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Reading “Useful Phrases for Immigrants”? Follow along with Lily Lit Club on Instagram.

May-lee Chai’s collection of eight short stories, “Useful Phrases for Immigrants,” published in October and winner of the Bakwin Award for writing by a woman, brings together the lives of migrants in China, immigrants to America and first-generation Americans.

(Christie Hemm Klok for The Lily)
(Christie Hemm Klok for The Lily)

The collection, which is Lily Lit Club’s December pick, contains stories that range from a young boy confronting how working in the big city has changed him to a teenage girl steaming with embarrassment as she shops for her first bra.

The Lily talked to Chai about the inspiration behind this collection of stories, the books she read in 2018 and what’s next for her.

The Lily: Is there a common thread that you wanted in all the stories that make up this collection?

May-lee Chai: Yes, definitely. One is an underlying current of economic anxiety. In all the stories, somebody is worrying about money or work. It’s really unusual in American literature as a theme. We don’t really talk about class or work unless it is to show the characters overcoming this challenge or unless it is a story of ultimate success. For my characters, it is just a fact of life. That was really important to me, to show the economic anxiety in the Chinese diaspora, because it’s very much there and runs counter to what we hear about the Chinese immigrant population.

I put this collection together in 2016 as a reaction to the political climate. We are facing a whole new level of crazy, anti-immigrant speech. I put this together as a an act of resistance.

May-lee Chai. (Christie Hemm Klok for The Lily)
May-lee Chai. (Christie Hemm Klok for The Lily)

TL: Can you talk more about how you see this collection as an “act of resistance”?

MC: When [President] Trump was not even the nominee, he was saying that China is raping us. That was really, particularly ugly language. It is a disgusting metaphor and it reminded me of when I was growing up in the 1980s and there was a lot of anti-Japanese rhetoric. I was living in the Midwest and I remember a local columnist would say things like, “It’s an economic Pearl Harbor,” or there would be pictures of the Statue of Liberty dressed as a geisha.

That level of rhetoric led to a lot of ugly and violent things. People shot at our house. Five of our dogs were shot and killed. There was a tremendous sense of deja vu when I heard this rhetoric. Instead of just panicking — though I certainly did that too — I thought about what I could actively do besides what one does as a citizen, like vote. As a writer, as an artist, I felt strongly that I should put my work toward resistance, because if we don’t — if I don’t — then it could lead to all this becoming normalized.

May-lee Chai. (Christie Hemm Klok for The Lily)
May-lee Chai. (Christie Hemm Klok for The Lily)

TL: Which character or story did you have the most fun writing?

MC: Probably “Shouting Means I Love You.” When I wrote that, I wanted it to be funny and more lighthearted even though it does touch upon deeper, darker scenes of loss and anxiety. I wanted to ultimately try to make it be upbeat and loving and warm. And so that was the most fun for me to write.

May-lee Chai. (Christie Hemm Klok for The Lily)
May-lee Chai. (Christie Hemm Klok for The Lily)

TL: Why did you choose to focus on the experiences of both the diaspora and migrants in China?

MC: I wanted to show this global, transnational culture. I wanted to show that migration was a normal part of the human experience. There are multiple parts of what it means to be a migrant and what it means to leave where you are from, and I wanted to normalize that.

TL: In addition to short stories, you have also published several novels and a memoir. Can you talk about how your process differs, if at all?

MC: It’s not so much a different process as much as a different impetus. With the longer works, I always had a question. With [my memoir], “Hapa Girl,” it was: “Why do people hate us in this town?”

With the short stories, I tend to start smaller with a single character. I will see an image for a character and wonder why they are doing that and build a story around that moment.

In the first story of “Useful Phrases for Immigrants,” Guili’s story started with an image I had of this rice bowl breaking. I had always envisioned this story of a family sitting in this room and they are sitting around for breakfast and no one is paying any attention to the mother in the room and she takes that rice bowl and smashes it. So I wanted to tell the story of how she got to that point.

For “Fish Boy,” it was this image of the fish tank — that really gross fish tank in the back of the restaurant. I first got inspired by that image with a real-life incident. I was eating at a restaurant in Beijing and they brought out the fish they were going to cook for us to show us before they killed it. And it was a really healthy looking fish. And then I just thought, “What if they just keep bringing out this nice fish to show people and the one they are giving me is something else entirely?”

So I wanted to tell a story with that image.

May-lee Chai. (Christie Hemm Klok for The Lily)
May-lee Chai. (Christie Hemm Klok for The Lily)

TL: Were there any stories from this collection that you draw from your own life experience?

MC: Every work of fiction has to be drawn from some life experience, otherwise how can you write it? It’s not necessarily my life but just inspired by living and knowing people. Settings are often drawn from my own life. For example, I have lived in New Jersey.

TL: What are your favorite books from 2018?

MC: Well, I don’t think I could list my favorites, but I’ll say three that I liked:

“There, There,” by Tommy Orange

“A Lucky Man,” by Jamel Brinkley

“The Fifth Woman,” by Nona Caspers

TL: What’s next for you?

MC: I am working on a collection of essays and a novel, so let’s see which one I finish first.

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