During high school, I took a psychology course at my local community college. Basic topics like Freudian suppression, drug addiction, and the explanation of feet fetishes were given, but it was the strange explanation of grief and awkward situations that has stuck with me the most. Banging her fist on whiteboards to emphasize a point or slapping a hand to her heart during monologues, my professor was an expert at drawing near to intimate experiences. Whether it was about social anxiety or the experience of euphoria, she wanted to help us understand how we operated. She would march around the classroom in her heels, seeking to make us feel understood rather than psychoanalyzed. She taught on emotions and nerves and chemical cocktails merging in the brain to create happiness, desire, or grief.
She asked us why people sometimes laugh in terrible situations. Someone is stressed and depressed and cracks a joke, or a friend tells you her grandma died and laughs it off. When the eulogy begins at a funeral and you hear someone stifle a giggle. Nothing about any of these situations is especially hilarious, but sometimes the human brain turns to humor to cope.
Everyone copes differently when it comes to big emotions. We fight, we drink, we cry and watch dirty television. We clean aggressively, trying to scrub away something intangible. We hold onto little things that don’t matter but do, because that tiny, strange rock collection is at once both your great-uncle when he was a little boy and all that is left of him now. The rocks—marble, obsidian, a tiny corner of sidewalk—hold stories from the moments they were chosen.
I recently began to think more about grief, close relationships, and how to cope while reading Monica Wood’s novel, One-in-a-Million Boy. Death and relationships hang as a backdrop to the characters’ stories. Wood’s novel is not told in a traditional format; instead, she uses interviews as the medium through which we gain understanding. Through interviews about a boy we never get to meet, we gain an intense view of grief— the way it collects in the corners of old bedrooms, as a mom sifts through her son’s odd things, and the way it drifts through the soul of a father who didn’t know how to love him. A few blocks away, an old woman whose peers are all dead discovers she has more promise and more to offer than she believes.
One-in-a-Million Boy is both an exposition of love and loss, and stories highlighted through interviews. Wood prompts us to ask: how do we learn to value people? What is the use of owning your own stories or listening to another’s?
Last week I went on a mission from Berkeley to Monterey Bay, CA to see my dad’s parents, who were vacationing by the sea. I drove four and a half hours round trip to see them. Given the length of travel, I was struck by how important it was for me to know how they were doing and laugh with them for a few hours.
Many grandkids see their grandparents to a degree of semi-frequency. As a grandchild of immigrants, however, I’ve grown up with accented, imperfect conversations and a generational cultural gap I’ve always ached to bridge. Plus, a geographical gap—my grandparents live relatively far, in Southern California. Since I grew up in the Bay Area, a drive to them took at least half a day. For these reasons, whenever class assignments ask about family history, culture, language, or identity, I turn to my grandparents to interview them. Time with them is precious—aging only happens in one direction, despite the saying, “Asians don’t raisin”—and with the eventual specter of their passing on, I want to know them more deeply.
Between visiting my immigrant grandparents and interviewing them for various research projects, I’ve grown closer to them than I expected. Wading through the awkward silences around the lazy Susan—a rotating table stand where dishes piled with steaming fish and vegetables sit— at their favorite Chinese restaurant, or wondering what to talk about next has reminded me of the importance of sitting in those silences. To be okay with a few awkward moments if it means making a friend out of my A-ma.
The power of interviews is structural: an interview inherently forces you to listen and ask first, before saying anything else. I love reading interviews—it’s narrative dialogue distilled in its most natural, real form. No contrivance or unrealistic tone can be struck because the interviews are simply one person sharing a bit of themself with another.
Much of One-in-a-Million Boy’s power and uniqueness stems from the way Wood takes this interview structure and slices it in half. Between chapters of the novel, she places interview transcripts—but only the transcribed responses of the interviewee in question. Not only that, she captures the truthfulness of interviews within her fiction. The boy, who we quickly learn has died from an unexpected heart syndrome, is left to be construed based on the old woman’s answers to his questions.
By leaving the boy’s interview questions unsaid but understood, Wood forces readers to grapple with his absence. I watched as the characters coped with grief. The boy’s mom becomes obsessive with his belongings, the dad spirals with guilt, and Ona, the boy’s 104-year-old friend, is alone again.
Loss generates gratefulness and reflectiveness. When the boy dies, his parents and Ona begin to turn towards each other, realizing that the relationship they each had with the boy was formed in isolation—they didn’t know, or care to know, the other. The boy’s inquisitive power and friendship is only captured through the one-sided interviews shared. Such interviews enhance the loss we feel of a boy who knew how to accept another person at face value, yet the interviews also show how intentional conversations can change a person’s life. That the boy’s loss is felt so acutely is directly connected to the interviews he shares with Ona—because he valued her in life, he is valued in death.
The boy is gone but Ona’s words remain. They capture her ache to be heard, loved, understood. At their core, interviews are simply structured conversations plus the listener’s intentions. In One-in-a-Million Boy, the interviews’ intentionality, focus, and depth open the door for a centenarian and a child’s story to be told.
Wood captures a way to help others cope with grief and process love. Her novel suggests that simply talking to someone grants them dignity. In the past year, my friend lost three family members and my roommate lost one. Each time such loss strikes, I ask them to tell me a story. Stories enable us to love again and again, as we recount memories, journeys, or dreams.
In the interviews I get to share with my A-ma and A-gon, I always learn a new aspect of their immigration, family, faith, marriage, or culture. Their stories continue to touch me, because I am connected to them not only by blood but through words, as well.
Most recently, I asked my A-gon how he felt about the fact that neither his children nor grandchildren can fluently speak Taiwanese or read Chinese. He explained that language is a basic tool, yet also powerful in its beauty. Showing me two poems written in Chinese, he told me that one of his favorite subjects in school was always Chinese literature because of its richness. Although he has lived in the United States for the past half century, he told me he will treasure Chinese above other languages for its wisdom, love, and expression. He grieves the fact that my sisters, cousins, and I cannot treasure the wealth of Chinese literature the same way. Our interview became a way for me to look at this language fluency loss and understand a part of my A-gon that was not an immigrant or a grandfather, but a student and thinker.
I always thought my love for stories and the way I could so easily weep or smile after hearing a story was centric to myself. After interviewing my A-gon, however, I learned some of my love for words and stories is directly inherited from him, even if we grew up speaking entirely different languages. From talking with him, I learned a new side of him to relate to and cherish.
Such is the power of interviews. As Wood illustrates for us in her work, interviews are a means for connection and lessons. In another one of our interviews, my A-gon told me, “From the beginning, I don’t know the culture here [or] your custom[s]. Very often, I will [be] using Chinese and literally translate to English. And then, because our culture’s different, even [if] I translate [the culture], it could be different meaning [from] the way that American is.” Listening to my A-gon tell his story brings me closer to my people and my history. Interviews and conversations build empathy and remind us we are not as disparate as we think. From here, then, is captured the potency and potential of interviews to reveal another’s experience in the same world you share, just with a different lens.