CULTURE & ARTS

In A Time Of Demagogy, Author Sees True Humanity In Immigrants

In a short story debut, Vanessa Hua draws the reader in with her power of perception.

The opening line of Vanessa Hua’s debut collection is so bold in its address, it almost feels like a direct question from her to the reader: “Perhaps you’ve heard of me?”

The narrator lists his many accomplishments, then concludes, “I didn’t think so.” Kingsway Lee, despite his film and pop music bona fides, is a superstar only in Hong Kong, where his American upbringing and swagger effortlessly won him celebrity. Now on a return flight to his hometown, Oakland, he’s shedding all that fame as easily as he acquired it just by switching locations. It’s a tradeoff he’s willing to make, since a hacker leaked thousands of lewd photos from his cell phone. In America he’s not a beloved star, but he’s also not famous enough to be harassed by paparazzi or outraged fans.

Unfortunately, he soon learns that crossing the ocean might have stripped him of the warm glow of adulation ― “How dim, my star across the Pacific,” he muses ― but it hasn’t freed him from the negative externalities. Soon after he arrives at home, journalists show up on his parents’ doorstep and interrogate him in front of neighbors, including a former classmate to whom he felt a burgeoning attraction. “I can’t start over fresh with her,” Kingsway realizes. “It isn’t a chance I’m certain I want, or even a chance I’m certain I had, but the loss stings all the same.” It’s all the curse, none of the blessing. In this globalized world, he can’t take his celebrity with him, but his infamy will follow him everywhere.

Venturing across boundaries both tangible and imperceptible, legal and emotional, can carry tremendous weight in Deceit and Other Possibilities. Throughout Hua’s collection, written over the course of over 10 years, she tells the stories of people who have crossed borders despite all that they must leave behind in the process, or who choose to cross back despite all that they’ve gained in their new world.

In “For What They Shared,” a Chinese immigrant couple and the wife’s parents share a Big Sur campsite with a raucous group of 20-somethings, including Aileen, a Chinese-American woman joining her white boyfriend’s buddies for an expedition. Lin, the wife, knows her parents want her to return to China with her husband and start a family. She’s hoping the idyllic camping trip will persuade them that she’s right to stay in California. Aileen wants to be accepted by her boyfriend’s group, even as she’s uncomfortable with their casual privilege. On each side, a woman wavering in a liminal space ― to choose America or China, to stand with the people who share her background or the people who share her camp.

Another story, “Accepted,” might niggle at buried memory in readers’ brains: Like an actual news story from 2007, it revolves around a driven Korean-American high school student who pretends to attend Stanford as a student on campus for months, though she was actually rejected by admissions. Elaine Park, the narrator of the story, can’t bear to tell her parents that she’s been denied by the only college they’ve dreamed of and prepared her to attend. Instead, she quietly pretends that she got in, sneaks onto campus, convinces a freshman to let her crash indefinitely in a dorm room, and attends classes for which she’ll never get grades. She applies to Stanford again, convinced the first rejection was a mistake. She joins ROTC, slipping through the cracks opened up in the gap between Stanford and the military organization, which isn’t officially affiliated with the school. In Hua’s heart-wrenching, implacable story, Elaine is transformed from a news curiosity to a human teeming with painful, contradictory impulses. She’s desperate to cross over into the world of the legitimate, the accepted, but when her path is blocked, she collapses.

Hua’s strongest stories live here, in the muddled hearts of people seeking their home or their way forward ― an elderly man who has returned home to China to visit his still-more aged mother, only to find that the entire village is determined to marry one of their daughters off to the wealthy American uncle; a gay man who can’t bring himself to come out to his Chinese immigrant parents despite being in a committed relationship.

On a prose and plot level, however, the book often slips ― perhaps unsurprising from a debut short story collection written over such a long span of time. When a story rests on a narrative device or shocking conclusion, like the morally compromising denouement to the final story in the collection, “The Deal,” Hua’s pacing often feels off, providing both too many of the wrong details and too few of the necessary ones to build tension. She has a gift for opening sentences that pull the reader in, but endings are trickier ― sometimes powerful, sometimes stumbled over. “Camping had fooled her into thinking that she belonged where she did not, as if the equipment alone could guarantee happiness and safe passage,” one story concludes with an almost pedagogic tinge. The prose, sometimes clear and effortless, can also be stilted, as in this passage.

Although Deceit and Other Possibilities isn’t highly polished, it’s easy to keep reading, perhaps because many of the characters within feel so human and in need of being heard. With Hua’s debut novel forthcoming from Ballantine, readers beguiled by her depth of psychological insight will be eager to see what she can elicit from her characters in the span of a book-length narrative.  

The Bottom Line:

In an uneven short story debut, Hua draws the reader in with her power of perception.

What other reviewers think:

Booklist: “Hua’s ability to imagine the detailed lives of her disparate characters, including a sex-scandal runaway, missionary saviors, and a lock-picking immigrant, gives her stories impact, despite a few jarring endings.”

San Francisco Chronicle: “Above all, she has a deep understanding of the pressure of submerged emotions and polite, face-saving deceptions. The truth comes out, sometimes explosively, sometimes in a quiet act of courage.”

Who wrote it?

Vanessa Hua, a San Francisco Chronicle columnist, is also the author of a novel forthcoming from Ballantine. Her short stories have appeared in The Atlantic, The American Literary Review, Hopkins Review, and more. Deceit and Other Possibilities is her debut collection.

Who will read it?

Readers interested in questions of identity and belonging.

Opening lines:

“Perhaps you’ve heard of me?

“Maybe you’ve listened to a song by the Jump Boys, a group I fronted, which had three gold records that launched countless jingles for a remarkable array of consumer products. Or on television, as the host of a reality show where contestants dared to eat horse cock sandwiches and cling to helicopters zooming over a tropical bay. On billboards, hawking heavy gold watches, cask-aged cognac, or alligator leather shoes, my shirt unbuttoned to reveal six-pack abs.

“I didn’t think so.”

Notable passage:

“The rejection from Admissions was a mistake. That’s what I told myself after I clicked on the link and logged onto the portal last spring. Stanford had denied another Elaine Park, another in Irvine who’d also applied. I waited for a phone call of apology, along with an e-mail with the correct link.

“I hadn’t meant to lie, not at first, but when Jack Min donned his Stanford sweatshirt after receiving his acceptance (a senior tradition) ― I yanked my Cardinal red hoodie out of my locker. When my AP English teacher, Ms. Banks, stopped to congratulate me, I couldn’t bring myself to say, not yet.”

Deceit and Other Possibilities
by Vanessa Hua
Willow Books, $18.95
Published Sept. 30, 2016

The Bottom Line is a weekly review combining plot description and analysis with fun tidbits about the book.

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