“Half a World Apart”: Grace Loh Prasad (The Translator’s Daughter) in conversation with Jami Nakamura Lin

I’ve had the pleasure of following Grace Loh Prasad’s writing for years, after we met in a Facebook group for writers. (We finally met in person at AWP in 2021, at a gathering of Taiwanese American writers, and have met up at every AWP since!) After getting to see her journey from afar—and getting to read excerpts of her memoir in different literary journals—I was so delighted to be able to read The Translator’s Daughter (Ohio State University Press/Mad Creek Books) in full this year. 

In this memoir, Prasad interrogates the distance between the homes we have and the homes we long for with the compassion and precision of one who has spent her entire life attuned to language. “We were always half a world apart,” Loh Prasad writes—of her family, but also of the nation of Taiwan itself. Each essay in this memoir bridges the gap, using innovative thematic structures that serve as both language and organizing principle: family photos, mythical women, Taiwanese films. In Loh Prasad’s deft hands, the line between the personal and political is as fluid as that between people and the place to which they belong. These essays of excavation and elegy are a remarkable addition to the Taiwanese American canon. 

Interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Jami: I’m so excited to see The Translator’s Daughter out in the world. I know that the writing of the book has been quite a long journey. You mention in the introduction that it took over two decades! Could you tell me about the genesis of the book and the path that it took to get here? 

Grace: I started writing in the late nineties. I had a serious boyfriend, and I thought we might get married. It occurred to me that if we had a child—what heritage was I going to pass on to that child? That was what made me realize that I didn’t actually have that much knowledge about my heritage. I thought, I need to understand more about where I come from and what makes me who I am. 

So that was when I started writing purely for myself.  I started to get serious about my writing around 2000-2001. I was lucky to do a couple of residencies, and then I was admitted to an MFA program at Mills College. The first iteration of my book was my MFA thesis. The finished book is obviously very different from that, but there are four or five chapters that are fairly intact from that period of time. 

What changed over the 10-15 years after the MFA program is that I had a lot of life milestones. That was one of the things that I did not foresee that really changed and deepened my writing. The original project was about reconnecting with my Taiwanese heritage and history and understanding the role that language—and lack of language—played in who I am. Then it  also became much more about loss.  as I was trying to reconnect, that was when I started to lose people. My mom first to dementia, and then to illness and death, and then my brother, and then my dad. I kept writing through all of that. But it took me a long time to process all of those things.

J: That extra time you took to think and process really shows up on the page. You’re able to weave this difficult material and these different strands together beautifully. One strand I  was particularly interested in—and I think this ties into the larger themes of loss and language—was that of flight and airports. We begin in the airport, and we return to it throughout. 

G: I spent a lot of time traveling back and forth [to Taiwan]. I became used to it. That led to that situation that starts in chapter one, which is that I’m so nonchalant about traveling overseas that I literally did not even check my passport and brought the [expired] one.

During and after writing, I realized there’s a lot of airplanes [in the book], there’s a lot of travel. In way, it’s a perfect metaphor for that in-between space, because it is an in-between space. I talk about in that second-to-last chapter—that no matter what the distance is, the psychic distance is different from the physical distance. 

Even though it’s faster [now] to travel to Taiwan, I still need that adjustment time to tunnel back into who I am when I go there because it’s a very different way of being. That’s why I have the chapter where I talk about Persephone. I am toggling between two worlds and there’s almost no middle ground? I’ve always been trying to reconcile that fact. 

The other thing that has to do with travel is that my dad had to travel a lot for his work. And so that was another reason that frequent international travel was very normalized for me. Only upon reflection I realized that actually not everyone could travel, that not everyone had the kind of passport that gives them that mobility. During the time I was stuck in the airport in Taipei, I [write] about meeting someone that is actually diplomatically in limbo and cannot leave the airport. 

It made me more aware of situations    that—of the state of in-betweenness and not fully belonging anywhere. In one way, it’s a state of mind, but it’s also a material condition that is very tragic and has major repercussions for people who don’t have that kind of movement. 

J: I think that state of in-betweenness resonates for so many in the diaspora. In the chapter “Projections,” you write that a character from a film you’ve watching [First Person Plural] is mourning the same thing as you: “the unlived life, the person who might have been if things had turned out differently.”

G: I think with any immigrant that has a relationship with sort of their origin country, there is this idea of doubling, or, what would have happened if I hadn’t left? Who would I be? 

In First Person Plural, there is something to be gained in reclaiming and reaching back for something that was meaningful before. It’s a beautiful thing. At the same time, you also are confronting what has been lost. 

J: Did you feel the process of writing this book addressed that loss or reclamation? 

G: I think it did. The writing did bring me closer, because each visit to Taiwan was consequential and was [about] trying to forge connections. At first, my parents were healthy and they were showing me around, and that was a really fun, wonderful period. 

When their health started to decline, my visits were much more about bureaucracy, having to make sure that they had the right care. But ultimately it meant that I had to forge a closer relationship with my relatives. It meant I had to pay attention to what I was doing and where I was going, so I would remember how to do it when my parents were not there to guide me anymore. 

There’s still a long way to go. There’s always going to be this feeling of imposter syndrome, of going there and looking like I blend in and then as soon as I say something, everyone knows I’m an outsider. 

But I did start to get a little bit more comfortable, especially when my dad was dying and he couldn’t even talk. I have a couple of relatives that can speak English, but most of them do not. They would speak to me in Taiwanese, and I had to try really hard to understand. I had to force myself to at least respond minimally. I hadn’t really been forced to do that in the past when my parents were around. It was good for me, if difficult. 

That’s how I got to the conclusion that I have in my author’s note, which is that it’s better to communicate awkwardly than not at all. I had to face my own fear and deal with it. What else am I going to do? I have to try. What’s the worst thing that could happen? They could laugh at me or misunderstand me. But at least I’ve tried. I feel so much pressure. But [when] I’m in Taiwan, I have to adapt to Taiwan. I can’t expect Taiwan to adapt to me. 

J: For me, that author’s note felt very validating. When you were talking about the difficulties of writing out different place names, and the difference between the style you grew up with and the way it is [transliterated] now—these are all the things that I struggled with in my own book, too. I always felt I was doing it wrong.  

G: You understand intimately. I mean, I had a knot in my stomach thinking about how the copy editing for this book is going to be. I had to hire someone to do copy edits. And I still fear that someone’s going to come out of the woodwork and be like, No, no, that’s wrong. But essentially that’s what my book is about: being the translator’s daughter. I was the daughter of someone who was hypercompetent in language, and I am not that. 

There’s so much knowledge lives in my body, but that I cannot write that down in a way that is legible to anyone else, because of the language I don’t have. I think that’s also partly why I gravitated so much to things like movies, mythology, artwork and music. 

J: One of my favorite things about this book is the ekphrastic writing. There’s that chapter that’s structured around different films, that chapter about photographs. How did you make these stylistic and structural choices? 

G: A lot of my writing is very intuitive. I don’t necessarily have an idea for the structure or have a specific intent. Later, I ask, Is there something there? Is there a theme? Is there an image? Where am I going with this? And so every [piece] started as its own little standalone. 

“Projections,” the one about the film festival and my own very subjective interpretations of them, tis actually one of the earliest pieces I wrote. I have at least one piece that’s in third person, and then the album chapter with the old photos. That one was written about a time when I didn’t exist yet, and I was imagining myself into this place of what was my parents’ life was like. I was forced to rely on my imagination. 

Because I lacked the language, I had to use other symbols. I love art, and that’s something I get from my mom—looking for meaning in symbols and enjoying how symbols are always referencing other things and other histories. There’s always a story behind the image and a story behind the story. 

My natural writing style is that I tend toward essays of a certain length. Some are written in the classic style of a personal essay, and then some of them have craft elements or approaches that are different. For a long time, I really felt it was a problem. I struggled with structure. I couldn’t find other books that combined both. I was getting feedback from agents saying I should write this as a straight memoir. And I couldn’t do it. It did not feel natural to me. 

I also feel the [essays] represent a point in time for me. Most memoirs are recounting a very long time period, but there’s always that stable point of view of the present author reflecting back on each of those events, and mine doesn’t exactly do that. My age is changing. The age of my son is changing. My parents are at various stage of health and decline, and there’s all these little time capsules. 

When I put it all together, I stopped struggling with this idea of structure and that it had to be all one way. I recognize, for example, that there are repetitions, there are repeated events in the book, and that’s intentional. 

J: It felt to me like layering, like you’re accreting meaning. 

G: I don’t know how else to do it. There isn’t one way to tell the story; there isn’t one easy explanation for my identity and for my history. I finally decided to lean into that. This is the way I am. The identity itself is fragmented. My experience is fragmented.

I realize I might lose some readers—there might be some people who are think this is too confusing for me, but I haven’t heard that yet. 

J: And then there’s people like me who have always been looking for writing like this! Last question. I know you have some long-standing writing groups—what has it been like to have a group of Taiwanese American writers supporting you throughout this process?

G: There’s two groups—there’s a Taiwanese American writers’ group that’s a friend group/group chat. Then I have a longstanding writing group that is all AAPI, but I’m the only Taiwanese American.  The AAPI writing group has been a huge support. I started with them around 2001, so right around the time of my MFA. They have seen me through getting married, having a child, all these kind of difficulties and milestones—as well as my growth as a writer. I cannot overestimate how much it means to be in a writing group of people know you and care about you and know what you’re trying to achieve, and where you don’t have to constantly explain yourself.

The Taiwanese American writers’ group actually came about during the pandemic. Grace Hwang Lynch was the one that brought us together. And I was like, oh, my God, I’ve been waiting for this my whole life. To have a Taiwanese American friend group where we can  talk about being Taiwanese and our parents and the struggles and the writing and all of that stuff. It’s been incredible. It’s filled a gap that I feel I’ve always had. 

Jami Nakamura Lin is the author of the speculative memoir The Night Parade (illustrated by her sister Cori Nakamura Lin), published on October 24, 2023 by Mariner Books / HarperCollins. Her work interrogates mythology, monstrosity, madness, and motherhood, and is influenced by Japanese, Taiwanese, and Okinawan folklore.


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