Hua makes her characters both despicable and sympathetic while tackling racial and cultural issues with cutting reflection.
What do people gain by holding secrets close—and what do they lose when they let secrets go? Vanessa Hua’s short story collection, Deceit and Other Possibilities revolves around that question, pitting protagonists against public and personal identities, familial and cultural duties and finally, pride and dignity. Casting her characters across the diaspora of races and nationalities, Hua showcases immigrants and their first generation offspring as more than the deferential, outcast and ever-striving stereotype in which they’re often painted.
In Hua’s stories, an American-born transplant to Hong Kong gets swept up in improbable, instant fame he worries he doesn’t deserve and a sex scandal that threatens his celebrity status. Missionaries haunted by their falls from grace employ less than godly methods to deliver their messages. Dutiful daughters cheat their ways through school to preserve their family honor and find the friendship and acceptance that eluded them. A reserve cop, yearning for the father he never knew and the marriage he destroyed, pulls a gun on a golf club bully after a freak accident, a chilling echo of today’s police brutality.
While the book’s characters make unsavory decisions or behave in a manner repulsive to readers, Hua imbues them with a tangible, recognizable humanity that makes them familiar. Their deception is often rooted in good or at least understandable intentions. They hope to return the favor to and not disappoint the families that sacrificed and started anew in a foreign land; to capture fleeting moments of the lives they want and deserve; and to carve out their senses of identity in an unwelcoming social climate.
The strongest selections in Deceit tap into the subtlety of cultural and emotional conflict warring between and within its cast. In “What We Have Is What We Need,” Lalo, an undocumented Mexican immigrant, is upset to discover his mother is having an affair, but he realizes that her affluent, Spanish-American lover provides an escape from her life of poverty and estrangement. In a heart-wrenching moment, she remains with the family she worked and gave up so much for and can’t betray. In “Responsibility of Deceit,” Calvin wrestles with his love for his boyfriend and his Chinese parents, and a taut interaction with family friends convinces him to come out to his mother and father despite their disapproval of homosexuality. During a camping trip in “For What We Shared,” the raucous behavior in a mostly white group of friends frightens struggling immigrant Lin and her family. Personally embarrassed by Lin’s foreignness, Aileen, the sole Chinese-American in her party, refuses to stand up to her peers in order to fit in. Supposed cultural loyalties are tested and come under fire — literally — when Lin torches Aileen’s campsite in retaliation.
While each of the 13 stories exhibit poignant points from multiple angles, similar plot points repeat between, lending the collection a thematic lilt and setting its parts up for comparison. Which cheating spouse scenario told a better story? Which impromptu arsonist — both women, to boot — is more justified or vindicated in fanning their flames? Hua ends some narratives before her protagonists can face the consequences of their choices, which works for pieces that are more effective in their ambiguity but short-changes others begging for proper conclusion. “Room at the Table” brims with tension between family members left unspoken until Daniel calls out the relationship his cousin Grace kept under wraps because it resembled the marriage that got her brother Frank disowned by their parents. Yet, a sudden fainting spell by Daniel’s wife’s unites them after Christmas dinner. “Responsibility of Deceit” ends before Calvin comes out to his parents, which feels more satisfying because it’s his decision that displays his courage and marks his turning point.
Perhaps Deceit as a whole would be a more satisfying literary composite if the author was choosier with her work. “The Older the Ginger” particularly rings all sorts of uncomfortable “Me Too” warning bells and holds the least value. Others feel rehashed and become less memorable the deeper one reads. Still, Hua makes her characters both despicable and sympathetic while tackling racial and cultural issues with cutting reflection in a collection that, for the most part, hits close to the heart.