NEA Literature Fellowships

Peter Ho Davies

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(2016 - Prose)

from "Your Name in Chinese"

They called her the C.C.C. She had begun to hang out around movie crews, wherever there was a shoot. The Curious Chinese Child. Queue-rious, someone cracked, tugging on her braid playfully. She didn't mind. She could just picture the credit:

Curious Chinese Child.......................................................Wong Liu Tson

The long line of dots like a string of pearls.

One day they herded her into a crowd of Chinese extras. She was thirteen. Only you have to stop ogling the stars, someone told her. They paid her seven dollars and fifty cents, more money than she'd ever seen. Chinese extras made a buck fifty more than whites because of their rarity (one of the very few times she'd make more than white performers). She gave seven bucks to her father and he left the broom in the corner. She saved the rest to take herself and two school friends, Jia and Zhen, to the California Theater on Main Street when the picture opened. She needed witnesses. She was so excited to see herself, her face hot and tight as if stretched before a projector bulb. But she couldn't find herself on the screen. There was the street scene, there were the stars, there was the crowd, but she couldn't see herself in it. Couldn't find herself among all those other Chinese faces. That's me, she whispered to the girl next to her in the balcony. There I am! But it was a lie. She couldn't believe she could disappear on film, she who'd felt so self-conscious, so incandescently aware of herself. When she stepped out into the matinee sunlight, her eyes stung, and she blinked away tears. Her friends didn't even mind, just shrugged and thanked her for the tickets. "Let us know when you're in another movie," they giggled, leaving her. It shocked her less that others couldn't see her—she knew she was only an extra—but that she couldn't find herself. It was like looking in a mirror and not recognizing yourself. What good was the silver screen if it didn't reflect you?

Peter Ho Davies is the author of the novel The Welsh Girl, long-listed for the Booker Prize, and the story collections The Ugliest House in the World and Equal Love. His new novel, The Fortunes, is forthcoming in fall 2016. His short fiction has appeared in Harpers, The Atlantic Monthly, and The Paris Review, and been anthologized in Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards  and Best American Short Stories. In 2003 Granta magazine named him among its "Best of Young British Novelists." Davies is a recipient of the Pen-Malamud Prize for excellence in the short story as well as fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Born in Britain to Welsh and Chinese parents, Davies now lives in Ann Arbor, and teaches in the MFA Program at the University of Michigan.

Photo by Lynne Raughley

Author's Statement

I first won an NEA fellowship back in 1998 at the start of my career. Being fortunate enough to get another now in (hopefully) the middle of it means many of the same things (practically, the fellowship will allow me to again take some time off from teaching to write) and a few that are different.

In the intervening years I've had the privilege to serve a turn on the literature panel that gives out the fellowships and found it to be a scrupulous process as well as a fierce competition, both of which make me feel, if anything, even luckier now than back in '98.

That literature panel I served on convened at 9am on the morning of September 11, 2001, in a federal building on Pennsylvania Avenue. While we were still settling into our seats we could see smoke beginning to rise in the distance (from the Pentagon, we later learned). Within minutes we were advised to evacuate the building. Over the next two or three days we went about our business in hotel rooms -- a small gesture, of course, but abetted by dedicated NEA staffers it felt like something worthwhile: a modest assertion of life and hope. Much has been said of patriotism in the intervening years, much about what the country stands for. The NEA, I'd suggest –- representing as it does a nation's faith in the arts -- is an institution any country should be justly proud of.

I might add that since I was not born in the U.S. the fellowship, both times, has felt like an embrace from my adopted home.