The Rumpus Book Club chats with Jade Chang about her new novel The Wangs vs. the World, the different ways we value art, comedy, fashion and beauty, citizen journalism, and how to write an immigrant story that’s not all about pain.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month The Rumpus Book Club hosts a discussion online with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To become a member of the Rumpus Book Club, click here.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Brian S: One of the things I enjoyed the most about this book was the way you wove together what seemed to be such different worlds—makeup, fashion, visual art, stand-up comedy. How did you decide to place your characters in these positions?
Jade Chang: Thanks! I’m really interested in the interplay between artifice and truth, and I feel like those are all worlds where that comes into play. Makeup and fashion are the most obvious industries where you see the tension between the two, of course, but even standup comedy is about creating a persona while still breaking yourself open and letting the truth ooze out!
Brian S: And visual art as well. There’s always a question in those sorts of installations of how much is the artist and how much is the idea or concept doing work on the audience.
Jade Chang: Exactly! When I was working as a journalist, I often wrote about art, and it was always interesting to discover how much the exterior narrative surrounding the piece affected my experience of the work itself.
But also, I’m really interested in systems of valuation, and again these are all industries with unlikely forms of currency. Of course money is a factor in everything, but in comedy you need the laughs, makeup and fashion deal with the strange currency of beauty and the different ways that we judge it, and the valuations of art are based on such subjective factors. It was fun to contrast that with finance in the book.
Brian S: This may sound like an odd question, but does 2008 seem like a long time ago to you now? It does to me, probably because we’re in the middle of this election cycle.
Jade Chang: Yes! In some ways 2008 feels like an entirely different world, yet it also feels like the basis for everything that is still happening right now.
Brian S: It was also interesting to see how you had the Internet turn on Saina after her fourth show. That’s certainly something that’s grown over the last eight years, the power of the web to effect change in the world.
Jade Chang: Why do you think I’m typing so carefully? 😉
But seriously, I think that’s a major way in which things are different today vs. 2008. We thought that being caught up in an Internet rage cycle was scary even then—today it seems all the more terrifying and unpredictable.
Brian S: And the Gawker lawsuit/bankruptcy has certainly added another threat to what was already a scary place to work. Like, there’s dealing with a troll storm like Gamergate and then there’s a billionaire sending legal teams after you. Both terrifying, but in different ways.
Jade Chang: Oh man, yeah! That’s the whole other side of it. And it’s really impossible to know how any of this will shake out. I mean, it doesn’t seem possible that things will continue to go in the same direction, and yet how do we turn back?
Brian S: We probably won’t have to wait long to find out.
Jade Chang: But you know, I think we’re also seeing how the Internet can be more effective in a lot of different ways. Citizen journalism is huge, of course. There’s been so much devastating news just today, all from the observations of people on the scene who have a recording device and access to the Internet—everything that’s going down at the Standing Rock protest and also that totally sickening shooting of Alfred Olango in El Cajon.
Brian S: That’s true. I remember years ago thinking that camera phones would be a game changer in terms of recording things like police abuse—there was an incident in a UCLA library must have been six or seven years ago where students gathered around the police officers all with their phones out recording. It’s forcing people like me—white and privileged—to see the world that’s always been there.
Jade Chang: Yeah, I think that that’s been one of the more promising side effects of everything that being exposed now—the fact that it’s become impossible to deny the lived experience of so many people of color in America.
Brian S: Unfortunately, there are a lot of people invested in living in that former world, and humans have a great power for self-delusion when they feel their way of life is threatened.
I’m always interested in process. How did you manage to keep these several plot threads connected even when the characters were separated? Did you have outlines for them or note cards pinned up on a board somewhere?
Jade Chang: I’m definitely an outliner! I actually just do it all in word docs on my laptop, but I ended up having some very unwieldy files. With this book, I started out just taking notes on different ideas that I was interested in, thoughts for characters, setting, etc., and then I separated out plot strands and emotional arcs. Luckily they were going on an actual journey, so that made it a little easier to keep things straight!
Brian S: The parts set around New Orleans made me feel a little homesick—I grew up there and it’s been a long time since I visited. I think that’s a testament to how well I felt you captured the place.
Jade Chang: Aww I’m so glad! Thank you so much! New Orleans is really one of the most fascinating cities in America. I remember feeling like if I’d been dropped there, blindfolded, it would take me a little while to figure out what country I was actually in!
Brian S: Have you spent a lot of time in New Orleans?
Jade Chang: No, but I’ve definitely had a lot of fun there!
Brian S: (The crawfish boil scene made me hella hungry when I read it, and there are no crawfish in Iowa that’s not used for bait.)
Jade Chang: I have to admit that I’ve never been to an actual crawfish boil, though I did eat some AMAZING Vietnamese-style crawfish on the side of the road when I was there! Also, weirdly, I’ve caught crawfish in a tiny river offshoot in Los Angeles and taken them home and cooked them! But that is one of the things that I’d like to eat the most! MFK Fisher has an amazing quote about how our love of a food is really the love of a memory (I’m also certainly getting this wrong in some way!), and I feel like my desire to eat a feast at a crawfish boil is a more meta version of that—a memory that I wish I had, maybe?
Brian S: Can you talk a bit about how you tried to work with race in the story? You have Charles say some pretty outrageous things, Andrew tries to build a comedy act around his Asian-ness, and Saina, I don’t quite know how to describe how she navigates race. Same goes for Grace in a lot of ways.
Jade Chang: Sure. It’s definitely something that I wanted to explore in various ways. I think one of the things that I thought about a lot in writing this book was the fact that immigrant stories in America and stories about people of color in America are often only allowed to exist in one way—as stories of pain. Sometimes it’s a small pain—I don’t fit in!—and sometimes it’s an overwhelming form of pain, as in stories of slavery, for example. I wanted to write about characters who never deny their race, but also are not stymied by it. It is 100% a thing that they are, and not necessarily a thing that they navigate. And also, I wanted to have characters being Chinese in America in many different ways
Brian S: Right. It sounds similar to a lot of writing lately from black authors who say they want more from movies than the tales of black suffering or redemption. Danez Smith has a great poem titled “Dinosaurs in the Hood” which plays on that idea.
Jade Chang: Absolutely. I feel that very much. And I think that studios and publishers and other people who provide the money to make things really need to think about the assumptions that they’re working from in terms of what they think the public wants to see. If I can identify with a little white girl from a hundred years ago in a bonnet on the prairie, then why can’t a demographically desirable (to marketers!) person identify with the Wangs?
Brian S: It was nice, as a white male reading the book, to not be centered as it were, to not have the main character(s) resemble me in any way. And yet the kids were all completely American, whatever that means.
Wait, not completely American. They contained multitudes, I mean.
I’m not being as careful as I should be in my typing right now, I fear.
Jade Chang: Ha! It’s a hard time to type while white! 😉 Actually, I do think the Wang children are completely American and completely Chinese. That’s how I see myself as well. And yes, I definitely wanted to write about immigrants who see themselves as absolutely central to the story of America!
BTW—I am really not a user of emoticons, and I can’t believe that I’ve winky-faced twice in this chat!
Brian S: This is also what happens to immigrant families in general, right? The children have feet in both countries, but the one they grow up in tugs harder at them?
Jade Chang: Sure—and in some ways it’s just a matter of comfort and fluency. For example, I did an interview with a Chinese-language TV station yesterday and although I grew up speaking only Chinese at home, words like “financial collapse” and “systems of valuation” don’t exactly skip off my tongue when speaking in Chinese! But that doesn’t change how I feel about my core self.
Brian S: That comes into play with the way the banks respond to Charles with the Failure, doesn’t it?
Jade Chang: Well, sort of. Charles is actually making cosmetics aimed entirely at people of color, whereas writers like me are making work that is hopefully appealing to everyone!
Brian S: Right, but the people who control the money aren’t convinced that it’ll ever sell, and so they want to pull the funding at the first sign of trouble. The economic situation at the time gave them more leverage, but even in better circumstances they might have reacted the same.
Almost out of time, so two last questions: are you working on anything new yet? And what have you been reading lately?
Jade Chang: That was a fast hour! Yes, I am working on a new book but it’s not really in a place where I can discuss it yet! Books! I’ve been reading so many things—just finished re-reading my friend Margaret Wappler’s amazing new novel Neon Green, I’m also in the midst of Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner?, which is an excellent feminist rethinking of the study of economics, and I’m just about to finish Behold the Dreamers and to start How I Became a North Korean and The Mothers. So many good books out there!
Brian S: Thanks so much for joining us tonight and for this really entertaining book. I seriously loved it. Read it in two days. And with small kids, finding time to read like that is tough.
Jade Chang: Thanks Brian! I appreciate your ketchup scene tweet! (I’m resisting adding a wink after that.) And immersive reading with kids—that really is a high compliment! Thank you so much for having me as part of the Rumpus Book Club!
Brian S: I seriously laughed out loud at that moment. Also, I appreciated the Jehovah’s Witness joke—I was raised one and even though I haven’t been one in twenty years, it cracks me up to see them mentioned.
Jade Chang: Ha ha!! I’m so glad!