8 New Books by Chinese American Authors
Jack Wang, author of "We Two Alone," recommends stories about the myriad ways of being Chinese
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Quick, name a Chinese American writer.
If you’re like a lot of people, you thought of Maxine Hong Kingston or Amy Tan, maybe Gish Jen or Celeste Ng—wonderful writers, all. But there’s a whole new wave of Chinese American fiction writers that should be lighting up your radar.
In the past few years, an impressive number of Chinese American writers have burst onto the scene with novels and short story collections on a wide range of subjects—Beijing slackers, the Wild West, queer love, and yes, a global pandemic, to name just a few—in a dazzling array of styles and subgenres. Taken together, these works of fiction offer a complex portrait of the Chinese diaspora.
My own debut story collection, We Two Alone, adds to that portrait. Set on five continents and spanning nearly a century, We Two Alone tells not the story but some of the many stories of the Chinese immigrant experience. In one, a laundry boy risks his life to play organized hockey in Vancouver in the 1920s by pretending to be a girl. In another, a family struggles to buy a home in a white neighborhood in Port Elizabeth during the era of apartheid. All of these stories, mine and others’, help us understand the myriad ways of being “Chinese,” especially in America.
Here are eight recent works of fiction—all debuts—from the Chinese American New Wave:
Severance by Ling Ma
Candice Chen moves from Utah to New York City, trying to outrun millennial ennui and the expectations of her dead parents. When a fungal infection turns most of the world into zombies, a pregnant Candice falls in with a misbegotten band of survivors. Like Candice herself, who continues at first to work in an empty office building, even as the city hollows out, those who get infected are doomed to repeat mindless routines, which suggests the ways that late capitalism might be making zombies of us all.
Land of Big Numbers by Te-Ping Chen
A fraternal twin endangers herself when she begins to post pro-democratic messages on social media. A woman who takes calls for a government helpline is tracked down by an abusive ex. A group of subway riders in Beijing acquiesces to authorities while trapped underground for months, in what might be a perfect allegory for social and political apathy—and ways to resist. Ranging from tender and mournful to gently absurd and dystopian, the stories in this collection are razor-sharp frontline reports on the paradoxes of contemporary China.
Bestiary by K-Ming Chang
After hearing her mother’s story about a tiger spirit that wants to be a woman, Daughter grows a tiger tail, becomes lovers with a girl named Ben, and unravels the mysteries of her matriarchal line from Taiwan to Arkansas and beyond. This is a fabulist novel in which men can fly and women give birth to geese, rendered in fearlessly carnal and inventive language. Bestiary came out last year, when the author was 22. If you think Beth Harmon in The Queen’s Gambit is a prodigious young talent, wait till you read K-Ming Chang.
Nights When Nothing Happened by Simon Han
Unbeknown to their parents, Jack’s five-year-old sister Annabel is sleepwalking at night through their neighborhood in Plano, Texas, and bullying a girl at school named Elsie, but it’s not until Elsie makes confused Atonement-esque accusations against Jack’s father that the Cheng family is truly upended. Part dream and part nightmare, with an epigraph from Dracula, this lyrical, meditative, and nocturnal novel trawls some of the real monsters lurking beneath the placid surface of America’s tonier suburbs.
Home Remedies by Xuan Juliana Wang
This elegant collection of stories is often about the fuerdai, the second-generation rich. In “Fuerdai to the Max,” a couple of louche characters run back to Beijing after tormenting a schoolmate in the US. In “Days of Being Mild,” a ne’er-do-well and his motley crew try to shoot a music video in Beijing for a band called Brass Donkey before his father sends him to a respectable job in the States. Like the Bei Piao—twentysomethings who drift to Beijing—these stories are “very good at being young.”
Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang
If Home Remedies is about the well-off, Sour Heart is about the down and out, those who live in the crumbling apartments of Bushwick, Flatbush, and Woodside. The first story opens with a memorably long, gut-churning, and hilarious sentence about the challenges one family faces anytime anyone needs to take “a big dump.” Whether the subject is a clingy younger brother, a menacing girl at school, or sexual exploration gone awry, these seven stories capture both the humor and the terror of girlhood in bawdy and bracingly honest prose.
Days of Distraction by Alexandra Chang
25-year-old Alexandra is a tech reporter in San Francisco who’s overlooked at work, so when her boyfriend J, who’s white, gets accepted to a Ph.D. program at Cornell, she decides to go with him. But their unsettling road trip through Middle America, and her ensuing loneliness in Ithaca, make her question her relationship with J, who’s often oblivious on matters of race. The novel’s artful blend of fiction and nonfiction produces an incisive meditation on interracial relationships. Autofiction may be fiction’s subgenre du jour, but this novel is built to last.
How Much of These Hills Is Gold by C Pam Zhang
When Ba dies in the night, 12-year-old Lucy and her androgynous younger sister Sam set off to give him a proper burial and to make their way as orphans on the scabrous American frontier. As they take divergent paths, we learn of the family’s ill-fated search for gold in the hills of California. Like recurring chapter titles such as “Mud,” “Wind,” “Water,” and “Blood,” the story feels elemental, and Zhang is a stylist through and through. This is a novel that reminds us that Chinese people helped build this country and have been in America for a long, long time.