Novel explores what it means to be an outsider in America

Feb 21, 2017


It’s been about ten years since Peter Ho Davies came out with his first novel, The Welsh Girl. It was long-listed for the 2007 Man Booker Prize.

Now, Davies is out with his second novel: The Fortunes.

He offers four linked stories that explore what it means to be Chinese in America over the past century and a half. Three of the stories are built around people and events that actually happened.

The most gut-wrenching story is Tell It Slant. It is based on the 1982 murder of Vincent Chin, the young Chinese-American beaten to death in Highland Park by a couple of angry autoworkers who thought he was Japanese.

Davies told us that one of the interesting things about writing historical fiction is the parallels that can so often be drawn between the history and what’s happening today.

“One of the things we think about with Vincent’s killing is it comes out of a space of economic anxiety and the rhetoric associated with that that comes out of the union, that came out of the car industry, it came out of our local politicians, blaming Japanese imports for the decline of the American auto industry in the 1980s,” he said.

“That rhetoric and that environment and that atmosphere of economic anxiety led to violence in this case. It led to a hate crime, essentially. Hopefully, I’d like to think revisiting a story like that, revivifying it through fiction is a way of reminding us of some of the dangers we faced then and that I think to some degree we still face now, 35 years later.”

Since November’s election, the Southern Poverty Law Center has received reports of incidents of hate crimes and actions across America. Davies said there is a sense of déjà vu there, but it isn’t all bad news.

“I take some hope in this because it feels to me that we are at a moment, and I know some of my students feel this, where they can feel a very sharp division in the country between people of color, between immigrants, and that kind of white working class. In a different historical context, in a different place, white working class people and immigrants and people of color were politically aligned. That’s my experience from my time in Britain,” he said.

“So the divisions we see here do not seem essential. I don't feel as though my anxieties here are about the white working class per se. Maybe my anxieties about those who would seek to divide us, but I do think there are in those historical antecedents both the anxiety and the sadness that we’re back in that place, but also notes of hope that we were in that place once, and we got out of that place. Although we may be back there again, the cycle can turn yet again.”

In our conversation above, Davies talks more about the book, tells us about growing up in Britain, and reads from the story Tell It Slant.

Stateside originally aired this segment on Dec. 1, 2016.

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