Wednesday, August 31, 2022

Q&A with May-Lee Chai




May-Lee Chai is the author of the new story collection Tomorrow in Shanghai and Other Stories. Her other books include the story collection Useful Phrases for Immigrants, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Entropy and The Rumpus.


Q: Over how long a period did you write the stories in Tomorrow in Shanghai?


A: They were written over a period of 12 years, but the majority were written since 2017, after the results of the horrifying presidential election, which normalized the use of divisive, hateful speech and actions meant to keep the people of our nation at each other’s throats.


Q: The writer Charles Yu said of the book, “In these stories, we find people displaced, people who find themselves, by choice or by accident, navigating foreign lands and strange worlds, looking for the way home...” What do you think of that description?


A: I love how Charles Yu succinctly captured the themes of these stories! In Chinese the word for “home” and the word for “family” are the same. They’re both ““ (which is pronounced “jia” in Mandarin).


The characters in these stories are definitely searching for a place to call home and searching for people who can be considered family, as in a place and community where one feels safe and accepted.

Q: How did you decide on the order in which the stories would appear in the collection?


A: My editor and I discussed the order so that the stories would lead the reader on a journey as well, not so much linearly in time, but in terms of themes.


Q: How was the book's title (also the title of one of the stories) chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: For me, the title works as a metaphor for the future. Since the early 20th century, Shanghai has always been China’s most cosmopolitan, sophisticated, and prosperous city. And I love Shanghai!  I’ve probably visited the city nearly 100 times.


Yet it’s not someplace I’ve ever considered home. When I lived in China, Nanjing was the city I considered “home” and Shanghai was the exciting place I’d visit on weekends. It’s always felt somewhat out of reach.


In the first story the title refers to the belief of one of the characters that Shanghai represents for him some happier, safer, sophisticated, and more modern time and place where his life will be better.


I think that metaphor works for the collection as well, in terms of that sense of yearning the characters express for that better, safer, happier future compared to their fraught and perilous present situations.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I am working on a collection of essays and a novel.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: This collection reflects my feelings about the rise of hate speech and hate crimes since the Trump administration and the subsequent pandemic. Even though none of the stories is set in this period, I’m using these stories to show how the violence of capitalism and  of hateful rhetoric impacts my Chinese/Chinese American characters at different points of time both in the past and in the future.


Like my characters, I’m still yearning for that future time and place where I will feel safe.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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