I have been looking into schedules. Even when we read physics, we inquire of each least particle, What then shall I do this morning? How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time.
On the first of each month,
a guest writer
how he or she spends the day.
October 1, 2018: Peter Ho Davies
In May, I had lunch with Peter and dinner with Peter. We spent a total of ten hours in the car together and also actually went clothes shopping. (He didn’t get anything.) He’s a super nice guy and fun to be around. And he’s also the author of The Welsh Girl, which a lot of us read back in 2008, its depth and breadth making it hard to believe it was his first novel.
After a 1994-1995 fellowship right here in Provincetown at the Fine Arts Work Center, Peter quickly became master of the short story. Jane Smiley chose “The Ugliest House in the World” for The Best American Short Stories 1995, and the very next year, John Edgar Wideman chose “The Silver Screen” for The Best American Short Stories 1996. Peter’s collection The Ugliest House in the World, published in 1998, was awarded the John Llewelyn Rhys and PEN/Macmillan Prizes. His second book, Equal Love, also a collection, was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and a finalist for both the 2000 Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the 2001 Asian American Literary Award. In 2001, Barbara Kingsolver chose “Think of England” for yet another Best American. The icing on his short story cake was that in 2008, the same year The Welsh Girl was published, he received the PEN/Malamud award for excellence in the short story.
So. If you haven’t already, read some of his stories!
Peter was born in England. His father was Welsh and his mother was Chinese, but he didn’t grow up speaking Welsh or Chinese. Now he’s lived in the US for over twenty-five years. All of these factors make his writing rich in the question of identity. Stories about people of mixed race and stories about multi-cultural couples. A white wife and an Indian husband. A Chinese person being mistaken for a Japanese person. There’s the weight of what we’re born with, there’s language and tradition, and there are also the small, telling details that will break your heart. What makes us who we are?
From “The Ugliest House in the World,”
I’m not really Welsh. I don’t speak Welsh. I’ve never lived in Wales. But my father is Welsh…”
In “The Hull Case,” Henry, a black GI, tells his sister he’s planning to marry Helen, a white nurse he met in Tokyo. “‘What for?’ she wanted to know, and when Henry said, ‘For the same reasons anybody gets married,’ she told him no, she didn’t believe it.”
In The Welsh Girl, long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, Rotheram’s mother tells him they aren’t Jewish; only his father was. But his father’s family treated the two of them as outcasts. “Rotheram wasn’t one of them. Yet in the eyes of the Nazis he was. A mischling, at least: a half-Jew.”
He still wasn’t sure what he could call himself–not German, not Jewish–but serving under the CO, he’d felt for the first time as if he weren’t running from something, but being led somewhere.
Even Rotheram’s name speaks to his not-belonging, to his otherness–R Other Am.
The Fortunes, Peter’s most recent book, published a year ago this month, won the Anisfield-Wolf Award and was long-listed for the Story Prize. It tells the story of four Chinese Americans, each one based on a real person. It’s divided into four parts entitled Gold, Silver, Jade, and Pearl. From the first section,
Still, Big Uncle pressed, “Gold is in your blood, boy!”
Perhaps, Ling thought, but he’d learned to doubt his blood.
Michael Schaub from NPR writes,
The Fortunes is a stunning look at what it means to be Chinese, what it means to be American, and what it means to be a person navigating the strands of identity, the things that made us who we are, whoever that is.
But with Peter’s writing, it’s more than that, more visceral. Given the circumstances these characters find themselves in, it would be easy for a judgmental sliver to slip in. But there’s no judgment here, just the story and the writing and the details–which allow feeling to rise up in the reader. The Fortunes is a novel that made me feel what it feels like to be that other. My heart kicked in automatically, which for me is huge. And my brain was constantly engaged.
In a recent interview in The Guardian, Peter told Alex Clark,
“I’m not sure of my claim to Welshness,” he elaborates, “so I wrote The Welsh Girl to explore that, to find out what Welshness meant to me. And the same thing motivated me as I wrote The Fortunes. I’m half-Chinese by blood, but probably much less than half-Chinese by culture, so what is my relationship to that? I felt some of the same things to Welshness, partly because I don’t speak the language.”
In that same interview, Alex asked Peter if he now felt like an American writer.
“[T]here’s not an identity that I can lay claim to that I don’t also feel ambiguous or ambivalent about, whether that’s Chineseness, or Welshness, or Britishness. Do I have some hesitation to claim Americanness? Yes. But I feel the same hesitancy to claim any of those identities.”
In the fall of 2013, for an interview for Ploughshares, Peter told Douglas Trevor that he felt “as if I had to come to America to become a writer, I had to get away from Britain, away from a nonwriter version of myself.”
Peter has previously taught at the University of Oregon, Emory University, and Northwestern University. He is currently on the faculty of the Helen Zell MFA Program in Creative Writing at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
Read how PETER HO DAVIES spends his days.