With a mix of humor, agility, and insight, Jade Chang’s debut novel, The Wangs vs. the World (HMH Books, October 2016), tells a fresh immigrant story. Charles Wang has left his native homeland to become a successful businessman in America. The book takes us on a journey with his whole family as they navigate the ups and downs of fortune and travel across the US. Of the family patriarch, Charles Wang, the author writes:
There was the China that was against the world, the China that was the Communist government. The China that existed briefly in Taiwan. There was the China that covered things up and the China that was gradually making things free. And as many Chinas as there were, there were that many Charleses as well. Every immigrant is the person he might have been and the person he is, and his homeland is at once the place it would have been to him from the inside and the place it must be to him from the outside.
Rumpus contributor Ann van Buren spoke with Chang by Skype in early September.
Rumpus: Charles Wang will interest many readers. His feistiness and what happened to him in his life—and how he never gives up—is amazing. This is a very different immigrant story from many we read. It’s not a long-suffering story of people being put down again and again. Charles seems to represent a whole different class of people. He came from a family of landowners in Mainland China. Can you tell us about the context that made Charles who he is?
Chang: I think it’s part of the Chinese diaspora that is interesting to me because it’s not something that I had seen written about very much in any of the books that I’ve read. I haven’t seen it very much or at all in film or on television. Essentially, there were a lot of people who are from Mainland China, but because of WWII and the Japanese invasion and the rise of communism and the civil war that came with that, a lot of people, like my grandparents, had to flee Mainland China and go to Taiwan. Many people went to Taiwan with Chiang Kai-Shek and the nationalist army. I also think it’s interesting that they colonized this small island. People now had to speak Mandarin in school; the schools did not teach in Taiwanese. So my parents grew up in Taiwan and came to America for grad school and met here in America. I meet a lot of people with that similar family history. So Charles has a similar family history although he did not come to America for grad school—he came to America to make a fortune, which he did.
Rumpus: He did, in a very amusing way! It’s wonderful! Your book is filled with history and the distinctions between cultures. It’s remarkable how many details you give, and how you whirl through the span of history in one sentence. For example, you write of Charles:
He went from peddling around the markets on a rickety bicycle to keeping watch at the foot of a perpetually bubbling stockpot to presiding over the students’ communal lunches, which eventually underwent their own change, going from noxious oden stews to hearty rice porridges when the Japanese were defeated and a new Republic of China government took over.”
Your sentences are totally jam-packed; they’re almost Whitmanian. It reminds me of “Song of Myself,” and its descriptions of Everyman. Your book also has a Beat tone to it. The writing is rendered in an offhanded and swaggering prose. Who are your influences? What enables you to write like that?
Chang: First of all, thank you; I never thought I’d be compared to Whitman. But I did read a lot in high school. I read everything Jack Kerouac has ever written and I did love his sense of words, the rhythm, the swell and swagger to his language. I feel like everything I’ve ever seen and heard is an influence. In terms of influences on this book in particular, did you ever read The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga? It’s really fantastic; I think it won the Booker Prize. It really has this force and excitement—and a different take on a familiar story.
Rumpus: Can you tell me ways in which your book is “a different take on the familiar story?”
Chang: I very much wanted to write an immigrant novel that was not a story of pain and suffering and wanting to fit in with white people because none of that is part of my lived experience. It’s not that I don’t value the books that do tell very true stories like that, but I also think we’re living in a weird cultural moment. Things are shifting right now. The majority of books, movies, and TV shows that I grew up seeing that were about people of color, that were about immigrants, were always stories of pain.
Rumpus: On the continuum of the realistic to the absurd, where would you put the Wang family and the story that’s told in this book?
Chang: I think that real life is absurd. There are plenty of things that happen in our day-to-day lives that would be unbelievable if we saw them in a movie or read about them in a book. So, to me, the story of the Wangs is in some ways larger than life—but I don’t find any of it to be untrue. My goal was definitely emotional truth.
Rumpus: How would you describe the conflict in the story? What do the characters have to overcome, in terms of the family dynamic?
Chang: I would say that I was as interested in the conflict in each character’s individual life as I was in the interfamilial conflict. Saina has the whole issue of her art career, her love life; she has all of these things to think about. We see that her brother and sister are upset with her for not coming back for Christmas the previous year. Families can be upset at that kind of thing without it necessarily blowing up into giant arguments and hatred.
Rumpus: Where would you put Charles Wang in the context of the American dream?
Chang: Well, as Charles Wang would say—and he says it in the book— America thinks they came up with the American dream, but it’s not just American. He would say it’s a universal dream. People want to make the most of their lives. People want to do things they find of value in the world and want to build good lives for themselves and their families. That’s definitely a universal dream.
Rumpus: Is the American dream changing as we grow as a nation and embrace different stories?
Chang: I think that there’s this love of the idea that America is incredibly individualistic. But there are many forms of individualism in every country and amongst many people. I think that conformity is just as widespread here as in any country. I think that, in the end, we’re all human and motivated by fears, desires and needs that are not enormously different. Of course there are things that are prevalent in different eras; there are things like certain attitudes that prevail in a particular country at a particular time. And I think that everything changes and everything is the same.
Rumpus: You work with the idea of American exceptionalism in your book. Would you like to speak to that?
Chang: I find the concept of nationhood to be a totally fascinating thing. It’s one of the things that I was really interested in when I was writing this book—along with the idea that a nation is both real and imagined and that you create it through boundaries and government and rules but then it also has to be created through mythmaking; it has to be created through a flag and a song and ideas of who we are as a people and even more so by the idea of who we are not as a people. You can’t have a team without opponents in the world of nation making. So with things like the idea of American exceptionalism, I think that my aim is not to either exalt it or take it down. Same as with the American dream—my idea is to really think about it.
Rumpus: Where will you be reading and promoting this book and how can people find more of Jade Chang?
Chang: I will be going to different cities and book festivals… I’ll get started in LA and then I’ll be going to San Francisco and New York and Seattle. Then I’ll be going to a bunch of different book fairs in Portland and Austin and Miami. I’ll also be going to Dallas as well.
Author photograph © Teresa Flowers.