by David Shih
Atlantic Monthly Press
From an exciting and sharp-voiced new observer of American culture, a forthright and probing debut exploring Asian American identity in a racially codified country
After his father's passing in 2019, David Shih sought to unravel the underlying tensions that defined the complex relationship between him and his parents. Ultimately, this forced a reckoning with the expectations he encountered as the only son of Chinese immigrants, and with the realities of what it means to be Asian in a de facto segregated country. At a moment when anti-Asian racism is increasingly overt, Chinese Prodigal is a work of rare subtlety, offering a new vocabulary for understanding a racial hierarchy too often conceived as binary.
In public life and in Shih's own, "Asian Americanness" has changed shape constantly, directed by the needs of the country's racial imaginary. A sliding scale, visibility for Asians in America has always been relative to the meanings of white and Black. A memoir in essays, Chinese Prodigal examines the emergence of "Asian American" identity in a post-Civil Rights America in the wake of Vincent Chin's death. Shih guides us through the roles offered to Asian Americans to play, whether a model minority, a collaborator in the carceral state, or a plaintiff in the right-wing effort to dismantle affirmative action, illuminating what these issues have to teach us about American values and about the vexed place Asians and Asian Americans inhabit today. And mining his own experiences--from his failures of filiality to his negotiations within an interracial marriage--Shih masterfully captures the intimate costs of becoming an American.
Chinese Prodigal knits together the personal, the historical, and the present, offering an incisive examination of a society and the people it has never made space for. It is a moving testimony of a son, father, and citizen stepping outside the identities imposed on him.
"A profoundly thoughtful, unflinchingly honest Asian American memoir... Throughout this memorable book, Shih is adept at seamlessly weaving historical events into his life story, forging thoughtful, creative connections between his evolution and that of the U.S. The result is an insightful, vulnerable, trenchant, and utterly readable story about belonging that will resonate with anyone who has ever felt that one or more of their identities sets them apart." -- Kirkus Reviews, starred review
"Shih's prose, in its beauty, invited me to stay with it, to keep turning the pages... I'm not sure if I'll ever truly be finished with this book. I hadn't expected to see myself reflected in Chinese Prodigal, and now that I have, I feel electrified, wondering where I'm supposed to go from here, knowing that wherever that is, the path won't be easy." -- Jasmine Gonzalez, Porchlight
About the Author:
David Shih is a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. His writing on race has appeared in the New York Times, NPR's Code Switch, Electric Literature, and Inside