A couple of days ago, I should have been seated before a large crowd of book lovers at the James Madison Regional Library in Charlottesville, Virginia for a Virginia Festival of the Book panel called “Stories of Displacement: Fiction, Far from Home.” I’d been looking forward to the panel for months, one of my last events promoting my debut novel, The Shaman of Turtle Valley, which came out in May 2019. Alas, the festival was canceled and the panel along with it, thanks to justifiable fears of spreading the coronavirus. (I was also scheduled to moderate a panel called “Writing the Anthropocene,” which I’ve written about here, along with interviews of the three authors on that panel: Virtual Panel.)
So the “Displacement” panel did not happen, although our moderator, Meredith Cole, has a podcast and she has recorded a conversation with two of the three panelists, and you can listen to that conversation here: Meredith Cole in Conversation with Michael Zapata and Clifford Garstang.
But in addition, I thought I’d share my own reflections on the subjection of displacement as it relates to all three of the books.
Mimi Lok, author of Last of Her Name, wasn’t able to join us for the podcast, which is a shame because I really enjoyed her collection of short stories and a novella. I would describe these fictions as gritty, because they deal with people who seem hyper-real, the Chinese diaspora unlike the unrealistically super-rich of Crazy Rich Asians. I especially loved the novella, “The Woman in the Closet,” about an elderly woman who feels unwanted by her son and daughter-in-law in their cramped apartment, so she moves into a Hong Kong tent city for the homeless. Moving from one encampment to another as the authorities clamp down on them, Granny Ng finds a comfortable squatter arrangement in a large closet of a bachelor’s home, unbeknownst to him. Somebody should snatch up the movie rights to that one. The other stories in the collection are equally compelling.
I was glad that Michael Zapata was able to join us on the podcast. His book, The Lost Book of Adana Moreau, is a wonderfully complex tale of displacement. It begins as the story of a Dominican refugee in New Orleans in the 1920s who marries a man who describes himself as a pirate. She writes and publishes a science fiction novel about parallel universes and finishes the sequel and destroys it shortly before her death. Later, when her husband has gone off to find work, their son follows him and is befriended by a family in Chicago. In the present (the two narratives alternate), a young man comes into possession of a package that his grandfather wants delivered, but the man, who himself is something of a refugee, has to go to great lengths to find the addressee. In the process, he heads to New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina, and as a result encounters a whole city of displaced people.
Finally, my own book, The Shaman of Turtle Valley, is about a young man in Virginia who is trying to resettle on the family farm after serving in the US Army in the Middle East and Korea. He has been displaced by his service, but even more so his young Korean wife experiences culture shock and is unable to feel at home in her new environment. She copes with her extreme culture shock by developing her skills as a Korean shaman, which puts her into conflict with her husband’s mother, a woman from a long line of Appalachian healers, themselves part of the wave of Scots-Irish immigrants who arrived in the Shenandoah Valley two centuries earlier. Also on the list of the displaced are a couple of cousins who stir up trouble because they believe they’ve been cheated out of the family wealth.
What all of these books have in common, I think, are the people who are looking for a place to call home. The characters in Lok’s book are far from their ancestral homes, but try to settle in London or the US or, in the case of Granny Ng, in someone’s closet. In Zapata’s novel, the characters feel a certain inevitable restlessness, and while making a home for themselves is a goal, it’s hard to achieve. Where is home, anyway? And in my book, finding home is really what it’s all about. The main character is trying to make a home for himself and his son, while his wife longs to return to the village of her birth—that’s her home.
It was an honor to be part of this panel and it’s truly a disappointment that we weren’t able to meet and discuss our books with an audience, but I hope readers will discover and enjoy these three books anyway.