How a Town without Pity Shaped Creative Writing Assistant Professor May-lee Chai

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE -- It’s the kind of hellish and frighteningly real experience — which Chai chronicled in her memoir, Hapa Girl — that would conjure up certain expectations about what strain of fiction comes with Chai’s new book of short stories, Useful Phrases for Immigrants, especially in the Trump era.

“That was my ’80s,” says Chai, who lives in San Francisco and teaches Creative Writing at San Francisco State University. “And this is of course was the time when the media was very anti-Japanese. It was all: ‘Japanese trade war. Oh the Japanese are attacking us — economic Pearl Harbor.’ And I thought that we were past that. But now with Trump, I hear the same level of ugly, racist rhetoric.”

Yet Chai’s book never veers into the territory of spectacular experience — the kind that she lived and that she worried would be newly inflamed through the 2016 election season’s discourse. To be sure, Chai did put the book together as a sort of “active resistance” to what she heard from Donald Trump during the presidential primaries. But the eight stories in Useful Phrases for Immigrants,” each centered on either characters in China or the Chinese American immigrant experience, largely revolve around more quotidian occurrence.