Toward the end of Peter Ho Davies’ new novel The Fortunes, a Chinese American writer named John Smith finds himself in an identity crisis; raised in a predominantly white environment, with a white father and Chinese mother, he feels that his claim to the Chinese American experiences he translates into fiction is tenuous at best. He has a white wife, a “trophy wife” as he semi-jokingly maintains, defeating the common sense logic of his youth that “white chicks ignored Asian guys.” His debut collection, Ancient Chinese Secrets, has brought him moderate fame. His publisher wants him to write about the transcontinental railroad next, while his colleagues—he’s a diversity hire, he remarks self-deprecatingly—expect him to write a novel about Vincent Chin. On a trip to China, riddled with anxiety over his work and his identity, his wife tells him to “write something real:” a personal story about his feelings of inauthenticity. Or, as his friend Ken writes to him, “if you reject every stereotype, what do you have in common with other Asians?”
It is a brilliantly meta-exploration of The Fortunes itself, as Davies renders the variegated Chinese American immigrant experience through four vignettes, three of which are fictional explorations of real historical figures: he opens with the story of a migrant worker and eventual manservant to Central Pacific Railroad baron Charles Crocker, then moves to actress Anna May Wong and the exclusion she faced in 1930s Hollywood, before he turns to the murder of Vincent Chin. (The fourth vignette is John Smith’s.) The mediated quality of these histories is central to the book. Chinese Americans made sense of themselves, Davies suggests, within the parameters of circulated ideas of what it meant to be “Chinese American,” by grappling with imposed stereotypes and representational figures. It is both Fu Manchu and the railroad worker, Pearl Buck and Anna Mae Wong. The Fortunes is an exercise in how to weave together history and fiction, the personal and the collective, and arrive at something more than the sum of its parts.
The Fortunes turns on an episode of extreme, spectacular racist violence against Chinese American masculinity. In that sense, it has something in common with John Edgar Wideman’s new novel Writing to Save a Life: The Louis Till Story, which explores such violence in the context of Black masculinity. The text traces the life of Emmett Till’s father, Louis Till, who was hanged in Europe during World War II for alleged rape and murder. Both books are about historical figures who profoundly shaped the authors’ lives. Wideman’s musings on the Till family and their lives under Jim Crow are equally about his own life. He imagines Louis Till in the place of his own father, himself as Emmett or his friend, and concludes that Till’s crime was a crime of being. Black men are viewed by law as “an evil seed that sooner or later will burst and scatter more evil seeds,” as a problem to be taken care of preemptively. His book is dedicated to prisoners who are serving a life sentence, which includes his own son. The works are thus incredibly intimate; the authors imagine conversations with their subjects, and responses to the situations they found themselves in, before getting to the violent endings. Together, the texts offer strategies for speaking about violence, and how to represent it in the current moment—a project with all the more urgency after November 8.
Each murder started out ordinary. Davies and Wideman craft their stories in a way that shows the full humanity of their subjects, imbuing familiar historical narratives with complexity and intimacy. Davies has a close friend narrate, in bits and pieces, the events of the night. On a warm night in June of 1982, Vincent Chin was out celebrating. Not only was he to be married in a week, but his success as a draftsman meant that he was on the cusp of purchasing a home for himself, his soon-to-be-wife Vicki, and his mother Lily. It was a standard bachelor party; they had selected the Fancy Pants strip club, in the Highland Park neighborhood of Detroit where he grew up, as the location for the festivities. Four days later, Chin—beloved fiancé and only child—was dead. The night had ended with two white automotive workers, allegedly infuriated by Japan’s increasing stronghold in the sector, taking a baseball bat to his skull until it cracked. His wedding day became his funeral. His death galvanized the Asian American movement. “Two drunk white guys couldn’t tell us apart, and we realized we were more alike than we’d thought,” Davies writes.
It was a familiar, sanitized version of Vincent Chin that circulated in mainstream media. They stripped him of his desire (he was a regular at the strip club), of his anger at the dual forces of gentrification and white flight that forced his family to move to Oak Park, of his imperfections and humanity. As Davies notes, they “made him out to be a model citizen of the model minority. Saint and stereotype.”
Twenty-five years before Chin’s death, Emmett Till was abducted, tortured, and murdered by two men twice his age. He was fourteen, just like John Edgar Wideman at the time. His murder catapulted civil rights into the forefront of the American imaginary.
The stories of Chin and Till have been told at length by scholars, journalists, and activists. But The Fortunes and Writing to Save a Life are harder to classify—not quite historical fiction, not quite nonfiction. In their combination of fact and fiction, they ask us to consider that these instances of spectacular violence are symbols of the historical trajectories of Asian America and Black America, while at the same time challenging the assumptions and narratives that produced these categories in the first place. Chin was Chinese American, not Japanese as his killers thought; Emmett Till was a boy, not the rapacious black male of D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation that his killers saw. They were emblematic of their race and victimized because of it.
As Davies and Wideman note, both murders were triggered by a potent amalgam of racial hatred and embattled white masculinity. At Fancy Pants, Chin’s murderers first became outraged when the dancers, who knew him as a regular, focused their attentions on him. In Money, Missisippi, where Emmett was visiting family, the offense was his alleged flirting with a white woman.
The body of the white woman has often served as the canvas upon which racial, social, and economic anxieties are projected. It—not she, because the abstraction is what counts—is to be revered, policed, and possessed. One only needs to look at the past election cycle to know this is still true. Much has been written about Republicans who only denounced Donald Trump after his misogynist remarks about Nancy O’Dell surfaced—the same people who remained silent when his racism, misogyny, ableism, and xenophobia imperiled the safety of millions. The desire to safeguard white femininity was so strong that in 1955, after Emmett’s whistle was not sufficient basis for even the most conservative media to condemn him, the murder of a child was justified by pointing out his father’s offenses against white women. U.S. media caught wind of the fact that Louis Till had been hanged in Italy ten years prior, his sentence for a murder and two rapes while enlisted in the Army. This was allegedly a hereditary deviance. As Wideman notes, Louis was “conjured like an evil black rabbit from an evil white hat” to prevent a retrial.
The Fortunes and Writing to Save a Life ask us to imagine Chin and Till’s significance with respect to trajectories of racialization that persist today. What does it mean to weave together collective and individual memory in this way, and in partially fictionalized form? As Hortense Spillers writes in an essay on Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, “history is an act of consciousness”; in order to move forward, one has to “to get well and remember and reconstruct simultaneously.” This means grappling with the historical burdens that haunt the American past and present. Like the narrator of Invisible Man, both Wideman and Davies muse on what it means to bear witness, to be the one to recover histories of deep grief, sorrow, injustice, and to speak to these meaningfully.
Their works suggest that the first step is to think critically about dominant or mainstream stories, to check their veracity, and to write counternarratives where necessary. After reviewing the Louis Till file, Wideman observes that the file
works the way any good, old-fashioned novel works. It may sprawl all over the known world, but by the final scene, the plot’s resolved, accounts settled, order restored, characters receive their just desserts. Which means somebody’s been telling a story. Somebody’s been in control. Then the story’s over. Ending the only way it could end, the way it was supposed to end from the first word, first page. Story’s finished, and I’m left out. Take it or leave it. Nowhere to hide.
Of course, neither Wideman nor Davies quite takes it or leaves it. They pick up the story and open a new window onto it. They show how our present situation is directly linked to this past.
For both, this inevitably means facing race. Wideman and Davies work to unsettle and make visible how race works in the US, and how racism impacted each case. Part of what Davies deals with is how Asian Americans live in a country that was founded on a strict division between black and white. Vincent, the narrator says in The Fortunes, “felt okay about [paying to see] a white girl, because he knew they were unattainable outside of a club.” His murderer, however, said that it was his inattention to a black dancer, and his poor tipping, that sparked the dispute, and “I don’t like seeing people picked on.” The three groups are thus firmly set apart by Davies according to U.S. racial logics, with (sexual) economies attached to each. Davies also implicates the reader’s own internalized stereotypes. The second time he mentions the mugging of Vincent’s father, he includes that the perpetrator was “a black guy.” “Did I say that already? Or did you assume it?,” the narrator demands to know.
Wideman uses similar silences to underline the long history and power of racism. The book ends with a visit to Louis Till’s grave. Outside of Paris, at the American Cemetery and Memorial of Oise-Aisne, a numbered, four-by-four inch stone marks where he was reinterred—with hundreds of other Americans who were buried provisionally during the war. There are ninety-six markers for dishonored graves, eighty-three of them “holding colored remains,” Wideman notes, with no further comment. He never paints Louis Till as a martyr, nor does he try to exonerate him. Louis did abuse his wife, misbehaved while in service; it should not have gotten him a hasty death sentence.
Given the history of race in the US, there was no other outcome imaginable. Narratives can kill. For Wideman, the issue is profoundly existential: “Do words have power to create more life,” he ponders towards the end of the book, after he felt stuck in the project.
To reach back for enough or forward enough and help me enter Louis Till’s silence. Mine. Words on these pages. My file, my story. These words I chase to represent a life. Who will open the file. Read the words. What will they make of me, us, after I’m silenced, like you, Louis Till.
Here we see the burden, not just of collective representation, but of individual memory. Each member of society is fed the same events, but will remember them differently based on a peculiar lens, an ingrained way of thinking shaped by family, school, media, social location, etc. What Wideman faces here is not unlike what Davies’ narrator cynically observes when he talks about the legacy of Chin’s murder; “What do I remember? What do you?” He eventually concludes that what matters are not the specifics but “how they imagined it.” Both Chin’s murderers and the mainstream media relied on type rather than complex individuality. What the writer, then, can offer, is of making these peculiar lenses visible. It at once Louis Till’s story and it is not. Vincent Chin’s story and it is not. A story of Chinese America, and of Black America, of white supremacy, of moments of connection, of intimacy, and of cross-generational humanity.
These texts ask us to consider the profound social costs to tragedies that seem so personal, and vice versa. By imagining the voices of Chin’s friends, and of Louis and Emmett, the authors craft a strange intimacy between them and the reader; we can feel the hatred, the desperation, and the grief that characterized the aftermath of the murders. It is part of the human condition, if shelled out disproportionately to some groups and as such poisonous of equality and humanity itself.
I would be remiss not to mention the sudden political valences of both works. Both novels discuss watersheds, murders that prompted the mainstream to say never again, to rally behind efforts to eradicate the racism, xenophobia, and misogyny that had enabled them. What is so shocking about the Chin and Till cases is that the murders were never given legal recourse—they are examples of extralegal violence without a legal reprimand. The murderers were acquitted in Till’s case, and given probation in Chin’s. Louis Till’s file remained sealed.
Decades later, here we are. Violence against people of color surged during election season, and especially in its direct aftermath. Suddenly, 1982 and 1957 do not seem that far removed. The nationalist discourse of president-elect Trump, packaged as a mix of economic anxiety and xenophobia, found its expression most notoriously in his insistence that Japan and especially China were “stealing” manufacturing jobs. Numerous Asian Americans, including New York Times writer Michael Luo, were told to “go home.” Anti-Asian violence escalated in the week after the election. It is hard not to think of Vincent Chin.
It is also hard not to think of Emmett Till, as images of The Ku Klux Klan holding a victory rally in North Carolina spread like wildfire, and as anti-black violence surfaces everywhere from college campuses to gas stations. The push-and-pull courtship between white supremacist organizations and Trump had not been part of the political mainstream (though always there as an undercurrent) since before the Civil Rights Movement—not since Emmett Tilll’s murder led to a state of national mourning and, eventually, reform.
The countless instances of post-election racist abuse are not incidental, but structural. They are part of the lineages that Davies and Wideman chart in their books. And they intersect with other trajectories of violence against Muslim (-perceived) Americans, LGBTQ+ people, undocumented people. The list goes on.
This is not to say all is lost. As Maya Angelou wrote, “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.” In their engagement with Chin and Till, Davies and Wideman offer a courageous effort—they ask difficult questions via their characters, questions that challenge all of us to consider where we would have stood then and where we stand today. In these two important works, history might rear its ugly head, but through the act of revealing itself it can also be defeated; The Fortunes and Writing to Save a Life help us see exactly what we are facing, and as such open up avenues to prevent us from living it again.