Delia Cai’s Poignant Debut Novel Asks: Can You Ever Really Go Home Again?

Throughout my 20s, especially living in New York, the way I’ve talked about being from a small town in central Illinois has totally changed, because I had kind of figured out that you can get a laugh if you’re really self-deprecating about it and tell people about how you had a “drive your tractor to school” day. After the 2016 election, though, all these people I talked to every day in New York were saying, “Oh, I didn’t realize people thought that way.” I think they were honestly just kind of intrigued; like, something I tell people is that as an Asian person in New York City, the most different thing about me is that I come from this small town. People would ask me: “Can you walk me through why you weren’t surprised when Trump won?” And I was just like, when Obama was elected, there were kids running through my school saying he was going to get assassinated. It was like, I’m not surprised right now, because this has been happening.

Were there any books you really liked or looked to for inspiration while writing Central Places**?**

I really loved Jenny Zhang’s Sour Heart. I was kind of like, “Whoa, I didn’t know you could write about a very specific kind of childhood and make it gross and disturbing and weird,” and I really loved that. Obviously, it’s about growing up Chinese American and having really complicated feelings about it; I remember she wrote about a character who is all grown up and kind of still dealing with her younger brother, feeling like she wasn’t there for him, just that classic parent/adult child thing.

What was it like emotionally to write about someone who shares certain important biographic details with you, but isn’t actually you?

Emotionally, the novel feels very real; like, all of the things that happen up until the trip home, and the main character’s background is similar to mine. I’ve never brought a fiancé home to meet my parents, but I’ve come close to that, so in some ways, it was like this mental exercise of, I wonder what this would be like. Let’s play that out. I realized more and more while I was writing it that I was almost standing in for the character of the white boyfriend from New York; the character of Ben is applying a gaze that I’ve definitely imposed onto my own life. He’s having this more judgmental, knee-jerk response to what he’s seeing.

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