by Kaitlin Solimine
Vanessa Hua, Deceit and Other Possibilities, Willow Books, 2016. 150 pgs.
What is the American narrative in twenty-first-century United States? Who owns this narrative and what's left of the "American dream?" Given recent political rhetoric in the US and the election of Donald Trump (i.e., do we need to "make America great again," and if so, what does this mean?), the American experience is still a hotly contested area. For the characters in Vanessa Hua's evocative debut short story collection, Deceit and Other Possibilities, thankfully, America is as diverse as each individual writing their own story within the nation's borders.
Identity is at the core of Hua's stories—whether this be the identity of a Hong Kong pop star, a twenty-first century prophet or a Korean-American "fake" Stanford student. What unifies these stories, and their characters, is the desire for redemption, for understanding—of self and other—and likewise, for acceptance in a country where they are striving to write their own narrative.
In the story "The Responsibility of Deceit," Calvin, a gay Chinese-American man and his partner Peter visit a bed and breakfast in Napa Valley's wine country in order to reignite a relationship on the fritz. But encountering his parents' friends over breakfast "outs" Calvin and forces him to recognise the ways in which his identity is hidden—not only to his parents and their friends, but even to his lover, and more, himself. He reasons:
Biology was fate. If being gay was a trait like eye or hair colour, then ancestor after ancestor had passed this inheritance down to me. It couldn't be helped. I could accept who I was if I had no say in the matter, and in this way I hoped my parents would understand, all of us released from responsibility.
Like Calvin, in "Accepted," the Korean-American protagonist, Elaine Park, masters the most obscure English words to score her acceptance into Stanford and, thus, to belong in a way she has yearned her entire life: "Other words described me more aptly, that I didn't dare say: legerdemain, reprobate." Despite Park's assiduous study, she isn't admitted—and yet, unable to accept her rejection, she attends classes there, eager to pass as a student on campus. When she is denied a second time, she says, "I didn't belong at Stanford, never did and never would, in limbo, not here or anywhere, not of the present and lacking a future."
Living between here and there, an identity warped by being both of a place and not, is a core theme to the stories, to the experiences of immigrants everywhere. In "For What They Shared," Chinese-American Aileen struggles to find her place on a camping trip with friends, and with Reed, her white American boyfriend:
She had dated other white men. "You're too Chinese," one observed, soon before he dumped her. (Too polite? Too inscrutable? She never knew.) Three years ago, she had decided that finding a Chinese-American, with the same upbringing, would be the best for all concerned, but after a few months, each relationship collapsed under the weight of expectations. "You're not very Chinese," another said, soon before he left her. (Too loud? Her steamed rice too soggy? She never knew.) And so, she made an exception for Reed, for the long lines of his sinewy body, for his crooked nose and their nicknames for other people. The Poor-Man's-Tom-Cruise. Pool Boy. Garfield Eyes. But if she stayed with Reed, he would never know what she gave up: comfort from a shared background, in-laws who understood each other, and children who kept their heritage. He did not enjoy the pleasures of eating thousand-year-old eggs like savory Cadburys, chewy chicken feet like E.T. fingers, and dried shredded pork like sawdust. He was not lulled by the sound of Mandarin, her first, now mostly forgotten tongue, the rising and falling tones and rhythms that she could pick out of the noisiest crowd.
One would expect that Hua's characters would feel trapped in their limbo land of identity, stuck between two positions where they don't feel they belong. But that's not the case at all—in fact, each character also senses their own agency, and there is the promise of opportunity, of a path to write their narratives anew in America.
In "The Shot," Sam, a Serbian immigrant with a half-Chinese mother, struggles to rectify a failed relationship, a life that didn't quite live up to his own expectations. He finds respite in golf—but during a particular game, his friend's grandson is hit by the ball of a foursome that had been playing too close. Sam, teetering on the edge of violence, says, "He was overcome with the same feeling of possibility, of perfection as when he watched his golf ball arcing across the sky."
Likewise, in "The Deal," Korean-American pastor, David Noh arrives in East Africa to do missionary work and save his stateside church, the aptly-named "Bountiful Abundance." Their guide, Justus, is equally appropriately named given the circumstances of the story. Like Hua's other characters, even Justus, while not American, was influenced by this Korean-American pastor's promises—America, no matter how far away, touts its ideals abroad: "Justus had escaped the poverty of his village for a reason. Call it instinct. Call it God-given, but Justus could see possibilities, practicalities, where others could not."
And while Justus was being influenced from afar, ultimately, it is in America where everyone, regardless of nationality or ethnicity, find solace. In "For What They Shared," another family at the Chinese-American woman Aileen's campsite, struggles to fit in within the American tradition of camping. Lin, the family's daughter, imagines her life had she never left China:
Lin would always belong to dirty and cramped Beijing but here she could give herself away. If she returned to China, she could already picture the rest of her life. A baby, living in a high-rise apartment near her parents, she and Sang advancing toward middle management, growing old, and playing with her own grand-child someday. Comfortable but predictable. Here, there was discovery, uncertainty, and possibility.
The brightest, unifying factor for the characters in all Hua's stories are, as the collection's title suggests, a trust in America's possibility—the future, however complicated and non-binary, is within our hands, her characters reassure us. And given current geopolitical currents this is a needed, and welcome, prophecy indeed.