A Note from Qian Julie Wang, Author of Beautiful Country:
I recently headed to Paris for a month and received a reading copy of Central Places on my first day there. If ever there was stiff competition for books it might be the baguettes, sights, and shopping of Paris. But the city proved to be weak competition: I could not put down Delia Cai's addictive debut novel and carried it everywhere. It is like a Christmas movie but with all the nuance, identity exploration, laugh-out-loud wit, and heartrending depth I wish were more common in those films. I'm not from the Midwest and have spent very little time there, but Cai's immersive writing whisked me there all the way from France, and had me asking: Can you ever go home again? And after so long away, where is home for any of us, anyway?
The following questions were written from Qian Julie to Delia.
1. I love how nuanced Audrey's character is, the many selves she embodies: her high school self, her present self, the self she wishes to be and to project. Do you think there's a way to marry these pieces into one integral self — for Audrey or for any of us? In what ways does having several identities complicate this search for integrity?
I'm existentially obsessed with this question. There’s a model of psychotherapy called the internal family systems model, which advocates for treating all of your different “parts” as members of one boisterous extended family — the point is to love and care for all parts instead of casting certain ones out as exiles. To me, this seems like the answer for negotiating several identities at once, especially when they span such obvious categories like culture or geography, where you truly feel like you have to be a different person based on your context.
2. The timeline of the book is a uniquely wonderful feature. How did you settle on this creative decision? Were you ever tempted to provide more scenes set in New York or in Audrey's past and how did you resolve it?
Trips have always held an inherent sense of drama to me because there’s such a heightened timeline! The tension is built-in. The original version of the book had a few chapters dedicated to Audrey’s parents’ backstories, actually. But while I think it was helpful to work that context out for myself (and to flesh out Audrey’s parents as characters), I think it took away from the immediacy of the plot, which is predicated on Audrey’s decisions in real time, so to speak.
3. Audrey's relationship to her mom is the heart of this novel and ties brilliantly into your chosen epigraph from Cathy Park Hong. Readers are offered little interiority into her mom until later. Was this intended to reflect their relationship? And what do you think might have allowed Audrey more access to her mom's inner-workings?
Yes! I think, whether you’re the child of immigrants or just someone who grows up in a household where obedience and filial piety are the guiding principles, you spend a lot of time trying to understand the motivations of your parents, almost as a kind of survival mechanism. Understanding you need to give x input (saying the right thing, doing the right thing) to achieve y output (approval). But it isn’t until you are an adult that you can develop a true empathy for your parents as humans who are also, let’s be honest, doing their best. I think only once Audrey becomes able to stand on her own feet — and to consider the real stakes of marriage and family life herself — can she actually begin to understand her mother. It’s like, now, she understands the rules of the game that her mother has been playing by.
4. Central Places astutely highlights how different relationships can capture different versions of ourselves. Can you unpack how this creates tension in relationships that are meant to stay and grow with us throughout our lives?
I think a lot about how relationships can operate as euphemisms for safety. As a child, your parents = safety. In high school, you have your best friend — safety. Same goes, in our pop culture, with our definition of what a life partner represents. So I think there is an inherent tension to these relationships in regard to change, because it’s like the bedrock foundations of your very home are shifting. It’s possibly the most discomfiting sensation in the world when someone important in your life seems different all of a sudden, but I think adjusting to it requires that we think of these foundational relationships in a different light: less of a concrete bunker and more like one of those viney treehouses, where different branches grow and new additions get added on, and that’s the whole appeal.
5. Do you think most people have their own version of "central places,” no matter where they grew up? What does "central places" mean to you?
Yes, and this is what surprised me the most since the book has come out. I always thought meandering around parking lots and otherwise unphotogenic places from your youth was a distinctly Midwestern thing because there wasn't anything else around. To me, a "central place" is a geographic location that prompts visceral memories, like driving down the highway and feeling every past drive home all at once.
A Final Note from Qian Julie:
Do not miss this poignant, entertaining, unputdownable book. Grab Central Places from your nearest indie bookstore today; it will forever change the way you think about home, identity, and coming of age.