Writer to Writer
In addition to the structure of their titles, English Professor Peter Ho Davies’s novel The Fortunes and creative writing lecturer Derek Palacio’s novel The Mortifications both provide a view of America and American history from very different perspectives: The Fortunes is told from a Chinese American point of view, and The Mortifications is told from a Cuban American one.
The writers agreed to talk to each other about their books, offering a glimpse into how these powerful narratives were produced and giving insight into what interests writers carry with them as they read each others’ work.
Derek Palacio: The Fortunes spans 150 years of Chinese American history, exploring major events from the gold rush and building the transcontinental railroad to the modern day phenomena of transnational adoption. How did you decide on this scope? Why were you drawn to this breadth of material?
Peter Ho Davies: The eventual scope of the book felt less like a single decision than a process of discovery. Initially, I thought the entire novel would be set in the 1860s, focusing on the Chinese who helped build the transcontinental. Looking back, the seeds of that larger temporal scope were present in that section, just waiting to be called forth. The transcontinental itself is a 19th-century effort at nation building (maybe even nation healing in the wake of the Civil War) that provoked questions about the future of the nation and the role of the immigrants who were helping to build it. (This is especially true since, almost immediately after building it, they became subject to a sometimes violent political movement to drive them out and exclude them from that nation.) In that regard, I hope the story is not only one of Chinese American history, but also of American history seen through the lens of its Chinese community.
DP: My second question perhaps relates to my first: The four sections of the novel not only cover different characters and time periods, but also employ different writing styles. I wonder, then, if you have a particular fondness for any section of the book, and if so, why? Was one section—or were some sections—easier to write than others? More simply put, which section do you feel closest to?
PHD: The first section felt like the hardest to write, probably because it was the first (beginnings are always tough), but also perhaps because it was the most distant in time. The second section about the early Chinese American movie star Anna May Wong was comparatively fun. (Like most writers, I love language, and there’s a short passage of jazz age “flapper” lingo in her section that was a blast to research and write—the result reads like nothing else I’ve written, a kind of syncopated nonsense verse.) The third section moves to the 1980s and the hate-crime slaying of Vincent Chin in Detroit, and while I enjoyed some nostalgia in revisiting that decade, the section was the most painful to write because the events are so grim. The final section is approximately contemporary and, unlike the previous three, isn’t centered on a real historical figure, but rather a somewhat autobiographical character (a Chinese American writer). I should perhaps feel closest to him, but despite the surface similarities we’re also quite different. (The actual events in the story are nearly all imagined.)
The reason I included him in fact was in part to acknowledge that the experiences of all the earlier characters—who wrestle with the burden or anxiety of representation—is one I share, that it’s also a writerly concern. I found a part of myself in those various far-flung figures and felt by the end that rather than hiding that affinity I should step out from behind the curtain a little.
DP: The themes of The Fortunes are smartly related to the cultural discussion on race, ethnicity, appropriation, and identity happening today. Most impressive, to me at least, is how your writing brings to the surface issues of identity that people often experience subconsciously. I wonder if you could speak to that effort and how you went about pushing those complex questions to the forefront of your narrative.
PHD: I’m not sure the experiences of identity are quite subconscious, but I do feel we—and I’d include myself—don’t always have the language to describe it. In that regard, writing the book afforded me a chance to better understand some of my own questions of identity as a person of mixed race. What I realized was that I’d always felt a little torn between identities—something I think is true for many so-called “hyphenated” Americans. The halves of our identities often seem to pose a question, a choice—are we more one thing or another—but that choice can easily feel like a loyalty test, even a purity test. If we assimilate, are we betraying our heritage? If we cleave too closely to that heritage, are we failing to fully engage with the larger community? That can feel like a lose-lose choice, and the result can be a gnawing anxiety of authenticity. What I hope for myself and what the book, in part, argues is that there’s a third choice, a hybrid identity that enjoys its own authenticity. The book’s title, The Fortunes, reflects this a little. While I like the way it comingles luck and fate, and suggests the range of outcomes that befall the various characters—it nods, of course, to that ubiquitous and humble signifier of Chinese-American-ness, the fortune cookie, which of course isn’t any more authentically Chinese than it is American, but which just might be authentically Chinese American.
DP: Finally, a selfish question: Where will your narrative interests take you next? Might you afford us a sneak peak of your next project?
PHD: Who knows? I’ll be interested to find out myself! My son, who’s 12, wants me to write something for him. The Fortunes is actually dedicated to him, but what he means is something he’d like to read, which right now means one of the YA post-apocalyptic trilogies he loves. I’ve tentatively promised him a zombie book (maybe, in fact, a zombie-vampire mashup‑which come to think of it might be ripe for considerations of hybrid identities!), but the truth is that my novels take me so long that by the time I finish something like that his tastes will likely have moved on again.
Peter Ho Davies: You’ve written award-winning short stories (“Sugarcane,” which appeared in the O. Henry Prize Stories Anthology a few years back) and published a terrific stand-alone novella, How to Shake the Other Man, but this is your first novel. Could you say a little about the experience of moving into this new form?
Derek Palacio: I lucked out in that I accidentally moved into this new form! When I first sat down to explore the Cuban family at the center of my novel, I thought I was writing a novella at best, and I thought I would focus all my attention on the son, Ulises. I had just finished reading Roberto Bolaño’s The Insufferable Gaucho, a novella that follows the life of Héctor Pereda and his eventual return to a countryside “home” he had long ago forsaken. I was enamored with the story of a person going home or going back somewhere they had forgotten, and I wanted to try my hand at something similar, to take Ulises from Cuba and then tell the story of his return. Fortunately, his family members grew in their own directions, such that his mother, Soledad, and his sister, Isabel, took on their own storylines.
PHD: The Mortifications is the story of a Cuban American family, about exile and about return. It’s remarkably rich and powerful material, but also I’m sure challenging to write about. What were some of the difficulties and pleasures in writing the book?
DP: The greatest pleasure in writing this book was discovering some of the ideas or themes I now know I will always return to in my fiction. This is especially true of my exploration of Catholicism and mysticism through the daughter of the family, Isabel.
Before this novel, I hadn’t considered myself a “Catholic writer,” whatever that may mean, but during the drafting phase, I found myself giving Isabel more and more of my own religious doubts, as well as my attraction to religious experiences. The novel, in the end, became partly about a life in search of God, or something like God, or the God one might use to fill the voids in one’s life.
The most difficult part of writing this book was trying to craft a believable and not entirely inaccurate portrait of Cuba. I have never been to Cuba (though I have a trip planned), and despite my best efforts at research, I am certain I got things “wrong” about the island, or I misunderstood or misinterpreted some fundamental truths about life in Cuba. This is partly why the story begins with a departure from the island, which in retrospect I see as my effort to write about the Cubans I understood best: those in exile like my father and his family and those at a great remove from the island like my brother and sister and me, who all grew up as Cuban Americans in New England.
PHD: A question about literary influences, if I may. The main character of the book is called Ulises, so you sort of bring questions like this on your own head! But seriously, are there writers who’ve influenced you and this book especially?
DP: As mentioned above, The Insufferable Gaucho by Roberto Bolaño was a launching point for this book. That novella was where I really started thinking about the relationship between characters and a lost or forgotten “home.” I did blatantly acquire the name “Ulises” from another of Bolaño’s books, The Savage Detectives, loving how his very modern novel recast the archetypical journey. And because I was trying, in some sense, to write towards a Latin American literary tradition, the tone of the novel is at times—and only when it’s at its best—alluding to the styles of the magical realists. Really, though, I am most indebted to the works of Reinaldo Arenas, whose portrayals of Cuba are capacious and complex and gorgeous. His memoir, Before Night Falls, will forever be both criterion and muse for my writing on Cuba.
PHD: A novel about Cuba is, of course, very timely right now as U.S.-Cuban relations thaw and travel restrictions ease. You said that you haven’t been to Cuba before—though your imagination of the place is incredibly vivid on the page—and that you plan to go. How do you feel about that journey (one that in a sense echoes that of the main character in the novel)?
DP: I am going to Cuba for the first time in October. I am both thrilled at the opportunity—it is a funded trip via the new and generous CubaOne Foundation—and consciously aware that the journey will change me in ways I can’t predict. I’ve recently realized that I probably wouldn’t be a writer if not for my father’s memories of Cuba. His recollections are fragments of a very brief childhood there, and they have inspired me to write stories of the island and Cuban Americans, this novel being one iteration of that narrative offspring. I used to think his memories made me write about Cuba, but really, the draw they had on me, the curiosity they stoked, is what brought me to the page in general. So in that sense, I am really looking forward to the trip, to making my own memories of Cuba, and to seeing the island with my own eyes and in a new way. At the same time, I know I will have to write differently about the island when I come back—I will have to reconcile the conception of Cuba I took from my father with the reality of Cuba today—and I can only hope I am up to the task.
PHD: Finally—a flippant one, forgive me!—what’s the best place for Cuban food (or indeed a mojito) in Ann Arbor?
DP: I do love Frita Batidos! Their Cuban-inspired street food is delicious, especially their twice-fried plantains. Sadly, I don’t know where the best mojito in Ann Arbor is just yet, though I’m on the lookout!