Author Jade Chang visited VCU Nov. 16 as the winner of the 2017 VCU Cabell First Novelist Award for her novel, The Wangs vs. the World. The award honors the work of debut authors whose work breaches genre boundaries and causes strong emotional reactions in the readers. Changs novels tells the story of an immigrant Taiwanese family who embark on a cross-country roadtrip after losing their cosmetic empire. The novel explores immigrant identity, survival and questions the meaning of home.
The talk consisted of Chang doing a brief reading and opened the floor to questions from the audience.
Chang sat down with the CT’s Contributing Writer, Emiley Bagalawis, to discuss how her novel came to be, the theme of the American Dream in her story and how the novel relates to America today.
EB: You came up with the idea for your novel after you attended the launch of Trump Tower in Dubai in 2008. When you were waiting for the valet to come with your car, you found an iPod inside your gift bag. Why do you think this particular event sparked your idea for this novel?
JC: I don’t know if it was the only thing that sparked the idea for the novel. It was the whole party, you know, just driving away from that party, it really kind of just a stark example of this crazy moment that we were in at that time. It was late summer 2008, the whole world was kind of falling apart a little bit. All these financial institutions were collapsing and the entire mortgage market was collapsing and there was this real sense that anything could happen. Who knew what was going to happen? And I think that because what was going on in the outside world was so clearly, “We’re on the brink of financial collapse,” it felt like the fact that the inside world felt so over-the-top extravagant, it was very much like a fiddling while Rome burns kind of moment.
EB: You attended launch of the Trump Tower as a journalist. Was that your major in school and if it was how did that aspect of your career influence the writing process for the novel?
JC: It was not my major. I was an English major and a political philosophy minor, but I do think that in order to be a journalist it’s helpful to be a writer in general. I actually think it’s helpful to study a lot of different things. Part of what makes for good writing is an ability to look at the world and interpret it in different ways and help people understand it. And I feel like you’re more able to do that if you have more experience looking at the world through many different lenses. And in terms of how it helped my writing, I think it helped the most with dialogue. Because as a journalist you record these interviews, then you go home and you transcribe them. So you’re literally typing lines of dialogue. You’re writing things down that are exactly the way the people say it. So you get used to a rhythm of speech, you understand how real people talk. Where as sometimes you’ll read a book and you’ll feel like “Well, I mean, I’m amused by this” or “I enjoy this” but it doesn’t feel authentic. It feels like someone’s making a speech or someone’s trying to be so funny or something like that. But it doesn’t feel like someone’s authentically having funny, easy back and forth banter. I think it was very helpful for that.
EB: One the most prominent themes in your book is the concept of the American Dream. That dream promotes the idea that anyone can do well in America if they pull themselves up by their bootstraps and make their own fortune and is often symbolized by a white picket fence. What is your interpretation of the American Dream and how does your book reflect that?
JC: Well I think that my book is sort of more of an examination and critique of the American Dream. At one point Charles Wang, who is the father, the patriarch of the book, says “America thinks they invented the American Dream.” Which is true. I mean America did invent the American Dream, but also his point, basically, is that America is not the only country in which people want their children to build better lives for themselves than they had, who want to fulfill their dreams where people have ambitions for success and security and family and love. That exists in so many other countries in the world, but America has definitely done a very effective job of branding itself. And one of our most effective tools is the American Dream, this sense of “Only in America can this happen.”
EB: With Trump being a prominent figure in America today and the launch of his tower being a part of your idea for the novel, if you came up with this idea today instead of back in 2008, do you think the story would be different and why?
JC: I think that those are things that exist at any point in time. I think that greed and ambition and over reach and ego, those are all just as existent today as they were then. I really don’t think that the novel necessarily would be all that different. It’s interesting. For example, when I first started writing the book, the word “microaggression” was not in common usage, but I definitely had a sense of what I wanted to write about. For example, someone will ask you where you’re from and you’ll tell them. And they’ll say “No. Where are you really from?” That was something that has happened to me so many times, that has happened to every person of color in America so many times. And yet I’ve never seen it in a book or a movie or a TV show. Maybe someone has portrayed it, but I haven’t seen it and I feel like I watch a lot of TV. That, for example, was something where I was like “I definitely want a scene in which that happens.” I have the experience of seeing things that I was thinking about and writing about become a real part of the conversation. So that’s been interesting. It’s exciting to be part of a conversation in that way.
EB: Your parents emigrated from China to Taiwan to America, just like Charles Wang in the novel. Does the novel reflect any aspect of your experiences growing up? We also learned that the book contains Mandarin written in the English alphabet. Why did you include this in the novel?
JC: I really wanted readers to have sense of what it was like to be in the car with the Wangs. To really be on the road with this family. That’s the way that my family talks; partially in english partially in Chinese. So many families I know in several languages at once. And so I decided to put that in, to essentially have untranslated Chinese, but to have Chinese that was readable, so at least you could have some sense of what the words might sound like. I think it’s an interesting question of who a book is for and in my mind, this book is for people like me to understand in one way, and then for anyone else who might read it understand it in another way. But I also think in terms of languages, there are actually so many languages in the book. There’s also the language of the art world, the language of the fashion world, the language of the comedy world or the language of finance. If you do or don’t understand any of those things, you’re gonna have a very different understanding of what’s happening in the book as well.
EB: Do you plan on writing a sequel or other novels and what would they be about?
JC: I plan on writing other novels. I don’t know if I plan on writing a sequel, not immediately. Maybe someday. And it’s a little too early to talk about what they would be about.
EB: Many novelists consider themselves artists. Do you consider yourself an artist?
Yeah, sure. I mean who wouldn’t consider themselves an artist?
Emiley Bagalawis, Contributing Writer