ATLANTIC MONTHLY PRESS (2023)
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—a question that ultimately forced a reckoning with the expectations he encountered as the only son of Chinese immigrants and the realities of what it means to be Asian in a segregated country. Chinese Prodigal is a candid examination of a society and the people it has never made space for.
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, something that only comes into focus when it aligns with broader political agendas. Structured as a memoir in essays, Chinese Prodigal examines the emergence of “Asian American” in a post–Civil Rights America, from the moment the concept took political hold with the construction of the model minority myth, then galvanizing in the wake of the death of Vincent Chin in 1980s Detroit, and on through the vexed place of Asians and Asian Americans in the right-wing effort to dismantle affirmative action and remake public education. Present in the food we eat, the jobs we take, and the ways we parent, the process of becoming an American is defined by who and what you must sacrifice to survive and excel.
A work of rare subtlety, Chinese Prodigal offers a new vocabulary for understanding a racial hierarchy too often conceptualized as binary. It is a moving testimony of a son, father, and citizen stepping outside the expectations 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
“A raw, moving debut memoir . . . [Chinese Prodigal] amounts to a thoughtful meditation on the gap between the promise the American dream dangles in front of minorities and the realities of their discriminatory treatment.”—Publishers Weekly
“Enlivened by a fearless intellect, candid personal reckonings, and its moving song of a wounded citizen heart, Chinese Prodigal is as provocative and illuminating as any recent memoir on what it has meant—and means to be—an Asian in America. This is essential reading for anyone keen to understand the unique narratives—both public and private—of the Asian American experience.”—Chang-rae Lee, author of My Year Abroad
“In Chinese Prodigal, David Shih takes us into the intimate relationships within a Chinese American family and explodes out into the world of Asian Americans. This is a meticulous work of reflection, of research, of the intersections between the construction of race and racism in this country. It is an urgent warning that demands a slow reading, an honest quest to bring into light the many hands that hold us back as we grapple with ourselves and each other in a history that is fraught with our invisibility, our malleability, our complicated compliance. Chinese Prodigal is a defiant incantation for those who have brought us here and those we have brought.”—Kao Kalia Yang, author of The Song Poet
“Chinese Prodigal is an intellectually heady exploration of race matters, a deep consideration of the cultural fluidities, mythologizing, and disruption attendant on Asian American identity. Shih recounts the fitful evolution of his own consciousness and an adult life spurred to probe into matters of descent, diaspora, and exilic identity in his own family—Chinese immigrants resettled in Texas, far-flung from ethnic and national roots. A moving autobiography embedded within a seven-story mountain of a journey; compelling, insightful, probing, and emotionally balanced.”—Garrett Hongo, author of The Perfect Sound