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September 6, 2016

Book Notes - Peter Ho Davies "The Fortunes"

The Fortunes

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Peter Ho Davies' novel The Fortunes is a powerful and provocative examination of over 100 years of Chinese American life.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"The book's scope is impressive, but what’s even more staggering is the utter intimacy and honesty of each character's introspection. More extraordinary still is the depth and the texture created by the juxtaposition of different eras, making for a story not just of any one person but of hundreds of years and tens of millions of people. Davies (The Welsh Girl) has created a brilliant, absorbing masterpiece."

In his own words, here is Peter Ho Davies's Book Notes music playlist for his novel The Fortunes:

My novel The Fortunes is a fictional history of Chinese America from the Gold Rush, via 1930's Hollywood and 1980's Detroit to the approximate present. The book toggles back and forth between China and America, reflecting the duality of many of its characters – some mixed-race, some hyphenated Americans - who struggle with questions of identity. Are they Chinese, American, both or neither? In that context I thought that for my playlist I'd choose pairs of songs – many of them featured in the text.

"These Foolish Things"
Leslie "Hutch" Hutchinson
Ella Fitzgerald (Live)

"These Foolish Things" is a familiar standard recorded by everyone from Sinatra to Rod Stewart, Bryan Ferry to Billie Holiday. What's less well known is that the lyrics by British songwriter Eric Maschwitz are thought to have been inspired by his lover, Anna May Wong, the first Chinese American movie star, and a prominent character in The Fortunes. The first version here, by West Indian singer Leslie "Hutch" Hutchinson, is the one that made it a hit in the 30's. The second is a live version by Ella Fitzgerald.

"Half-Caste Woman" from Ziegfeld, the musical
Noel Coward
Aliki Georgiou

In The Fortunes, I imagine Anna May being asked to sing "These Foolish Things" and declining in favor of a number from her own cabaret act, "Half-Caste Woman," by Noel Coward. The two versions here are sung by Coward himself – his rounded British vowels to my ear accentuate the colonial orientalism of the song – and by Aliki Georgiou from the soundtrack of the short-lived London musical Ziegfeld (which I like to think gives a sense of how it might have sounded when sung by Anna May). I'm interested in the way the meaning of the lyrics shift when sung by a woman, not a man, and by implication how their meaning shifts when sung by a Chinese American rather than an Englishman.

"Kung Fu Fighting"
Carl Douglas
Cee Lo Green/Jack Black

One of the things I'm fascinated by in The Fortunes is how Chinese are represented and what it means to represent them. Several of the characters in the book are historical/iconic figures who struggle with that burden. Anna May Wong's experiences in Hollywood – where she lost out on larger roles to white actresses playing in yellowface, and wasn't allowed to kiss white actors on screen – are an example, but of course songs as well as movies have a played a role in that representation. The most famous is probably Carl Douglas' funky "Kung Fu Fighting" from 1974. I'm pairing it here with Cee Lo's version from the Kung Fu Panda soundtrack of 2008, featuring Jack Black, partly because it's a favorite of my son's. Notice that the offensive "Chinaman" has been replaced in the more recent version. The latest cover by the Vamps for Kung Fu Panda 3 updated the lyrics once more to include references to "chi" and "enlightenment." I'm interested in the way the song is repurposed over time and in other hands.

"China Girl"

"Turning Japanese"
The Vapors

Lyric changes not withstanding "Kung Fu Fighting," in all it's various versions, contains a musical phrase called the Asian or Oriental riff – a sort of aural stereotype – that it shares with among others Bowie's "China Girl" and "Turning Japanese" by the Vapors. The riff provides an ironic epigraph to The Fortunes. Its application in these instances to both Chinese and Japanese speaks to both the "they all look alike" stereotype which leads to tragic results in the novel, but also ironically to a shared political movement embracing all Asian Americans.

"Capture Me Burning" from Something Slanted This Way Comes, Slanted Eyes, Slanted Hearts
The Slants

Another epigraph for The Fortunes, and one of its section titles, is "Tell It Slant." The phrase comes from a famous line of Emily Dickinson's - "Tell all the truth, but tell it slant" – and speaks in part to the mixing and melding of history and fiction in the novel, but also of course plays on the racial slur "slant". I'd like to think of the usage as an effort to reclaim the epithet – analogous to the way some African American's have attempted to reclaim the n-word – and in this regard I was inspired by the Asian American band The Slants (who actually won a federal case to use the name against the United States Trademark and Patent Office who originally deemed it offensive). The Slants describe their music as Chinatown Dance Rock, and it takes me back to the British synth-pop bands of my college days in Manchester like New Order and Joy Division.

"Mother and Child Reunion"
Paul Simon

One song reference I wanted to include, but couldn't quite find a home for in The Fortunes (the final section of which concerns adoption from China) was to this Paul Simon number, a long time favorite, but one whose title origins I only learned while writing the book. As Simon told Rolling Stone in 1972:

"Know where the words came from on that? You would never have guessed. I was eating in a Chinese restaurant downtown. There was a dish called "Mother and Child Reunion." It's chicken and eggs. And I said, "Oh, I love that title. I gotta use that one."

"Ghost Town"

Since The Fortunes is all about duality, I might as well end by touching on my own. I'm half Chinese, half Welsh (my novel before The Fortunes was called The Welsh Girl and explored that side of my heritage). I've now lived half my life in the US, but was born and spent my youth in Britain, specifically a city called Coventry. Coventry is in the Midlands, and used to be a major car manufacturing city, but like Detroit in the Midwest, near which I now live, has suffered hard times for decades. 1980's Detroit with it's beleaguered auto business is a backdrop to one section in The Fortunes. Around the same time my home town band, the Specials were writing Ghost Town about Coventry.

Incidentally, Jerry Dammers of the Specials went to the same school as me, albeit a few years earlier, as did – many years earlier – the poet Philip Larkin, who to bring things full circle once said of the Billie Holiday version of "These Foolish Things": "I have always thought the words were a little pseudo-poetic, but Billie sings them with such passionate conviction that I think they really become poetry."

Peter Ho Davies and The Fortunes links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry

Guardian review
Kirkus review
Publishers Weekly review
St. Louis Post-Dispatch review

BookPage interview with the author
The Guardian profile of the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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