How does a person create an identity as an immigrant in America? How much of your cultural identity do you take with you? How much do you assimilate to American culture?
The Fortunes is a new historical novel from author Peter Ho Davies, and explores these questions.
Davies lives in Ann Arbor and teaches at U of M, but grew up in Great Britain. He uses his Welsh and Chinese heritage to explore ethnicity and cultural identity in his novels.
The Fortunes is a collection of four novellas, each one centering around Chinese and Chinese American characters struggling to find their place in the United States. The third story, “Jade,” takes place in and around Detroit and centers around the 1982 murder of Vincent Chin, a real-life event in which a Chinese American man was severely beaten and killed by auto workers who mistook him as Japanese.
“What I think is the ultimate kind of binding element, the glue that holds the stories together: all of these characters are struggling with questions of representation,” says Davies, who notes that he identifies with those questions not only as an American immigrant with mixed ethnic backgrounds, but also as a novelist.
“Novelists represent other people, struggle with our right to do that, how we do that. And so I’m writing in a sense into that very anxiety through these characters.”
Davies says it’s an appropriate time for the novel to come out, given the attention on immigration, assimilation, and racial tensions in this year’s political debate.
“In a strange way, the times have caught up with the book,” he says. “Some of these issues that I’m dealing with in the past feel as if they are coming back very much into our present cultural and political discourse.”
Davies will be appearing at Nicola’s Bookstore in Ann Arbor on Thursday.
To hear the full conversation, click on the audio player above.