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Author Peter Ho Davies on Exploring Identity in 'Fortunes'

This is one of a series of interviews highlighting the winners of the 2017 Anisfield-Wolf  Book Awards. Find more here

Growing up as a child of mixed race in the United Kingdom it was a challenge for Peter Ho Davies to fit in.  He never fully connected to his father's Welsh heritage nor his mother's Chinese heritage.

"Being brought up in Britain, not speaking either of the first languages of my parents, I felt neither fully Welsh, nor fully Chinese, nor fully English in some ways," Davies said.

His latest novel, The Fortunes, explores such issues of identity by imagining the stories of four historical Chinese-American characters living in four different eras of U.S. history.

Rather than create new characters from whole cloth, Davies decided to write a novel of historical fiction to give the stories more resonance.

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"It felt as though I was very much grappling with figures who have a kind of iconic place in Chinese-American history," Davies said.

One of the historical characters in his book is Chinese-American movie star, Anna May Wong, who made a name for herself during the silent movie era.

"To create a fictional character who was the first Chinese-American movie star felt as thought it would be a little coy.  It would've been a very thin disguise for a figure who's very well known in some ways.  So it felt honest in many ways to try and take on these real characters and to animate them in various ways," Davies said.

Listen to Peter Ho Davies read a selection from The Fortunes:  

Another historical figure featured in Davies' book is Chinese-American Vincent Chin.  He was murdered in 1982 by Detroit autoworkers frustrated by layoffs in the face of Japan's increasing share of the automobile industry.  The men mistook Chin as Japanese, and beat him with a baseball bat leading to his death a few days later.  The murder galvanized the Asian-American community.

"One of the great and very poignant ironies about the [Chin] case is that Vincent's mother Lily, who went on to campaign for justice,... was Chinese-American.  She'd come from China in the wake of World War II when she had seen the horrors of the war of Japanese aggression in China," Davies said.

Davies feels it's his responsibility as a writer to speak out against racism in today's politically-charged climate.

"Some of the questions addressed in the book are more and more urgent where economic anxiety and some unfortunate political rhetoric leads to an enactment of racial violence.  Those feel like issues that I wish were not quite as timely now but it does feel as though I and other writers, particulary through winning a prize like the Anisfield-Wolf,  have a responsibility to talk about those issues," Davies said.

Peter Ho Davies receives the 2017 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Fiction for his novel The Fortunes Thursday, September 7 at 6pm at the State Theatre in Playhouse Square.

ideastream will stream the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards ceremony Thursday at 6 p.m. live online.

Listen to the entire interview:  

 

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