We’ve all seen lots of made-for-TV movies about the difficulties of keeping one’s adult life and relationships intact on a trip home for the holidays, but author and Vanity Fair writer Delia Cai breathes new life into the trope with Central Places. Cai’s searing debut novel follows Audrey Zhou, a young, upwardly mobile woman in media who travels home to a tiny Illinois town to introduce her white, native New Yorker boyfriend to her Chinese immigrant parents. Caught between her parents’ expectations and her boyfriend’s implicit judgment, Audrey starts seeing everything around her—including, thrillingly, a cute guy she remembers from high school—with fresh eyes, and Cai’s observations about home, identity, and belonging are razor-sharp (as well as deliciously readable).
Recently, Vogue spoke to Cai about depicting a childhood similar to her own in fiction; seeing her hometown differently as a New York transplant in the post-Trump era; and the strangeness of catching up with people from your past who never really saw you as your full self. Read the full interview below.
Vogue: How did the idea for this book come into being?
Delia Cai: When I had my first job in New York, I told a work friend that I really wanted to write a novel but wasn’t sure what it would be about. She was like, “Well, I think it’s really interesting that you grew up in the Midwest. What if you wrote about that?” I was still sort of trying to put all that behind me, in a way that it can feel like New York demands, but that was definitely the first germ of the idea. The Thanksgiving before the pandemic, in 2019, I went home; I go home for the holidays every year, and it’s always interesting because I wouldn’t say I’m super close with anyone from my hometown. Still, there are waves where I’ll reconnect with this person or this group of friends and we’ll go to one of the three hometown bars and inevitably everyone else is there. It was like that Hallmark moment of a big-city writer back in her small town, running into people I hadn’t talked to in a really long time, and I thought that might be an interesting way to finally figure out: What do I think about the way I grew up in this place?
Did you feel any anxiety about depicting a small town similar to the one where you grew up?
Throughout my 20s, especially living in New York, the way I’ve talked about being from a small town in central Illinois has totally changed because I had kind of figured out that you can get a laugh if you’re really self-deprecating about it and tell people about how you had a “drive your tractor to school” day. After the 2016 election, though, all these people I talked to every day in New York were saying, “Oh, I didn’t realize people thought that way.” I think they were honestly just kind of intrigued; like, something I tell people is that as an Asian person in New York City, the most different thing about me is that I come from this small town. People would ask me: “Can you walk me through why you weren’t surprised when Trump won?” And I was just like, when Obama was elected, there were kids running through my school saying he was going to get assassinated. It was like, I’m not surprised right now because this has been happening.
Were there any books you really liked or looked to for inspiration while writing Central Places?
I really loved Jenny Zhang’s Sour Heart. I was kind of like, Whoa, I didn’t know you could write about a very specific kind of childhood and make it gross and disturbing and weird, and I really loved that. Obviously, it’s about growing up Chinese American and having really complicated feelings about it. I remember she wrote about a character who is all grown up and kind of still dealing with her younger brother, feeling like she wasn’t there for him, just that classic parent/adult-child thing.
What was it like emotionally to write about someone who shares certain important biographic details with you, but isn’t actually you?
Emotionally, the novel feels very real; like, all the things that happen up until the trip home, and the main character’s background is similar to mine. I’ve never brought a fiancé home to meet my parents, but I’ve come close to that, so in some ways, it was like this mental exercise of, I wonder what this would be like. Let’s play that out. I realized more and more while I was writing it that I was almost standing in for the character of the white boyfriend from New York; the character of Ben is applying a gaze that I’ve definitely imposed onto my own life. He’s having this more judgmental, knee-jerk response to what he’s seeing.