Winner of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards A New York Times Notable Book From the author of The Welsh Girl comes a groundbreaking, provocative new novel. Sly, funny, intelligent, and artfully structured, The Fortunes recasts American history through the lives of Chinese Americans and reimagines the multigenerational novel through the fractures of immigrant family experience. Inhabiting four lives—a railroad baron’s valet who unwittingly ignites an explosion in Chinese labor, Hollywood's first Chinese movie star, a hate-crime victim whose death mobilizes Asian Americans, and a biracial writer visiting China for an adoption—this novel captures and capsizes over a century of our history, showing that even as family bonds are denied and broken, a community can survive—as much through love as blood. Building fact into fiction, spinning fiction around fact, Davies uses each of these stories—three inspired by real historical characters—to examine the process of becoming not only Chinese American, but American.
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About the Author
PETER HO DAVIES is on the faculty of the graduate program in creative writing at the University of Michigan. His debut collection, The Ugliest House in the World, won the John Llewellyn Rhys and PEN/Macmillan awards in Britain. His second collection, Equal Love, was hailed by the New York Times Book Review for its “stories as deep and clear as myth.” It was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and a New York Times Notable Book. In 2003 Davies was named among the “Best of Young British Novelists” by Granta. The Welsh Girl was his first novel. The son of a Welsh father and Chinese mother, Davies was raised in England and spent his summers in Wales.
Read an Excerpt
I: GOLDCelestial Railroad Beset by labor shortages, Crocker chanced one morn to remark his houseboy, a slight but perdurable youth named Ah Ling. And it came to him that herein lay his answer. — American Titan, K. Clifford Stanton1. It was like riding in a treasure chest, Ling thought. Or one of the mistress’s velvet jewel cases. The glinting brasswork, the twinkling, tinkling chandelier dangling like a teardrop from the inlaid walnut ceiling, the etched glass and flocked wallpaper and pendulous silk. And the jewel at the center of the box — Charles Crocker, Esquire, Mister Charley, biggest of the Big Four barons of the Central Pacific Railroad, resting on the plump brocaded upholstery, massive as a Buddha, snoring in time to the panting, puffing engine hauling them uphill. It was more than a year since the end of the war and the shooting of the president — the skinny one, with the whiskery, wizened face of a wise ape — who had first decreed the overland railroad. His body had been carried home in a palace car much like this, Ling had heard Crocker boast. Ling pictured one long thin box laid inside another, the dead man’s tall black hat perched atop it like a funnel. People had lined the tracks, bareheaded even in the rain, it was said, torches held aloft in the night. Like joss sticks, he reflected. For a moment he fancied Crocker dead, the carriage swagged in black, and himself keeping vigil beside the body, but it was impossible with the snores alternately sighing and stuttering from the prone form. “Locomotion is a soporific to me,” Crocker had confessed dryly as they boarded, and sure enough, his eyes had grown heavy before they reached Roseville. By the time the track began to rise at Auburn, the low white haze of the flats giving way to a receding blue, vegetal humidity to mineral chill, his huge head had begun to roll and bob, and he’d presently stretched himself out, as if to stop it crashing to the floor. Yet even asleep Crocker seemed inexorable, his chest surging and settling profoundly as an ocean swell, the watch chain draped across it so weighty it must have an anchor at one end. Carried to the Sierra summit, he looked set to rumble down the lee side into Nevada and Utah, bowling across the plains, sweeping all before him. Ling knew he should be looking out the window, taking the chance to see the country, to see if the mountains really were gold, but he hadn’t been able to take his eyes off the steep slope of his master’s girth. My gold mountain, he thought, entertaining a fleeting vision of himself — tiny — scaling Crocker’s imposing bulk, pickaxe in hand, following the glittering vein of his watch chain toward the snug cave of his vest pocket. Ling didn’t own a watch himself, of course, but shortly after he entered service Crocker had had him outfitted with a new suit from his dry goods store, picking it out himself. The storekeep had been peddling a more modest rig — “a fustian bargain, as it were!” — that the big man dismissed out of hand as shoddy. He settled on a brown plaid walking suit instead, waving aside the aproned clerk to yank the coat sharp over Ling’s narrow shoulders. “There now!” Crocker declared, beaming at him in the glass. “Every inch a gentleman’s valet.” He taught Ling how to fasten only the top button of the jacket, leaving the rest undone, to “show the vest to advantage,” and advised him he needn’t bother with a necktie so long as he buttoned his shirt collar. “Clothes make the man,” the circling clerk opined, sucking his teeth. “Even a Chinaman.” And then, of course, there must be a hat, a tall derby, which Ling balanced like a crown, eyes upturned. As a finishing touch Crocker had tucked a gold coin, a half eagle, into Ling’s vest pocket — a gift, though the cost of the outfit itself would come out of his wages — where Ling could swear the thing actually seemed to tick against his ribs like a heartbeat: rich, rich, rich. He patted it now, as he finally turned to take in the scenery — the pale halo of sere grass along a ridge, the stiff flame of a cypress, the veiled peaks beyond — wondering despite himself if the mountains might glister through the flickering pines.2. Gold Mountain. Gum Shan. Ling had never even laid eyes on gold before he left Fragrant Harbor. It had made him feel furtively foolish. There he was, sent to find it and he’d never seen it in his life. What if he didn’t recognize it? How yellow was it? How heavy? What if he walked right by it? “How can you miss it, lah!” Aunty Bao had snapped, over the snick of her abacus. “There’ll be a mountain of it, stupid egg!” But Ling wasn’t so sure. They came from Pearl River. If it were really full of pearls, he wanted to tell her, he wouldn’t be sailing to Gold Mountain. “Besides,” Big Uncle insisted, “you have seen gold before.” They were in his cabin on the “flower boat,” the moored junk that housed the brothel Big Uncle owned and Aunty Bao — palely plump as the pork buns she was named after — managed for him. Yes, Big Uncle was saying, a grandfather had made his fortune prospecting in Nanyang. The old man had had a mouthful of gold teeth. As an infant, Ling had even been given gold tea, a concoction made by pouring boiling water over a piece of gold, supposed to ensure luck. Didn’t he remember? Ling tried. For a second a vast, bared smile, glistening wetly, rose up before him and with it a feeling of fear, an impression, as the lips drew back, that beneath the flesh the man himself was made all of gold, that behind the gold teeth lay a gold tongue clanging in a gold throat. But the only “grandfather” he could actually recall was a broken-down old head swabbing the decks who had already lost those teeth, pulled, one by one, to pay for his opium habit. All that was left was a fleshy hole, the old man’s lips hanging loose as an ox’s, his tongue constantly licking his bruised-looking gums. Still, Big Uncle pressed, “Gold is in your blood, boy!” Perhaps, Ling thought, but he’d learned to doubt his blood. His people were of that reviled tribe of sea gypsies known as Tanka, “egg folk,” after the rounded rattan shelters of their sampans. Forbidden by imperial edict to live on land and only grudgingly tolerated in ports and coastal villages, for generations they’d made a thin living as fishermen, mocked for their stink by the Han Chinese. Latterly they’d made an even more odious, if also more lucrative, reputation smuggling opium for the British and pimping out their women to them for good measure. Ling’s mother had been one of these haam-sui-mui, or “saltwater girls.” “A lucky one,” Aunty Bao observed with a moue of envy, a beauty plucked from the brothel by a wealthy foreigner and established in her own household. Only his mother’s luck had run out fast. She’d died in childbirth, and her protector, Ling’s father, had settled a generous sum on Big Uncle to take the infant off his hands. All Ling had left of her was her name. He had grown up on board the flower boat along with the other bastards, a clutch of them grudgingly provided for until they could be disposed of profitably, the girls as whores, the boys as coolies (a C or P daubed on their chests in pitch for Cuba or Peru, where they’d labor in the sugar plantations or mine guano). The only children Big Uncle kept were his lawful sons by Aunty Bao. Their father styled himself a respectable Chinese comprador — frogged brocade jacket over ankle-length changshan, silk cap smoothed tight over shaven head — grooming his boys to run the family business, even if that business consisted of a brothel, an opium den, a smuggling fleet. Big Uncle’s sons were plump and well dressed — on land they could pass for Cantonese — but more than anything Ling envied them their father’s name.
Barnes & Noble Review Interview with Peter Ho Davies
Peter Ho Davies's beautiful debut, The Welsh Girl, was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize. The book is a careful, deeply faceted study of belonging and exile in a small town in Wales during World War II. Now, nearly a decade later, Davies brings us The Fortunes, his first full-length collection rooted in the United States, where he now resides, as professor at the University of Michigan. Like The Welsh Girl, The Fortunes is a multifaceted study of belonging and exile. But Davies's scale is enlarged here: The book spans 175 years and shuttles between China and America, circling the lives of Chinese Americans in the act of forging new identities and searching for home.
In a moment when the politics of identity have become inflamed by polarizing forces, Davies's book leans into the state of cultural between-ness. He deftly explores with the experience of living between cultures and countries. As Davies examines the forces that converge to shape our identities (with or even without our will), he also maps the longings by which we each attempt to shape ourselves.
The Fortunes, composed of four constellated vignettes, is formally deft. This is perhaps because it understands itself so keenly to be a book about reading, about the ways we learn to tell our stories and to read our own lives. As Davies plays with genres of writing the record, the footnote, the journal, the autobiography his tales meditate deeply on what it means to represent, whether a self, a nation, a group of people, a racial identity. How does one come to speak for the many? Which stories are heard, and what do they cost the speaker?
This fall, I talked with Peter Ho Davies, first by phone and then via email. We spoke about things as various as inventing footnotes, trying to belong to a country, and the state of America's national anxieties. Our conversation is condensed below. Tess Taylor
The Barnes & Noble Review: Your first novel, The Welsh Girl, had a much different scale there were a few main voices, folded during wartime into a Welsh village. But this is your first full-length book set in the U.S., and it leaps across time and space. How do you feel America worked its way into the form, into the structure? Were there particularly American pleasures and challenges?
Peter Ho Davies: An early inspiration for the book twenty-some years ago now! was a train trip I took across the U.S. from Boston to San Francisco. I'd only been in the U.S. for a couple of years at the time, and the sheer continental scale of the country was revelatory to me as someone coming from a much smaller nation (Britain). It's one thing to grasp that intellectually but another to get it physically as you sit in a seat day after day, watching the landscape unfurl. That was the trip on which I learned about the Chinese workers on the Transcontinental, which forms the backdrop of the first part of the novel, and the sense of scale seemed inextricably woven into that enterprise.
In general though, books, even ones about a very specific location, often seem to me to be both about the place they're set in and other, more distant places. Joyce's Dubliners is a case in point. Character after character in that book, even as they walk Dublin's streets, think of other places, real or imagined: Araby, Buenos Aires, the opera houses of Europe and London. My characters in The Welsh Girl live in a remote area the world (in the form of POWs and refugees from WWII) comes to them, in a sense but the contrast with that wider world of conflict is felt, I hope. While The Fortunes crisscrosses America, China is a recurring presence in the book, both as a location and also an idea.
There were, of course, lots of challenges I certainly didn't feel myself "American" enough to take on this project so soon after I moved here twenty years back but also many pleasures. American idiom, for one thing, has delighted and engaged me since my childhood in Britain, and there's a short section in the book that uses the lingo of the Jazz Age, of flappers, which was a special pleasure to write.
TT: As you note, the book is actually not only transcontinental, like our railway, but really concerned with shuttling back and forth to China. In the first, the character Ah Ling arrives in Sacramento from China, and in the next the movie star Anna May Wong goes to China to visit her father. Finally, a character named John, who (in some resemblance to you) is a creative writing professor from the Midwest, goes to China to adopt a child. This is profoundly a book about transmigration and about between-ness. Your own background is half Chinese, half Welsh, but you mentioned as we spoke that you went to China for the first time during the writing of this novel. How did visiting China for the first time now affect your writing? PHD: I'd drafted the final section, about a contemporary journey to China, before I went, but of course it felt essential to go. I'm likely still processing that experience, but it enriched the book in ways both large and small. The closing pages especially couldn't have been written without going there, but even small details were impacted. I have my character visit the Great Wall (of course!), but only after I'd been there myself and woke up the next morning feeling the ache of walking those steep slopes in my calf muscles could my character "feel" the experience.
The effect of the visit extends beyond my writing, I'd say, more broadly into my life and my sense of myself. That "halfness" you mention, coupled with another (I've now spent half my life in the U.S., half in the U.K.) has often felt like it implied a choice. I suspect that's true, too, of many Chinese Americans and many others of so-called hyphenated identities. But the choice also feels like a loyalty test of sorts. To lean into assimilation may be seen as a betrayal of heritage, to cleave too closely to one's heritage can feel like a failure to engage the broader society. It's lose-lose if you think of it as a choice. My characters, I think, feel this, as do I. Anna May Wong, the actress who's featured in one section, feels Chinese in America (her birthplace) but is seen in many ways as American in China when she visits, for instance. What I've grown toward through writing the book, through going to China is a rejection of the choice, the sense that there's a third option, a hybrid-hyphenated identity that is its own authenticity.
TT: For me, some of the most profound pleasures of the book arrive out of constellations layerings that have to do with repeating themes or figures: I think of the figure of the prostitute, or of prostitution, and also of way themes about parentage and belonging are woven through the stories. Did you sense these constellations of concern in advance, or did you write toward them? Do you sense what's going to heap up in advance, or do you channel and direct it once it comes?
PHD: I love the idea of "constellations"; it's one I use often when talking to my MFA students who are assembling collections of stories, a way of encouraging them to see patterns, affinities between the individual pieces. Thinking about that in the context of short story collections my own and my students' surely informed the evolution of The Fortunes: a novel, but one knit together by these echoes and links between novellas. Some were more apparent than others at different stages of writing. All the characters, say, struggle with the burden of representing others, and transportation in the form of the railroad, steamships, automobiles, and flight evolves as time passes from section to section (something that bears on migration, of course), but there are an array of others smaller, quieter echoes and call- backs, the invisible stitching of the book, I hope. As a reader I love to come across those, and I hope my readers will enjoy them.
The broader context here is my sense of the Chinese-American community and its history as one of fractured generational bonds. Were I writing a novel spanning 150 years about a different immigrant group Irish, maybe, or Italian I might have opted for a multi-generational family as a vehicle for the story. But the history of the Chinese in America from the "bachelor society" of male workers on the railroad, via exclusion laws that sought to stop Chinese from bringing their families to the U.S., and anti-miscegenation laws that barred them marrying here, to the recent arrival of adopted baby girls from China is one of broken, interrupted lines of descent. The four novellas of The Fortunes reflect that. They're not tied together by bloodlines, but despite these hurdles the Chinese-American community has persisted, and the echoes between sections are intended to suggest the affinities, the shared experiences, that bind the community together down the years.
TT: I love that idea of interrupted echoes. And of what is recorded and what is not. I had a funny experience when researching and preparing to write about your book: You acknowledge you've crafted Ah Ling, the Chinese valet who works for the railroad baron Crocker, out of "real" historical footnotes. Yet I went looking to find the book you cite in crafting Ah Ling, I discovered that that book, and the footnote, are actually fabricated by you. Ah Ling is a "real" character, so to speak, but it also seems you've taken some liberties in representing him even to the point of inventing a scholarly footnote written by a fictional academic called K. Clifford Stanton! Can you tell us a little bit about inventing K. Clifford, researching Ah Ling, and the project of blending fact and fiction?
PHD: Ah Ling as a figure is a kind of gift for a historical novelist someone who probably existed (he's mentioned briefly in several Crocker biographies) and played a pivotal role in the past (his industrious example is said to have inspired Crocker to hire the thousands of Chinese who built the railroad) and yet about whom almost nothing more is known. That gap in the historical record seems an invitation to fiction (also a challenge, of course, in terms of imagining the man's life). I wanted to acknowledge that Ling existed, but the lines from the biographies were slightly unwieldy to use as epigraphs, so I conflated a couple of them to create a line from a fictional biography of Crocker by a fictional biographer, K. Clifford Stanton . . . a fellow I've used once before in my fiction (he's kind of my Kilgore Trout) to provide a useful epigraph, in that case to a story about UFO abductions, of all things.
TT: In the last section of the book, you begin to play with something that feels almost like autobiography. How literally do you imagine we may read this? What's the point of perhaps impersonating someone who seems to be so much like yourself?
PHD: The book takes on several conflicted and equivocal representational figures in Ah Ling, Anna May, and Vincent Chin it's one of the thematic bonds that knit the book together. Each section sees characters wrestling with the impossible question of how one can represent many. And it dawned on me that that anxiety is, while particular to the characters, also a very deep writerly concern. We try to write of specific individuals but also aspire to something universal. For writers of color the burden of representing a group is particularly complex. I suspect I was drawn to my characters because they share my own anxiety of representation (such writerly anxieties can often stop us writing, but I sometimes find it productive to write into them). It seemed only fair to pull back the curtain a little at the end of the book and fess up to those fears, which is why I made the final figure a writer. He and I share other autobiographical aspects, to be sure, but he isn't me, and I'd like to think readers who've got that far will have come to appreciate the ambiguities of representation and won't make the straightforward assumption of autobiography. The book, if you like, is all about denying either/or answers. The characters aren't Chinese or American, but both. The historical action isn't fact or fiction, but both. And the final character isn't autobiographical or fictional . . . but some mixture of both.
TT: I read this book in the Sierra Nevada, right along the very kinds of mountain roads that Ah Ling might have watched dynamited, the precarious mountain passes that the railroad and Chinese labor made possible. Meanwhile, just as I was reading your section about the struggles between Chinese railroad workers and Irish labor Brexit got voted through, and there were white supremacists marching on Sacramento. All of this is to say we live in highly charged times, and that we can see anew how quickly seemingly submerged historical fissures can re-emerge and become inflamed. The charged racial and racialized politics, and the questions of belonging you present in this book, felt wildly insightful and very timely. Yet when we were speaking the other day, you mentioned that this book had its inception years ago. And you were also often writing about events that occurred over a century ago. Is there a way you find yourself even as you're writing about the past also writing toward the conflicts or language of the present? How do these things balance in your mind?
PHD: I very much admire historical fiction that casts light simultaneously on past and present. Colum McCann's Let the Great World Spin, say, invites us to think of the World Trade Center towers on the morning in 1974 that Philippe Petit tightrope-walks between them, but also to remember 9/11. That said, the present echoes in my own historical novels haven't always been by design. In the case of The Welsh Girl, say, I began the book in '98 or '99, but its story of wartime and specifically of prisoners of war, and how we treat them, began to mean something more post 9/11, post the detainment of prisoners in Guantánamo, post the revelations of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib. In the case of The Fortunes somethingsimilar has taken place, though I'd argue that the questions of immigration, and certainly of race are never all that far beneath the surface of the present.
November 2, 2016