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Simon Han Explores The Immigrant Experience In His Debut Novel


The Cheng family are finally together, as they've never been before. Patty, the mother, designs microchips, though spends most of her time on the phone with unseen colleagues across the world. Liang, the father, is a portrait photographer. They settle in Plano, Texas, where they have a daughter named Annabel and finally send for their son Jack, who was left behind to live with grandparents in China. The boy who woke up by himself in America, writes Simon Han. Then his little sister begins to sleepwalk, and Jack feels that he has to find her.

"Nights When Nothing Happened" is the debut novel from Simon Han. He joins us now from the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Thanks so much for being with us.

SIMON HAN: Thanks for having me, Scott.

SIMON: Please tell us about this little boy. Jack woke up by himself in America. And what put him in your mind?

HAN: Well, Jack is a character who's constantly trying to find his place. He wasn't sure why he grew up with his grandparents and why his parents were so far away for the first six years of his life. And when he finally did join them, he feels this pressure to carve out a role for himself, to almost earn his place, when the reality is he's their son, and he should be with them.

SIMON: Yeah. Little Annabel begins to go on walks at night. I want to get you to read a section, if you could. One night when she takes off, Jack comes after her.

HAN: Yeah. OK, so this is fairly early in the novel. (Reading) A car passed on Main Street, its headlights flashing through the fence and illuminating the leaves floating in the pool. He followed the path he imagined her taking between houses and down alleyways until he reached the sewage creek that cut through the community. During the summer, he remembered, the feet and underside of a duck had bobbed there for days. His sister stood a few yards away on the bridge that overlooked the creek. Under a towering steel streetlight, she swayed slightly. Her head was lifted, and a white glow bloomed from her neck up to the stretch of baby fat under her chin. If Jack did not know better, he would have thought a spaceship had beamed her down to Earth. He sidled beside her, a slipper in each hand. Hear me in there? Knock, knock.

SIMON: So sleepwalking - are we meant to infer that's a kind of metaphor for the way a lot of us move through life?

HAN: I don't know that I started writing about it with that in mind, but we're definitely always living through these porous kind of boundaries of experience. And in the book, you have characters who are between countries, between languages. You have Jack, the boy who's even between kind of generations. He's a child, but he has to sort of act like an adult. And on top of that, you have this atmosphere of the early 2000s, post-9/11, kids hiding under tables during school shooting drills, where we're almost, like, between realities. You know, what would it be like to grow up during a time like that where it was hard to differentiate between what is safe and what is dangerous? And I think sleepwalking played into all of that.

SIMON: Do you think the Chengs see Plano in a way that other Texans who didn't grow up there don't because they are coming from outside, as all immigrant groups are?

HAN: Absolutely. I think that the suburbs in general exist in the popular imagination often as this uniformly white place. But Plano is actually an incredibly diverse city. And it's got its unique weirdness that has been shaped by its immigrant population. But living there, it does kind of feel like a historyless place. And that can kind of be attractive to a new immigrant...

SIMON: Yeah.

HAN: ...Because it's like a blank slate.

SIMON: Of course, I was reading this novel during the last days of the election season when a lot of people were making confident generalizations about people in the Texas suburbs. Your book reminded me generalizations are often not very wise, are they?

HAN: Right. While this book is set in the early 2000s, there's still, I think, a resonance to today and thinking about not just immigrants versus larger white society but examining the nuances within immigrant populations, the different layers of identity that one can occupy and, in my book, even within the family unit, let alone larger suburban society.

SIMON: Simon Han - his debut novel, "Nights When Nothing Happened" - thank you so much for being with us.

HAN: It was such a pleasure, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.