A Look at Indie Authors and Their Publishers
By Lanie Tankard, Indie Book Reviews Editor
USEFUL PHRASES FOR IMMIGRANTS: STORIES by May-lee Chai (Durham, NC: Blair, October 23, 2018). 166 pp, $16.95; paperback ISBN 9780932112767.
“Reading makes immigrants of us all.
It takes us away from home, but, most importantly,
it finds homes for us everywhere.”
(“Against Borders” in The Horn Book, May 7, 1995)
May-lee Chai’s new collection of eight short stories explores the experience of migration. As her characters move from one place to another, Chai also looks closely at their psychological resettlement—that interior shift of emotions accompanying exterior relocation.
Sometimes the journey is geographical, from country to country or from a rural area to a large city. At other times, the passage is physical, from a girl to a young woman—or from an old woman with cancer grasping for her former self. Whatever the means of transportation, all the people in Chai’s tales are in motion.
In the title story, Guili, her husband Xiaobing, and their son live with his parents in Los Angeles. The America they’d seen in movies and on television before leaving China was so different once they arrived. On screen, everyone was thriving and successful. And for a few years in their new country, so were they—but things change. Xiaobing’s mother, Anping, adds to the difficult situation. Caught in the middle, Guili straddles this strained relationship at home and cultural differences when she goes out. Nevertheless, she persists, empowering herself through “useful phrases” she’s learned from a CD—such as “I’ll take a raincheck” and “I know my rights.” Then, in an unexpected twist, she packs up again for an uncertain future. The story ends with the most powerful phrase of all—one word that sums up Guili’s next step.
In “Fish Boy,” fourteen-year-old Xiao Yu begins his first job, cleaning fish in a restaurant kitchen in Zhengzhoum, where his grandfather (Ye-ye) had brought him. The duo came from their village to earn money in the city for a lawyer who could help Xiao Yu’s imprisoned father. Ye-ye buys new clothes for his grandson so he can blend into this city of nine million people all breathing the same air.
The longest story, “Ghost Festivals,” follows Lu-ying and her Uncle Lincoln as they rediscover the past through memories brought to the surface on days of the dead. Here, as in several other stories, Chai makes creative use of Nancy Drew books.
One tale, “The Body,” employs different points of view to offer multiple perspectives—as in Ryūnosuke Akutagawa’s 1915 short story “Rashōmon,” adapted into a 1950 movie by Akira Kurosawa, or Barry L. Levy’s script for the 2008 movie Vantage Point directed by Pete Travis. In Chai’s story, a woman’s corpse emerges during construction of the Happy Prosperity Shopping Center in a smog-ridden Chinese city. The narrative unfolds as told by the Crane Operator, the Reporter, the Itinerant Priest, the Migrant Worker, and the Developer.
Family dynamics and mother/daughter relationships are the basis for two stories. In “Canada,” LuLu shops for a training bra with her mother—a difficult intimacy for a girl in junior high. “The Lucky Day” portrays Rose caring for Ma, who is in palliative care at home for Stage 4 cancer. Under Ma’s bed is a secret.
A father/daughter relationship serves as the structure for “Shouting Means I Love You.” Past, present, and future rotate around dinner at a San Francisco restaurant with the General and his wife. The father feels a debt to General Shih, who helped his family obtain passports to leave Taiwan for the United States during the Second Sino-Japanese War. The daughter, after years of therapy, is unwillingly drawn back into childhood memories as her aging father reverts to former communication habits.
There’s a Proustian element to “First Carvel in Beijing” as Jun-Li visits her former lover, Luce, and they stop for ice-cream cake. It’s 1995, six years after the Tiananmen Square massacre in that city. Jun-Li is there doing research for her dissertation. She orders chocolate with mint chip, her brother Jeremy’s favorite. One bite and she’s ten-and-a-half again, reliving those early years and their associated emotions. Chai’s minimalistic writing style allows her to work in random observations such as the differences between fruit sold on stands versus in grocery stores.
All these fictional pieces feel as real as memoir sketches, tiny bursts of synapse connections from the past lodged in each protagonist’s brain. Chai’s prose provokes us to examine the stories we tell ourselves as we construct our own identities. How do we define who we are?
Joseph Campbell in The Hero With a Thousand Faces wrote: “…where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence; where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world” (p. 18 in “The Monomyth”).
As a book title, Useful Phrases for Immigrants could be a metaphor representing the entire volume’s contents—each tale a useful phrase of its own, forming a choreographic pattern of adages uniting the whole. May-lee Chai’s succinct portraits of lives in transition give us pause for thought. In the movement of our individual atoms voyaging together around the sun, perhaps we’re all immigrants migrating to new worldviews.
May-lee Chai is an assistant professor in the Department of Creative Writing at San Francisco State University (SFSU). She was previously on the faculty at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. Chai holds a BA from Grinnell College in French and Chinese Studies, an MA from Yale in East Asian Studies, another MA from the University of Colorado-Boulder in English-Creative Writing, and an MFA from SFSU in Creative Writing.
Her novel Tiger Girl (2013) won the 2014 Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature in the Young Adult category, and her memoir Hapa Girl was a Notable Book for the 2008 Kiriyama Prize. Chai’s other novels include My Lucky Face (1997) and Dragon Chica (2010), as well as the novella Training Days (2017). She is also the author of a collection of short stories and essays, Glamorous Asians (2004). Chai coauthored two books with her father, Winberg Chai, professor emeritus in Political Science at the University of Wyoming: a family memoir, The Girl from Purple Mountain (2001), and a nonfiction guide, China A to Z: Everything You Need to Know to Understand Chinese Customs and Culture (2007, revised 2014). She dedicates the book under review, Useful Phrases for Immigrants, to him.
Chai translated The Autobiography of Ba Jin (1934) from Chinese to English in 2008. Her own books have been translated into German, Hebrew, and Chinese. She received a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Prose (2006-7). Chai has also worked as an Associated Press reporter. Her essays and short prose have appeared in anthologies, literary journals, magazines, and newspapers.
Blair is a recent combination of two older presses, Carolina Wren and John F. Blair, Publisher. Located in Durham, North Carolina, the new nonprofit Blair began on January 1 of this year.
Judy Hogan founded Carolina Wren Press (CWP) in 1976. Andrea Selch directed the press from 2003–2015 and established the Doris Bakwin Award for Writing by a Woman, named after Selch’s aunt. The book under review, May-lee Chai’s Useful Phrases for Immigrants, won the award in 2017.
Robin Miura was CWP director from 2015–2017. Currently she is Blair’s editor and associate publisher, working with publisher Lynn York. Together the two established the biannual Lee Smith Novel Prize for a work of Southern fiction.
John F. Blair, Publisher, was based in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. John Fries Blair started out printing poetry in 1954. An English professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a master’s from Columbia and a Harvard law degree, he was also assistant director of UNC’s Institute of Government and on the editorial staff of UNC Press. Under John F. Blair, Publisher, he gradually broadened the regional genres he printed to include nonfiction, folklore, cookbooks, and travel guides. Blair’s family continued the publishing house for several decades after his death in 1986, led by writer Carolyn Sakowski and Margaret Couch, John F. Blair’s grandniece. When they retired at the beginning of 2018, Sakowski and Couch sold the John F. Blair titles to the nonprofit Carolina Wren Press—which honored the John F. Blair legacy by renaming the combined new enterprise Blair. Books are distributed through Consortium.
Blair publishes “voices from beyond the mainstream.” The publisher seeks prose, poetry, and nonfiction by “underrepresented writers such as women, people of color, authors with disabilities, LGBT authors, and experimental writers.” Blair welcomes unsolicited fiction and memoir via three contests, for which the submission periods are currently closed.
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