Your story “Detective Dog” centers on a wealthy Hong Kong family who moved, to escape the violent protests of 2014, first to Vancouver and then to New York, where they construe many things differently than most Americans might. When the nine-year-old Robert joins the People of Color club at his school, for example, his mother, Betty, wants to tell him, “We are not people of color, Robert. We are rich.” What does she mean?
When I was growing up, my mother used to say, “I don’t like that word ‘immigrant.’ ” She never explained what she meant, but I knew: to her, an immigrant was someone who didn’t have real suitcases and took live chickens on buses. For Betty, similarly, “people of color” suggests the underprivileged. And while her family is nonwhite—and discriminated against—they are hardly underprivileged.
Betty says to herself, “In Hong Kong, there was no People of Color club because they were all the same color, and if you said bad things about white people it wasn’t racism, it was resistance, unless you said it to their faces. Then it was speaking truth to power.”
Among Betty’s many privileges is not only knowing how to code-switch but being able to joke about it.
“Detective Dog” revolves, in a way, around storytelling. Robert writes stories, and the narrative culminates with Betty telling him a long tale that turns out to be true. Why did you decide to have these layers of narration?
Like many writers, I am aware of how many stories remain buried for all time and fascinated by how other stories emerge. I’ve just talked about code-switching, but immigration doesn’t only give you new phrases and ways of framing things. It teaches you to narrate in a completely different way. Here in America, Betty consciously tries to ask different sorts of questions than she did in the past—questions that will encourage storytelling. And she goes on to respond in a new way to Robert, too, in part because she has no choice. She’s already had her older son, Theo, leave her; she doesn’t want Robert to leave, too. But she’s not an experienced storyteller. She starts off telling what seems to be a fictional story but turns into something else; she’s not in control. She reveals things unintentionally and is caught up short by her audience. Plus, like many a storyteller, she finds that she herself has something to process. By the end of her story, she has told something that she both did and did not mean to tell, and maybe knew but didn’t allow herself to know.
I have been interested in cultural differences in narrative-making for some time—ever since I wrote “Tiger Writing: Art, Culture, and the Interdependent Self,” which came out in 2013. So when I, a bit like Betty, found my story telling itself, and saw that it now had a metafictional aspect, I had enough of an intellectual framework to realize that I should continue writing and see what happened.
“Detective Dog” will be included in your story collection, “Thank You, Mr. Nixon,” which comes out in January. Is it linked to the other stories in the book?
It is the last story of the collection. And, yes, it is linked to the other stories, several of which involve the Koos.
Theo disappears in this story. Will readers of the collection find out where he went? Do you know where he went?
I don’t know where he went but hope that someday, in some story as yet unwritten, I will find out.