By Jan Alexander
This Thursday evening, Sept. 19 at 6:30, at Book Culture Long Island City, NY I’m going to be introducing a panel called Authors Speak Out on America, with three fabulous writers whose latest books shed light on what it’s like to be at the receiving end of America’s most pressing social injustices.
Our own Loretta Oleck, who has a haunting poem called “Laya & Aseel” in Pact Press’s We Refugees, will talk about her work with people like the two girls she depicts at a Syrian refugee camp.
Melissa Rivera will talk about her new novel, The Affairs of the Falcons, about an undocumented immigrant from Peru and the myriad Faustian deals she has to make just to keep her children fed.
Roxana Robins, whose latest novel, Dawson’s Fall, is based on the true story of her great-grandfather’s crusading work for civil rights in the post-Civil War South, will talk about a time and place that laid the foundations for much of our present-day racism and obsession with gun ownership.
My own new novel, Ms. Ming’s Guide to Civilization, is set largely in China. So why am I bringing a panel of writers together to talk about America?
In part because my title character, a young writer named Ming, inhabits a China and a New York that have a lot of similarities. Both are full of people whose lives revolve around making money—lots and lots of money, as if they’re living in some primal fiefdom where you win the game if you can pile all your gold into a gilded tower and taunt the other 99 percent as they scrounge for handouts below. Money bores Ming, who wants her life to revolve around the pursuit of truth and meaning. She has quixotic dreams of saving the world from banal greed. If she’s kind of a Doña Quixote, she has a worthy Sancha Panza in her friend from the struggling-to-pay-the-rent side of Manhattan, Zoe.
In my novel Ming and Zoe meet a mysterious Chinese hermit who turns out to have some magical powers, and the three of them concoct a scheme to remake the world into what they’d like it to be—a paradise of knowledge and economic equality. I knew, even while I was laying the groundwork, that their utopia was going to backfire when human nature intervened. I didn’t know how much of the more-or-less complacent real life I’d led in the United States—granted, a complacency existed only if you were white—was about to blow up in my face on Nov. 8, 2016.
I had pursued a graduate degree in Chinese studies and lived in Asia for a time as an alternative to that perceived American complacency. But I was back here by 2016, and suddenly everything seemed different; suddenly we live in a country that feels like an ad hoc experiment in the flip side of everything my characters defined as “civilization.” A country where a certain faction seems to believe refugees deserve to live in fear and squalor, undocumented immigrants deserve to be deported to the places they fled, people of color are a threat of some kind, if you’re poor it must be because you’re not working hard enough. In my most pessimistic moods I wonder if the writer’s mission to expose truth and meaning still carries weight—or are we headed for a future in which exposés are just entertainment and even hurricanes blow wherever a president’s whim decides to send them?
But then I think about how the whole planet is shifting in ways that will change the lives we’re accustomed to living, and how we need the kind of facts and fictions that help us understand our fellow humans and what they’re going through. That’s why I’ve been interviewing authors who write about the state of America in its infinite variety for Neworld Review, and why we’re having this panel. We won’t solve the country’s problems in one night, but we hope to shed some greater truths.
Jan Alexander is the author of Ms. Ming’s Guide to Civilization, Getting to Lamma, and co-author of the nonfiction book Bad Girls of the Silver Screen. Her short fiction has appeared in 34th Parallel, Everyday Fiction, Neworld Review, and Silver Birch Press. She has written about business and travel for many publications and taught Chinese history at Brooklyn College.