Expats run deep in local author’s debut
Many of the narrators in Stephanie Han’s first collection of short stories are tough, sarcastic, worldly American expatriates trying to hide how self-conscious and vulnerable they feel.
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“Swimming in Hong Kong”
Willow Springs Books, $19.95
Many of the narrators in “Swimming in Hong Kong,” Stephanie Han’s unsentimental, at times hauntingly lyrical first collection of short stories, are tough, sarcastic, worldly American expatriates trying to hide how self-conscious and vulnerable they feel.
“You have what the far left and the far right seem to uncannily agree is undesirable and problematic: a mixed marriage,” says the angry Korean-American narrator of “Invisible,” who goes for a drink at their Hong Kong private club when her Caucasian husband is away and waves across the room at a white friend, who doesn’t recognize her.
“You can’t see us,” she tells him.
She says she was “glad to come back to Asia” because she longs for anonymity, but it rankles to be excluded from Hong Kong society because she doesn’t look Chinese.
Set in the United States, Korea and Hong Kong, the 10 stories explore the borderlands of race, identity and a desire for belonging and love that clashes with a yearning for freedom and truth.
Some of Han’s characters are desperate immigrants to the United States working in places like nail salons.
Most are Korean-American and educated, like Han, a resident of Honolulu, where her family has lived since 1904, according to the book cover notes. She has lived and studied on the mainland and in Hong Kong.
The narrator of “The Body Politic, 1982” looks back on her student life as an Asian feminist activist whose quest for sexual liberation leads to an awful experience with a Caucasian man. She reflects, “my sorrow only came years later when I realized how easy it is for innocence to be lost in the brutal quest for understanding and self.”
In a similar vein, a Korean-American looks back on her teenage summer affair with a privileged, disturbed white boy in “Nantucket’s Laundry, 1985,” which is sunny yet filled with foreboding. Her acerbic tongue recalls Holden Caulfield: “You make France sound like a mall,” she tells one girl.
While entertaining and moving, these stories might have had more impact if we were given some idea of where, in time, space and circumstance, the narrator was narrating from.
The title story is a standout, partly because Han creates beautifully drawn, deep characters at a considerable remove from herself: a lonely, Ivy League-educated African-American woman who’s trying to learn to swim and an old Chinese man who desperately misses (yet disses) his son meet at a pool in Hong Kong and subtly change each other’s lives.
It’s telling, and reminiscent of those who leave Hawaii to get ahead, that the woman’s father, an immigrant from the Bahamas, grew up swimming in his beloved sea but never had time, working in New York, to teach her.
“Swimming in Hong Kong” was a finalist for the Association of Writers & Writing Program’s Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction and for the Spokane Prize. While it’s uneven, as many first collections tend to be, there is some outstanding work here. Skillfully and fearlessly written in a distinctive authorial voice, Han’s book is an impressive debut.