Literati event brings lauded university novelists together
They have the kind of professional and personal friendship all aspiring authors would hope for. After meeting through Palacio’s wife, fiction star Claire Vaye Watkins, they’ve both taught at the University of Michigan, championed each other’s work and played soccer with their MFA students on the weekends.
Last year, Peter Ho Davies and Derek Palacio published novels which have earned them critical recognition and literary attention. Davie’s second novel, "The Fortunes," loosely connects four stories of the Chinese-American experience through space and time, while Palacio’s debut novel "The Mortification" follows a Cuban-American family as they navigate a new life in New England.
You’ve both written fiction for many years, of course, but you also both teach creative writing here at Michigan. How does this process of teaching new writers inform your own practice? Or, maybe, it doesn’t, and you view them as two very separate endeavors?
Davies: Good students — and we’re lucky to have excellent ones here —keep you on your toes! Their work is so distinctive, so individual, that I feel I’m often learning from it, as I often do from hearing what they’re reading. More than this though, their passion for writing, their commitment to their work, is often simply inspiring.
Palacio: They’re pretty complementary for me. I’ve been very fortunate to teach in very different settings. Michigan is very different from the IEIA [the Institute of American Indian Arts MFA, where Palacio also teaches] program. And from the Mojave School [a writing program started by Palacio and his wife, Claire Vaye Watkins, for students in rural Nevada].
Let's talk a little bit more in-depth about each of your most recent novels, “The Mortifications” and “The Fortunes.” Both titles evoke a mystic or religious theme, and this theme is extended through the novels with discussions of the role of fate or destiny in the narrative, as well as human agency. What drew you to this theme?
Davies: I want to suggest with “The Fortunes” the mixture of luck and fate that shapes the characters’ lives, but the title, of course, is also a reference to that most common Chinese-American signifier, the fortune cookie. Everyone knows the fortune cookie isn’t really Chinese (you don’t get fortune cookies in restaurants in China, of course) but something about how bogusly Chinese they are makes me think of them as humbly, but also authentically Chinese-American.
Palacio: There’s a lot of wonderful immigrant fiction out there about coming to America and assimilating, finding your place. But there are also wonderful stories — and this is where “The Mortifications” leans — about the impossibility of ever feeling that this is your home. The question most immigrants have to ask is: What would my life have been like if I’d stayed? There’s always these two tracks of comparison, and because you can’t ever fully leave your culture behind, or fully embrace the new culture in which you live, it’s a question you carry with you always. The idea of destiny and fate in this book is woven into the idea of family — what might have been had they stayed.
Derek, “The Mortifications” is billed as a new take on the Cuban-American immigrant narrative. Stylistically, it could be seen as more restrained, something that you don’t come across much in older classics of the Cuban-American literary tradition. Thematically, it takes place in New England, far from Cuban-American strongholds like Miami. Was this use of language and location a response to the colorful, over-the-top exuberance of older narratives in this tradition? Or was it less a reaction to this tradition, than simply a reflection of your own voice and experience?
Palacio: I don’t know if I was really trying to differentiate or push away from that. There’s a lot of stuff in here — the food, characters such as Uxbal [the father left behind in Cuba] — that is a ridge between these two literary traditions. On my father’s side I’m technically a first generation American. So from that perspective, I’m not that far from Cuba, but I also grew up in New Hampshire, and I don’t speak Spanish. So I was really trying to write about the Cubans I knew, which was my family growing up in New England. I don’t know if we’re more restrained — we’re probably just more “New England.”
I wanted to talk to you both about the vital role women play in your narratives. The mother, as a recurring symbol and as a living, breathing person, crops up in both your works quite a bit. In “The Mortifications,” she’s an immensely important character who in fact sets the narrative in motion by moving the family to the U.S. and leaving her husband behind. Significant mother figures, absent or present, also weave their way through each story in “The Fortunes.” Why was it important to feature these mothers, and how did you try to better understand and portray them?
Davies: Parenthood has been a theme in my fiction for a while now (even before I was a parent, writing about it was a kind of rehearsal!) but you’re right that mothers play a key role in each section of The Fortunes. That likely reflects their importance in immigrant stories, in settling, in creating homes and families, in nurturing successive generations.
Palacio: I finished the book before our kid was born — we have a three-year-old now. But with Soledad [the novel’s matriarch], and for the rest of the characters to a degree, this is a book that didn’t want to stray much from the big questions. When I was writing Soledad, I had that question that parents who move their families have to always ask: Am I glad I did that? You’re ripping them from one world and putting them in another. What does that leave you in the new world? Is that a power you can invoke again and again, or is that a power that diminishes, because you’ve already exercised it? Maybe you only get to do that once in their lives. Isabel [Soledad’s daughter] gets a long leash, but that’s a freedom that comes in the wake of disrupting Isabel’s early childhood in Cuba. As a parent, I’m living [some of these questions] now.
There is, at times, an undercurrent of sensuality or sexuality that runs through both your works, yet it doesn’t play into stereotypes or conventional mainstream notions of Chinese, Cuban, Chinese-American or Cuban-American sexuality. For instance, Chinese sex workers are portrayed as neither exotic sirens nor alluring victims, and Cuban-American mother Soledad gains stature in the United States not from her “tropical” sensuality, but from her cautious, cool professionalism. How do you side-step adding to the over-sexualized portrayals of Asian and Latin American women in the United States, without making your characters seem frigid or flat?
Davies: There are a lot of stereotypes, both about Asian women and men, and I wanted less to side-step them than to confront them. For instance, the character of Anna May Wong, the first Chinese-American movie star, who helped create some of those very stereotypes, but who was also imprisoned — personally and professionally — by them. [This] was a great way to address and then undermine stereotypes.
Palacio: You’re always hoping that you’re treating every character, regardless of gender, as a full individual with their own sense of desire. With Soledad, there was some element of wanting her to find some joy somewhere along the way in this journey. With [my characters], Soledad and Isabel, I was very lucky. I can’t claim any deliberateness in my fortune with them. They were just such powerful people, and I’ve been lucky to know a lot of powerful women in my life. My mother is a very strong presence in my life, when I think of her personality and how she moves through the world, and my wife is a complete and total genius and champion. I’ve been lucky to be surrounded by these women, so I can’t think of women in any other way. I try not to, and I try to remember that when I come to the page.