Essays    Reportage    Marginalia    Interviews    Poetry    Fiction    Videos    Everything   
Peter Ho Davies: Occupying the Space Between

The author of The Fortunes talks about immigrant survival, our multiple selves, and who tells and receives the Chinese-American story

By Lillian Li
September 12, 2016

Peter Ho Davies’s second novel The Fortunes might not even be, strictly speaking, a novel. This sprawling re-telling of American history through the Chinese immigrant imagination is split into four novella-length sections (“Gold,” “Silver,” “Jade,” and “Pearl”) that appear at first to have little in common. In “Gold,” we follow Ah Ling, a Chinese manservant, who, in a fit of pride, becomes the reason thousands of his countrymen are hired to work on the Transcontinental Railroad. “Silver” fast-forwards us to the 1920s and into the travels and travails of Anna May Wong, the first Chinese-American movie star, who goes on a press tour through China after being passed over for her dream role. We see the murder of Vincent Chin in “Jade,” through the eyes of his friend Peter, whose own survival haunts him as doggedly as the death that united Asian America. And we end with “Pearl,” a story of present-day America, which returns us to China, as John Ling Smith and his wife prepare to meet the Chinese baby they’ve adopted. Yet in spite—or rather, because—of its splintered nature, the novel provides the type of chaotic cohesion reminiscent of a family myth that’s been handed down through generations. With fractal strength, the knitted web of these sections unexpectedly and undeniably provides a picture of Chinese America that is at once new and familiar.

Davies dwells comfortably in the place between categories. He is the author of two story collections, The Ugliest House in the World and Equal Love, and one novel, The Welsh Girl, which was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. He lives in Ann Arbor, where he teaches fiction at the Helen Zell Writers’ Program, and for our interview he welcomed me into his home for the second time. The first time was at the start of my second year in the Writers’ Program, at the MFA Welcome Picnic held in his backyard. No longer crammed with other MFA students and faculty, the living room was open and full of light. A large spotted housecat, which Davies addressed playfully as Cat, perched on top of his owner’s chair (technically Cat’s chair when visitors aren’t encroaching). I was chivalrously given the sofa, the leg of which I remember crouching against with a plate of cheese just two years earlier. From my vantage point, cat at his shoulder, reclining in a high back chair, Davies struck what would have been a perfectly charming portrait of an author.

Lillian Li: What led you to write The Fortunes?

Peter Ho Davies: After I’d written The Welsh Girl it felt like I’d addressed only half my heritage. I’m half Welsh and I’m half Chinese, and The Welsh Girl was an effort to try and understand that part of my family. Where, if at all, I fit into “Welshness,” what it even was, and how I related to it. Having done that, it seemed logical that the next book would explore the other side of my identity. A question that often comes up is that this new novel seems like a real departure from my previous book. You’ve got this Welsh thing, now you’ve got this Chinese thing. It can seem like a break, but I see it as a continuum. The books represent these two distinct parts of my background, but for me, they feel like a whole.

I’m interested in this perceived break between your two novels being, in reality, a continuum. Because one can also view The Fortunes as being broken into its four parts. So where was the continuum there for you?

In some ways, The Fortunes feels like a multigenerational novel, even as it’s written about a community—the Chinese in America—for whom the generational bonds are often broken, whether you’re thinking of the very male “bachelor society” of the Gold Rush era, or the adopted baby girls of our own time. As you and I both know, the Chinese value family above all, so it might seem odd to think of these same people suddenly in fragmented families when the natural way to think of Chinese characters is to have them embedded in large families. The structure for The Fortunes came from this observation: here’s all these generations of Chinese in America, but they aren’t all linked by blood, so what are they linked by? I thought at one point that maybe I could make Anna May Wong descended from someone on the railroad, or one of the other earlier characters, and I probably could have, in some bullshit way, but I didn’t want to fake that because it felt like it spit in the face of what is so poignant about the Chinese American community and their experience. This is a community that’s persevered even without this easy line of descent, and so in place of these lines of descent in the novel I put in various echoes of language and imagery and experience to reflect the ties between the generations.

And even Anna May’s father owning a laundry is historically tied in a way that feels very familial. He wouldn’t be in that profession without Ah Ling’s generation.

Right, those affinities, rather than blood ties, make the community. We feel descended from those “ancestors,” even if not by blood. So the novel’s structure both recognizes this generational fragmentation but also I hope suggests other ways of bonding and connecting the generations.

Speaking of blood, with at least two of your sections, “Gold” and “Jade,” borrowing from a time or an event in which your reader expects a certain level of violence and cruelty, violence and cruelty that would be historically accurate, was this expectation something you tried to satisfy or subvert?

Well, with “Gold,” set in the 1860s, there are a few ways to think about violence against Chinese in that era, ranging from the sadly widespread “casual” acts of everyday prejudice, to more organized mob assaults, and not forgetting the sheer physical danger of the work on the railroad. Historically, the most brutal anti-Chinese violence comes after the completion of the Transcontinental. It’s when these men who worked on the railroad spread out and tried to find other jobs—competing ironically with whites who had come west on the very railroad the Chinese had helped build—that a lot of the bloodiest strife came about: the “Chinese Must Go” movement, the Sandlot Riots, the Rock Springs massacre… that violence intensified shortly after the period I’m writing about comes to an end.

As for the violent risks of the labor itself, the number of casualties especially, there’s some uncertainty. There is a contemporary newspaper report of a train-car loaded with bones, the remains of Chinese workers on the line, being shipped back to China for burial, and that may be representative of thousands of deaths. But it’s an isolated report. Accounts of accident and injury on the line number in the hundreds, rather than in the thousands—which is bad enough! The truth likely lies in between, and regardless there’s no question that the work was itself brutally hard.

Still, the way I wanted to approach the Chinese workers was that I didn’t want to think of them only as victims. They were victimized to be sure, but I feared that concentrating on that story too narrowly might play into the cultural stereotype of Chinese and Chinese Americans as being passive. One of the things that’s so attractive to me about the Ah Ling section is that when he first encounters those men on the railroad, they’re striking, they’re being defiant, and even though the strike is unsuccessful, they’re empowered no matter how briefly.

Writing about Vincent Chin in “Jade,” of course, there’s no avoiding the violence of his assault. You couldn’t write about that subject without addressing the violence of it head-on.

And yet you’ve chosen not to write from the perspective of Vincent, which would have made that violence so much more visceral to the reader. Instead you’ve put us at a distance, given us the perspective of the survivor of that crime, Vincent’s friend.

We as a Chinese American community, we are the survivors. That’s why I identity with that narrator. But I was also interested in the ways that Vincent’s lack of passivity in a tragic sense may have lead to his death. He didn’t start the name calling, but he may have started the fight, he refused to back down or run away, he was acting ironically and poignantly very much like our understanding of a typical American male, because that was how he likely saw himself.

Right, and as you write in your novel, there’s a chance that Vincent would even disapprove of the way he was portrayed after his death. You write, “Were we a minority, or were we honorary members of the majority? I reckon I know what Vincent would have chosen… But to get justice for him, we chose the other.” Throughout the novel, in fact, I heard the question, “Who gets to tell the Chinese-American story?” There’s the propaganda from the newspapers in the “Gold” section telling stories of the Chinese scaling smooth rock-face in woven basket. And in “Silver,” Luise Rainer is cast as O-Lan in The Good Earth, over Anna May Wong. These stories are all, in some way, glossing over the reality of the stories’ subjects. So who tells the Chinese-American story?

I’m interested, in fact, both in who’s telling it and who’s receiving it. Identity seems to me to be made up of a couple of things. There’s the way I see myself and the way in which I’m perceived by others. Both pull on us and we struggle to reconcile them. What writing this book clarified for me, personally, was that I’ve spent a lot of my life caught between identities—Welsh, Chinese—complicated by spending half my life in America, and the fact that I wasn’t even brought up in Wales, but in England. If there is a thing I feel strongly about that I’m bringing to the table, it is that I think I initially intuited—and suspect many Chinese Americans, many other hyphenated Americans intuit—my experience as a duality. But a duality seems to imply a choice. You’re Chinese or you’re American. If you’re too American, then you’re not authentically Chinese and you’re drifting away from your heritage. If you’re too Chinese then you haven’t assimilated into America. I’m interested less in this duality and more in what I like to think of as hybridity, in the “hyphen” if you like. So much of duality and the hyphenated experience feels like a purity test, are you with us or are you with them? But, I’m just me. It’s not about choosing. Why by being both are you being disloyal to one or the other?

I saw hybridity as a concept all throughout the novel, and I found it really fascinating because in looking at hybridity what felt universal was the idea that hybridity is unnatural, that it goes against nature. There’s Ah Ling, who is seen as half-ghost, due to his white father, and John, who believes his white wife’s miscarriages were due to “an excess of Chineseness” (211). To take it further, there are instances of hybridity that go outside race. The Irish in “Gold” refer to the Chinese as a mix of both male and female: “How is it natural that they can do both a man’s and a woman’s work? What species of creature are they to upend the order of things?” (56). I wonder if you can speak a little more about the concept of a natural hybridity.

We as a society definitely seem interested in polarity. Male or female. Gay or straight. But that rigidity can close off a lot of our understanding of ourselves, and often it’s that middle ground where we might all be more comfortable. Most human. But, although I wasn’t entirely conscious of this when I was writing it, the interest in hybridity versus duality in the book extends further. I’m writing about real historical figures, but I’m also fictionalizing them, and so is it fact or fiction? I believe it’s both, in the same way the characters aren’t Chinese or American but both. Even looking at the structure of this book: is it a novel or is it a collection of novellas? It’s both; it’s a formal hybrid.

You’ve been very polite so far in not mentioning this, but my editor brought up the fact that since my final character John is a writer, is half-Asian, people are going to assume he’s me and how comfortable am I with that? But one of the readerly pleasures, especially reading auto-fiction, the kind that Ben Lerner is writing, the kind that Jenny Offill is writing, is that part of our engagement as readers is thinking, Hmm, I wonder how true that is, how made up that is. But as readers we’re used to occupying the space between. We like that space, where there’s a little bit of both, a kind of provocative uncertainty. We just need to extrapolate the way we encounter autobiographical characters on the page and their “both-ness” to the way we think of people in real life and their both-ness, because they—all of us—are also made up of multiple selves.

What’s the best compliment someone could give your novel?

Oh lord! I’m not sure I have a very conclusive answer. [Pause] There are ideal readers that I have in mind. As you know, this book is dedicated to my son, and my adopted goddaughter. He’s a little too young to read it at the moment, and I don’t know if she’s read it or plans to anytime soon. But what I’ve imagined in my mind is that, some time in the future, if they do read it, that it will provide for them some kind of home. [Pause] Yeah, I think that’s right.