I met May-lee Chai while attending San Francisco State University for my MFA. She is the type of professor one feels incredibly lucky to encounter. As a professor, and as a writer, she is both generous and inspiring. In fact, on the day I met with Chai over Zoom to conduct this interview, I’d been despairing over the purpose of writing, asking myself why it even mattered amidst such harrowing contemporary conditions. In less than an hour of speaking with Chai, I was reminded of why writing is meaningful—necessary even—and I continue to be astounded by her perspective on writing and the world.
Her newest collection of short stories, Tomorrow in Shanghai (Blair, 2022), is an important book for our times that dismantles the myth of American racial progress. Set predominantly in the 1980s, Tomorrow in Shanghai is full of stories that look at a particular type of violence that isn’t always easy to name. The collection follows various characters from the Chinese diaspora living in America as they encounter situations that, while not physically violent, result in long-lasting harm. Young mixed-race children are ostracized by their white midwestern community, a Chinese father is the punchline to racist jokes at a dinner party, a white mother doesn’t correct her friends when they assume her half-Chinese daughter is an adoptee. Chai’s ability to depict the vast range of human experiences and emotions is on full display in this collection, and while there is no shortage of suffering for her characters, they also feel love and longing and hope. She is that rare type of writer who has ability to write the political without ever losing sight of the personal.
May-lee Chai is the author of eleven books, including My Lucky Face, Dragon Chica, Tiger Girl, The Girl from Purple Mountain (co-authored with her father, Winberg Chai), Hapa Girl: A Memoir, the American Book Award–winning short story collection Useful Phrases for Immigrants, and others. I was lucky enough to meet with Chai via Zoom to discuss her new collection Tomorrow in Shanghai, making your characters suffer, and the importance or writing the personal.
The Rumpus: I think of you as such a prolific writer. I was so in love with your last collection, Useful Phrases for Immigrants, which came out a couple of years ago, so I was excited I didn’t have to wait terribly long for another one from you. How did this collection, Tomorrow in Shanghai, come to be?
May-lee Chai: Well, it’s been four years, so I’m not super fast, but it hasn’t taken that long. I’ve been working on most of these stories either since Donald Trump was elected or since the pandemic started. So they’re kind of a different vibe. The stories in Useful Phrases for Immigrants were all written before Trump, but I put it together during the rise of Trump when he was on the campaign trail. It was kind of a reaction to his xenophobia. Tomorrow in Shanghai is definitely bathed in and soaking in the xenophobia and the violence that followed. None of the stories are set in the present, and that was by design. I was trying to show how the violence of the present is rooted in other moments in time. It’s not just the present. It is not just Donald Trump. I mean, these xenophobic tendencies that are exacerbated by capitalism and the anti-Chinese rhetoric of the present can be traced to other moments.
Rumpus: I’m glad you bring up the book’s relationship to time. A couple of the stories follow a mixed-race couple (a white mom and a Chinese dad) moving to the Midwest. The move from urban coasts to the suburban Midwest functions as a catalyst for racial violence and othering which the characters hadn’t experienced, at least not to such an extreme degree, when they’d lived in bigger cities. At one point, in response to their treatment from the community, one of the characters remarks “It is 1981. How is this possible?” That really struck me. I was thinking, Wow, you’re writing about the racism towards Asian communities in the eighties and here we are forty years later and it doesn’t seem like things have really changed. What was your experience writing about that type of othering while in our current social and political climate?
Chai: When Trump started rising to power and he was on the campaign trail, even in 2015, it made me think of the eighties. And this year was the fortieth anniversary of the murder of Vincent Chin, who was a twenty-seven-year-old Chinese American engineer who was beaten to death by two Detroit auto workers in 1982 because they were xenophobic racists who blamed Japanese cars for the economic woes of the car industry in the US. They were given probation and a $3000 fine each. Neither of them spent a single night in prison. So now, with all of this xenophobia and the anti-Asian attacks that we’ve been having in the Bay Area, it made me think of the eighties. So that was a deliberate line, so I’m glad it got your attention. I deliberately had the father in one of the stories saying “It’s 1981 for Pete’s sake,” to draw attention to the fact that in every era we think it’s too late to be having racism. We’re like, “It’s 2022. This shouldn’t be happening,” and yet it keeps happening.
Rumpus: The Vincent Chin anniversary was something that was in my mind as well while reading the book. I was remembering the documentary, Who Killed Vincent Chin, which was really painful to watch because of how violent the attack was. One of the things that stood out in the stories from Tomorrow in Shanghai is that they don’t have any extreme physical violence. There is a definite violent undercurrent, but it often comes in the form of microaggressions. To me, your stories illuminated the way that casual or less overt prejudice can sometimes feel more violent or more oppressive in that they they’re harder to call out. I was wondering why it was important for you to depict that specific type of violence.
Chai: Thank you so much for noticing that and asking me about it. It was by design. When I was growing up, we faced a lot of overt violence that I’ve written about in other books. People shot at our house. My brother had to go to the hospital once after being attacked on school property. People killed our dogs. It was just nonstop. I didn’t want to show that because I’ve already written about it. I wanted to show a fictional family experiencing something similar, but not to the extreme that we went through. It weighs upon the soul, but you can’t quite put your finger on it. It’s not like when they literally shoot at your house and kill your pet. It’s more like an unwelcome feeling that makes you blame yourself. Makes you question, What am I doing? Am I imagining this? Right? I wanted to show the pernicious nature of that type of racism.
Rumpus: It feels like gaslighting. In one of the stories, people at a party tell jokes that are racist, but not overtly so, and everyone laughs, including the person whose race is being made fun of. It seems like the kind of thing where, if you call someone out, they’ll be like, You’re crazy. I didn’t say anything racist. I didn’t do anything. What are you talking about?
Chai: Or, You just can’t take a joke, right? Or, You are making a big deal out of things. And I didn’t mean it that way. And then you become the villain for bringing it up.
Rumpus: You write about this in terms of gender and sexuality as well. There’s a story where a female student is being asked to read aloud a sexual scene in class by her professor. Afterwards she refers to the experience as sexual harassment. Later the protagonist wonders if it was actually sexual harassment? It made me wonder how we navigate these hard to define experiences that aren’t easily nameable acts of racism or sexual harassment, but which feel malicious and toxic.
Chai: I feel like now people are more willing to just call it out. But then they’re attacked for calling it out. Accused of perpetuating cancel culture. The story you mention is set in the nineties. It’s set in the past where people didn’t feel as comfortable calling these things out. It wasn’t as widely accepted or understood. What I’m showing is something extremely uncomfortable. It is sexual harassment. The professor asking a student who’s very uncomfortable reading a sexually explicit passage out loud even when she said she didn’t want to, then mocking her for feeling uncomfortable. And when she says she feels uncomfortable, the professor mocks her. He says to the class “She’s against free speech,” and so the class sides with him. I wanted to show that very toxic dynamic — how a student may be still struggling to find the words to express why something makes her so uncomfortable and then being shut down by someone in power. It’s like a sexual harassment microaggression. It’s not flat-out rape. It’s not flat-out cat-calling, but it’s that unequal power dynamic and that unequal gender dynamic where the person doesn’t feel safe speaking up and it’s silencing of the discomfort where I feel the harassment lies.
Rumpus: One of your strengths is writing about politically fraught issues without ever coming off as didactic. I think that is incredibly difficult to achieve. I think part of it is the way that you write everything in scene. It is never the character explaining why something is right or wrong. We just see them in the muck of it all.
Chai: Well, I am glad to hear that it doesn’t come across as didactic. I think part of it is that I didn’t have a moral story or message I was trying to convey. I wanted to really show how miserable it is for the person who experiences this and to kind of empathize with them. And so the reader has to be with them. The reader is never put in the position of being asked, Would you say this? Like who cares? I don’t. I’m not writing for those readers. I’m writing for those of us who are like, Oh my God, we’re the deer in the headlights. What do we do?
I really make my characters suffer. I make them suffer in these scenes and they go through a lot of discomfort and they don’t have a lot of comfort from the people around them. I’m going to assume that the reader has been in that position. We’ve all been there at some point in our life, maybe not this particular circumstance, but in some other circumstance.
Rumpus: There really is not anyone to comfort them, and one of the lines from the book that’s stuck with me is, “In Chinese the word for family and the word for home were the same: 家 (jiā).”
You do make so many of your characters suffer, especially your protagonists, and they struggle to find a sense of home or family. Either they’re physically removed from home or when they’re in their family, there’s a total lack of comfort from the people who should be comforting them. I wondered what drew you to writing about that particular experience of being othered or removed?
Chai: Well, I think part of it—and I didn’t psychoanalyze myself when I was writing these stories—but I really feel it’s because we’re living through this moment. I feel like the last six or seven years have been hell years. When Trump came to power and he made it okay at a national level, at the highest office of our nation, to be disgusting, to be overtly racist and misogynistic and ableist, it has felt like being assaulted on a daily basis. When I first started writing these stories, I didn’t set out to write on these themes, but this is what came out. And I think it’s because of the atmosphere in the country.
Rumpus: It sounds like writing was sort of an escape, which is odd because some of these stories are characters going through extreme suffering. How did you straddle living in our contemporary society with writing fiction?
Chai: I think that’s why none of these stories are set in the present. I had to set them in a different time period. I’ve written a lot of essays and op-eds. That’s where I’m being didactic. We’ve got to speak up. We’ve got to get out the vote because it’s been such a difficult political time. But in the fiction, I couldn’t imaginatively go into the present. Living in the present has caused me so much anxiety, so in my fiction I had to set it in a different time and in a past time that’s over. I can imagine that my characters have gotten to some better place. Every story is longing for a better place. And they’re thinking the future will be better. That’s where the title, Tomorrow in Shanghai, comes from. I think that by going into fiction in a different setting and a different time I could process the grief and anxiety of our present moment.
Rumpus: I really love that response. We’re both on Twitter, and so much of what I see online is some iteration of writerly despair. Do you feel writerly despair?
Chai: I feel like I’m the opposite of those writers. Writing is what sustains me and gets me through. It’s the one place where we have control, and even if terrible things happen, it’s not someone else making the terrible things happen. I can highlight and amplify and empathize with the people I want to, whereas outside of fiction, so much of the media is corporate. It’s controlled by profit motive, so some of the ugliest, most noxious, most divisive voices are what get amplified. If we didn’t have fiction, if we didn’t have writing, what would we have?
Rumpus: I love the idea that even if it’s chaotic and our characters are suffering, writing is a thing we get to control. It’s a gift really. With the chaos of life, especially over these last few years, what does your writing routine look like?
Chai: My process has changed radically right now because I’m having some ergonomic issues and I’m trying to find a setup that will work for me. This is really difficult because I can’t write every day because I’m in pain. Before that, I didn’t write every day just because it’s so busy. But when I did write, I could write very intensely. You know from my classes that I ask students to reflect upon their creative process and to always think about it and be conscious about it. That’s to develop practice and to think about a creative process as something everyone has a right to develop and you should have a right to. I really do think that our creative processes will get us through all kinds of traumatic political moments. It’s a way of centering ourselves and our deepest needs beyond the physical. Society tends to devalue our intellectual and creative needs, but they’re what make us human.
Rumpus: Do you feel a lot of pressure to publish? How do you keep publishing separate from your creative practice?
Chai: I mean I have a day job as a teacher. So that takes off some of the stress related to things like health insurance and housing. I think in academia, people will say that there is a lot of pressure to publish. But I like writing and I like publishing. So far that’s worked for me. I managed to find a field where the two things go together — the writing and the day job. I think it’d be very hard for me if my day job didn’t value that.
Rumpus: I really admire your balance around writing. What advice do you have for writers who are struggling to write amidst what sometimes does kind of feel like the end of the world?
Chai: It is easy to think writing is something frivolous — something standing in the way of organizing politically — but I feel like the answer for many of us is that there will come a point if all we do is organize and work, where we’ll be so depleted and it will be easy to pick us off. I do believe that sustaining our creative practices is essential. It’s a humanistic practice. It’s essential to democracy. It’s essential to our individual selves. It is a way of affirming our values. So for people who are feeling overwhelmed, there’s nothing wrong with writing something happy or a memory or a list.
In my classes I often assign excerpts from Sei Shōnagon’s Pillow Book. It is kind of a woman’s diary, which maybe sounds kind of offensive because the entries were shaped into short essays and she was a highly skilled writer, but they are about her feelings and her observations and her daily life and a thousand years later we’re still reading it. I feel like there’s nothing wrong, and in fact, I think it’s actually very empowering and powerful, to write down our feelings and our thoughts in a short form, and to sustain a practice. I think it’s essential in this moment.
Author photo by Bob Hsiang Photography