Tuesday, February 21, 2017

"Deceit and Other Possibilities," by Vanessa Hua

Vanessa Hua recently started writing a column for the San Francisco Chronicle, a newspaper I have read very regularly for the many many years I have lived in San Francisco; she lives in San Francisco. Soon after she started writing for the Chronicle, I read a good review of her debut collection of short stories, “Deceit and Other Possibilities” (Willow Books, 2016), so I picked up a copy. This slim collection is packed with jolts and surprises, and often had me wincing, as some of the events in the stories are shocking, at first unimaginable, yet somehow in the realm of the imaginable. Many of the characters are Chinese American or of other immigrant backgrounds. The sites of the stories are worldwide. Of course I was especially drawn to those that take place in San Francisco or more generally in California. Many stories raise issues of cultural differences, but not necessarily the differences one would predict, and they don’t necessarily play out the way one might think they would. A story about a disastrous camping trip at Big Sur, in which a Chinese American family’s campsite is next to that of a mixed group whose members drink and party all night, raises issues of race and gender, yes, but also of ambivalence, mixed identities, mixed motivations, deception, and much more. In another story, an Asian American teenager who has been raised to succeed academically is devastated when she isn’t admitted to Stanford, so she goes and attends classes there and talks her way into staying in the dorm room of other young women. She manages the deception well for quite a while, but of course it eventually all blows up around her. In a disturbing but very believable story, macho posturing, frustration, race, anger and other factors bring a simple golf game to a violent end. Frightening this reader, a recent widow goes on an unwise solo camping trip and gets snowed in for several days, for which she is completely unprepared; miraculously she survives and even helps another camper survive. Also: a Korean American pastor at the end of his rope financially and otherwise bets everything on a trip to a village in East Africa that he hopes will help the locals and solve his own problems too, but nothing goes as planned. From story to story I learned to brace myself for yet another seemingly unlikely yet ultimately, if painfully, believable situation, and for characters who are bumbling their way through life, making spectacular or mundane mistakes. Somehow the reader is drawn in and even implicated in the characters’ bad behavior, and can almost imagine being desperate enough to make these same mistakes, out of frustration and hope against hope. These are compelling stories.
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