(Detroit, MI: Willow Books, 2016)
My personal sense of racial identity is diffuse – I’m a half Ukrainian-quarter Scottish-quarter English Canadian, making me, I suppose, white – and my children are an even more complicated mix: divide my fractions by two and add in a half of Korean. However, through the quirk of geopolitical atavism, my daughter resembles my mother, whose black hair and Asian eyes are likely a result of the Mongol hordes having repeatedly crossed the Ural Mountains and overrun the plains of Eastern Europe. This lack of clear provenance is evident in my daughter’s answer to the question of “what she was” when she was young: half Korean, half Canadian, she said, tension lines appearing in her forehead. And so when I contemplate my children I see that they are one quantum step removed from a particular feeling of being counterfeit, alluded to in the title of Vanessa Hua’s new collection, Deceit And Other Possibilities—specifically the problem of self-definition caused by being Asian American, or perhaps more accurately stated, Asian and American.
The stories escalated as I progressed through the collection, finishing with three exceptional pieces where the issue of race emerges organically out of the characters and situations. In these the compressed denouements poignantly accentuate the pretty stories the protagonists tell themselves to generate hope for the “other possibilities.” For instance, in ‘The Older The Ginger’ there is a seamless progression from abject fact to comforting fantasy orchestrated by Little Treasure, the young spinster in the Chinese backwater, whom Old Wu, at seventy-six, has come back to assess for a potential marriage (and green card). “Too much,” she tells him, after he relents and lets her into his deceased mother’s room, “Too much food, too much drink at the feast?…Granny said you had your own place, and that you ate all your meals in restaurants”—and then her envisioning of his American life turns to whimsy—“And you had a mansion…A new car every other year.” When Old Wu plays along, allowing himself finally to give in to the possibility inspired by the “powdered rhino horn,” which would explain why the tea Little Treasure served him from a thermos is so bitter, the sense is not of coercion, but acceptance—Little Treasure having proven to him she can participate in mutual illusion, making the thought of owning a BMW X5 or a home with white columns and fancy trim as real as the possibility of love.
In the final story, “The Deal,” Hua presents a vision of the Korean-American evangelical phenomenon, describing the transubstantiation of human frailty into missionary zeal in the main character, the pastor David Noh. Hua impressively layers his psychology, showing the intricacy of his rationalizations. David knows he is in Africa nominally saving souls because the photo opportunities will allow for a marketing blitz that could save his church. David also knows, on some level, he arrived at this version of himself through failing as a history teacher and a poker playing dalliance that resulted in maxed out credit cards and missed rent payments. And on another level he is aware of the universal human capacity to read spiritual truth into coincidence and attribute the notion of God to a sensory experience—as easy as witnessing a shaft of sunlight expanding and filling his room after being fired by the prep school: “He no longer had to worry: he was in the Lord’s hands.” However, our impression of David’s character is more involved than this, as in the denouement I also had the sense that the confidence game David plays, not only on himself but on his wife and child, on the congregation and the African villagers he had hoped to be the one to bring to Jesus, is based to some degree on sincere faith, that the sight of “a flock of cranes [rising] from the lake…Necks extended, pointing like arrows to the heavens” really is for him proof of God, at least for a blinding moment.
In these stories Hua presents an impressive range of specific characters, each illuminating in unique circumstances how the struggle to affirm identity is made trickier when one is an Asian minority in American culture. After all, we can’t entirely control how other people see us, just as we can’t entirely control how we see ourselves.
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Trevor Payne teaches English at Radnor High School in suburban Philadelphia.