Hyphenated Identity: PETER HO DAVIES with Christopher Shade
Peter Ho Davies
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016)
In early September, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt will publish Peter Ho Davies’s fourth book, The Fortunes, a novel prompted by his desire to understand his Chinese heritage and Chinese-American experiences. This follows two story collections and the novel The Welsh Girl—a moving first novel concerning three characters in North Wales during the Second World War, including a German prisoner of war, which was long-listed for the Booker Prize. Now, The Fortunes recasts Chinese-American history through the lives of Chinese-American historical and fictional figures.
While a longtime fan of his work, I first met Peter Ho Davies in person earlier this year during the annual Writers @ Work generative writers retreat at the historic Alta Lodge in Utah’s scenic Wasatch Mountains.
I had the pleasure of conducting this interview by video chat in recent weeks, from my home in New York City and his home in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He is on the faculty of the Helen Zell MFA Program in Creative Writing at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
We discussed Chinese-Americanness in various aspects, of yesterday and today, and examined the choices he made in writing The Fortunes, an original and multigenerational novel. Organized in four parts, The Fortunes begins with a Chinese immigrant, Ah Ling, during the building of the Transcontinental Railroad in the 1800s. Ling is the valet to Charles Crocker, the biggest of the Big Four barons of the Central Pacific Railroad. Next, it tells the 1920s and 30s story of Hollywood’s first Chinese-American film star, Anna May Wong, and her trip to China in protest of role casting discrimination. The third section retells a hate crime in 1980s Detroit: the Vincent Chin case. For the murder of Vincent Chin, two men were sentenced to two years probation, a small fine, and no jail time. His mother, Lily Chin, famously stated: “What kind of law is this? What kind of justice? This happened because my son is Chinese. If two Chinese killed a white person, they must go to jail, maybe for their whole lives […] Something is wrong with this country.” The final section is a present-day story of a mixed-race Chinese-American writer adopting a baby in China.
Christopher Shade (Rail): Thanks so much for taking the time to answer some questions for the Brooklyn Rail in advance of the book tour for your latest novel, The Fortunes. Your book tour reaches Brooklyn Rail readers in New York City on September 12, at the Asian American Writers Workshop, a well-known arts organization that supports writing by Asian Americans in various ways. Have you worked in the past with the Asian American Writers Workshop?
Peter Ho Davies: I haven’t a lot. I admire their work from afar, and my students and friends have done things with them. But I was casting my mind back: they had me for Equal Love, back in 2001, they had me on the short list for Asian American literary awards. I remember being very flattered, and also a little surprised actually to make that list. That book isn’t particularly about Asian-American characters or Asian-American issues. Like all my work, it’s about identity, I suppose, and that comes a little bit out of my mixed race background. And I remember being very flattered by it. It was just flattering to be in the company of such amazing Asian-American writers who I greatly admire. But it also helped me. I guess I’d only been in the U.S. for five or six or seven years at that point. I’d just come back to the U.S. from a sabbatical back in Britain for a year, and so my willingness to claim certain things, my willingness to claim Americanness—I had lived here a relatively short time—was limited. I certainly had times in the past to this point of writing The Fortunes, in which I’ve had some ambivalence about my claim to Asianness. I’m half Asian, half Chinese by blood, but I feel somewhat less than half Chinese by culture in many ways. And so to be embraced by the Asian American Writers Workshop, to have them put me on their short list, was very moving to me actually.
I think as writers, we sometimes look for permission-giving from others, and I think that was one of those things where to be seen as an Asian-American writer by others was not just flattering but also very empowering. That might’ve been one of the early seeds of my interest in writing about some of the questions and issues that come up in The Fortunes.
I felt something of the same thing when I was at the Kundiman Retreat out at Fordham last summer, which supports Asian-American writers not directly affiliated [with the Asian American Writers Workshop], but with some overlap with people, and certainly an overlap of issues and tensions, and I said on the first night to the fellows, You know, I’m happy to be here, looking forward to engagement, but I’m not sure I can completely claim Asian-Americanness. And they were incredibly welcoming. The sense that I came away with, and that I was very moved by, was that they claimed me. And I felt that same quality of being empowered. A lot of my characters and certainly I, myself, are interested in questions of community, and that feeling of being an outsider. So in these couple of moments where community has reached out to me, I felt very touched by those moments. They meant a lot to me.
Rail: On the tour schedule you’re reading at bookstores such as Powell’s, Politics & Prose, and Elliot Bay Books. And what’s especially interesting is that you’re also reading with Asian-American organizations such as the Asian American Writers Workshop in New York City which we’ve talked about, and the Kearney Street Workshop in San Francisco, which is the Bay area’s hub for Asian-Pacific-American arts since the ’70s.
Davies: I’m looking forward to those engagements actually.
Rail: How much of this book tour was your design?
Davies: That was mostly [the publicist], both in terms of the bookstores and in terms of the Asian-American organizations that I’ll read with. She wanted to do certain cities, and she wanted to find good venues in those cities so it made sense in NY and SF to use the Asian-American venues. And I think I expressed that there are some bookstores that I have a particular relationship to. I fondly remember Powell’s when I lived in Oregon, so I’m glad to be going out there. And I had fun going before to Elliot Bay in Seattle. Some of these are places that I know and love.
Rail: When was the first time you went to China? Was it for this book?
Davies: Yeah! It’s ironic—although it maybe says something about that sort of ambivalence and questioning, and even unease, about my Chinese-ness, which I think actually a lot of overseas Chinese share, in some ways—that I only went in the context of researching the book. I’d lived in Malaysia and in Singapore for a while. I’ve gone on a lot of family trips back to see my mother’s family, the Chinese community there, and after college in my twenties I worked for about a year and slid between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. At that point, I was working in publishing, and I had an invitation to go and work for the same publisher—they were a larger, educational publisher—and the chance to go to Hong Kong as well. And I was prepared to do it, and very close to doing it actually, I think the only reason I hesitated is because I was beginning to nurture hopes of a writing career, or at least hopes of delving more into my writing, and I knew publishing was such an all-consuming profession that if I really dove into it, I probably wasn’t going to end up being a writer or trying to write as much as I wanted to. So I did have some experience in Southeast Asia, and living in some Chinese communities and other Asian communities. But China, no, I haven’t gone there for a long time. My mother has been back to visit family. I mean there have been some complications in the past. The relations between China and Malaysia politically have been somewhat complicated—for a period of time, in the wake of the Malayan Emergency, the Chinese-backed communistic insurgency in the late ’40s and ’50s, there was some difficulty for the Chinese community from Malaysia to travel back to China because of that history of hostility.
Rail: Talk a bit more about that, and your perspective of China when you were younger.
Davies: My mother is one of a very large number of siblings, and her eldest sister was born at a time when my grandfather had come as a Chinese immigrant to Malaysia to start a business and work there. I guess he wasn’t sure how long he would stay in Malaysia. So when he had a daughter, and I think she was one of his very first children, she was sent back to China to the ancestral village to be raised by her grandparents. My mother born after her, my mother was born after the closing of China. She never met her sister, and that sister was able—and it’s one of my earlier memories while I was a teenager—was able to travel from China to Australia, not to Malaysia, for a visit; my mother and I flew out to Australia, and there she met her sister for the first time. So China had seemed distant, or closed in some ways, for me growing up. And I think many people of my generation, from when we were youthful, view China as a closed communist culture, a closed communist society in various ways. And so while my mother subsequently went back to visit some family members in China, I still carried something of that same sense of China as a closed and distant space, and I either haven’t had the time or money, and to some degree the inclination to visit.
For the book, though, I knew that the last section was going to touch on China and I was very interested in this idea that with a lot of these families—the couples who were going to adopt in China and the single people who adopt in China—as part of the adoption process, very often there is a kind of scenic tour. Not really a vacation although it’s something of that. You go visit some of the cultural highlights in the week or ten days before the adoption process takes place, and you meet the child, and you go through the paperwork. I was interested in that idea, and I knew from a midpoint in writing the book that I wanted to have a section on China’s adoption. I actually had drafted that section. I knew I needed it for the book, I’d done the draft, but I also felt like I wanted to go and do that visit, and I was lucky enough to get some research funds from the university here and able to go and make that visit. But I’d made it very much on a tourist basis. I made it like a ten day tourist tour. I actually went very early in the tourist season. It was just me and my guide going around these places. We were sort of alone. And they were actually quiet because it was a little chilly in some parts of China. One of my fondest memories didn’t make it into the book: I was in the Forbidden City and it was snowing. It was just a remarkable thing to see. So I went, as I often do, to do some research after the fact, research of the place. But I hadn’t been prior to that point. It was very much driven by the last section of the book.
Rail: Did you go to Shanghai because Anna May Wong landed there?
Davies: I did go to Shanghai. But I didn’t really go explicitly for the Anna May section. My feeling in regard to that was the China of the 1930s that she’d seen and visited was largely not present anymore. I mean it was a little different when I was trying to research the building of the Transcontinental and I actually took some time to travel over the path of the Transcontinental. I did it by train. I did it by car. Some of the modern train tracks don’t completely trace the track of the older line, so I did it by car as well so I could detour and go and see some of the tunnels that had been built and carved out for the original railroad. And there—although of course you’re doing historical research for an event that occurred over a hundred years earlier, and you’re doing it in the present—at least there was a sense that the terrain, the landscape that I was seeing, bore some resemblance to the landscape and the terrain that my characters might’ve seen. There’s a little bit of a fiction but there’s still some sense of that. To look at China, at Shanghai, today, and to think about the context of that city in regard to what Anna May saw during her visit—with one or two exceptions; there are some traditional buildings and spaces that I did see as a tourist, and she might well have seen as a tourist—feels like a little bit of a reach in some ways.
Rail: How did you structure your research trip to China? Was Shanghai your entry point, like it was for Anna May Wong?
Davies: It actually wasn’t. I was going on the basis of essentially a package tour. I entered in Beijing. I did Beijing, Xi’an and the Terracotta Warriors, and Shanghai. I left through Shanghai. I was disappointed not to get to Hong Kong, for instance, which is also featured a little bit in the Anna May section. And it’s actually closer to my own family roots in some ways. It was a great visit. I was thrilled to do it. Some of my anxieties and trepidation about going were very much relieved, and I was eager to go back, and sorry not to be there with my family. It was all a very short visit squeezed into a spring break between teaching, because I needed to get that data before I could feel like I was comfortable finishing the book.
Rail: Did you bring any of your family with you?
Davies: I didn’t bring any family. It would be great to do it. I would particularly like my son to see it. But I knew that my observing eye would be less distracted if I were alone. My son is twelve. When I travel with him, it’s great fun, it’s very exciting to see things through his eye, but as a parent I’m also concerned with what’s going on with him, is he having a good time, those kind of things. And I wanted to just try and apprehend it as an observer without having to be distracted by the observations of others around me, in certain ways. I wanted to feel like I was getting that. While I did have a guided tour experience, most days I had the tour guide with me to see a particular site for the morning, and then I would just try to ramble around as much as I could in the afternoon. I just did a lot of walking in various sites, and spent a lot of time dwelling on them, and just hanging out essentially in lots of places.
Rail: Let’s talk about the structure of The Fortunes. In The Welsh Girl, there was a trio of characters, and as Richard Eder in the New York Times described it: “Mr. Davies starts each of them in mutually far-removed worlds and floats them together almost by chance.” The Fortunes seems a wholly different shape of a book. It spans more than a century of Chinese-American experience. There is less attention to the characters crossing paths, and instead more on the theme of certain individuals, in different eras, grappling with Chineseness. Do you agree with this assessment, and why did you choose to build The Fortunes in its unique shape?
Davies: Oh, that’s a big question! [Laughs.] But of course one I’ve thought about quite a lot. I want to resist initially the idea of a kind of decision point, that sense of it will be like this, this is the structure it will be. The temptation is to think—and I’m sure this is true for some writers, just not often true for me, and it wasn’t true for The Welsh Girl either—that we begin at the start which is going to be the structure, and then we write into that space. For me nearly always, and this is true for stories as well as novels I’ve written, that structure is an evolving process. So for instance in the earliest iterations of The Fortunes, or what became The Fortunes, the first section of the book, the Ah Ling section where we have a Chinese man working for the Transcontinental Railroad, that was very much front and center of my mind. I think for at least a couple of years of work on the project, and certainly when I sold the project, that was going to be the book. And so only over the course of the writing does that initial concept morph and change and develop and become modified as you go along, sometimes happily, sometimes painfully—you resist these changes in various ways.
I always joke about how long it takes me to write novels and in this case probably there was about a year or so when I was still trying to make it be only about Ah Ling’s experience. And even though I was feeling the pull into the excitement of writing about other Chinese-American characters, Anna May for instance, along the way and that slows things down because you’re just resistant; it’s your old model, you’re trying to insist upon it, and the characters are maybe trying to suggest something else along the way. The way I think about it, though, in an odd sense, is that the structure does evolve from some of my past writings, so there are some affinities with that. So while you’re right to say that The Welsh Girl is about three distinct characters and that nice phrase that “he just floats them together”, this starts with four distinct characters and I didn’t so much them together. There’s still that sense of their distinction. There was at least some stage in the writing of The Welsh Girl when I thought maybe this will be two or three linked novellas around this experience of German prisoners of war in North Wales during the Second World War. And I still think that the book-ending sections of The Welsh Girl, in which Rotheram, the half-Jewish interrogator of Rudolph Hess, still feel, and even relatively late into the writing of that book, as if they could almost be stand alone, that they were almost a separate novella. A lot of the pleasure of working on the ending of that book was finding a way in which that more distant orbit of the narrative began to find a way to intersect the main narrative of the characters. So there’s a little affinity there.
Rail: Stories within The Fortunes connect in various ways. Talk a little more about that?
Davies: Probably in all of these books I am a novelist who is also still leaning back into the ways that I think about, not the structure of individual short stories, but the structure of short story collections. I’m very interested in the way that collections and stories within collections speak to each other, echo each other, mirror each other, parallel each other, and start from some of the same places and diverge in various ways. So there is something of that story collection aesthetic that’s informing, even The Welsh Girl, but certainly The Fortunes. And then the way now that I think about it—and some of this stuff comes in the writing, some of it comes clarified in a kind of post-hoc way as well—is that I think of myself as having written a multigenerational novel. Which is a very traditional form. And I’ve written it about the Chinese-American community, for whom the generational bonds over the span of a hundred or hundred-fifty year history, have been strained and often broken and fragmented.
So what does a multigenerational novel look like for a community where there isn’t necessarily a comfortable confident line of blood descent? I’m thinking about this in the context of the earliest days of the bachelor society of Chinese male sojourner immigrants into the U.S., a very male society, through the periods where Anna May is talking about exclusion which limited the ability of Chinese men to bring their wives and families into the U.S., through periods of the anti-miscegenation laws, which made it very hard for Chinese to marry whites within the U.S., and up to that sort of current influx of adopted Chinese orphans. So all of these instances speak to interruptions or breakages of lines of familial descent in various ways. And yet the community is persistent. So there’s this feeling of a multigenerational narrative, generations not bound together necessarily directly by blood. What are they bound together by? I think there are affinities within the narratives that speak to those kind of connections. Some of it is echoes of language, which might be recurrent jokes, or recurrent images, that crop up from section to section.
But probably in the early going of the narrative, one of the things that felt really important that bound these four narratives together is that each of the protagonists in some form or other are grappling with their Chineseness. They are grappling with their dawning Chinese-Americanness. It’s a progressional move from Chineseness to Chinese-Americanness as we move through the course of the narrative. But they’re also grappling with, in the cases of certain individuals, a burden, an ambivalence on their own parts about being representative figures of their communities. So Ling starts off as an example, an exemplar, of Chinese labor that aspires to hiring thousands, tens of thousands, of his countrymen to work on the Transcontinental. He is in a certain sense—we’re used to the phrase model minority—he is the model of the model minority. He’s a hard working, loyal guy. Charles Crocker looks at him and goes, Oh yeah, them’s guys can build my railroad for me. I was very interested in what it was to be like to be that guy, to think about what his experiences might’ve been in those regards. And Anna May, too, of course has a very ambivalent, a very complicated relationship to her representative status.
Rail: She’s the first Chinese-American movie star.
Davies: And I’m interested in a lot of the Chinese firsts. So Ling, in a sense he’s Asian Zero. He arrives, he shows up, and he inspires a wave of immigration in some ways. We talk about, in that section, the first Chinese prostitute to arrive in the U.S. who becomes sort of famous for that role—someone called Ah Toy, who’s a real historical figure. Anna May is another first, the first Chinese-American movie star. And there’s a burden for these characters in being the first. Can they be themselves, or do they have to stand for thousands or millions of others? And how does one do that? Vincent Chin as a kind of iconic martyr of a Chinese-American and Asian-American political movement fulfills some of that position as well. And I realized as I was writing through those sections, particularly the first two, that of course Ling and Anna May are evincing an anxiety that I share—and I think of as a writing anxiety—how do I represent the community? And all writers have that anxiety of representation I think in some form or another. But coupled with my own, that sense I was talking about earlier, of being half-Chinese, and somewhat less than half culturally, how do I presume to represent Chinese characters, Chinese-American characters in various ways? So I realized that the very ambivalence of these characters were in some sense reflective of my own, or that their situation spoke to me emotionally because I recognize some affinity between themselves and myself. So the last section, because I have—I want to stress semi-autobiographic character, and semi is very important in this regard—a half-Asian writer character writing that section. It felt like I should call the curtain back, I should acknowledge that the anxieties these other characters explored are anxieties that are part of my experience as well. That felt like a thread that wound through the narratives. There are a number of others built upon that in small ways and large ways. I won’t tell them all here because half the fun of the book is for people to spot these kinds of connections and affinities in various ways. But they are an effort to say, we are a community, there are these bonds, but they don’t have to be bonds of blood. They don’t have to be lines of direct descent. What is it that makes us a community that isn’t about that? So I hope to have found a kind of literary analog for those things.
Rail: I really enjoyed the threads that wound through the narrative sections. Occasionally it felt like I had discovered something in a sort of coded referral back or forward to something else.
Davies: I hope it’s fun for readers to spot. The feeling that we have as a writer—those moments of inspiration where a couple of things come together and we can see something—I think the readerly analog of that, the readerly equivalent of that, is that since I’m making a connection to something that happens in one part of the book to something that happens in another part of the book, even if there’s not an underlying through-line between one place and the other, it’s allowing the reader to make connections. So in the same way I think of writerly inspiration as moments of connections for us. So we’re sharing some of the excitement of that.
Rail: In the opening of the book, it’s clear that Ah Ling is an outsider even among Chinese, because his mother’s family is Tanka and his father is European, and in the U.S. he is Crocker’s valet in “American clothes” with no queue. Can you talk a little bit about how Ah Ling is an outsider, and why this is important to the story?
Davies: Some of that is again, I’m sure, drawing from my own experiences. The sense of being mixed-race. And Ling is both an outsider to Chinese culture but also Eurasian, essentially. So he and I share some of those characteristics. I’m half Welsh, half Chinese, so The Welsh Girl represents a book where I’m trying to explore my Welsh heritage, my connection to Welshness. It doesn’t mean that I’m an expert in Welshness, but I wrote the book partly to try and understand Welshness for myself and to think about my place in the world. So, an early emphasis for The Fortunes is an effort to say, well, okay, I’ve done the Welsh thing, I should do the Chinese thing.
I feel similarly uncertain about my relationship to Chineseness, but I’m going to write the book to explore that in various ways. But really the experience, the subject of exploration, is Chinese Americans, and I think that’s probably informed not just by my half-Chineseness, but by the fact that I’ve now lived half my life in the U.S. as well. When we think about Chinese-Americanness, it’s very easy to say that that phrase itself, and any so-called hyphenated Americanness, feels like it’s about a duality. A lot of people in those situations feel a pull to choose one side or the other of that equation. We feel an anxiety that if we choose one side or the other side we’re criticized as disloyal. So if we assimilate too much, maybe an earlier generation will consider us to be inauthentic. If we don’t assimilate, there are difficulties and problems in that regard as well. So it feels as though that duality implies a choice. A lot of the characters are struggling with that. Ling is struggling with some aspects of that question. Does he align himself with the Chinese workers on the railroad? Or does he align himself with Charles Crocker, who is a kind of pseudo white father figure for him, a substitute for the white father that he’s never known, given his Eurasian background? There’s a loyalty test.
But even Anna May, who’s full-blooded Chinese, experiences that. When she represents the Chinese on screen, is she representing them to Americans, or is she representing them to Chinese? When she goes to China, she is in a sense rejected because the representation she offers of Chinese on screen is objected to by Chinese people. She’s playing Orientalized roles: the Butterfly, the Dragon Lady. Chinese people seeing them on screen resist that—I think rightly. She’s a representative that they resist—purportedly representing them, not to them, but to the other, to the American audience. This is a very complicated place. She’s caught in between. And I think neither of these places is home. She’s born in Los Angeles. She takes a trip to her putative homeland that she’s never set foot in before, in the context of going back to China, on the trip that is described in that section of the book. So it felt to me like a lot of the characters were in these transitional spaces. They were caught between different cultures. Even Vincent Chin in some ways is a—at least as depicted in this section—a pretty Americanized Chinese-American in some ways, more so than the narrator of that section, who I think is a little bit more Chinese and sort of envies Vincent for his assimilation, in some ways, for his Americanized qualities. So I realized that I was not writing about Chineseness, not writing about Americanness. I was writing about both of these things: Chinese-Americanness. I was, in a sense, writing about the hyphen between those two words. Ultimately, when I think about that myself, it feels as though the argument I want to make—and maybe I’d like to think the book makes—is that it is not a choice, it is not either/or, it is both. It doesn’t have to be one way or the other. There’s a third way to think about it in these regards as well. And that authenticity is not about being very Chinese, or about being very American, it’s about being ourselves, and that self is something in the middle, and it’s possible that people on either side of that choice can’t criticize. Maybe we need to have faith in the space in between those places and forge it for ourselves in various ways. And the characters are sometimes successfully, sometimes unsuccessfully, sometimes hesitantly, sometimes more full-throatedly, trying to find that middle ground where they can stand. What is their ground? Rather than being pushed or pulled from one side to the other. What is their ground that they can stand on? And I think that was something I was working through myself as I was working on the book.
Rail: Another struggle for these characters is to make the journey of this experience alone. There’s an undercurrent of loneliness. It’s sad in some ways, that Ling is very alone, and Anna May Wong is very alone.
Davies: Yeah, I think these characters are feeling that. That feeling of “I don’t know what my identity is” or “I feel caught and suspended and trapped between two choices”—you don’t feel that unless you feel alone. If you feel that around you there are lots of people like you, then you feel part of something. If you feel, those people are half like me, and those people are half like me, but none of them are all like me, then you feel torn between them. So it’s that feeling, that these characters are in search of a community, sometimes in search of a family. That’s one of the things that goes on in this space. They’re often journeying towards family or, in some instances, away from family.
Rail: There’s a sense that Ling is always searching for a father. And it would seem that one of the through-lines of Part I is his journey in parallel with Little Sister (who is not his sister), as they each search for community, or family, with whom to belong.
Davies: Arguably one of the cases that Little Sister makes to him is that his search for a father may be a misguided one. She says at one point, you think a lot about fathers, maybe you should think more about mothers. It’s an effort to suggest, particularly in that period and it continues, certainly, throughout parts of the book, that the female role, the female perspective, is sometimes devalued in the culture. Women are overlooked. We tend not to think about the importance of their role. So in some ways I think of the female characters in the book as the strongest, although it’s not always apparent to the male characters that the women who are around them are the strongest ones and maybe the ones they should be tethered to more. So Ling is searching for a father, but there is a subterranean sense that he’s also searching for a mother, or some female figure he can attach to, connect to.
Rail: The form of Part II is in very short, named chapters, which are a few pages each, or less in many cases. Anna May Wong becomes more human as the narrator allows us access to her emotions, such as in tender, playful moments with the character named Newsreel. In public readings, you have read from this part of the book. What effect did you intend in this section?
Davies: I think of those short sections as filmmaking almost; they feel like scenes. Others have talked about the subtitles as feeling a little like the inter-titles in a silent movie, which I like as an idea but I hadn’t explicitly thought about in those terms. I sort of see them as scenes fading in and out. So it’s like a biopic, but in the same way that movies are not always shot sequentially, it’s not always often sequential. And it felt as though as I was reading—and I read several biographies about her—that there were these wonderful moments, and I wanted to explore those moments and really drop into them.
Rail: You’re especially interested in Anna May Wong’s trip to China. I find this section to be quite vivid. Despite the short-chapter form, you manage to give us what feels like a sweeping, full-life account of this Chinese American film star, with special emphasis on her year-long tour of China in 1936. Her trip to China was in response to the casting discrimination of a leading role, the Chinese character O-Lan in the film version of The Good Earth, which went to actress Luise Rainer. What resonates for you in her decision to go to China as an act of protest?
Davies: What resonates is a personal terror, a personal fear. It’s a fear of a lot of overseas Chinese, diaspora of Chinese, that you return to the homeland and are rejected. You return to China, and are found wanting. You are found not Chinese enough. You are found too—in Anna May’s case—to have even shamed China in some ways. That is a deep fear. That is a deep anxiety. Because what it’s basically saying is that in the West you are seen as Chinese, you go to the place where all the Chinese people are, which you purportedly represent, where people in the West see you as coming from, and that place says you’re not really there, you’re not authentic. So even the thing you are rejected for—or in Anna May’s case, celebrated for in orientalist ways—you go back to that other place, and they say no, they call bullshit on your identity. So then what are you? You are suspended between these two places and you have no sense for who you might be in various ways other than—and she grapples with this—the sense of being a fake: who are you? And I think she suffers a real disorientation in this regards. And I think a lot of us do. I think there’s that feeling of there’s somebody and someplace more authentic than you that can call into doubt your own sense of your identity. That is a disquieting place to be. And I think a lot of immigrants have this sense of being suspended between the places or the heritages or the cultures that we have come from, and the place that we have arrived into, and are moving into. We are caught between those two places and neither of those places see us as fully authentic, fully belonging.
Rail: Could you talk a little about the character Newsreel, the cameraman who goes with her everywhere in China?
Davies: This figure of Newsreel is a real figure. He’s a famous newsreel photographer cameraman, and in still photography, of the era. He’s very famous in fact, for he took a photograph of a baby in the ruins of the Shanghai railroad after the bombing by the Japanese, a few years after this point [in the Anna May section of the book], that I think at one point was the most reproduced photograph in the world. And Time Magazine used it. It’s thought of as one of the images that swung American sympathy behind the Chinese in the war.
There’s a moment he’s referred to late on as photographing Madame Chiang Kai-Shek. I have the photograph of him photographing her. You can find that on the web. So there are moments like that. But largely I should say I fictionalized him. So he’s a real figure, but because he’s a little less well-known, I had more latitude to fictionalize him. So the relationship with Anna May that crops up, all of his lines, all that stuff, even the way he looks—those things are largely fictionalized. But I like the idea at least of a figure who partly existed, in these regards.
Rail: Say a bit more about fictionalizing real figures?
Davies: There’s this interesting space in which Newsreel is real and he’s fictional. And the same is true for Anna May. She’s real and I fictionalized her. I might even argue that the space, even though she’s a very well documented character, the space between her reality and her fictional image is a pretty blurry one, because of course a lot of what we know that’s documented about her, some of it was written by her, some of it was obviously said by her in interviews. And I decided that things that she wrote for magazines, or interviews she gave to promote her movies, were not necessarily to be relied upon. When she’s offering appropriate lines, she’s publicizing herself, she’s publicizing her movies. It felt as though I could take all of that stuff with a pinch of salt. They didn’t necessarily have to represent how she really thought or felt, at least throughout her life. Any more than a celebrity puff piece or profile that we might read in a tabloid magazine necessarily represents the truth today in various instances. So there was a lot of latitude in those regards. But I’d argue that all the characters in some form or other represent an amalgam of fact and fiction. It’s even true with John. He’s sort of me and he’s sort of not me. I share some details of his biography, but many I definitely don’t.
And I like that quality that they are neither one thing nor the other. They are based on fact. They’re also heavily fictionalized. The reader can think a little bit about where one thing ends and the other thing begins. Or whether they’re pretty seamlessly woven together, so that I can barely remember in some instances what I made up and what is research-based. And I think that that, too, is a kind of analog for this question of duality. Chinese-American. Pick one. Or do you think about the hybrid. It’s both. It’s not fact. It’s not fiction. It’s both. And we might even extend that to the formal space. Is it a novel, at its formal level? Is it a novella? Is it a collection of novellas? I’d like to think it’s both, that its hybrid form always seeks to go back to the central idea of hybridization of identity in various ways. And so the formal choices in the text, the material choices in the text, reflect the dilemmas that the characters are working through in this regard.
Rail: Does Anna May’s dream, in the chapter named Face, in some ways speak to that? It’s a dream, or nightmare, of a reflective surface mounted to her face. This line is wonderful: “When people come up and stare, all they see are their own faces shining back.”
Davies: It’s playing with a lot of things. It’s playing with an issue that I’ve thought about being partly at work, the kind of collision between what I think of as a Western concept of fame and an Asian concept of face, and we’re embodying that in this particular regard. There is a famous statue of her in Hollywood. Her and three other famous silent actresses. And they are all chrome figures. So they are shiny, reflective, so a little of this is drawn from that image. There’s also, of course, a trace of what do we see in another person. Do we see them? Do we see what they choose to reflect? Do we see what we choose to see? Some of that also speaks to a kind of Orientalism that I think she is very prone to, or very prone to being subject to in various ways. So a lot of things are floating around in that imagery.
In a broader sense—and again even this felt as though it was a question of national identities, sorting them out, as I was thinking about The Welsh Girl—we impose our identities from two things. And again they can seem oppositional. There is the way I think of myself, and there is the way that I am perceived by others. And those two things do not always connect. We are often trying to negotiate the space between the self image and the image that is either seen by others or projected. Sometimes we have agency in that projection, sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we disguise ourselves. Sometimes we try to represent ourselves truthfully and still have it misapprehended in various ways. We’re always negotiating that question. I think there’s a tendency to think that there’s a kind of inauthenticity if the interior self is not reflected fully by the exterior self. We talk about this with all kinds of figures. We talk about this with political figures. Their authenticity. Who are they really like? What’s the real Hillary Clinton? What’s the real Donald Trump? What’s the real America? We’re always thinking about those kind of things. But maybe we should open our minds and think that people can be more than one thing. I think many of us—I think this is true not just for people of mixed race or immigrants or hyphenated Americans—struggle with the space between what we think of as a genuine internal self and an exterior self that is perceived differently. I’m not sure that’s an inconsistency. It can be construed as an inconsistency, a frustration, a hypocrisy. I think most of us are composed of multiple selves, and that they all have validity, and they all have some kind of truth. And that we tie ourselves into anguished knots thinking about the inconsistency—which of course Emerson said is the hobgoblin of small minds—and maybe we should embrace the diversity.
So we’re talking about questions of code switching. We understand that the self that we are in some contexts is not the self that we are in other contexts. Doesn’t mean that they’re not both selves that we can own. And I think I would argue that writers especially have the privilege of being conscious of this, and ought to be conscious of this. The writer we are at our desks, alone, composing, is not the person we are with family, or with friends. It’s not the person I am even when I’m teaching a group of writers in a classroom necessarily. It’s not even the self I am when I’m talking about the book now. There are different modes of presentation. There are different selves.
And I think that we can own all of those selves. We shouldn’t necessarily feel that one is more or less authentic than another. The characters talk a little bit about this in the book. John’s mother in the final section talks a little bit about the idea of face—as she construes it, and of course it’s a reduction in some ways—that in Chinese culture we’re interested in the external, interested in how one represents oneself. We’re interested in the public face, in certain senses, in doing the right thing, the formal thing. And that in the west we like to value the inner self, the true self. We like to think of that as the true self. And again I build a case for both of these things. Not one over the other. But both of them. And they’re actually interrelated, but they don’t have to be the same.
Rail: Part III of The Fortunes concerns the shocking, real-life event, profoundly disturbing, in which a young Chinese man Vincent Chin was murdered in 1982 by two white automotive workers, beaten to death with a baseball bat. For this murder the two men were sentenced to two years probation, a small fine, and no jail time. What were some of the challenges you faced in writing this part of the book?
Davies: The Vincent section was the last written. Not the last presented in the book, because the book moves through these sections relatively chronologically. It was the last written. I felt intuitively the book needed it.
I remember the Vincent Chin case. I remember it as a young man. I must’ve been in high school, in Britain. I remember it being reported there, and it feeling almost as—one of these characters actually talks about it—as an urban legend. This man chased with a baseball bat. A Chinese man mistaken for a Japanese, by an autoworker. I was growing up in a town called Coventry. It’s in the heart of the Midlands, which is roughly the geographical equivalent of the Midwest, I suppose. It also bears resemblances to this area because there’s a big car manufacturer. So Birmingham, the large city that’s near where I was, would be the rough equivalent to Detroit in some ways. And Coventry, though I’m not sure I would necessarily say is the equivalent of Flint, but it was the equivalent of one of those other sizable car manufacturing cities in the orbit of a Detroit-like city. And I can remember in that period, too, the British car industry being beset by the arrival of cheaper imports and a certain amount of racial tension associated with that. So the Vincent Chin story meant something to me all those years ago as a child even as far away as I was.
There was that memory of it and it felt like some kind of emotional connection when I thought of the story. And then of course now I live in Ann Arbor, a thirty-minute drive away from Detroit, so it felt like a local story as well. And so for those personal reasons I felt very connected to the story. I felt as though I wanted to grapple directly with the ultimate consequence of discrimination, which in this case is death. When somebody is pursued and hounded to death. It felt as though that was part of the narrative. We had to look at ultimate consequences for some of the misapprehensions going on. Racism is an ongoing issue in the context of the text, and I wanted to grapple more directly with it.
Rail: Why first person for this Vincent Chin section?
Davies: Some of the formal choices in the book—and this goes back to the vignette structure of the Anna May section as well—again harking back to a kind of short story collection aesthetic, I’m interested in short story collections where each story does not operate on the same terms. It does not operate in the same style, doesn’t share the same voice or perspective. So just as the Anna May section is a formal departure from some of the other sections, I realized that I had written a number of the sections in third person, and it felt useful and interesting, to engage in first person. I like the first person choice though, for the Vincent Chin section is told from the point of view of a witness. It’s told from the point of view of somebody who’s with Vincent on the night that he is killed. And I like the idea of witness, the idea of testimony. Because of course those features in the case. While the section is about Vincent’s very brutal death, it’s also about the court proceedings that follow: the initial verdict where the assailants are convicted of manslaughter but given, you know, almost insultingly small fines—I think it’s three thousand dollars at the time—but also the mobilization that that injustice caused in the Asian-American community. The pressure to get a retrial ends up being a federal retrial on hate crime statutes, and testimony of some of those friends and witnesses, that you can actually read online. I’ve done that. Some of them are reenacted even now as model trial cases at law schools around the country, and I’ve seen videos of some of those model trials, so the idea of bearing witness, of giving testimony felt important, especially because in the case that testimony is called into question. So that’s one of the legal challenges going on is, well, what are you saying, who said that, who saw that, when did you decide you’d seen that. So some questions in those regards. So I think it probably comes out of that research that I was very interested in the idea of first person witnessing, first person testimony.
Rail: In some ways the Vincent Chin story feels contemporary even though it happened in the ’80s.
Davies: Dismayingly so. Almost more and more daily as we progress through our current election cycle, sadly. In the Vincent Chin killing, supposedly one of the things that really set him off was being called a motherfucker by the man who attacked him, and he responded violently to that, so the fight starts in part not just over racial slurs. One of the witnesses testifies that that particular word is a very charged word for somebody Asian to hear. It also sort of flies in the face of a kind of “I feel respect” that the Chinese are brought up with in various ways. So that word felt powerful and felt charged. An early epigraph of the book was actually a quote from Donald Trump, as a matter of fact. This is from a speech he gave before the current election cycle, where he called the Chinese motherfuckers for trade practices. And it just seemed like an echo that incendiary language sadly is becoming more and more normalized in the culture, floating around in the present as much as the past. Ironically I took that epigraph off because I thought, well, he’s never going to be around, that’s going to become a dated reference very fast. And that’s sadly still somewhat current, alas.
Rail: We’ve talked about characters representing an amalgam of fact and fiction. You gave the two killers names that are similar to their real names: Evans instead of Ebens, Pitts instead of Nitz. Could you talk about fact versus fiction in terms of this section, the Vincent Chin case?
Davies: Of Vincent himself, his mother Lily Chin, who was a great campaigner for him, and his fiancée Vicky, I kept the names because they feel very much part of the record. But I wanted some latitude to fictionalize the other characters. And that’s also true for the other witnesses, the friends who were with him. I wanted room for all of those other characters. So earlier a relatively small number of the characters have their real names, and that extended to the killers as well. So readers are able to find these things, of course, if they Google the case. But I was interested in exploring those characters as fictional figures as well. And so for instance, the three friends Vincent was with that night all exist, and make testimony; some of them are featured in documentaries. Two of those friends are white. One of them was Asian. I write from the point of view of an Asian friend who was with him that night, but that character bears no resemblance to the actual man. I don’t give him his name. In fact at one point the name that he claims for himself—yes, he does say his own name is Peter—and in a sense what I’m trying to do is think about what would I have done, were I that friend on that night. And I’m very much imagining my own situation in that regard. But there are certainly aspects of my characters’ life that are very distinct from what little I know, in fact, of the circumstances of the actual person’s life. And I wanted to create that space, that clear water, between this figure who’s not chosen to be a kind of public figure and a fictional creation that I could animate in various ways.
Rail: In the scene that ends this section, the narrator, Vincent’s friend who was there that night, tells a stripper that his name is Vincent. He says, “It just came out in my panic.” Could you say a few words about the emotional trauma this narrator has experienced? Is the phrase near the ending, “We’re all American here,” one of hope?
Davies: I think it’s a small measure of redemption for the character. The character has felt guilt, I think, for his difference between himself and his friend who’s died. He’s suffering from, the character at least is suffering from, a kind of survival guilt. But also I think he’s struggling with that very question of authenticity, of where do we draw the lines. One of these two Chinese men is a little bit more Chinese. One of them is a little bit more American. They’re two Chinese-American men. At least as conceived in the text, one leans a little bit more to the Chinese part of the heritage. One leans a little bit more to the assimilation as part of that, and that’s Vincent, in various ways. And some of that is represented by Vincent’s name: in fact he used to go by Vince. Those kind of questions. So I think in part that character of the narrator is taking on his friend, feeling that connection to him in that moment, which I hope for him there’s a little bit of healing involved in that moment, and maybe there’s a little bit of hope. But it’s an ironic hope! The one place that he can be all-American is the strip club. That feels like a very specific and very localized place, and not one that is maybe of great social utility ultimately. So there’s a kind of irony to that bit of hope as well.
We’re always in this space of balancing the idea of the challenges these characters variously face, and hopefully some sense of the future, maybe of a better future. All of these narrators, all of these figures, at least the first three particularly, they represent certain kinds of threshold moments or threshold lines for Chinese in America, and Chinese-Americans. What comes after them is often more hopeful than what they live through themselves. So there’s a little nod in that direction. Without, at the same time, trying to gainsay the things that they themselves experienced. So there’s this balance between being very dark, and some of these experiences are quite dark, and some sliver of hope that looks into the future because the narratives very much have a temporal structure about looking a little bit further into the future, and you begin to see that temporal spinout at the very end of the final section as well.
Thinking about Vincent and Vincent’s iconic status, this speaks to that question of hope a little bit. When I think of Vincent Chin’s story in the headline writer’s version, it’s a story of a victim. And while he’s certainly that—undoubtedly he’s a victim of a hate crime—the danger of that sense of an Asian-American as a victim speaks of Asian-Americans as passive. And I wanted to suggest they weren’t passive victims. So maybe that note of hope, in some instances, the choice that some of them make, gestures that some of them make, those are nods towards activity as opposed to passivity in various ways.
Rail: I’m guessing that for Parts II (Ann May Wong) and III (Vincent Chin), a tremendous amount of material exists, around which you were able to develop your fiction. How is the work different when you have less to go on? In Part IV, set in present-day China, an American couple has gone to China to adopt. While you were in China, did you interview couples who were adopting?
Davies: I didn’t do that actually, no. I did consult newspapers, interviews, biographies where Anna May is concerned, and accounts of the protest movement around the Vincent Chin case. I also did a lot of research in regard to adoption. There are a lot of memoirs about this, there are a lot of books about this, there are lots of how-to books about it as well, how you go through the process.
So while many families have gone through the adoption experience, I don’t think it’s a particularly well known experience. It still feels like a space where it’s not so well known that one can’t write about it and add to it, or add to the understanding of it. And maybe this is also true about setting it in China. So no, that did not feel like a struggle. There was maybe a mild trepidation about writing about a character who in some regards at least bumps up against my own experience—that trepidation or self-revelation were probably there in certain ways. And momentarily that trepidation of the danger of people thinking that everything about John is the same as me, which is not true. I like to retain my anonymity in these regards. But part of that is about trusting the reader and to say, it’s one thing for you to think this character and I have some similarities, but it’s another thing to think we are exactly the same. That would seem impossible. The whole argument of the book is that representation is kind of impossible. Ling struggles with it, ends up rejecting it. Anna May struggles with it, ends up caught between it. So a reader who would read the final section and think oh yes, this guy John Smith is the same as Peter Ho Davies. While the connection is invited, to think that this guy represents that guy exactly would seem like a misreading of the book as a whole. One would hope that the course of the book has called one to question the very one-to-one mapping of simplistic representations in certain ways. So I feel also the earlier parts of the book are making a case that the last part of the book is hopefully making good on.
In fact my most direct connection—though I tried not to think about this as research, because I didn’t want it to feel like I was prying in a certain sense—was that I’m the godfather of a Chinese adoptee: a friend of mine adopted her daughter from China, many years ago now. Her daughter is grown now, college-age. I can remember talking to her when she was going through that process. And mentally this is going back now ten or fifteen years, or more than fifteen years in fact. We’ve kept in contact. I see them every year or so. And so there’s been something of that connection that’s gone on. There’s some research that’s drawn on that. I hesitate because it’s not based directly on their experience, or my experience of her. My friend and her daughter are not characters in the book in any sense, and their experiences are not recounted in the book. But I think some of the texture of that experience, at least my sense of it, underlies what goes on in that last section.
Rail: Your celebrated short story “Minotaur”—in The Fortunes, is there a Minotaur? Is it John? The Minotaur says, “I’ve been trying to make a new way for myself.”
Davies: [Laughs.] I think that’s true. I was asked to write for a Norton anthology called Mixed: An Anthology of Short Fiction on the Multiracial Experience, and you know it’s difficult for me and many of us to write about race as fiction writers because the temptation is for a kind of seriousness and earnestness which are valid responses to the subject, of course, but they can overwhelm the fiction, they can limit the field of play. And so “Minotaur” was a way of playing with that. So I’m not going to write directly of my experience, but I’m going to write about this particularly problematic and classical mixed race experience, so to speak, of being half bull, half man. And I had some fun updating it in to the present day, and all that kind of stuff. That sense of the maze represents choices. At every moment it’s this way or that way, either or. And the conclusion for the Minotaur character is, I’m going to reject the choice. I’m not going to agree to the choices that are presented, the binaries that are presented to me. I’m going to find a third way, and I think that is a tendency for the book as a whole. But I think John embraces it more directly than some of the others.
Rail: We haven’t yet talked about how well humor works in many scenes throughout The Fortunes. In The Welsh Girl, there are intriguing moments of humor evoked by way of the character Arthur, often while sloshed at the pub. Could you talk about how humor operates in your work?
Davies: You’re right to think about that connection to Arthur. He was a professional comedian in The Welsh Girl, a kind of vaudeville comedian. And there is a certain sense of joke telling that crops up in a number of these narratives, especially in the Vincent Chin narrative, but it’s elsewhere in the text as well. For one, I’m attracted to jokes in the narratives because they are themselves mini-narratives. So a lot of jokes, particularly the cheesy ones that are vaudeville, the cheesy or the sick ones that are told in the Vincent Chin section, some of them have narrative qualities to them, so they’re like mini-stories embedded within the stories.
I think as a writer I like the idea of making readers laugh, and I like the idea of making them cry. And those seem like opposed ideas, but actually I think of them as working in tandem. I often think of laughter, for instance, as a release, and a relief of tension, but we have to have the tension first, so these two things are related to each other. The drama and the humor go hand in hand together. The biggest laughs I can think of are embedded within dramatic material. So there’s nothing less funny to me than going to see a comedy that says, oh and for the next ninety minutes I will make you laugh. Because my feeling about that is, well no you won’t, because where’s the surprise in that? It feels as though that’s just a given. It’s a license to humor. I don’t feel that about standup because maybe there’s a way that standup is such a high wire act. You feel that the standup comedian could just blow it. The joke could be offensive, it could just not make somebody laugh. It feels as though there’s something risk-taking, and tension-filled in one person, alone, on a stage, telling jokes for ninety minutes. You’re slightly scared for the performer, and so you laugh in a kind of relief when they tell jokes that are funny. So I do think those two things go together in various ways.
But I’m also interested in the dangers of humor, in a certain sense—the use of humor to perpetuate racial stereotypes, or have jokes at the expense of somebody else. This goes into a space of name-calling. The book as a whole is very interested in the choice of different names for characters for different sections. And some of that name-calling is about bad jokes, and offensive jokes. But I wanted to reclaim those. To take these jokes and to retell them, to twist them, to say we know you’re telling these jokes. And to reflect upon those a little bit. I think that’s a way of disarming those jokes. To own them. And it lets us say what shitty jokes they are. The joke means something differently when somebody else tells it, right? Racist jokes about the Chinese sound differently when a Chinese character is telling them. You laugh, if at all, uneasily. I think they become disarmed. And in fact even better than that—I think they get turned back on the teller, and the motives of the teller, particularly if the motives of the teller are racist in various ways. So there’s a kind of judo move here. We’re turning the strength, the power of that back upon the tellers of those jokes.
Peter Ho Davies on his book tour for The Fortunes will appear at the Asian American Writers Workshop at 112 West 27th Street in Manhattan on Monday, September 12. Find out more about Peter Ho Davies and his books at his website peterhodavies.com.
CHRISTOPHER SHADE is an editor at Epiphany literary journal, and a member of The National Book Critics Circle (NBCC). His reviews have appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, American Book Review, Southern Literary Review, New Orleans Review, Saint Ann’s Review, and elsewhere.