Asian American writer Jade Chang spoke about her debut novel, The Wangs vs. the World — a riches-to-rags tale about a Chinese American family who loses their business—at Scripps College’s Hampton Room on Tuesday, Feb. 8, as part of the Tuesday Noon Series.
Living in Los Angeles, Chang has covered arts and culture as both a journalist and an editor. She is a recipient of a Sundance Fellowship for Arts Journalism, the AIGA/Winterhouse Award for Design Criticism, and the James D. Houston Memorial Scholarship from the Squaw Valley Community of Writers.
When introducing The Wangs vs. the World, Chang remarked that while the Wang family is not her family, the two “share the same family history.” Like the novel's patriarch, Charles Wang, both of Chang's parents came from large landowning families who had lived in mainland China for generations until their land was taken during the Communist Revolution and the family fled to Taiwan.
“Charles Wang, [is] from that same world as my parents,” Chang said. “He grew up in Taiwan, then immigrated to America. And he made a fortune in cosmetics.”
The book, as she described, is set during the late summer of 2008, during the financial crisis, when Charles Wang loses all of his property: his “gorgeous house,” “cosmetics empire,” “warehouses,” “stocks,” “everything.”
Homeless and penniless, Charles Wang gathers his family to embark on a road trip from Beverly Hills to New York, where the eldest of the Wang whildren, the performance artist Sina, still has a home.The novel follows their journey across the United States.
According to Chang, she had always wanted to write a book and began about ten years ago. At the time, she was still working as a journalist. She found it hard to write fiction while “doing serious writing,” so she took another job at a luxury magazine as an editor.
After finishing the book, Chang sent her first manuscript out to many publishers, several of which responded with the “one big question” regarding her novel: “Are these characters Asian?”
Chang said that many publishing company agents would push her to bring those Asian characters out of her novel if that was the case.
“It’s interesting because the message essentially was: ‘As an Asian writer, as a person of color, there’s one kind of story we want you to tell, and if you’re not telling that story, we don’t really know what to do with you,’” Chang said.
Eventually, Chang said she decided to start from scratch and began writing what she hoped to be “a different kind of immigrant novel.”
Instead of focusing on the idea of “not fitting in,” she wanted to represent immigrants “who [saw] themselves as being completely central to the country,” those who were prepared to “knock shit down” and “remake the world in their own image.”
This would be what she hoped to be “a big fat middle finger to the traditional idea of the immigrant idea.”
At the talk, Chang also read several excerpts from the novel. One came from a stand-up routine performed by the middle Wang child about identifying the difference between different Asians, particularly whether one of them was Chinese or Korean.
“I'll tell you a secret. We can't tell the difference either … We all do kinda look alike,” he says, getting big laughs on stage in the novel.
Naomi Shroff-Mehta SC ‘20 said she especially liked the “distinctive voice” in The Wangs vs. the World, which she found “different from most immigrant novels.”
Shroff-Mehta said she was particularly struck by Chang's portrayal of the older sister, as she “brought in an additional layer of examining feminism and the art world.”
Lillian Liang HM ‘18 agreed that Chang brought a new perspective to the immigrant idea.
“I think [Chang] succeeded in writing a different kind of immigrant novel in that the second generation voices seem to take up more space and be more comfortable in their own skin … while still being relatable,” Liang said.
Several students also shared their thoughts on the comments Chang got from publishers.
“It makes me feel really frustrated that her publishers only wanted her to write about Asian ethnicity,” Liang said. “In Asian American Literature, we were talking about the fact that publishers have altered the appearance/titles of books to make them more “exotic”/Asian and more marketable. It's a case where capitalism plays into orientalism and making Asians/Asian Americans seem more ‘other,”' she said.
Nicole Hsu SC '20 had similar opinions about the publishing industry.
“Perhaps the publishers wished to use Westerners' fixation with ‘exotic oriental myth’ to grab the white reader’s attention,” Hsu said.
Despite certain frustrations, Haley Goodman CM '17 said the talk brightened her day.
“I thought Chang brought a bubbly energy that worked to beat the lunchtime grogginess,” Goodman said.