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Central Places Are familiar places

by Phil Luciano |
CENTRAL PLACES And Author composite

Dunlap native Delia Cai is making a name for herself in the Big Apple, starting with her maiden novel

When Audrey Zhou leaves the big city to visit her childhood hometown, she sees a lot of familiar Peoria-area landmarks.

There’s Eastwoods Community Church, which each December hosts what she describes as the “big Eastwoods Christmas show.” Hmmm, sounds like Northwoods Community Church, which annually puts out a slam-bang yuletide extravaganza.

And there’s Sullivan’s, the familiar and comfy bar just outside town, a favorite low-dough spot for locals that doubles as a reunion place for former residents who come in for the holidays.

And there are the high school athletic teams known as the Chiefs, represented with a dalmatian wearing a firefighter’s hat.

This might sound like greater Peoria in The Twilight Zone — vaguely familiar but somewhat out of whack. And that’s exactly the case, as Audrey Zhou comes from the world of imagination.

She is the fictional version of Delia Cai, a 2011 Dunlap High School grad whose Central Places novel is — per the book’s jacket — set in “the tiny central Illinois town where she grew up.” But it’s not Cai’s Dunlap but Hickory Grove, a name that adorns a Dunlap school and subdivision but nary a municipality in Illinois.

The big church near Hickory Grove is Eastwoods, not the real world’s Northwoods Community Church near Dunlap. The weathered tap isn’t Sullivan’s but actually Last Chance, a longtime favorite in Alta. And the fictionalized high school sports squads are called the Chiefs, with a logo much like that of the real-life Peoria Chiefs minor-league baseball team, rather than Dunlap High’s Eagles.

Those Easter eggs might push a smile of familiarity for central Illinoisans reading the book, as will the novel’s references to car rides along the Murray Baker Bridge, Illinois Route 91 and Legion Hall Road.

Exploring the mines of childhood

“The town (Audrey) grew up in is very much modeled after Dunlap,” Cai said with a grin. “I think I put some of those road names in there as a special treat for Peorians.”

That kind of fiction/nonfiction mix pervades Central Places, a roman à clef that mines much of Cai’s childhood.

“The book is very emotionally true,” she said.

On one level, it’s like Hallmark Christmas movie: Audrey delights in her fast-paced job and life in New York City but has to deal with mixed feelings and old friends when she comes home to visit her small-town parents for the holidays.

But at a deeper level, once back home, Audrey deals with complex themes such as parental relationships and Asian-American racism as root causes of her continued and confounding sense of isolation.

Though such weighty topics might not be reconciled with a Hallmark smooch at the story’s end, Audrey does find herself appreciating some of the nuances of small-town life — a real-life discovery Cai never expected for herself.

“I think for a long time I grew up in Peoria and Dunlap just sort of wishing I was somewhere else,” she said.

Driven to succeed in the classroom

She chuckles at that comment, a nod to her youthful insouciance, which she blames not on her school, community or home. Rather, she points to an intense and unwavering concentration on academics as a teen.

“I was so focused on school itself, I think, that making friends, making memories (and) having fun felt really secondary in a way,” Cai said. “It felt like it was something in the way sometimes.”

Not that she always had her nose in a book, as Cai participated in activities such as band and student council. However, in retrospect, she feels she likely joined those organizations mostly to build a résumé that would look good on college applications.

“I just wish I would have kind of appreciated those connections more and just enjoyed them, instead of viewing everything as it’s only temporary and doesn’t really matter,” Cai said.

After graduating as a Dunlap High valedictorian, she earned a degree from the University of Missouri School of Journalism before heading to New York City to write. Her pieces have appeared in numerous magazines, and she is now a senior correspondent at Vanity Fair.

Negotiating a very personal novel

Meantime, ideas percolated for Central Places. In the book, Audrey not only goes back home for a visit but brings along her new fiancé — a very white fiancé — to meet her Chinese-immigrant parents. There, various culture clashes ensue.

“Those sorts of details, like (Audrey’s) relationships with her parents and her relationships with her friends from high school, those are all modeled on the relationships I’ve had,” Cai said. “Where the departure is, I’ve never had to bring someone home for the holidays. I’ve never introduced someone to Dunlap or Peoria.

“In some ways this book was kind of written as a hypothetical exercise in terms of what if I had to do this sometime soon.”

The novel, though mostly breezy, doesn’t shy away from heavy situations that affected and shaped Cai, such as occasional racism and an oft-overbearing home life. Through it all, Audrey — though successful at school and work, just like Cai — feels like a misfit, sometimes by her own choice in opting to be standoffish rather than risk rejection.

“I’m fascinated with the idea of isolation,” Cai said, “the self-inflicted parts of it as well as the nature of, if you grow up in kind of an insular place and your family isn’t like other families, how does that feel?”

The book’s verisimilitude depended on Cai’s candor in leaning on what sometimes was a tense childhood household. So, to avoid any surprises, Cai sent a pre-publication copy of the book to her parents, who still live in Dunlap. In a way, the book has fostered new understandings on both ends.

“It’s opened up some conversations I think we already started,” Cai said.

Such positive outcomes come via what Cai describes as a balancing act in her writing.

“There’s a sense of unease where you sort of really have to figure out what part of the story is mine to tell and what is fair, and to what degree am I exaggerating,” she said.

Winning plaudits

The novel has won rave reviews in the New York press. Further, back in Dunlap — where Cai’s youthful writing extended to Harry Potter fan fiction — her teachers have expressed glee with her work.

“It’s been such a pleasure to share the novel with my English teachers, who made such a huge impact on my life,” she said.

She has received positive comments elsewhere in the Dunlap area, but not from all corners.

“I’ve heard from a few former classmates who said they’ve really enjoyed the book,” Cai said before adding with a self-conscious grin, “I’ve not heard from the people that I would say certain characters are very recognizably based on, which I think was to be expected because I wasn’t in touch with those people before.”

Cai hopes the novel will be in paperback by autumn. If so, she’d like to do some book signings in the Peoria area, and maybe even stop by Sullivan’s — er, Last Chance.

“I’m a bit scared,” she said with a chuckle. “I feel a bit like a coward. I just wrote all this stuff about my hometown but haven’t actually gone back yet.”

Phil Luciano

Phil Luciano

is a senior writer/columnist for Peoria Magazine and content contributor to public television station WTVP. He can be reached at [email protected]

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