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A Chinese-American Family Faces Financial Ruin In 'The Wangs Vs. The World'


It's not uncommon for a first-time novelist to get two pieces of wisdom. Write from first-hand experience and don't be too ambitious. Writer Jade Chang has ignored both with her debut, "The Wangs Vs. The World."

JADE CHANG: I kind of decided, OK, yes, as an Asian-American writer, people are going to expect to read an Asian-American book. How do I do that the way that I want to do it? And my decision was let's take this idea of writing an immigrant book and just explode it.

MONTAGNE: "The Wangs Vs. The World" is an American road novel, set against the mortgage banking collapse of 2008. The Wangs of the title are the family of Charles Wang, a self-made cosmetics mogul, who have lived the American success story for only a single generation before seeing it all evaporate in the financial downturn.

Our colleague, Steve Inskeep, spoke with the author, Jade Chang, about writing a novel that's a rebellion against the traditional immigrant story.

CHANG: You know, in the sense that I didn't want to write about immigrants or people of color who feel like they just have to struggle to measure up, who feel like they want to emulate white people basically. I wanted to write about people who feel like they are entirely central to their own story, and central to the story of America. Because that's how I feel. That's how I see things.


Well, I want to point out for people. Charles Wang, the central character of this novel, he's an immigrant. He's come to America. He's worked hard. He's made millions and then lost them again. So he's embraced America. But his attitude is really a little bit that America is beneath him?

CHANG: Yeah. You know, he was so fun to write because he is really just this brash, kind of larger than life - brilliant, but also very abrasive (laughter). A man who has a lot of love for his children and who just kind of charges at the world like a bull.

INSKEEP: Thinking fast, cuts a few corners on the way up, then is very quickly on the way down.

CHANG: Yes. True.

INSKEEP: Were you writing in any way from experience in creating this and the other characters?

CHANG: I wasn't writing from personal experience. I mean, I have not made or lost a cosmetics fortune (laughter). And...

INSKEEP: As Charles Wang does.

CHANG: As Charles Wang does, and neither of my parents. But, you know, I mean, definitely all of my experiences have colored the book. I have characters who, you know, there's three children. The oldest daughter is an artist. The middle son is an aspiring stand-up comic. The youngest daughter is a style blogger.

And I definitely for - when I was writing the youngest son's parts, I really wanted to know what it felt like to try to, you know, to stand in front of a room full of people and try to make them laugh. So I took - I ended up taking improv classes.

INSKEEP: Really?

CHANG: Yeah. Yeah.

INSKEEP: Were you any good?

CHANG: Well, so it's a series of eight classes. And then it ends in a live show. The first three classes I honestly thought, oh, my God, I am so funny. Like...

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

CHANG: ...I'm kind of an undiscovered comic genius, like, I'm probably going to be on SNL next year. And then class number four, I realized that the first three classes were just pitching jokes and pitching situations, which I guess I was pretty OK at. But once it comes to trying to embody a character while still coming up with a joke on the fly, I was terrible.


INSKEEP: OK. So you did a little method acting or method writing...

CHANG: Yes. A lot of method writing.

INSKEEP: ...In order to do this. But let me come back to you - what you said was your essential idea here. You didn't want to write the typical immigrant story.

CHANG: Right.

INSKEEP: You didn't want to write about people who were trying to fit in.

CHANG: Yeah.

INSKEEP: So if they're not trying to fit in, what is it that the Wang family is trying to do in America?

CHANG: They're just trying to live their lives, man. What are we all trying to do? I mean that, well, first of all, the three children - they were all born here. They are all people who see themselves as being both completely Chinese and completely American. And they're, you know, trying to figure out how to live life the way that anyone who's growing up is trying to figure that out.

INSKEEP: I think I hear you saying - and it's a simple point, but maybe one that needs to be made...

CHANG: Yeah.

INSKEEP: ...That each of your characters insists on being an individual, and not a label, an ethnic label, racial label or anything else?

CHANG: Yeah, very much so. And I think that they - not only do they reject the idea of being one of those labels, they actually lift themselves above that struggle as well. Because I think that often that struggle is one that the majority society wants to place upon the immigrant.

INSKEEP: What do you mean?

CHANG: You know, I think that mostly the stories of immigrants and people of color that we see are generally stories of pain. And I wanted to tell a story that was, yes, full of anger, but also full of joy and gleefulness even. You know, a story that was just really fun to read and to be a part of.

INSKEEP: Has anybody in your family been able to read the book yet?

CHANG: (Laughter) Well, my sister has read it. I mean, she's read several versions of it. But my father has the book. And I'm pretty sure that he stopped reading after - there's a sex scene fairly early on. Pretty sure he closed the book there, and hasn't read a word since.

INSKEEP: So you may never find out what your father thinks of the whole thing?

CHANG: Right. Right now he's reading "War And Peace" instead.

INSKEEP: Literally reading "War And Peace" rather than your novel?

CHANG: (Laughter) Yes.

INSKEEP: That's not fair.

CHANG: (Laughter) Oh, it's OK.

INSKEEP: But you sound a little nervous about how other members of your family might take all of this.

CHANG: Only because of that.

INSKEEP: OK, fine.

CHANG: (Laughter) Yes.

INSKEEP: Fine. The new novel by Jade Chang is called "The Wangs Vs. The World." Thanks very much, I've enjoyed talking with you.

CHANG: Thank you. This has been so fun. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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