In 1751, the word “vignette” made its way from the French vigne to begin its new life in English. This new word referred solely to an ornamental frame that surrounded an empty page in a book. In 1830, the word’s meaning grew to refer to the central illustration on a book’s page. And in 1862, with the advent of commercial photography, the vignette further expanded its definition to refer to a photographic portrait, but a certain kind of portrait, with only the head and shoulders visible. The body in the photographic vignette was elided.
Only in 1880, after the vignette had made its journey from literary accoutrement to photograph, did the word finally gain the definition used in Pik-Shuen Fung’s searing debut novel, Ghost Forest. Fung’s vignette is the literary vignette, that lean, brief verbal descriptor of a place or object; Ghost Forest comprises a little over one hundred of these vignettes. And what they reveal is the story of a Canadian girl and her father, who lives apart from her in Hong Kong. He is an astronaut father, that “term invented by the Hong Kong mass media”, because he is constantly “flying here, flying there”. Mostly, though, he is away. He is off in space.
Ghost Forest, then, is a portrait of emptiness. The first, original emptiness is the inherent nature of the astronaut father relationship, which implies a father largely absent from the narrator’s childhood. The second emptiness is a direct result of the first one, the absence of communication which results from both the narrator’s physical distance from him and the rift between their two cultures. It is the sort of atmosphere in which even a declaration of love must be rigorously scripted, in which communication is always at the peril of breaking down, emptiness pressing in at the edges to fill the space.
Finally, there is one last, eternal emptiness: that of the narrator’s father’s death. This is the central emptiness that concerns Ghost Forest, the one that declares itself in the first vignette of the book:
Twenty-one days after my dad died, a bird perched on the railing of my balcony. It was brown. It stayed there for a long time.
Hi, Dad, I said. Thanks for checking up on me.
I lay down on the couch and read some emails on my phone. When I looked up again, the bird was gone.
Emptiness is both the novel’s subject and its structure, built into the very geography of the page. Many of Fung’s pages contain only two or three sentences surrounded by swaths of blank space. The sparsity of the form replicates the narrator’s experience of her father: it contains not a book, or even a chapter’s worth of narrative, but rather, emptiness punctuated by brief appearances. Fung’s pages resemble Anne Carson’s translations of Sappho in their effect—fragments with the sheen of poetry, though never the complete poem itself, and each page heavy with the implication of what has been lost. Emptiness has its own eloquence, its own unfaltering logic. It is to be contended with page after page.
Fung’s solution to this predicament, however, is contained within the structure of her narrative. Here resides the richness of Fung’s choice of the vignette: that it holds within its history both the possibility of a subject, and implies the frame that must bracket it. The tension between emptiness and what fills it is what gives Ghost Forest its narrative propulsion.
There is one final definition of the vignette. It refers to the point at which light falls off the edges of a photograph, leaving only its center. This sort of vignette is a technical term, and often considered to be an unpleasant artifact resulting from the physics of the camera and its lens. Software exists to remove it.
But such a vignette can also be a work of art. There is a moment in Ghost Forest in which echoes of this photographic vignette appear on old home videos digitized after the narrator’s father’s death. At its worst, it destroys the contents of the film. But when it does not, it “creat[es] beautiful tinges of pink, blue, and green that shine out of nowhere”. The vignette is Fung’s way of grappling with emptiness, but inherent in such a form is that it also produces emptiness. Here, Fung suggests that emptiness may be a destructive force, but that it is also a lovely one. Art can be made of it. Art is made of it.
And everything in Ghost Forest strains toward art. For Fung’s narrator is also an artist, a serious student of Chinese art and calligraphy. What differentiates Chinese art from Western art, she notes, is how it uniquely prizes empty space: the artists who invented xieyi painting “left large areas of the paper blank because they felt empty space was as important as form, that absence was as important as presence.” The word xieyi itself means to “write meaning”. It is a profound ethos toward art-making.
But art-making also troubles the narrator. In high school, she neglects to paint a piece for her father meant to be hung in his apartment in Hong Kong. In college, when he visits her in China where she is studying art, he remarks, “I think there is something wrong with you that you’re making art like this.” The making of the art itself is also precarious; “holding the brush still for a second too long” can destroy the work. This sort of art reliant on emptiness is difficult, often transgressive. Such a fear is echoed by a 13th century Chinese artist the narrator views as a spiritual predecessor: “Wouldn’t someone say that I have transgressed? How despicable.”
And the narrator does fail at her artistic vignettes. She never completes the painting meant for her father, and the metonym of her failed college painting, also entitled “Ghost Forest”, haunts this work. But the ideas of brevity and absence inherent in Chinese art, more than informing the narrator’s art, inflect this book instead. For what Ghost Forest ultimately is, is a portrait of the narrator’s father, bracketed as it may be by the circumstances of their relationship. It illuminates him in single, deft strokes, the way a streak of light in the sky illuminates. It makes and leaves a hundred scenes with questions still glimmering at the edges. It is an imagistic vignette composed of literary ones.
The result is a gnarled thing, an empty thing, but also successfully empty. For what the empty space holds is love felt from far away, and oral history wrenched after death, and the generous and joyful spirit of both the art and its author.
S.M. Sukardi is a writer and essayist who lives in Brooklyn. SM is a 2021 Periplus fellow.