Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Wednesday, August 24, 2016: Max Shelf Issue: The Fortunes


Houghton Mifflin: The Fortunes by Peter Ho Davies

Houghton Mifflin: The Fortunes by Peter Ho Davies Houghton Mifflin: The Fortunes by Peter Ho Davies Houghton Mifflin: The Welsh Girl by Peter Ho Davies

The Fortunes

by Peter Ho Davies

The protagonists in Peter Ho Davies's The Fortunes are both bystanders and symbols, forced by circumstance of their ethnicity to become footnotes in history; ironically, by being footnotes they also come to represent the Chinese American experience as a whole. Davies takes these disparate, sometimes desperate, people and weaves them into a meditation on identity, how one's self-image battles with the presumptions of the world. It's a powerful novel that unflinchingly examines both the degrading lives of immigrants in the 1800s and the identity crises of modern mixed-race families. Throughout it all, Davies remains sympathetic to his heroes--although they have been all but lost in the flow of history, a deft hand can still pull them into prominence.

Separated into four sections, the book begins with Ling, manservant to the Transcontinental Railroad's owner, who was born in China but sold into indentured servitude in America. He inadvertently instigates the railway's hiring of Chinese workers, and is present when they strike for the same pay as their white counterparts. But The Fortunes never zooms out, instead continuing with Ling as he grapples with what it means to work for a man who treats his countrymen so callously. The history comes out in the specifics, as Davies fleshes out the larger struggle Chinese workers faced against racism, aggression and the sheer danger of the work. Although Ling was a real person, little is known about him, so Davies's rendering is almost entirely fictitious. Throughout The Fortunes, Davies plays with the line between historical narrative and personal, between the fictions we tell the world and those we tell ourselves.

Flirting with truth and fiction is more pronounced in the subsequent sections. Davies turns to Anna May Wong, the earliest Chinese American movie star, as she travels to China for the first time. Anna May's story shows the crippling sexism, ignorance and, of course, racism that pervaded Hollywood. Unlike Ling, who becomes a symbol for his countrymen inadvertently, Anna May fights for the spotlight. She's well aware of the mantle she takes on as a starlet, even as it begins to crush her. Her trip to China, a country she's never seen, only underscores her precarious position as both symbol and person. Late in her career, she was passed up for a role in the movie The Good Earth for being  "too Chinese," a plight that runs through her portion of The Fortunes. Davies is adroit in his portrayal, showing how whites define the rules of engagement when it comes to race. Born in America but somehow too Chinese, Anna May never manages to find a middle ground that works.

The Fortunes takes its discussion of symbol one step further with the murder of Vincent Chin, and the organizing among Asian Americans that came in its wake. Beaten to death by two white men, Detroit-born Vincent Chin becomes a martyr for the cause of Asian American equality. Vincent himself turns out to be a bit of a jerk, but Davies probes the middle ground between who he actually was and the personification of racism he turned into after his death. The narrator of this section, a friend of his and witness to the murder, struggles with the discrepancy between Vincent the man and Vincent the rallying cry. As with all parts of the book, Davies is less interested in Chin himself, focusing instead on how Chin became something more after his death, when members of the Chinese American community joined up with other groups to demand that his murder be considered a hate crime (thereby expanding the notion of hate crime).

These various threads of history come together in the final part, where John Smith, a mixed-race academic who bears more than a few similarities to Davies himself, travels with his wife to China to adopt a baby. In a sense, everything becomes reversed: a man born of Chinese migration comes back to the source of that migration in order to continue it. The irony is not lost on Smith, who is constantly mistaken as some sort of arbiter of Chinese culture by his fellow prospective adoptive parents.

Smith is aware of Ling, Anna May and Vincent. Indeed, he plans to write a book about them. But he has yet to settle on his own identity, both other and American (which of course is other in China), forced to take on the role of expert when in fact he knows less about China than some of the other travelers. He is obliged to be more than a tourist, much like Anna May in her visit  "home."

It would be a failure if Davies ended this fourth section with any real conclusions. His point is not really to make a point at all, but to portray the haziness of identity as larger forces of culture, technology and capital constantly thrust new personas on all of us, Chinese American or not. The brilliance of The Fortunes is not that it expertly dissects Chinese American-ness--or American-ness, for that matter. Davies has conjured a book that forces its readers to find the pressures they face in their own lives, to see how the struggle of self-identity and one's place in the world is alive in each and every one of us. --Noah Cruickshank

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $27, hardcover, 288p., 9780544263703

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Peter Ho Davies: Exploring Identities at the Margins

photo: Dane Hillard Photography

Peter Ho Davies is the author of two novels, The Fortunes and The Welsh Girl (longlisted for the Man Booker Prize), and two story collections, The Ugliest House in the World (winner of the John Llewelyn Rhys Prize) and Equal Love (a New York Times Notable Book). Born in Britain to Welsh and Chinese parents, he now makes his home in the U.S. He has taught at the University of Oregon and Emory University, and is currently on the faculty of the Helen Zell MFA Program in Creative Writing at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Davies is a recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, and is a winner of the PEN/Malamud Award. The Fortunes will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on September 6, 2016.

Why did you choose to write about these particular people?

Vincent Chin was someone I was particularly interested in writing about because I live so near to Detroit. I don't often write about places that are close to home.

But I also feel, certainly with the first three characters, they stand for particular moments in Chinese American, and to some degree Asian American, history. Obviously Ling on the railroad. He's only mentioned really briefly in certain biographies. You almost feel he's a slightly apocryphal figure. But he does play a pivotal role in the turning of Chinese immigration.

Anna May Wong is an Chinese American actress at that wartime moment when we're about to get rid of the Exclusion Act, China is about to become an ally, the status of Chinese Americans in the U.S. is going to change legally. That era seems interesting and pivotal as well.

There had certainly been an Asian American movement before Vincent Chin's attack, but it was a moment when that movement found a voice.

I can make that historical argument in various ways. But you're asking me about what draws me personally to those characters, and they are characters. Beyond a socio-political interest, as a novelist you want to be drawn to them as individuals so you can empathize and imagine them and their lives, channel them in some way. I think what all three of them have in common (and with John Smith, the fourth figure in the book) is that they all grapple with the role of being a representative, with what the burden of that is, to be the one who stands for the many.

It seems like if you are a minority, you end up, in certain circumstances, representing the whole, whether you like it or not, by the sheer fact of your otherness.

Yes. That role of representation can be thrust upon minority individuals. This varies of course from experience to experience. For someone who grows up in a large Chinese community in San Francisco or New York, those burdens are different from the way I felt, growing up in Britain half-Welsh, half-Chinese.

So to that question of whether you represent something else to the other, you're also thinking, "actually, what the hell do I represent?" I think about Chinese-Welsh-ness. I don't know what the model for that is. So you're trying to construct it as you go along. And I think there's a way for the Chinese American figures in the narrative. They're kind of inventing "Chinese American" as well. I'm not saying they ought to do it, or even that they're the best placed ones to do it, but it's thrust on them. They have to try to figure out--not just "I'm the representative of something," but "just what exactly is it that I represent?"

The fourth section, with John Smith, seems to be the culmination of that, with a bit of autobiography. The narrator is Chinese American and an academic.

He's not me, but every character has flecks of the self embedded in them, and he has a few more than some of the others. It's a totally legitimate thing for readers to think or wonder about. And he does bring the previous narratives closer to my own circumstances, and closer to home. I felt like it was honest to do that. If all these other figures are grappling with the burden of representation, this is acknowledging, particularly in that last section, that I'm grappling as a novelist with the burden representation as well.

Your novel often uses the specific to explain the universal, so that people who are not Asian American can understand this pull between cultures, and the uneasy middle ground between competing identities.

I'm glad to hear that aspects of the book speak to universal experience. Because I would argue that more and more of us are in hybridized identities, and we are picking and choosing from a number of different spaces, rather than having to pick between certain things. But I suppose, in a strange way, even the Asian American experience leans into that a little bit.

I find myself talking about both the Chinese American experience in the context of the novel but also the Asian American experience. One of the things the book is interested in doing is moving from the Chinese in America to Chinese American, then to making common cause as Asian Americans with other groups. It's one of the threshold moments with the Vincent Chin case. And even though I think the term Asian American can blur or obscure important cultural differences between the Chinese and the Japanese, Koreans, what have you, there is also a recognition in that catchall that all those groups are struggling with a sense of mixed identity, hybrid identity, immigrant identity. And in a way that's a step into that more universal space. The Chinese Americans are making common cause with the Japanese Americans. They have differences, but they also have things that draw them together.

The Fortunes is partly about my own anxieties about my relationship to Chinese-ness and my exploration of my place in that.

In the fourth section, John Smith goes to China, and at one point he considers the Chinese people he's met and thinks, "I probably know more about these people's history than they do." It seems like you also use the setting, and narrative itself, to make these points about dualities and hybridized identities.

I've often thought about national identities being as least as prone to these kinds of division and dualities as individual identities. I remember thinking about this in the context of writing about Wales in The Welsh Girl. There's a sense that a nation, particularly a nation like Wales, defines itself against the other. Especially, in Welsh history, against the English: "We are against them. What they are is what we're not." That kind of definition is external.

But with the Welsh language, because it's a language only shared by the Welsh, and the groups who speak it are getting smaller and smaller; it's something we share amongst ourselves. So there's an odd way that the self I am is the self that is perceived externally by others. And then there is that sense of the self that is internal, who I think I am in various ways. The tension between those two is always an interesting space to be in. I think that's true for Wales. I think that's true for me. I think that's true for the Chinese space as well.

I know I feel a deep anxiety about authenticity, particularly in regard to Chinese-ness but also in regard to Welsh-ness. I think that question of authenticity flows into what we think of Chinese-ness. "Is this Chinese food authentic?" is a question we ask at restaurants. It's deeply embedded.

Historically, foreign Chinese have been looked down upon by mainland Chinese in various ways, with a feeling that foreign Chinese are "less authentic." But in a significant political sense, overseas Chinese have better access to the recent history of China than people living in the country. That pushes and changes the energy, turns it on its head, when you ask, "What is authentic?" That's a kind of liberation, at least for that character and for myself, thinking about the way that those who have immigrated feel as though they have less claim to authenticity than those who have lived there. --Noah Cruickshank


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