just scramble to the laptop and type stuff down. One day, maybe I’ll be someone who writes longhand on beautiful paper, but not right now.

Zibby: Send me pictures of that if you get to that. I’ll take some pictures. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

YZ: I would say if life — I don’t want to say life gets in the way because that doesn’t sound right. If there are life circumstances that prevent you from, like I said, sitting down and writing for uninterrupted stretches of time, I think it’s totally doable and it still counts as writing to write in your head. Thinking about the work, engaging with the work mentally as you go about interacting with the world and the debrief of your life, almost, I think that counts as writing. Every bit of it is valuable. I like to look at Emily Dickinson’s envelope poems sometimes. I went to an exhibition at The Morgan, I believe it was. They had an exhibition of Emily Dickinson’s poems that she wrote just on the triangular flap of envelopes. They literally shape her lines because of the constraint. I found that very moving. She’s probably going about doing chores, taking an envelope out of her pocket, writing a line here, a line there, sweeping. I really like how entirely part of the fabric of her life her art is. I’m striving to do the same and not feel like taking care of a baby is taking me away from writing. It’s not. It’s all art. It’s all part of it.

Zibby: Let’s just keep saying that to ourselves. I’m going to keep saying that to myself too. With my kids, I’m like, no, no. I write a ton of essays. That’s my preferred genre. I can always tell when the first scene flies in. It lodges in there. Then more scenes attract until there are enough that I’m ready for them to become like a plant, and then I write it out. That sounds ridiculous.

YZ: No, I love it.

Zibby: You need all the inputs before it’s ready to come out again. You can’t just be sitting there because you won’t get inputs from doing nothing.

YZ: Sometimes it’s conciliation, a star here, an idea here, an idea there. They don’t seem connected. Then you see the connection. It’s great.

Zibby: Totally. I buy that. I totally agree. Awesome. Thank you so much. Oh, wait, advice to aspiring authors, more advice. Anything you have.

YZ: More advice. I think advice is tricky because not everything works for everyone. Read as many advice as you can. Take what works for you. I would say at least the very first draft or first couple drafts, write for yourself. Just don’t worry about how a reader might perceive it, how an agent might perceive it. Just write for yourself. Then in later drafts, I think that’s when you maybe try to approach it with, okay, how would someone not at all engaged, who hasn’t been obsessing over material like I have for the past one, two, three, four, five years, how would someone like that approach this? I think in the very later stages is when you should bring in the outside perspective. The very first draft, it should be just for you. You shouldn’t at all have the reader in your mind.

Zibby: I was so nervous starting the draft for my memoir once I had sold it that I put, in all capital letters, “No one will see this but you.” I was like, okay, now I can start. Then I was fine, but getting over the hurdle.

YZ: You have to give yourself room to make mistakes or go where even you don’t think you want to go. I like to tell myself — I don’t know if this advice works for everyone. I like to say, instead of writing just what you know, also write what you don’t want to know. What are you afraid of knowing? What do you find yourself mentally skidding about? What are you racing past? What are you afraid to confront? Hope that helps.

Zibby: Awesome. It helps. It all helps. YZ, this was so interesting. Thank you for coming on. Thanks for this fantastic novel filled with the tech startup, the relationship at home, the abandonment, the search, all of that. You have a lot of great elements, friendship, family. You got it all in there. Bravo.

YZ: Thank you so much. I really appreciate it. I hope reading and writing goes smoothly for you.

Zibby: Thank you. Thank you so much. Good luck with the whole launch time and everything.

YZ: Thank you.

Zibby: Take care. Bye.

YZ: Take care. Bye.



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