October 13, 2018
On September 8, I received an invitation from Madhu to write a spirit letter, “a letter to a dead writer, artist, thinker or public person who is important to [me] as a writer…” I accepted, but I didn’t know who my important dead person would be. You were still alive.
On September 27, Maceo was watching Play Misty For Me when Xing & I came back to the cottage where were staying. We’d been living out of suitcases since June 30 — cat-sitting, house-sitting, staying with family & friends. I’d been thinking of you more than usual because we’d been eating a lot of ramen.
Clint Eastwood & Jessica Walter were kissing. Xing said, “Ew! Is this a love story?” Maceo said, “No, it’s more like a horror film.” I could tell someone was going to die. Probably the black maid (black people are always the first to die in horror films) & probably someone else after that. Xing stayed with Maceo & I went to bed with a book, wanting, as always, to avoid horror. It had been a difficult three months.
I was reading Ling Ma’s Severance (Somehow, thinking about most of the world’s population dying was preferable to watching one or two people die up close.) a book you would love. It’s funnier than it sounds & moves skillfully back & forth between past & present. Underneath everything — the dystopian thriller, the immigrant’s tale, the critique of consumerism, the New York novel, the zombies — it’s a story about grief. Ma was born in 1983. Isn’t it funny that when I was in your fiction class at UCLA, she was only Xing’s age? Then again, it makes perfect sense. Time had to pass & the world had to change, in order for Ma to grow into the writer she is today, for a book like hers to be written.
After the movie was over, Maceo must have turned to the news on his laptop or phone. He called to me from the other side of the wall, “Did you hear about David Wong Louie?” As soon as he asked me, I knew you were dead, but I waited to prolong the moments in which I appeared to him not to know. I kept reading for a few beats before I answered, living for as long as seemed plausible in those unknowing moments.
Right before the black maid is killed, we hear a terrible scraping sound but can’t see its source. It’s the sound of the white girlfriend cutting at things crazily with a knife. The moments during which we hear, but do not understand, the sound are infinitely more horrifying than those in which we see her lunging at things with the knife.
“No,” I finally answered. By which I meant: No, I haven’t heard. No, I don’t want to hear. No, please don’t tell me. No, he’s not dead, he’s alive.
I want to say that knowing you were sick without being able to see you was like hearing the knife scrape, that our imaginations are infinitely more horrifying than concrete violence. But watching a film isn’t the same as real life. Reading your piece last year in Harper’s, David, I had no idea. The concrete violence of your suffering was infinitely more horrifying than I’d ever imagined.
The last time I saw you, Jackie was making you ramen with a fried egg on top. I was pregnant with Xing and Sogna was toddling around the house. This was, of course, before your years of not being able to eat. I was (we all were), without meaning to, dwelling in moments of not knowing, taking for granted the miraculous fact that you would, in just a few minutes, put the ramen in your mouth, chew it & swallow it. I even watched you eat it, but I can’t remember what that was like. I only remember watching Jackie make it for you & thinking how lucky the two of you were to have each other. The fact that you would eat the ramen was absurdly incidental, one of those everyday miracles like breathing air, seeing sky, hearing music.
On July 26, I made ramen with egg for Xing & thought of you. I told her the story of the last time I saw you. She was interested in Sogna.“I want to meet her,” she said. She was intrigued by this girl close to her age who’s Chinese & Korean. At her island school, Xing’s the only Asian girl who isn’t adopted. Telling her the story, it occurred to me that I hadn’t heard from you in several months. I was worried. I thought of all the bowls of ramen Jackie must have made for you over the years & all the bowls you must have made for her — you were a fabulous cook. I wrote what was to be my last email to you.
Having a teacher you admire can be dangerous. I followed your instructions like a schoolgirl. I was lucky. You were the best writing teacher I ever had & by that I mean the best teacher for me, for my particular work. You knew the right questions to ask, the right prompts to assign, the directions that, if followed, would blow the work wide open. A young writer’s dream. Students lined up outside your office to talk to you. I waited, as patiently as the next gal, because talking to you meant gossiping about my characters, which brought my work to life. You taught me to treat my characters like real people, people I loved, people I hated, people who made me laugh, people I wanted to feel closer to. In the beginning, you took them more seriously than I did.
You died on September 19, eleven days after I received Madhu’s invitation, twenty-six days in advance of the deadline. The invitation asked “that it be someone public— though not necessarily famous — simply so that a reader can find out more about the person, so that the private correspondence can refract more publicly.”
After Maceo told me the news, I stopped reading. I searched your hashtag on Instagram. There were only five posts, none of them related to your recent death. I hearted all five of them anyway. Who, reading this spirit letter, has read your books? Why or why not? You’d been writing about Chinese Americans & Chinese immigrants for years, since before it was fashionable, since long before my students were born. They haven’t heard of you, but they love the movie, Crazy Rich Asians, just as so many haven’t heard of James Baldwin but are starstruck by Ta Nehisi Coates.
I want everyone to read Pangs of Love.
David, I feel such pangs of love for everything you knew before we did, for the stories you left us, for the stories you might have told if you’d had the strength to eat, to speak, to write.
You were born in the year of the horse. Vivacious. Active. Animated. Energetic. Free spirited. Fashionable. Deft sense of humor. I never imagined we’d become friends. You were too witty, too glamorous, too fast-paced for me! Would we have remained friends if you’d never fallen ill? I don’t know.
It’s cold out today. It feels like fall. What I want most — your books — is in storage in Boston, along with my sweaters & socks. I want to hear your voice so I’m reading old emails, the food essay, the interview in King-Kok’s book, anything of yours I can get my hands on. My favorite line is from the note you sent after Sogna was born:
Came home yesterday and we’re running on bliss fumes.
May the bliss flumes take you to where you go next & when you get there, dear one,
may you eat.
With pangs of love,
P.S. Will you remind me what the names of your island friends are? It would be so lovely to see someone who knew you when you were alive.
— Jennifer Tseng