Jessamine Chan lived in Philadelphia long enough to put her dystopian novel about mothers there
Jessamine Chan wants you to know that she really enjoyed living in Philly. Particularly West Philly, where she and her documentary-maker husband spent four happy years in a community of writers, moms and moms writers in Spruce Hill.
After reading The school of good mothers, Chan’s spooky, ruthless but also grim first novel in Philadelphia’s comic book, about a mother whose over-reliance on an exersaucer earns her a year-long trip to a rehab school run by from government social workers to Aunt Lydia, you might think she couldn’t wait to leave.
âWe miss Philly so much,â insists Chan, who says he made a âpandemic decisionâ in July to move to the Chicago suburbs with her husband and 4.5-year-old daughter to be closer to her parents. (This could be a relief for readers of his book, in which maternal grandparents are cut off from their grandchild with the mother).
Chan, 43, admits that the warm welcome she and her husband have received during their three years in South Philly has given her a lot of material. In the book, the fictional Frida Liu, a transplant from Philly and a newly divorced mother with a toddler named Harriet, has a really bad day and is shadowed in child welfare services by neighbors in Passyunk Square. (Chan checks the names of a dozen or more neighborhoods in Philly in his book, in addition to Zahav and Barbuzzo restaurants.)
âHonestly, we’ve had very different experiences in different areas of Philly,â Chan said. âI can’t speak to what all of South Philly is like. Our particular block was a bit cold. We really tried. I think we were the newcomers. We were certainly not welcome there.
As an Asian American with a white husband in a neighborhood where “people had been there for a long time,” she said, “we were particularly moved.”
After the fictional Frida is caught leaving her daughter alone for several hours (she’s gone for coffee and grab a file from a low-level job at Penn), she plunges into a den of bureaucratic surveillance. and shame. Her husband, Gust, meanwhile, continues to live out his dreams with the young free spirit he left Frida for. (Strongly, Gust is never held responsible for his transgressions.)
After a court hearing, Frida lands at a newly opened re-education school where parents are given lifelike dolls programmed with artificial intelligence and a program to practice and prove their maternal good faith, while denying them any contact with their real children. . She eventually takes a risky liking for a Germantown dad who spends time in the more lenient fathers school – she is credited with a doll named Jeremy – for texting while his son fell from a tree.
Chan’s sympathies go to imperfect parents, who fight the urges to connect with another with varying degrees of success, struggle with suicidal feelings, and debate the societal forces that brought them into this joint and control their various outcomes. Child welfare officers, on the other hand, record and measure all encounters with the dolls (Liu’s is called Emmanuelle, and is mostly sensitive and charming), break up dates, arrive late and impose their own notions of parenthood, with no room for cultural differences.
The book, published by Simon & Schuster with a January 4 release date, tackles issues of racism, sexism and privilege, exploring how an Asian American woman finds herself in the midst of many of these dynamics, or outside. .
Chan said she couldn’t wait to write a book featuring a main character that really resonated.
âIt was a big motivator, creating the kind of Chinese-American heroine that I always wanted to see on the page,â she said. âTo have a character of color who is so imperfect, an Asian American who is so imperfect. I find that the colored characters are not allowed to be a mess on the page. Even though she makes so many mistakes, her heart is in the right place.
The mistakes she makes can be infuriating and propel a plot that may seem needlessly punitive. But Chan says she got the idea of a New Yorker non-fiction article in which a mother lost her parental rights after a similar incident. Fueled by her own anxiety about motherhood, the plot took off. The book rarely cuts Frida much more of a break than the society that insists on controlling her, or a mother’s own self-recrimination. It’s a dark portrayal, but Chan says “the previous versions were a lot darker.”
Chan says the experience of mothers over the past two years – left to fend for themselves with children at home during a pandemic, dealing with distance learning, working from home, or having to give up work altogether, without much, if any help – really drove home some of the themes from a book she started in 2014.
âThere is so much burden on moms to find a solution in a system that is down,â she said. “They are supposed to solve problems at the individual level even if the problems are systemic.”
Since she got the idea for the book and many dystopian elements have taken hold – the dolls, the surveillance, the loss of control of government guards – real life events and the political and cultural climate of the nation have only made the book more realistic, she said, including Congressional resistance to paid parental leave and recent Supreme Court arguments over the Mississippi abortion law.
“It reads differently than it would have done three years ago,” she said. âIt’s amazing to me a month ago, two months ago, the debate was about four weeks of parental leave. After four weeks, I could no longer walk.
Chan said she was thrilled with the reception given to the first copies of the book, although she tries to promote the book’s humorous tone in addition to focusing on its terrifying, creepy and dystopian plot.
“I don’t necessarily have [think] it has always been designed to be an uplifting book, âshe said. âBasically, it’s about a mother trying to win back her child. I would like people to come out of this book feeling seen.