Welcome to The Deep, the blog for UNCW’s Creative Writing community. Today we welcome May-lee Chai, our new Assistant Professor in Creative Nonfiction. We are extremely pleased and fortunate to have added such a gifted and multitalented writer to our permanent faculty.
I’ve been reading The Girl from Purple Mountain, the memoir that May-lee co-authored with her father, Winburg Chai. It is an extraordinarily complicated work of art that alternates between voices, navigating a century of international history in order to understand one beguiling family secret: Why did the family matriarch, Ruth Tsao Chai, secretly arrange at the end of her life to be buried alone, rather than beside her husband in the accustomed and prearranged fashion? What lies behind this seeming betrayal of all that the family had suffered and transcended together?
Here is how May-lee very beautifully describes her purpose: “I would pore over the album of my grandmother’s life, looking for clues to understand her, to understand me, to understand my family, which was always both so familiar and so strange to me, with its secrets and vexing silences, it’s closeness and closedness, its deep fierce love and undercurrents of even deeper resentments.”
The book is an immense delight, captivating sentence by sentence. One would think that the alternating voices would prove challenging, but in fact they dovetail naturally and seamlessly. May-lee is particularly good at summarizing the constant tumult of the early twentieth century in China, and almost everything else having to do with history and culture on a grand scale. Winburn is utterly irresistible in his ability to capture family legend and character in phrasing as indelible as it is hilarious:
“It is true that Nanjing people like to collect rocks. It is our peculiarity, just as people from Sichuan like to eat hot peppers even for breakfast …”
“The man sighed wearily, as if he were being asked to give up one of his fingers for a medicinal soup.”
Here is how Winburn describes the moment of his own birth: “The wind carried the pungent smells of China—garlic and incense, salt water and rotting fish, strong perfumes and a delicate fruit like peaches on the wind—surrounding them in an embrace, when Ruth bent over suddenly.”
The book holds the reader’s attention as skillfully as any page-turner does, resolving the central mystery and bringing us full circle back to the source, when the American-born May-lee describes her first visit to China and to Purple Mountain. By the end, I was in love with even the most opaque of her characters. Here is an announcement for May-lee’s reading this week at UNCW:
Creative Writing Faculty Member May-lee Chai to Read at the University of North Carolina Wilmington September 25
WILMINGTON, N.C.— May-lee Chai, new faculty member in the Creative Writing Department at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, will read at 7 p.m., Thursday, September 25 in Kenan Hall Room 1111.
May-lee Chai was born in Redlands, California the eldest daughter of an artistically gifted Irish American mother and Shanghai born political scientist father. She is the author of the novels Tiger Girl, Dragon Chica and My Lucky Face, the memoirs Hapa Girl and The Girl from Purple Mountain, coauthored with Winburg Chai, the nonfiction book China A to Z and Glamorous Asians: Short Stories & Essays. In addition to her books, she has published numerous short stories in journals, magazines and anthologies as well as essays and journalism.
She majored in French and Chinese Studies from Grinnell College in Iowa. May-lee received her M.A. in East Asian Studies from Yale University. She also completed a second Master’s in English-Creative Writing from the University of Colorado in Boulder. She has studied at universities in France, China, and Taiwan, and likes to study new languages. She has also taught at various universities, including San Francisco State University, the University of Wyoming, and Amherst College in Massachusetts.
All events are free and open to the public. Receptions sponsored by the department and book signings sponsored by Pomegranate Books will follow readings.
For further information on UNCW’s programs and events in creative writing, please contact the Department of Creative Writing at 910.962.7063.