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'Memory Piece' novel follows three Asian-American friends from the 1980s into 2040

The cover of "Memory Piece" beside author Lisa Ko. (Courtesy)
The cover of "Memory Piece" beside author Lisa Ko. (Courtesy)

Host Deepa Fernandes speaks with National Book Award finalist Lisa Ko about her new novel “Memory Piece,” which follows three Asian American women through the 1980s, late 1990 and 2040 and explores how their lives intersect and change.

Book excerpt: ‘Memory Piece’

By Lisa Ko

Before the raids, before the hidden compartments and career retrospectives, there was a lonely girl in her room. A lonely girl in a vast cocoon of a bedroom with her own computer, privacy unquestioned.

A lonely girl in a busy suburb, brother’s weights dropping across the hall, mother scolding her for spending too much time in her notebooks. A lonely girl in an apartment shared with sisters, and then alone. Secret journal entries, pilfered booze, furtive masturbation.

They were born in the same year, their families part of a network of Hong Kong Chinese and Taiwanese and Malaysian Chinese and Chinese Filipinos around New York, differences flattened by proximity of exile. Some families stayed in the city, while others, like Giselle Chin’s, flighted to the suburbs, existing in an alternate reality of holidays and weekends, Thanks-giving turkeys with sticky rice, Chinese New Year parties with parents blotto and maudlin as they sang along to Teresa Teng, after which Giselle would fall asleep in the back seat of her family’s Chevy wood wagon on the ride back to Jersey. On Saturday mornings Giselle and her brother Alexander went to Chinese school in a Hackensack church basement with the other jook‑sing kids and one white dad who had a Chinese wife and kid, where they learned how to count in Mandarin and replicate Xeroxes of brush paintings with ink.

The Weis’ Fourth of July barbecue was supposed to be a summer re-union for the Chinese school students and their families. Larry Wei, a year younger than Giselle, made his presence known as she circled a table of potato chips and onion dip. “Guess what,” he said, mouth full. “I made a sandwich out of chips with chips inside.”

She considered ignoring him. The TV was on, and Giselle was surprised to see Jackie Ong slouched on the sofa, hair cut in a short, sleek angle following her jawline. Jackie lived in a town with no public schools because all the kids were rich and went to private. Jeans looked stylish on her without trying, while Giselle’s were bunched around her crotch. She had a wedgie, her butt was sweating, and around Jackie Ong, she felt like she stomped when she walked.

This was 1983. Chinese school wasn’t like regular school, where boys made kung‑fu shouts as they pelted Giselle’s face in gym‑class dodgeball. Jackie had arrived at Chinese school the previous year, at the end of fifth grade. One Saturday, when they were supposed to be painting pictures of flowers during Culture Hour, Giselle pressed her brush against the paper to drip shapes with the ink, large blots of black against smaller, lighter ones, and across the table, Jackie said, “Very Jackson Pollock.” Giselle didn’t know who that was but figured she should pretend. She said, “Oh, yeah?” The teacher came over and shushed them, but Jackie flashed her own painting at Giselle. She’d colored the entire piece of paper in solid black.

They were friendly, but they were not friends. Instead, Giselle tolerated occasional Saturday afternoons with the Lin sisters, who excelled at Culture Hour painting and liked to play Baby Shower with their Barbies. But now the Lins were away for the summer, and so Giselle moved to the sofa with a handful of potato chips, Larry trailing. She asked Jackie what she was watching, and Jackie made a fart sound with her lips and said, “My mom says I have to make friends because she’s worried I’m going to turn out strange.”

Larry said they could go up to his room. “Let’s make prank calls,” Jackie said. They made Larry go first. The phone had a plastic case designed to look like a football. He turned the pages of the phone book for a long time before dialing the number for an I. PUFFENBARGER, only to panic and hang up as soon as someone answered. Jackie dialed M. LORENTZ and read a string of numbers in a Cookie Monster voice. Giselle dialed D. HIGON and, when a man picked up, asked if he liked the movie E.T. He said, “I guess I do.” They crowded out Larry, calling one name after another. Somehow Jackie knew exactly what to do to make Giselle laugh, and somehow Giselle was doing the same to Jackie, whose goofy, braying snicker belied her usual cool.

There was a girl in the doorway that Giselle didn’t recognize, hair in two long braids, the left one partially undone. Her skin was summer brown, her features broad, and her eyes inquisitive. Her jaw, set square, moved slightly. She was chewing gum.

“What are you guys doing?”

“We’re making prank calls,” Larry said.

“Like calling people and pretending to be someone else?”

Jackie held up the phone book. The girl took a spot on the carpet. She extracted her gum and pressed the gray wad against a page as if to bookmark it, then dialed a number. Someone answered, and the girl said, in a Bugs Bunny voice, “It’s a Fourth of July sale, save save save, our prices are insane!”

Giselle laughed. The girl hung up. “This is dumb. Let’s do something else.”

Larry took the football phone and kept it in his lap. “Who are you?” “Ellen Ng. Who are you?”

“Are you new here?” Giselle asked.

“I live in the city. Sandy Wong’s sort of my cousin. I’m just visiting.” Ellen Ng picked at a scab on her knee. “What do you do out here for fun besides prank calls?” The way she said it made Giselle embarrassed for laughing so hard.

“We do nothing,” Jackie said.

Larry said, “Sometimes I ride my bike.” “We ride the subway,” Ellen said.

“My dad says the subway is dangerous,” Larry said.

“How do you know it’s not dangerous here? The worst things can happen in the quietest of places.” Ellen stood, adjusting her denim cutoffs. “Let’s go outside.”

They walked down the carpeted stairs into the kitchen, where Larry’s mother intercepted him with a platter of spare ribs. Ellen and Giselle and Jackie continued into the yard, past the dads drinking beer and grilling, past Alexander smoking cigarettes with the Pan twins and Sandy Wong behind the Weis’ garage, and through a gap in a fence. Weeds and oniongrass brushed at their ankles. They faced a backyard on the next street over, with a swing set and little blonde kids and a long table of food, Coke cans and hamburgers and fixings, potato rolls pricked with toothpicks flying tiny American flags.

Giselle moved through the grass toward the strangers’ barbecue. She felt Jackie and Ellen following her and let her body loosen, mosquitoes grazing on her arm. At the table she took a paper plate, then a bun, a slice of cheese, and one beef patty. Jackie took a bun and patty, a pickle, and a slice of to-mato. “Ketchup?” Giselle said, and Jackie said yes, please. Giselle inverted a bottle of Heinz. Ellen thumped it with her hand.

They waited for ketchup. A mom in khaki shorts had noticed them and was walking their way. Jackie put down her food, and Ellen locked eyes with the mom as she took another burger. Giselle turned to leave, smoothing her breath until it came out steady. She saw the mom approaching, but as they reached the fence, they didn’t speed up, didn’t run. As they returned to the Weis’ yard, Ellen took a bite of her burger, and Giselle took a bite of hers and said, “Delicious.”

“It would be even better with ketchup,” Jackie said.

For Giselle, the best thing was that none of them reacted. They had all instinctively agreed to play the situation with straight faces. To acknowledge that it was a situation would break the spell, but they all knew, and knew the others knew, that it was, indeed, a situation. A kind of performance.

Everything looked the same at the Weis’ barbecue. Giselle watched her mom talking with Jackie’s mom, who wore tinted glasses and preppy clothing and chain‑smoked. She watched Larry Wei lighting a sparkler. She felt like she’d gone through a miniature time warp, touching down on another planet to return ten minutes later.

They forked noodles into their mouths. Down the street came the sound of fireworks. “You guys should come to the city,” Ellen said. “We could get into something together.”

This was the beginning, what Giselle would describe, years later, writing in one of the many notebooks lost to fire, working for hours at that long table in her apartment by the water, as

. . . the SEEDS of our aesthetics

. . . we saw each other for who we were // masked weirdos, undercover pranksters

And later:

. . . MEAT the RICH

From “Memory Piece” by Lisa Ko, published by Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2024 by Lisa Ko

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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