I was first introduced to Peter Ho Davies through a mutual friend to talk about craft for a lecture I was to deliver as a graduation requirement for my MFA program at Warren Wilson College. After two years of parsing short stories and making conjectures on writerly intentions in their work, I was eager to engage with Peter directly about marking identity through the lens of dialogue in his novel The Fortunes, an ambitious and captivating book that recasts Chinese American history through the lives of historical and fictional Chinese figures in America.
In early November, Graywolf Press published Davies’s first nonfiction book, The Art of Revision: The Last Word. He is also the author of the novels A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself and The Welsh Girl, and the story collections The Ugliest House in the World and Equal Love. Davies is a recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, and is a winner of the PEN/Malamud and PEN/Macmillan Awards. He is currently on faculty at the University of Michigan.
I had the pleasure of talking with Davies recently over Zoom. It will come as no surprise to anyone who knows him, but he is an unflaggingly kind and generous teacher, and our initially planned thirty-minute conversation grew to encompass everything from the complexities of hyphenated identity and Asian American representation in contemporary literature, to the recent surge of anti-Asian discrimination and the challenge to pan-Asian voices in the face of such antagonism. Davies, like me, is half Chinese, and though he is Welsh and grew up in the UK, he has spent over two decades in the states, making him uniquely poised to draw together many of our shared preoccupations—fictional, intellectual, political, and personal.
The Rumpus: I am curious about your experience with identity and representation. What has it meant for you to interact with the terms “Asian American” and “writer of color,” and to what extent have those identity markers—some placed upon you, some adopted yourself—shaped the way you’ve seen yourself and your writing?
Peter Ho Davies: It’s a great question and one that I feel I have an evolving relationship to. I would have said, and continue to feel, some uncertainty and hesitancy about thinking of myself as an Asian American writer. But that’s actually proven to be productive. Often, I’m spurred to write into spaces where I’m a little unsure of my identity. This was true even when I was writing The Welsh Girl, which in part was an exploration of my relationship to my father’s culture and to Welshness in general. Occasionally, people mistake me for a kind of expert on Welshness, but in fact I saw the writing of that book as an opportunity to learn about it and my relationship to it.
Coming from a mixed-race family and having thought a lot about my relationship to my father’s side, it seemed logical—in the way that new work often speaks back to old work—to think about a similar investigation of my relationship to my mother’s side and my Chineseness, one that I embarked upon in The Fortunes very much in the same spirit. I wasn’t sure what my relationship was to Chineseness or that I could claim authority over it, but I wanted to investigate that sense of self.
In regard to being an Asian American, I think that was particularly tricky for me. I have some questions about my claim to Asianness, being only half Asian (and probably much less than half in a cultural sense). But even my claim to Americanness when I began The Fortunes seemed open to question. At that point, I’d lived in the US for about twenty years. It’s been a bit more than twenty-five now, just over half my life. More recently, I’ve actually become a US citizen, so I feel somewhat more able to claim Americanness than I might have previously.
A real tipping point for me with respect to my Asian Americanness came fairly late in writing The Fortunes. The book wasn’t quite done when I taught at the Kundiman Retreat. Because of that slightly uncertain sense of my own identity, I went in with some trepidation. I was curious about how I would be received, and I said at the opening night reception that I was grateful to be invited but felt like I was there slightly under false pretenses. What was really moving to me and very meaningful to me was the embrace of that community. It felt as though the Asian American writers in that room were claiming me, even if I had a hesitancy about claiming that status myself. And it does seem like a status of great honor. A number of friends and many other writers I admire fall within that category of Asian American writers, so I felt very heartened to be welcomed into that community. Kundiman was a really eye-opening and heart-opening experience.
Rumpus: That’s been a very consistent theme for me: treading a bit anxiously, and a bit on tiptoes, into spaces where I don’t know—and don’t want to presume—that I will be taken as someone who necessarily belongs.
Davies: It makes me very curious about your experience. We’re both “halfies” and halfness is something we both think about quite a lot. Obviously, we’re in a historical moment where we’re wondering about the place of Asian Americans in the US, our reception, how we’re perceived. We’re at a particularly intense inflection point where that’s concerned at the moment, but it feels as though for many of us—growing up for me in Britain, for you here—there’s always been that sense of, how do I fit in, and how do I belong in this larger culture in which I live. But also, allied to that, a sense of how do I fit into the culture of an ethnic heritage of parents, and grandparents. And so, there’s a feeling of identity uncertainty and even, arguably, of inauthenticity, that goes in both directions.
Rumpus: Absolutely, I can very much relate to that. My sister and I were always the black sheep at family gatherings. My mom grew up speaking Toisanese, a dialect of Cantonese, but my sister and I never learned, or were too stubborn to be taught, as my mom likes to say. All my cousins, though, did speak. When we became adults, I embarked on this path where I was very interested in learning Mandarin and spending time in China in a way that most of my immediate relatives weren’t. They didn’t have that sense of needing something to prove or having a chip on their shoulder, whereas I was very much going out of my way to adopt them.
Davies: The chip on the shoulder is a great description of that. That’s probably one of the reasons that spurs the writing of books for me into those very questions of authenticity, and the exploration of identity. But in a strange way, too, there’s that sort of recurring refrain amongst a lot of writers, including plenty of white writers, of feeling like outsiders. Or maybe like “inside-outsiders” or “outside-insiders”: that feeling of having a foot in both camps. Maybe it’s the basic nature of the imposter syndrome that we all have, or maybe it’s part of our writerly positioning, that dual sense of living our lives and also, at the same time, recording or commentating on our lives, where it feels like we’re both acting and observing at the same time. For me, that writerly duality is some kind of analog to my relationship to my dual ethnic identities.
Rumpus: It’s interesting to hear you talk about your fascination with identity and writing identity and how those influenced The Welsh Girl and The Fortunes. Do you feel like you have that obligation as someone who is half or mixed race and someone who is engaging with those questions, or does it just come from a place of genuine inquiry?
Davies: I don’t feel it as an obligation, though I suspect some do. The Fortunes is actually very interested in people who are thrust into representative roles and have to grapple with that obligation. But I’m not sure that I’ve felt that pressure myself. Maybe because of that hesitancy in claiming an identity, I don’t feel expected to engage it. The inquiry in that sense is more for myself than others.
That said, once you enter into the space, you can’t help but have an anxiety about representation, not least how you will be perceived in this endeavor. Particularly when you have doubts about your own identity, it feels risky to take on these questions. Though I think in many ways it’s intellectually honest. One of the things that drives us to do the work better—more respectfully, more realistically, more plausibly—is that very anxiety: I’m not sure I’ve got this yet, how can I do this? Writing into such anxieties, rather than shying from them, is something that’s proven increasingly productive to me.
As I moved through The Fortunes those questions of representation—the burdens of it, the responsibilities of it—began to feel more prevalent. Maybe it’s that sense we get as a book progresses and we begin to imagine it out there in the world, separate from ourselves. That’s why I became so interested in how the various characters—Anna May Wong, most obviously—are negotiating their own burden and duty of representation.
Rumpus: There is a level of risk that you take by embarking on questions where there isn’t a sense of certainty or that you’re going out on a limb to explore. And I think that’s what makes writing dangerous but also makes the best writing, exploring those things around the edges. The additional level of public scrutiny is also a really large concern. It’s not only your relationship with this work, it’s the way other people perceive it and the questions that arise from that, not least of which is authenticity.
Davies: One thing I was conscious of while writing The Fortunes was a sense of relief and gratitude that other writers had pioneered some of these questions. It’s odd, we often have anxiety about belatedness but occasionally it also feels like an advantage. The burden of being the first representative feels particularly charged and, of course, we always debate about who’s actually first in various ways. I was a colleague with and remain friends with Chang-rae Lee, who I think felt something of that. It’s a double-edged thing: your profile is elevated in certain ways, but you also feel other responsibilities or pressures from the community. I felt as though I was coming a little bit later to the party, even though a lot of my characters are grappling with the burden of being a “first.” That’s a lonely place, how can one person’s story stand for all? Which puts me in mind of the ideas of narrative scarcity that Viet Thanh Nguyen has talked about.
Rumpus: I remember reading Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, and him saying that he wanted to be the first Korean American writer only to discover that Chang-rae Lee had already claimed that title, and so he said he would be the first gay Korean American writer. I think there’s absolutely a burden of carrying that weight and being representative of a community in that way.
This moment is so rife with tension and anti-Asian sentiment of all kinds. The prevailing narrative thread in the media is about an increase of stigmatization and discrimination against Asian Americans. It’s been fascinating for me to read a couple of essays, including Cathy Park Hong’s great one in the New York Times. We have the model minority stereotype already, and so we have this impression of Asians as being quiet, effete, not necessarily wanting to fight back. I think the idea of wearing masks has enforced the way in which people can talk down to others or use epithets in public much more than they would have been emboldened to in the past. How are you seeing this landscape play out in the way you’ve conceptualized your own writing?
Davies: For the last several months, it’s felt like we’re in the middle of a changing circumstance. I struggle to find a place of perspective to begin to organize my thoughts, but I’ve been reading many articles that I think you’ve been reading, too. Cathy, for instance, suggests that the mask, even before this, had been a signifier of Asianness. At airports even five years ago, we would have occasionally seen people wearing masks, and nearly all those people were Asian. I catalog a slew of stereotypical Asian signifiers in The Fortunes—people playing ping-pong, people with cameras around their necks—all the skewed and limited images we grew up with and tried to avoid conforming to, but I hadn’t recognized the mask as another. What I’m wondering now is, if the mask is a signifier of Asianness, does that make wearing the mask itself stigmatized? That’s something being constructed in the cultural and political discourse by certain factions. There’s the stigma of Asianness which is, as you mentioned, weakness—something that has been deeply encoded as part of a long, painful history in America. And I wonder if the stigma of the mask has something to do with that lingering and buried stereotype of Asianness. As a thought experiment you could, on the other hand, imagine a scenario in which the wearing of a mask could have been construed as incredibly American. Wearing a bandana is the outlaw look—very traditional, very Western—but we haven’t gone in that direction.
I’m curious how you think about these questions and your experience as well. I know you lived in China for a while. I’m curious about what that experience was like for you and how you’re thinking about identity and how you perceive these questions about community.
Rumpus: I grew up predominantly with my mom who is Chinese, and though there were certain things we did as a family together around the holidays, we spoke English to each other, and my high school was predominantly white and Jewish, so there never really was an opportunity for me to engage with what this larger narrative was like, especially with respect to being mixed race. While I was at college at Oberlin I became sort of radicalized—one of these hotbeds of liberal insurrection—and it was interesting to take all those feelings I had about what it means to be Asian American and come into the sense of identity for probably the first time in my life.
But immediately after I graduated, I moved to rural China, where I was not seen in almost any way as being Chinese. I was only seen as being American. I think it speaks a lot to this idea of the disappointment or the dual sense of loss that is associated with not being able to feel belonging toward the country of your parentage or your nationality, nor your ethnicity or race. It’s also interesting to consider that within today’s context.
A lot of the writing that I’ve been doing recently is about some of the tensions within the Chinese and the Chinese American communities. It was pre-COVID when some of these ideas were on my mind, concepts that date back to the beginning of a pan-Asian Solidarity movement. There’s certainly a lot of support for that narrative. But of course, along the way, there have also been very acute moments of breakage. You had Chinese Americans wearing pins that said “I am Chinese” to avoid being lumped in with the Japanese during internment. It’s not to say that we’re at that point now, but there are a lot of Chinese Americans who feel that this virus and the culture around stigmatization should be contained to the Chinese community. You see this in more conservative circles, but I’ve been surprised to see it even with liberal friends, and even my own mom. She came out and told me that, “We’re not those Chinese. We came to America early. We espouse these values now. We don’t go to wet markets and handle bats.” It was fascinating and also incredibly disappointing to hear, but I think that’s been something on my mind, too, in terms of how to make sense of this. Are we eventually going to find a way to unite around some of these issues or is this the start of a lingering break that will only expand over time?
Davies: While it is dismaying, it also speaks to something helpful—if we can convey it to the larger culture—that the monolithic sense that Asian Americans or Chinese Americans are one thing is just not true. The fact that there are tensions within those communities is a way of complicating that picture, that suggests you can’t rely on simple stereotypes. But I agree it can sometimes be defensive when we say, “Oh, we’re not like them.” I think all of us have had anxieties about representation. Individually, I’m me, but together, we’re us or even them. We’re able to control the way we project the self, to some degree, but we’re uncertain about how we project the collective self, and how it reflects back on the individual. And yet, at the same time, there’s a part of me that wants to put a slightly more positive spin on it.
Rumpus: The power that comes with being able to characterize a person knowing only these stereotypical tropes is so dangerous, and that’s where people who wield these epithets get their power. It’s no wonder that they’re so effective.
Davies: I felt the threat of that power acutely when I lived in Britain. But when I came here as a graduate student, I felt oddly freed because it felt as though people could look at me and decide whatever they wanted—it might be flattering and it might very well not be—but I knew that they were wrong. Think what you like but any assumptions you have about me are likely to be confounded when I open my mouth and a British accent comes out of it. It was a means of exploding stereotypes, and I relished that. Whether I got to enact it didn’t really matter as much as having the knowledge that those people didn’t know anything about me, which is to say they had no power over me.
Rumpus: I know you visited China partly to write the last section of The Fortunes. Has your relationship to China changed at all?
Davies: I’ve visited China twice now but very briefly. When I went for The Fortunes, it was mostly to do retrospective research. I’d written most of the book, but I went because it gave me texture and detail. Very little changed at a macro level, but I felt like the work in subtle ways was enriched. The example I always give is that even though I had already written about my character visiting the Great Wall, only after I visited it myself and walked up and down it, did I wake up the next morning and feel it in my calves. When you see a picture, you don’t get that physical experience in the body. The trip was very touristy, but it felt appropriate for my characters who, even though they are adopting a baby, are having a partly tourist experience. I’ve been back once since because I have a few former MFA students who teach at NYU Shanghai, but both of those visits were no more than a week or ten days each. So, I feel I have at best a sketchy grasp of the country. Sometimes it feels like it was such a brief experience that all it really illuminates is…
Rumpus: …the vastness of what else we don’t know.
Davies: Exactly. Though, of course, as we began by talking about, that’s the spur to write into the unknown.
Photograph of Peter Ho Davies courtesy of Lynne Raughley.