Partial Claims: A Q&A with Peter Ho Davies
Peter Ho Davies has never felt comfortable fully claiming anything. Born to a Welsh father and Chinese mother in Britain, he felt he was never fully seen as “British” when he was growing up in the UK. With his biracial identity, he also felt he wasn’t entirely privy to either of his parents’ cultural backgrounds. As a student of physics, he also felt like he could not fully claim he was a writer. That changed when he emigrated to the United States 25 years ago, where he found that his multiple layers of identity meant that nobody could expect to know anything about him. Since then, he has explored identity in two novels: The Welsh Girl and The Fortunes. His work has also been published in The Paris Review, Harper’s, The Atlantic, and Best American Short Stories, among elsewhere. He teaches at the University of Michigan.
His latest novel, The Fortunes, is actually a book composed of novellas. Each takes place at a different point in history: from the building of the Transcontinental Railroad to the present day. Each novella follows a character who is expected to represent Chinese American identity—and in so doing, he addresses the unequivocal flaw with expecting a part to stand for the whole.
Davies spoke to SampsoniaWay.org about the question of appropriation in fiction, the tension between how one sees themselves and how others perceive them, and the value of even flawed representations in writing and in pop culture.
What is the role of truth telling in The Fortunes, and how did Emily Dickinson’s quote about “telling it slant” influence you?
The Emily Dickinson quote was thought-provoking and productive for me for a number of reasons. One simply is that Dickinson is a rough contemporary of the first section of the book. She was alive during the building of the Transcontinental Railroad, although not in the same place. I also like the idea “tell all the truth, but tell it slant” for two other reasons. One is that the book mixes and melds fiction and history–fiction and fact–in various ways. It felt like it acknowledged the fact that all writers are trying to find a way to the truth by paradoxically fictionalizing things. We lie to get to the truth.
Finally what also attracted me to that quote was the use of the word “slant,” as a kind of racial epithet for Asians and Asian Americans. I wanted to think about the reclamation of an epithet in various ways. We’re very familiar with African Americans doing that with the n-word in some contexts. The word “queer” is another one of these reclaimed epithets. I was reading recently the word suffragette is a reclaimed epithet—if you go far back in history—and we don’t even think of it in those terms any longer. I wanted to think a little bit about “slant” in that sense. The book is interested in language and name-calling and the names we call ourselves. I wanted to think about what was pushing back against name-calling, and reclaiming those names, and empowering people to think in those terms, as well.
We lie to get to the truth.
Besides language, what are other ways in which you experience the way inner identity and outer identity shape one another?
This is something I’ve been thinking about for the better part of fifteen years, not just in this book, but in my last book The Welsh Girl. I think identity is often construed in the context of race. By and large, I think of identity more broadly: the ways our identities are constructed.
We have multiple identities. There are the people who we think we are internally, and we are also the people that others see us as. One of the great struggles for us always is whether or not those identities match up. Do people think of us the way that we think of ourselves or do we think of ourselves the way they think of us?
I think it’s a universal struggle for all of us to ask whether we are perceived the way we would like to be perceived, whether we are, in fact, perceived in a way that we would not like to be perceived. It raises questions about authenticity. We wonder how true, how real we are. We wonder whether the way we are perceived has something to do with a projection or a performance that is not true to who we are.
In fact, I would argue in some ways that is the nature of our existence. We all have different projected identities. Some are projected upon us. Some identities we choose to project. And that is natural and human. Perhaps none of these identities are false. The entirety of them might be a kind of authenticity, through the combination of those things.
How did you go about entering such a wide range of viewpoints and experiences and historical time periods in The Fortunes?
There are a lot of writerly tricks for entering the other in some form or another. In this book, the character who was most distant from me culturally and historically, was Ah Ling—the protagonist in the first part of The Fortunes. He has come to America from China, and it’s the 1860’s. Ah Ling is also a historical figure—though only really a footnote. He is very briefly mentioned in a historical record for his pivotal role in building the Transcontinental Railroad. The only thing that is known about him is that he inspired his boss to hire so many Chinese to work on the project. I entered his perspective through research. I visited some of the sites that the Transcontinental traversed, some of the tunnels that the Chinese hacked out of the Sierra Nevada during that time.
Still since so little is known about Ah Ling, it gave me carte blanche to imagine him. Of course, this is what I’m supposed to do as a fiction writer. Nearly all of my fiction is in some form—in a small way, sometimes in a large way—emotionally autobiographical. I’m often looking for a thread of connection that allows me to reach out to fairly distant characters. One of the things I decided to imagine about him, that would bring his character closer to me, was to make him Eurasian. In The Fortunes, he has a Chinese mother and a Western, white father who he’s never really known from his time in Hong Kong. As I’m mixed race myself, that felt as though it provided at least an emotional connection, and then I could begin to imagine myself into his mindset.
I’ve never been an actor, but when I hear method actors talk about their process they sometimes talk about “once I get the shoes I can build the character from there.” It’s literally “walking in another man’s shoes”—but it does feel like it’s the one connector that allows us to build from that place of authenticity. Then we can believe that connection and we can build outwards.
You have written about the difference between when writers need to take a pause in their writing from exhaustion and when they have actually arrived at an ending. When writing The Fortunes, when did the “pauses” occur?
This is a question that comes up a lot in classes that I teach: when are we done? When can a writer finally say, “This piece is finished?” I think for a lot of us, writing can feel like an endless spiral of revision. A piece is always more perfectible. We can always keep pushing forward. There are writers, folks I respect, who will say, “I knew I was done with it when I was bored with it.” That is a reflection of exhaustion, it seems to me.
Writing can feel like an endless spiral of revision.
But I’ve always felt that boredom was an unsatisfying aesthetic endpoint. Thinking back to childhood, all of us as writers, as people: our daydreaming activity sprung from boredom. Boredom doesn’t feel like the endpoint, but as though it’s a waystation, a pause before the next jolt of inspiration comes along to jolt us out of being stuck.
In the case of The Fortunes, which is a four-part book, each novella is thematically linked with various other echoes and threads running between them. There’s not a continuing narrative because there’s always a significant passage of decades between each section, and no continuing characters between them either. Each section represented a pause point in various ways. The most significant pause point, though, was the end of the first section, the longest section, the 1860s passage about the building of the Transcontinental Railroad. In the early days, that was supposed to be the whole book. After about 100 or 120 pages, my central character, Ah Ling sort of said to me, “I’m done with being part of history now. I have some ambivalence about being part of this history any longer. I want to step back into a space of anonymity. I want to be no longer a name. I want to be part of the crowd again.”
For him, as a character, I think, it’s a moral and ethical choice. Yet, as the writer, I was thinking, “Oh! I need another 200 pages out of you, dude.”
Was that a pause? We wrestled for a year or two, and eventually he won. I recognized that was not where the trajectory of The Fortunes was going to go.
That was the tricky moment because, for a while, I had to stand around to think, “What’s going to happen to this project?” That was a question not only for me, but also for my editors and my publishers. But also one that prompted a new vision of the book.
What had drawn me to Ah Ling as a character was his representative role. His example inspires Charles Crocker, who’s running the Transcontinental Railroad project, to hire these Chinese workers. And I wanted to think about the ambiguities about being a representative. How does one person stand for the whole? It’s an impossible burden, actually.
Thinking about Ah Ling in those contexts led me very naturally to thinking about Anna May Wong, the protagonist of the next section of the book who is a really the first Chinese American movie star. She was famous literally for being Chinese, but also burdened by some of the equivocal difficulties of being the representative of a whole people. The novel’s central question of representation thus revealed itself to me.
How do you navigate the anxiety that comes from writing characters whose identities are appropriated to stand in for the whole?
For me, almost anything I write about is shaped by identity. I’m half-Welsh, and half-Chinese. I was born and brought up in Britain. I’ve lived in the US for about half my life. When I write about things that are close to me–Welshness, say, as in my last novel–I still feel like, Well I only have a half claim to that. I don’t live there. I haven’t lived there. I don’t speak the language.
I wrote The Welsh Girl, not because I was an expert on Welsh identity but to try and discover my relationship to Welsh identity. Having done that, writing a book about Chinese-American characters was an effort to try and sort of begin to understand my relationship to my mother’s culture in various ways.
You don’t write what exactly you know. You write into what you’d like to know about.
I’ve written stories with African American protagonists, stories about gay characters. It feels to me as if there is almost no narrative that I could tell that wouldn’t be, in some form or another—to use the terminology that gets batted around by writers– an act of appropriation. It’s almost impossible to imagine a writer of fiction not writing something that appropriated somebody’s experience. A crime writer’s experience is appropriative: the experience of killers and murder victims. That’s the nature of writing fiction. Unless we write very strictly within a sphere of memoir or autobiographical fiction, we’re always going to run the risk of appropriation.
You write into what you’d like to know about.
It’s not that I think we shouldn’t appropriate. I know there are writers who strongly advocate that we should be able to write anything we can and I sympathize with that position. I’m a writer, and as a teacher of writers it would be unprofessional of me to say, “You can’t write that.” I don’t think the job of a writer or the job of a teacher of writers is to censor them in various ways.
However, there is a tension between some writers who say, “You can write anything and don’t let anybody tell you otherwise,” and the occasional and few critics on the other side, who say, “You can’t write that, you’re not allowed to write that.” Sometimes those critics are more imagined as a strawman to further the argument of those who want to do whatever they can do.
My feeling, though, is that those two positions are both useful and both valid in the practice of doing this. I believe you can try and do anything you want. I don’t think writers should try and censor themselves before they try to write something. I also think that these critical voices are the voices that keep us honest. Right? You try to do it, and you’re conscious that if you do it, it is an act of appropriation. So you ask yourself: How are people who are from this group going to feel about this depiction? Ideally, that would make a writer think: I should do it respectfully.
You do the research. You do it with an awareness that you are crossing a line and you have an associated responsibility.
The bottom line is that there’s nothing you can’t write. If you want to write across a line, a gender line, a line of sexuality, a line of race, a line of experience, a line of age, a line of time–even in the context of historical fiction–you can do it. The doubts you have about being allowed to do it or being able to do it well, those doubts will help you do it well. That’s the way that we keep ourselves honest and push ourselves onwards.
When you do it in the first draft and it comes out on the page, it probably sucks. That’s why, when you take it into workshop and someone says, “You know that depiction is a little problematic,” it’s fine because we can improve it. The next draft pushes on. After workshop, we take our feedback, and we don’t go “We’re not allowed to do this.” We go, “how do I do this better? How do I find a way of expressing things I want to express in ways that feel believable, plausible, powerful, and persuasive to other readers?”
I think about it in the ways one thinks about the relationship between a reader and a text. We want a reader to read a narrative about somebody who is different from them in various ways: where they live, the period they live in, their class. We like the idea that the reader can imaginatively and empathically connect with that character. That seems like something we extol in fiction, and we admire on the page.
It seems odd, on the other end, to imagine writers–the creators of those works–couldn’t also imaginatively and empathically connect with the “other,” right? I think that’s within the nature the activity. And frankly, more imagination and empathy with the other would be good for all of us.
This is complicated, because it’s an asymmetrical situation. It is different for a male writer to write from a female point of view than it is for a female writer to write from a male point of view. It is different for a white writer to write from an African American point of view than for an African American to write from a white point of view. They’re problematic in various ways. There are critiques that might be applied to all of those moves, but because of the existing power dynamic between those pairings, there is a sense that one sides of that equation has been disenfranchised, disempowered, and unvoiced by the other. The appropriation is more problematic in one direction than another.
I do sympathize with that question, but I think we still have to live with it. So it’s important to enter the project with the mindset of, I’m going to try it and I’m going to hear other people and next time I’ll try it again or try it differently or try it better. I resist the idea that we get shut down in those engagements; I think those engagements are healthy.
I was just visiting an undergraduate class at the University of Michigan and one of the students asked me about J.K. Rowling’s inclusion of an Asian character at Hogwarts who has a very stereotypical Asian name. There’s still a part of me that questions, Would I prefer there to be an Asian character in Hogwarts than not? I think I do prefer there to be one.
Because I’m an old geek, I was talking to the same student about whether I am happy that Gene Roddenberry, an old white guy, invented Mr. Sulu and put him on the bridge of the Star Trek Enterprise. Yeah, I’m pretty happy about that. Am I happy that he put Nichelle Nichols as Lieutenant Uhura on the bridge of the Enterprise? I’m pretty happy about that as well! And so was Martin Luther King, as it turned out. He was Nichols’s biggest fan.
These may not be the ideal people to offer those representations, but those representations can still have value. There are certainly much more nuanced representation than either of those two characters I just threw out, but they’re starting places. We move on and improve on their representation.
What surprised you when you were writing The Fortunes?
There were many surprises. Often when we set out to write, or we think about writers’ processes, or even when writers talk about their processes, there’s an after-the-fact rationalization because we can see the journey after we’ve taken it. Nearly everything I write, and particularly the novels, never end up where I expect them to. In fact, they often take radical departures.
When I imagined The Fortunes as a multipart composite book built out of novellas, I had the first two parts and the final part in my mind. The section by Vincent Chen was not on my agenda at that stage in the writing. In retrospect, it feels like an essential part of the book. That surprised me.
Even some of the research provided surprises. In the last section of the book I have a more contemporary Chinese American character go back to visit China for the first time. As I had never been to China, I figured I should go in the spirit of research. Even though I drafted that final section of that book I went on a package tour kind of vacation, which is roughly the equivalent of what my character does in that section. That was really useful for just small local detail. For example, I knew how the character was going to be on a site-seeing tour walking along the Great Wall only through having gone there myself and physically experiencing that stretch of the Great Wall. It had a lot of stairs and was pretty steep, so the next morning in my hotel—I’m an old guy and not very fit—my calves were aching. So I could give this physical detail to the character and it added to the reality of the piece. There’s real pleasure in that.
But what turns out to be a very pivotal image towards the end of the book, which has to do with the Terracotta Army in Xi’an, really did surprise me. I had probably mentioned it as something the character would see and visit. I had seen some of the figures that had been unearthed there on tour in Western museums. Nothing really prepared me for going into that sports stadium-like hangar, which is erected over the pit they’re opening up, and seeing this half dug up pit. It was the size of a soccer field with hundreds of these figures already visible. One understands that there are thousands of these pits, so they’ve unearthed x-thousand numbers of these figures already. The idea that there could be tens or hundreds of thousands of these figures is mind-blowing artistic conception. Given that this book is about representation, this army of terracotta figures is an interesting one-to-one mapping of the representation—a literal life-size army. I hadn’t thought about that at all and I wouldn’t have unless I’d actually physically been in that space. And it felt as though something important about the book was coming together because I was in that place looking at the figures.
This is how we engage with tourism: We visit these places, we stare at these sites, and they stand for the country. I’ve lived in the US for over 25 years and I can still remember being a visitor–a tourist essentially–even in the first few years.
How did moving to the United States shaped your writing?
Before The Fortunes came out in Britain, I did an interview in the UK. It is a really nice interview and I enjoyed chatting with the journalist involved, but the headline said “I had to leave Britain to become a writer” which is a lot like, “Screw you, Britain.” That was not really my intention.
To speak to this question: coming from Britain, I felt that it was an act of reimagining myself to be able to say, “I am a writer.” Prior to coming to the United States, I perceived it as an act of arrogance verging on hubris. It’s one that many writers, young writers especially, feel slightly embarrassed by because we feel the weight of pretension behind it. My mother’s a dentist, my father’s an engineer, and I studied physics in college. There was no teaching creative writing in Britain when I was growing up. Nobody I knew, even at six degrees of separation, wanted to be a writer or thought about being a writer. I didn’t live in London which is where all that stuff seemed to happen–somewhere else.
Coming from Britain to the US allowed me—particularly upon entering a graduate a creative writing program—to be surrounded by other writers. People who were like, “I’m a writer, you’re a writer, sure we’re not all very good we’re going to try and get better.” The question of whether I could even claim to be that thing went away in that space.
It would be hard for me to claim that I am a writer in front of family and friends. People who loved me and who were close to me, who knew me as their son, or the guy I studied physics with or a guy I worked in publishing with, even. It was freeing to be able to reinvent myself and not worry about people going, “You’re a writer? No, you’re not. You’re the other guy that I know.”
That takes us back to the way we talk about identities. The way others perceive us, the ways that we wish to perceive ourselves. Sometimes the pressures of how other perceive us crushes the way we might want to perceive ourselves. Coming to the US, I got to start over with a blank slate. That was important to me as a writer.
Sometimes the pressures of how other perceive us crushes the way we might want to perceive ourselves.
Coming to the US was also interesting for me in terms of the way I thought about race. I remember growing up in Britain, in a very white town, feeling very conscious that I did not look English. When I was young, in the 60s and 70s, British basically meant English and English meant white. Even my father’s Welsh-ness might have struggled a little bit to assimilate itself within Britishness. Growing up as a child, I felt like I was not a part of the culture because I was very visibly Asian.
Gradually, through my lifetime there and subsequent to my living there, it felt as though Britishness became much more inclusive, much more multicultural in ways that I really liked. The word “British” has become much more encompassing and welcoming to those who are not white. Sadly, that may have come to a screeching halt around the time of Brexit.
Even so, I would always feel that sense of walking into a room and having people read me before I’d done anything or before they knew anything about me. I carried that strange burden of stereotyping, that struggle that some of the characters carry in the book. There have been a few instances, sometimes in travel, sometimes in other contexts, that have freed me from those ideas.
I can remember when I worked in Singapore briefly, I felt a kind of wonder at the fact of my invisibility in that community. I’d walk down the street looking like everyone else. And even that could be a false assumption. I remember getting in a cab, and before I could really say anything and have my accent give me away, the driver said, “You’re not from here, right?”
I said, “How did you know?”
He said, “You’re too short to be Singaporean.” That seemed interesting to me. It blew up a sort of classic Asian or Chinese stereotype, right? That is one of the reasons I cherish that story.
When I came to the US, I could walk into a room and people might read me as Asian in some construct. Then I’d open my mouth and the British accent would come out and they would be like, “What?! That does not compute. I thought he was one thing and he’s now something else, and those things don’t go together.”
That represented a kind of freedom for me. It liberated me from the assumption or the anxiety that people knew me at a glance. Now when people make assumptions about me based on the way I look or the way I talk, I can always know that they’re probably wrong.
You were talking about Britishness and how in your time in the UK, Britishness came to encompass more than people who were just white. Do you really think Brexit is enough to reverse that conception of what British means?
I hope that that is not true. In the US we think of Brexit as kind of a foreshadowing of the election of Trump. I do think there are links and similarities but there are also differences.
I was back in Britain for the holidays and talking to some friends about the rise of nationalism. They described a backlash against immigrants after the Brexit vote, which we saw some of here. There was an uptick in Britain in hate crimes because people felt empowered after the vote to express their anger and hatred in more public ways. The people they were expressing that towards were, interestingly, white immigrants, and Polish people, in particular. That white on white intolerance surprised me.
Does that seem better? Certainly not. Does it seem worse? No. Neither. It seems different though. And it might be instructive, because I feel that othering in the US is based on how people look. It might be dangerous to think in those terms. If you other somebody just because they look different than you, you can apply that because they sound different or because they come from a different place. That was true of Irish people when they first came to the US, it was true of Italians when they first came to the US. That othering has been applied in the past to people you now think of as yourself. Maybe that means there’s hope for the future or maybe it means a return to the past, an even further fragmentation.
When I think about Brexit and when I think about our current political circumstances in the US, I actually kind of go back to moments of my youth in Britain. I can remember the late 70’s or 80’s as being periods of a lot of racial tension. The National Front party was resurgent in that period when I was a young teenager. After the election, I had “Should I Stay or Should I Go” stuck in my head because I was thinking about the 70’s and 80’s, and it’s hard to think about that period and not the music. The Clash had very punkish sensibilities. They looked like skinheads, the kind of guys I would have avoided on the street out of self-preservation. And yet there they were at the forefront of the rock against racism movement.
That’s a band that had a white working class following and that was a band that was solidly against racism. It reminded me that the apparent divide between the white working class and people of color isn’t a given and isn’t natural. In fact, in my own lifetime those groups have been natural allies. I saw the National Front in its resurgence and its fallen away. And now
I see something else in resurgence and I think we’ll see it fall away as well. The main thing is to not be afraid.