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Mother-daughter relationships are fraught. Jenny Xie explores how

Jenny Xie's debut novel is <em>Holding Pattern</em>.
Cheryl Chan
Jenny Xie's debut novel is Holding Pattern.

Jenny Xie's new novel dives into how "strange, infuriating and precious" mothers can be to their daughters.

Who is she? Xie is a writer and editor based in Brooklyn, New York.

  • Originally from Shanghai, Xie has written and edited for a number of publications, as well as received scholarships and accolades for her work.
  • Holding Pattern is her debut novel, and focuses on Kathleen, a wayward graduate student who finds herself back at her mother's house after her engagement falls apart and her academic career is put on pause. Everything in her life, including her complicated mother Marissa, seem to have changed beyond her own recognition.
  • What's the big deal? Xie's novel tackles plenty of the human intricacies that can make love, family and life so unique and so difficult.

  • There's the impact of Marissa's migration from China to the United States, as well as how it impacted her divorce and relationship with her daughter.
  • Then it grapples with Marissa's imperfect mothering throughout Kathleen's childhood, including a drinking problem, and emotional codependency that muddled the dynamics between mother and child.
  • Plus, the novel touches on the commodification of intimacy, when Kathleen takes work as a professional cuddler, and the cultural boundaries that make her mother hesitant to accept this line of work.

  • Want more immigrant stories?Listen to Consider This on Black immigrants in the South.

    The cover of <em>Holding Pattern.</em>
    / Riverhead Books
    Riverhead Books
    The cover of Holding Pattern.

    What's she saying? Xie sat down with NPR's Mary Louise Kelly to break down some of these topics, and her inspiration for telling the story of Kathleen and Marissa.

    On the precious yet tenuous nature of a mother-daughter relationship:

    It's such a fundamental relationship and I think it's part of that pressure of that double-edged sword of bringing up a daughter in the world. You sort of have to teach them all this inherited trauma of what it means to be a body, even something as distilled as the way you sit when you're young; you learn to sort of cinch up your body and cross your legs and not take up space.

    And so it really is ingrained and passed on knowledge. But you understand that your mother is trying to protect you and gear you up for the world.

    And how the novel tackles these issues:

    I really wanted to talk about the mother-daughter experience. I think it's such a fraught love and magnificent love, but it's immediately complicated by all the pressures that society puts on girls and women and the narrow role that they sort them into.

    And for Kathleen and Marissa, I wanted to add this additional layer of complexity, which is what happens when you're part of an immigrant family. And so when Marissa and Kathleen moved to the States what essentially happened is that Marissa moved Kathleen into a realm a little bit beyond her understanding, because they have completely different understandings of history, different values, different world views. And so everything that they would have to navigate as mother and daughter is compounded by this sort of inscrutability and unknowability.

    On including a large cast of Chinese women characters:

    I wanted to have people have a glimpse into Marissa's world a little bit, into maybe what she's actually lost in coming to the States, because these are friends that she's made through work and through church, but it's a really small coterie.

    And you see in those friendships the possibilities and the community that Marissa might have left behind. But I also wanted them to be sort of foils to Marissa in different ways of being alone in the world. But they also have different personalities and see, you know, regard home and in different lights.

    You see some of them really assimilating. You see some of them really missing home. And that's something that they can navigate and talk about together. And it's also a generation that Kathleen learns to look on with more respect and awe, because she starts to learn more about how these women have navigated love and relationships in their own lives. So it's a door into how other people have dealt with some of the things that Kathleen and Marissa have both been struggling with.

    So, what now?

  • Xie says writing the story of Kathleen and Marissa has been her way of communicating her love for her mother.
  • Learn more:

  • Debut novel 'The God of Good Looks' adds to growing canon of Caribbean literature
  • A husband and wife reimagine fairy tales with Black children in mind
  • In 'Kiss Me in the Coral Lounge,' Helen Ellis' home life takes center stage
  • Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Manuela López Restrepo
    Manuela López Restrepo is a producer and writer at All Things Considered. She's been at NPR since graduating from The University of Maryland, and has worked at shows like Morning Edition and It's Been A Minute. She lives in Brooklyn with her cat Martin.