Parting Glances

One of S.F.'s edgier talents shares his life thus far in 20 sharp, emotion-packed essays.


by Justin Chin (Alyson Books, $13.95) "JAGGED," the first piece in Justin Chin's autobiographical essay collection, Burden of Ashes, has the San Francisco writer/ spoken-word performer assembling a jigsaw puzzle from his youth. Once he finishes, the adult Chin notices a change in the depicted "sunny scene on a jetty": "[I] saw the jagged lines running across the picture and how the cut of the puzzle distorted parts of the picture, making bits of the image seem warped instead of a pristine flat image." This recognition that time inevitably shifts one's perspective is difficult for the "incredibly sentimental" Chin. As Burden traces his childhood in Malaysia, his school days in Singapore, and his amorous experiences in S.F., a longing laces his recollections of pet dogs, '80s pop culture, the writing teacher who criticized his lousy prose, the way his teary-eyed mother donned her sunglasses to increase sympathy. Chin even reserves tenderness for those painful years of his adolescence, when the 13-year-old avoided insecurity by having sex with men in bathroom stalls: "Nothing I could do made me feel like I belonged anywhere, except in that icky queer diorama of toilet tiles, rattling partitions, and perpetually wet floors that smelled of bleach cleansers and stale piss." Humor and piercing social commentary balance out the book's bleaker moments and solidify Chin's position as an underdog writer with a fierce bite. His varied skills are evident in the wonderful "Motherland," which tells of Chin's trip to China with his aged family. He sarcastically reveals his expectations about the journey: "I imagined having a last chapter of The Joy Luck Club moment, where deep meaningful things would be revealed to me as I stepped on the soil possessed with centuries of Dynastic histories and my people's blood memory." Chin never has that moment, but the others are just as powerful. David Massengill

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