By Susie Luo
Hanover Square Press; hardcover, 288 pages; $30.00; available today, Tuesday, May 2nd
Susie Luo is a writer based in New York. She graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and Cornell Law School, and was an investment banker at Goldman Sachs when she began writing her novel from 10 p.m. to 3 a.m. after work in eight months during the pandemic. She cold-pitched it to Gillian Flynn's agent, and it was won in a major pre-empt. Now, Luo writes full time and teaches writing in New York City.
Paper Names, which was inspired by Luo's family experiences, has been honored as one of the 25 Best Fiction Books of 2023 by Reader's Digest.
Set in Manhattan, Paper Names is a sweeping, multiple point-of-view story about first-generation Chinese Americans in New York City. It revolves around the ripple effects of trauma on family dynamics, including the relationship between fathers and daughters, identity, the immigrant experience, the burden of secrets, and what it means to be American.
This deep story is explored from three different perspectives. Tony is a Chinese-born engineer turned Manhattan doorman, who immigrated to the United States to give his family a better life. His daughter Tammy's story is shown from when she is nine years old through adulthood, and she grapples with the expectations of a first generation American and her own personal desires. The third perspective comes from Oliver, who is a handsome white lawyer with a dark family secret and who lives in the building where Tony works. A violent attack causes their lives to intertwine in ways that will change them forever.
The novel is told over three decades in New York and China, and with chapters alternating between Tony, Tammy, and, Oliver's perspectives through time. The theme that Luo conveys in her compelling novel is how love transcends difference.
Author Appearance: Paper Names is launching at The Strand bookstore on Thursday, May 4 at 7:00 p.m. This event is co-presented with the Asian American Writers' Workshop (AAWW) and The China Institute, and Luo will be in conversation with author Mary Dixie Carter. To find out how to attend, please click here. The Strand is located in Manhattan at 828 Broadway at 12th Street, and this event will be held on the third floor. For more information on the AAWW, please click here, and for the China Institute, click here.
In this excerpt, Luo writes from Tony's view in 1997: "There were bruises on his daughter. Tony counted three. One from when she fell off her bike. Another from a game of tag on the playground. The last one was fresh. Barely noticeable, a dash of pink on her cheek. It could even be mistaken for blush.
Tony scooped Frosted Flakes by the handful, straight from box to mouth. It tasted like sugary cardboard. His daughter was seated at the table with a rigid posture. Her straight back, a silent f**k you.
'Your cereal is getting soggy,' he said.
Tammy didn't move, eyes glued to the floor, ignoring both her father and the bowl of golden specks in front of her. At fifty inches and sixty-two pounds, she hit the exact numbers for an average nine-year-old girl, but Tony knew that she was anything but. She had a ferocious curiosity beyond her years. And a stubborn will that impressed him as much as it ignited his temper.
He said, in a singsong voice this time, 'Do you want something else for breakfast?'
Again, the little girl didn't reply, and as she tugged on her dress, two sizes too big, Tony's entire body tensed. For a moment, he thought the mark on her cheek had darkened, but it was only a flicker of shadow. He whispered his adopted American phrase of relief: thank God. Not that he believed in God. He could only count on himself.
If she'd let him, Tony would wrap his arms around his daughter and hold her until she softened. He would braid her hair the way she liked, tell her how sorry he was for raising his hand to her the night before. But he knew that she wouldn't let him off the hook that easily.
His wife, Kim, swept into the kitchen in a bakery uniform. She took one look at Tammy and the untouched bowl of cereal, rummaged through the cabinets, and stuck two Pop-Tarts in the toaster oven. As the scent of cinnamon filled the air, Tammy's lips turned up. Tony clenched his jaw so forcefully that he felt the muscles in his neck twitch.
Kim could always sneak a smile out of Tammy.
'Can I eat in my room?' said Tammy.
Of course not. She knew the rules. Food stayed in the kitchen. Tony waited for Kim to say no, but instead, she brushed her hand against Tammy's back, kissed her on the top of her head, and said, 'Just this once.' Without another word, Tammy disappeared.
'What's the point of having rules if you keep letting her break them?' he said.
'She's still not talking to you?'
Tony shook his head, defeated.
'You have to control your temper,' said Kim, tsk-tsking.
'My temper? If I had talked to my father that way -'
'Tammy isn't you,' said Kim. 'She's stronger.'
Too strong, especially for a girl. He knew he'd lost control last night, but his daughter had provoked him. He had to parent her. Children needed discipline and boundaries. He was grateful that his father took the wild out of him. Tony handled Tammy with much more care. Unlike his father, he knew the difference between an open palm and a closed fist.
'She mocked me. My English,' said Tony.
Kim sneered. 'Ni diu mian zi le?'
Did you lose face? A phrase that he'd grown up with. Defended against. His father used to spit it at him at every opportunity. That one time he missed top honors in the third grade. Or when, from the stern of a small fishing boat, he struggled to drag up the net, a three-meter-long cylindrical mesh contraption that was too unwieldy for a twelve-year-old boy. Or on his sixteenth birthday, when his father read out loud a newspaper's rejection letter of his short story. Afterward, he tore up the paper. 'You wrote about a talking calculator? You just made me lose my face.'
Tony hadn't heard that phrase since he'd left the village for college. By then, he had made himself unobjectionable. Not only was Tony brilliant - the top engineering student at the Dalian University of Technology - but he also played basketball. A rare meld of brawn and brains in China. Girls hung around the court after his games, hoping for some attention. They all knew he was going places. Everyone - from his professors to his roommates - knew he was special.
Every department needs a student like him, they would say.
His parents must be so proud.
Ta men dup gei ta mian zi. Everyone gave him face.
Now, his wife and daughter, his new country, his new life kept clawing it away. He wasn't sure how or when he'd earn it back."