There are certain elements—themes, tropes, ethical concerns—that have a tendency to recur in my fiction. I’m drawn to nostalgia and the indelible ways people’s pasts speak to their presents. I’m interested in coming of age narratives in which relationships—between friends, between romantic or sexual partners, between relatives—survive and evolve or come to unceremonious endings. Perhaps more than anything else, I write about Shermantown.
Shermantown, New York is a fictitious small town, conceived of when I started a fictional blog about a character whose life experiences in many ways paralleled my own. Not so coincidentally, the town paralleled my hometown, or at least the way I’d been raised to conceive of it. Because where I’m actually from—Utica, New York—is more of a small city than a small town, though my parents, both born and raised in Queens, raised me to think of this place as tiny and insignificant. So, Shermantown became an amalgam of my perceptions of where I was from, plus what I imagined of what friends told of the truly smaller towns they were from.
The blog didn’t go anywhere, but even after I’d moved away from Utica and visited less and less as years turned into decades, Shermantown stuck around as the default setting for so many short stories to follow. I developed a sharper image of the town and its history. Shermantown has an old glove factory that went out of business—a calamity that put half the town out of work and left the space around it smelling vaguely of leather. There’s a riverfront shopping area, but nowadays the river has mostly dried down to a trickling stream by the time it reaches it Shermantown. There’s an annual road race that draws the community together and Rose Cakes, a pastry defined by its pink frosting, that the locals take pride in. There’s a mental hospital at one edge of town, a literal clown college on the far side; a community college lots of the local high schoolers resign themselves to someplace in between.
Shermantown isn’t all dried up industry, quirks, and warm nostalgia, though. It’s a conservative and homogeneously white small town. I started grappling with some of these dimensions of Shermantown, and by extension my own upbringing, when I wrote a story called “Practical Men.” A version of the story appeared in my first graduate school thesis, another version earned me admission into my MFA program, and the final version both won a story contest and was quite arguably the “anchor” for my debut short story collection. It’s an ugly little story about closeted disc jockeys who face the choice of coming out or going deeper into hiding after a local teenager who is gay gets beat up badly enough to make the news.
It’s that same Shermantown that I revisit in my debut novel, My Grandfather’s an Immigrant, and So is Yours. My protagonist, Billy Chen, is and isn’t me in similar ways to how Shermantown is and isn’t where I’m from. The novel skips through time aggressively, from Billy’s childhood as the one of the only kids with black hair and anything but lilywhite skin in his elementary school class, through his first years of college, when he reflects on where he’s from and what his experiences there all might mean. The largest and most impactful swathe of time in the book overlaps with the 2016 presidential election and beginnings of the presidential term to follow.
I’m a good bit older than Billy. I’m glad I didn’t have to experience these same months in a place like Shermantown.
And yet, Shermantown isn’t all bad. Indeed, in the revision process, part of what I kept coming back to were questions of why I’m drawn to this place and the ways in which it might have contributed to Billy’s identity, not only for the worse, or even for the better, but in more nuanced ways, particular to a real person and the real relationship one might have to place he holds dear, and yet doesn’t want to return back to. In a late passage of the book, I try to encapsulate the unique and dynamic blend of pride and shame people carry when it pertains to the place where they’re from. A badge of honor they carry like an albatross.
In this novel, I dive deeper into the history, the psyche, the impact of a place like Shermantown. In a sense, it has felt like an exploration and process of discovery. In a sense, it has felt like coming home.
You can purchase a copy of My Grandfather’s an Immigrant, and So is Yours at Cowboy Jamboree Magazine & Press or Amazon
Michael Chin was born and raised in Utica, New York and currently lives in Las Vegas with his wife and son. His debut novel, My Grandfather’s an Immigrant, and So is Yours (Cowboy Jamboree Press) came out in 2021, and he is the author of three previous full-length short story collections. Find him online at miketchin.com and follow him on Twitter @miketchin.
Uncovered logs from the distant past and the future beyond.