Use­ful Phrases for Im­mi­grants

May-lee Chai

Foreword Reviews - - Reviews Adult Fiction -

Blair (OC­TO­BER) Soft­cover $16.95 (166pp) 978-0-932112-76-7

Delv­ing into frac­tured fam­i­lies, hoarded se­crets, and the cul­tural and per­sonal ne­go­ti­a­tions at the heart of the Asian Amer­i­can ex­pe­ri­ence, May-lee Chai’s Use­ful Phrases for Im­mi­grants is dis­tin­guished by writ­ing as el­e­gant and del­i­cate as a snowflake.

As one would ex­pect, Use­ful Phrases for Im­mi­grants con­tains plenty about the im­mi­grant ex­pe­ri­ence. The ti­tle story cen­ters on a Chi­nese cou­ple strug­gling to suc­ceed in an Amer­ica awash in name-brand con­sumerism. But more gen­er­ally, the book is about out­siders: il­le­gal la­bor­ers, sons and daugh­ters set adrift from ex­pec­ta­tions and re­spon­si­bil­i­ties. Sto­ries like “The Body” take place en­tirely in China; its ghost-story nar­ra­tive proves that Chai is as adept at de­scrib­ing the in­ef­fa­ble as she is at cap­tur­ing small hu­man mo­ments.

The heart of Use­ful Phrases for Im­mi­grants lies in its sto­ries about fam­ily squab­bles, in which Chai plays with reader ex­pec­ta­tions. On the sur­face, “Ghost Fes­ti­vals” is a light fam­ily com­edy, but un­derneath is a heart­felt tale about intolerance and sex­ual free­dom.

In “First Carvel in Bei­jing,” per­haps the col­lec­tion’s most af­fect­ing en­try, an in­nocu­ous fling with an ex-girl­friend gives way to a shat­ter­ing child­hood mem­ory and a shot at for­give­ness. The elderly fa­ther and daugh­ter in “Shout­ing Means I Love You” may have a hard time com­mu­ni­cat­ing be­yond yelling at each other, but the story’s ti­tle could serve as a sum­mary of Chai’s themes: her char­ac­ters are out of their com­fort zones and un­cer­tain how they fit to­gether, let alone fit in, yet some­how their per­sonal con­nec­tions re­main and per­se­vere.

Through­out, Chai writes with an un­spar­ing yet sym­pa­thetic eye for her char­ac­ters, and with a knack for mem­o­rable turns of phrase and ob­ser­va­tions. There’s plenty of heart­break in Use­ful Phrases for Im­mi­grants, but Chai’s writ­ing brings a ray of sun­shine. Dev­as­tat­ing and grace­ful in equal turns, this col­lec­tion con­firms Chai’s place among the best Asian Amer­i­can writ­ers of to­day. HO LIN

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