Professor Chai's New Book 'Useful Phrases for Immigrants' Seeks to Retell Asian American Migration Story

Thursday, November 01, 2018
Photo of May-lee Chai standing in front of bookshelves at The Poetry Center

In her short-story collection Useful Phrases for Immigrants (Blair, 2018), Assistant Professor of Creative Writing May-lee Chai seeks to show how Chinese families in China and America navigate changing economic and cultural circumstances by creating an environment for empathy instead of fear. She also delves into “fractured families, hoarded secrets and the cultural and personal negotiations at the heart of the Asian American experience,” she says.

The recent hateful, anti-immigrant rhetoric spouted by politicians and pundits fueled Chai’s desire to write a collection of stories that humanizes Chinese people and counters the idea that they don’t suffer from economic anxiety and displacement due to globalization.

One of the short stories, “The Body,” is inspired by Tang Xianzu’s 16th-century play The Peony Pavilion, which tells a love story about a man and a ghost, a famous myth which Chai says influences her thoughts about migrant workers in China.

In “First Carvel in Beijing,” another of the collection’s stories, Chinese-American narrator Jun-li sleeps with her white ex-girlfriend in Beijing as a way of avoiding coming to terms with her own grief.

Useful Phrases for Immigrants won the Bakwin Award for Writing by a Woman, which honors a full-length work by an author from an underrepresented minority group.

The book has also garnered rave reviews. “Useful Phrases for Immigrants holds multitudes, taking us into a dazzling range of lives,” says Vanessa Hua, author of A River of Stars. “With exquisite prose and unforgettable characters, the collection is a must-read.”

The Washington Post writes: “The sign of a strong collection is one where the stories work together to inform the reader, and Chai’s eight tales do just that.”

Chai, who joined San Francisco State in 2017, will read from her work November 8 in a free event at The Poetry Center on campus.

Chai’s other books include the memoir Hapa Girl, a Kiriyama Prize Notable Book; the novel Tiger Girl, which won an Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature; and her original translation from Chinese to English of the 1934 Autobiography of Ba Jin. Her family memoir, The Girl from Purple Mountain (2001), which she wrote with her father, was nominated for the National Book Award in nonfiction. In 2006 – 07, she received a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in prose. Her short prose has been published widely, including in The Rumpus, Missouri Review, Seventeen, Glimmer Train, Dallas Morning News and San Francisco Chronicle.

— Ufuoma Umusu


Video and photo by Sreang Hok

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