Beyond a Book Review: Beginning at the End in Tomb Sweeping

Beyond a Book Review_Beginning at the end in Tomb Sweeping over image of an open book
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Shawna Ayoub moves "beyond a book review" in not only recommending great books by diverse writers, but highlighting a technique to apply to your own writing.


Tomb Sweeping by Alexandra Chang

Tomb Sweeping is a collection of 15 character-driven short stories about Chinese or Chinese-American characters written by Alexandra Chang. The collection is an interesting one, as the theme that unifies it is Chinese generational experience rather than style or genre. This collection can feel a bit like a hodge-podge, but that’s what makes it work—you come away at the end realizing you’ve experienced family, that strange mix of everything and everyone that sometimes chafes and sometimes flows together.

I liked this collection. I read it over several nights from the comfort of bed. Every story was a surprise, yet all of them felt familiar. This is likely because I am first generation American with an immigrant father, but I think this collection bridges the gap between those of us identified as American Other and simply American.


Telling a story in reverse

The story that surprised me most is the one we’ll take our writing prompt from. It is called “Li Fan,” is very short, and you can read it here. The joy of “Li Fan” is that it is told in reverse. However, we get a whole story in either direction.

Telling a story in reverse is a prompt I like to use in trauma writing. It frees the writer from having to wade through the difficult parts of the story to find the point they want to make or reach by telling it. I also use this prompt for writers who need to become unstuck. At its core, it’s incredibly simple: the prompt requests that you change your perspective. It forces you to reconsider what is important by examining where you are going.

There are plenty of other strong stories in Tomb Sweeping. I love the titular story, which tells of the death of a grandfather. I also loved “Cat Personalities,” a romp that explores a friend breakup through gossiping about how pets are like their people. Frankly, this book reads like a collection of stories from prompts and that interests me as a writer. It’s definitely one I want to look at again. If your curiosity is piqued, consider purchasing Tomb Sweeping at and supporting independent bookstores across the U.S.


Writing prompt

For 15 minutes, tell a story beginning at the end. If you need to, take a piece you’ve already written and write it in reverse. Pay attention to what is revealed about the story as you write. What becomes unnecessary? What is essential? Where do you see gaps?

This is a great exercise for, again, addressing difficult topics or getting unstuck, but it is also fantastic for editing.


Will you try this exercise? Read this book? Share with us in the comments.


Related reading 

Beyond a Book Review: The “What if?” of The Deep Sky

Beyond a Book Review: Grief and Hope in All We Are Told Not to Touch

Beyond a Book Review: Once Upon a Time in Dovelion

Beyond a Book Review: Narrators and Compassion in Finding La Negrita

Beyond a Book Review: Research as Connection in Through the Banks of the Red Cedar

Beyond a Book Review: Intuition in River Woman, River Demon

Beyond a Book Review: Timeline(s) in Becoming AppalAsian

Beyond a Book Review: Unwieldy Creatures and retelling our stories

Beyond a Book Review: Containers as safe spaces in Nonwhite and Woman

Beyond a Book Review: Footnotes in Belly to the Brutal


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