We all have moments we’d rather forget. Maybe an awkward high school crush or a fight that broke up a best friendship. That reluctance to return to a site of remembering is the focal point of Delia Cai’s debut novel, Central Places, which tells the story of Audrey Zhou, a Chinese American woman living in New York City who returns to her hometown in central Illinois after eight years away. She arrives to support her father before a surgery, bringing her affluent, white fiancé Ben in tow, his first introduction to her parents. The visit extends longer than expected, unearthing memories of a place Audrey was attempting to leave behind and resurfacing romantic feelings for Kyle, an old high school crush.
In the midst of it, Cai details the contrasting contexts of a working-class small town outside Peoria, Ill., with Audrey’s upwardly mobile ambitions in New York. There’s an immediacy in which Cai captures place and time that fully immersed me in this fictional world about a hometown return that is almost-but-not-quite exactly like her own.
Throughout Central Places, Audrey wrestles with questions about how to introduce Ben to her middle-class Chinese immigrant parents, whether it’s possible to repair fractured relationships she left behind in search of bigger dreams, and how to navigate an ongoing feeling of otherness. It’s these self-interrogations that drive the narrative of Cai’s work, which is effusive in its compassion for its ensemble of characters.
I was lucky enough to catch the Los Angeles leg of Cai’s book tour, where she sat in conversation with fellow Asian American fiction writer Elaine Hsieh Chou. Approachable and warm, Cai herself is still incredulous at the enormous success her writing has yielded the past few years. We related in the stubbornness and thick skin one has to develop in order to persevere in journalism. Over the past decade, her arc in media spans a fellowship at The Atlantic to running her media newsletter Deez Links to her new position as senior correspondent at Vanity Fair. Even now, she shares that the imposter syndrome feeling is very real.
I sat down with Cai via Zoom to discuss the tension and disbelief that is the backdrop to Central Places and a reflection of her own fish-out-of-water moments: her Asian American experience living between the Midwest and the coast, state school pedigree and Ivy League prestige, and the struggle to build community.
JIREH DENG: How did your passion for writing start and where did the inspiration for your book arrive from?
DELIA CAI: I was a big reader as a kid. My mom would drop me off at the neighborhood Barnes and Noble on Saturday afternoons so she could run her errands in peace. I loved it because I could just sit and read a bunch of books all afternoon. I remember writing little stories when I was a kid, coming up with skits with friends. But I started writing stories in earnest around middle school, because I got really into writing Harry Potter fanfiction. Then I began inventing my own stories.
JD: It’s interesting that you got your start writing Harry Potter fanfiction, because your book is almost like a spin-off of your own life, particularly with the political happenings that are the backdrop of this novel. There’s a general sense that this is the pre-Trump era of politics and a period where Midwestern communities are experiencing financial hardship and struggling with the opioid crisis. Even Audrey’s dad, who’s an engineer, is implicated in the working-class struggle of his peers — he’s preparing to be a scab during a strike. There’s all this texture that feels very journalistic to me. How did your journalism background inform your writing this book?
DC: Journalism helped me put things in historical and political context that I just didn’t really understand as a kid. For example, in my hometown, a small town outside Peoria, Ill., the manufacturing giant renegotiates contracts with the unions every six years. It’s a huge thing because most people know someone who works there, and it impacts everyone because there’s this idea of a strike looming and who’s going to run the plants? At the time, I only understood that whole dilemma in the way that my parents told it to me, and they understood from the way that their superiors at work explained it to them. We were not a family that read socialist or leftist media; it was just sort of this thing that happened. Now, getting older, I’m learning about labor rights and making these connections. I think a lot about the culture and norms we grow up with, that I didn’t notice until I was out of it. My journalism background helped me contextualize my own world, and helped me understand my childhood and the place I grew up in better.
JD: The characters and places in the book feel very fleshed out in a journalistic type of way with your attention to detail and everyone’s humanity. Audrey aspired to go to New York City to get away from her past, which prevented her from being close to the people from her hometown. I also sense that cultural expectations from her immigrant Chinese parents weigh heavily on Audrey so much that she’s developed this intense fear of failure. How does this track with your trajectory to New York City? How does it tie into how we think about immigrant parents, that pressure to do better and gain upward mobility?
DC: Something that I really love about the novel is that Audrey changes her mind about the stories that she’s told herself about people in her life. When she says, “My best friend and I fell out and we don’t talk anymore” — like, is that really true? What role did she play in that? Audrey spent her whole childhood telling herself, “I can’t wait to get out of here.” That’s definitely something I’ve wrestled with a lot in my life. If you know you’re going to leave, why would you invest in these relationships? Did I cut myself off from people, or was this really an isolating place to grow up? Did I contribute to that isolation by being really self protective? Aiming for upward mobility comes with this inherent rejection of one world you’re trying to escape from for another. It’s a meta immigrant narrative for Audrey. Her parents came from China to the United States, and she’s moving from this small Midwestern town to this big New York City life. She’s sort of split between these worlds.
JD: And it causes her to have fractured relationships with the people in her town and her family. The distance between what Audrey wants for herself and what her mom wants for her. Your book has us, as readers, sitting in discomfort, but I see that discomfort being generative as a tool. There’s that dichotomy between how her fiancé Ben sticks out in this Midwestern town, with racial tensions and that sense of political elitism coming from the coasts. Audrey is a Chinese woman, bringing home her white fiancé. How were you thinking about this tension as you were writing the book?
DC: When writing this novel, I was really curious about exploring these tropes of the Asian American mom or the trope of an interracial relationship between an Asian woman and a white man or even just the coastal elite versus middle America divide. It can be fun and snarky to take a stance one way or another on these dynamics. For example, during the Trump election, the New York Times did all these stories like, “Here’s what real America is like, we went to this diner and interviewed a bunch of people who represent a very specific Midwestern or Southern perspective.” It was really easy to make fun of that because it was so clear they were looking for a certain type of narrative which gave confirmation bias, you know?
So when looking at these dynamics, my thesis wasn’t so simple. Interracial relationships can be so fraught, people have really strong feelings about it and a lot of toxic beliefs, especially within the Asian community. It was important for me to give these things a 360-degree view. I tried to consider what about a relationship like this — for these two characters, specifically — is so appealing? What about it makes it work and not work for them? I didn’t want to make any sweeping theses. In the book there are these microaggressions, but then there’s one very blatant incident of textbook racism and I wondered for a long time if that was stereotypical to put in. Like, does there need to be a very obvious racist incident for it to be legit to the Asian American experience? Sometimes racism is really random, and I’m just like, “Wow, I feel like I’m living in a diversity and inclusion ad.”
JD: I definitely know what you mean. It’s like you’re just going through life existing as a person and then it just smacks you in the face when someone else decides that you only exist as a category. Your book feels very reminiscent of the melancholy in the film Minari where this immigrant family is really isolated in their Korean American experience in Arkansas. You realize, “I’m really alone out here.” Can you talk about how you’re exploring experiences that aren’t always represented in media and how you’ve figured out your own path through that?
DC: I was so surprised when I moved to the East Coast and started meeting Asian Americans who grew up in these coastal enclaves where they felt really enveloped in the security of their identities. I just didn’t know that there were teenagers in SoCal or Flushing, who grew up not feeling the way I did. On TV, you see being Asian American as an isolated experience. There’s London Tipton on The Suite Life of Zack & Cody, or the Chang Triplets on The Proud Family. I actually thought that was the norm, and then I met people and found out there are entire communities and subcultures where you could grow up Asian American and not feel singled out in everything you did. That was just so mind-blowing to me. I kind of just wanted to bring to light one very specific experience that I had. At the time, I didn’t realize in the context of the Asian American experience, that my experience is actually pretty rare statistically.
JD: In your interview with the Longform podcast, you talk a lot about feeling plucked out of your Midwest town and trying to make sense of New York City. I’m really curious to hear how your life experiences inform your own character development of Audrey.
DC: This is something I’m struggling with, just on a daily personal level, but I still feel like I don’t really belong anywhere. In some ways, growing up, that was the default belief of not looking like anyone else in my friend group. I’ve had this underlying implicit feeling that I don’t belong, and I carry it with me in these increasingly different circumstances and contexts. At Atlantic Media, my first job after school, many of my colleagues were Asian but most were Ivy League kids. No one cared that I was Asian but all of a sudden I felt like I didn’t belong because I’m from a small town, because I went to a state school. Some of my childhood beliefs come back to haunt me in different ways. I’m still figuring out how to actually form connections and create a sense of belonging for myself.
JD: Can you talk about the ways you’ve found community? Ways you’ve felt seen and like you aren’t alone?
DC: Right off the bat, so many Asian American women authors have really welcomed me into their network here in New York. Especially Qian Julie Wang and Elaine Hsieh Chou. They reached out to me to get coffee and go to picnics, it’s been so lovely. One example I’m really proud of: I live in an apartment building with six other people and over the past year we’ve slowly gotten to the point where we’re on a first-name basis with each other and we have a group chat. A few months ago, our front door lock wasn’t working and it felt like a problem for all of us that we helped each other out of. There’s this real sense of knowing that we got each other’s backs.
JD: That’s really sweet. New York can feel so big, but you’re trying to make it smaller in those intentional and person-to-person connections. Are there any particular artists or writers that currently inspire or inform your own work?
DC: It would be too hard to name all of them. I’m reading Jenny Odell right now. I really love her first book, How To Do Nothing, where she interrogates why we are so obsessed with productivity. And her new book, Saving Time, considers the concept of time. I don’t think most of us really understand our concepts of time have been taken from us. Both books fit into a lot of the stuff I’m working out for myself in terms of how I want to spend my life. Toward the end of How To Do Nothing, Odell talks about being at this super boring work conference, so she decided to play hooky and spent the day just walking around. At first she felt guilty for blowing off the learning and networking opportunities, thinking, “I should be at this conference to make myself a more productive worker.” But then she realizes that playing hooky was a better use of time, because she spent that day on Earth. I love that part and I try to remind myself every day that I’m here on Earth, in this time and in this place. To tie up all the other stuff we’ve talked about, I think that is what helps ground me when I feel like I don’t belong, if I’m getting really wrapped up in stuff from the past or I’m trying to forecast the future. Like, what really matters? How am I spending this day here on Earth? And so I just try to lean into that.
JD: That’s beautiful. I feel like that’s a nice way to end the conversation because I’m sure people want to know what’s next, like, “When is your next book coming out?” But you’re just thinking to yourself, “What if I just exist?”
DC: Exactly, exactly. I just turned 30, so it’s really been at the top of my mind because people are always asking what I want to do next and I think I’m done striving. I’m not so into achieving anymore. Some people have told me, “You must be so happy, you achieved your dreams,” and I am, but there’s a ceiling to that and now what I’m craving is the joy you get from existing and being with people. I’m just trying to live for community and connection and that’s all.
DELIA CAI’S debut novel is Central Places. Her writing has appeared in BuzzFeed, GQ, The Cut and Catapult, and her media newsletter, Deez Links, has been highlighted by the New York Times, New York magazine and Fortune. She lives in Brooklyn and is a senior correspondent at Vanity Fair.
In this new book, longtime organizers and movement educators Mariame Kaba and Kelly Hayes examine the political lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath, including the convergence of mass protest and mass formations of mutual aid. Let This Radicalize You answers the urgent question: What fuels and sustains activism and organizing when it feels like our worlds are collapsing?
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JIREH DENG is a poet and an editorial intern at In These Times. Their writing on Los Angeles arts, culture and identity has appeared in the Guardian, the Washington Post, the L.A. Times, Teen Vogue and on NPR. They co-direct the Asian American Journalists Association LGBTQIA+ affinity group and serve as national board representative for its LA chapter.