cover image Useful Phrases for Immigrants

Useful Phrases for Immigrants

May-Lee Chai. Blair (Consortium, dist.), $16.95 trade paper (166p) ISBN 978-0-932112-76-7

Chai’s astute collection explores the Chinese diasporic experience, spanning both China and America. Though not all the protagonists are immigrants, they are all displaced in some way. These include Xiao Yu, a young village boy who cleans fish in a city restaurant so his family can raise money for a lawyer for his father (“Fish Boy”), to the various characters in “The Body,” from the developer to the crooked Daoist priest who capitalizes on superstition to the reporter trying to catch a big break who all find themselves complicit in the discovery of a murdered woman’s body. Guili, the protagonist of the title story, has recently immigrated to America with her husband to find opportunity, only to find they’ve missed the crest of the wave of prosperity. In “First Carvel in Beijing,” one of the collection’s best stories, Chinese-American narrator Jun-li sleeps with her white ex-girlfriend in Beijing as a way of avoiding coming to terms with her own grief. There are some gems here, though Chai is unfortunately not immune to deploying common immigrant narrative tropes. Nevertheless, Chai thoughtfully depicts the loneliness of displacement, combining empathy and nuance to craft stories that are compassionate, illuminating, and sometimes brilliant. (Oct.)