May-Lee Chai

Useful Phrases for Immigrants: Stories

Thursday, November 1 at 7pm   Scuppernong Books

With luminous prose and sharp-eyed observations, Chai reveals her characters’ hopes and fears, and our own: a grieving historian seeking solace from an old lover in Beijing, a young girl discovering her immigrant mother’s infidelity, workers constructing a shopping mall in central China who make a shocking discovery. Families struggle with long-held grudges, reinvent traditions, and make mysterious visits to shadowy strangers from their past—all rendered with economy and beauty.

With hearts that break and sometimes mend, with families who fight and sometimes forgive, the timely stories in Useful Phrases for Immigrants illuminate complicated lives with empathy and passion. Chai’s stories are essential reading for an increasingly globalized world.

“Chai’s stories alternate between depicting Chinese immigrants in the United States and migrants in China, reminding the reader of the ties between those who left their homelands and those who stayed. Immersive and complex, Chai’s characters confront questions about class, family, sexuality, love, longing and more. The sign of a strong collection is one where the stories work together to inform the reader, and Chai’s eight tales do just that.”

-Crystal Hana Kim, Washington Post

“Delving into fractured families, hoarded secrets, and the cultural and personal negotiations at the heart of the Asian American experience, May-lee Chai’s Useful Phrases for Immigrants is distinguished by writing as elegant and delicate as a snowflake.”

-Foreword Reviews

“The eight stories in this collection contain multitudes. May-lee Chai interrogates heavy subjects with a light touch. She grants each character the gift of a gleaming voice, rendering them as shaped by circumstances, while also transcending them. Useful Phrases for Immigrants is more than merely ‘useful’; this is essential reading.”

—Tayari Jones, author of An American Marriage, judge of the 2018 Bakwin Award for Writing by a Woman.

“The nightmare is always that there’s one story and then your family — or you — are compared to it,” says Chai. “I would hope that Asian American readers would appreciate the diversity of the different characters… and feel that there is space for their own story to be told as well.”

May-lee Chai is the author of ten books, including the memoir Hapa Girl, a Kiriyama Prize Notable Book; the novel Tiger Girl, which won an Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature; and her original translation from Chinese to English of the 1934 Autobiography of Ba Jin. Her award-winning short prose has been published widely, including in Glimmer TrainMissouri Review,SeventeenCrab Orchard ReviewThe RumpusZYZZYVADallas Morning NewsChristian Science Monitor, and San Francisco Chronicle. The recipient of an NEA fellowship in prose, Chai is an assistant professor in the Creative Writing Department at San Francisco State University.

Immigration Stories, a joint project of Scuppernong Books and the Greensboro Bound Literary Festival, will explore the immigration and refugee experience in America through the lens of writing: fiction, non-fiction, and works for children. We’ll highlight the stories of the immigrant and refugee population as well as the issues, especially as they impact and affect the local community. Immigration Stories responds directly to these issues by providing the community with the opportunity to interact and engage in a series of public readings, panel discussions, and conversations with writers, scholars, and their neighbors. For more information, call 336-763-1919.

This project is made possible in part by funding from the North Carolina Humanities Council, a statewide non-profit and affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities.