Jade Chang Won’t Write a Traditional Immigrant Novel
An interview with the author of The Wangs vs. The World
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In The Wangs vs. The World, Jade Chang tells the story of Charles Wang, a Chinese immigrant in L.A., by way of Taiwan, who makes a fortune in the cosmetics industry, only to lose it all in the 2008 financial crash. The Wang children are accustomed to a rarified Bel-Air lifestyle and the sudden disappearance of their inheritance — not to mention their designer clothes, cars, and schools — comes as a shock that they’ll have process over the course of a family road trip from California to Upstate New York.
The “road trip” and the “immigrant story” are two favorite genres of American story-tellers; as such they come with certain expectations on the part of the audience. That’s why it’s impressive to see Chang, a debut novelist, embrace these archetypes only to spin them on their heads. She refuses to play to the idea of immigrants as alienated outsiders. The Wangs are worldly, funny, and big-hearted, even as they face disillusionment at the reality of the American dream. I spoke with Chang at a coffee shop in New York and she told me about her research process, her love for her characters, and what she learned by working at a luxury magazine.
Carrie Mullins: I feel like the first lines of the novel set up so many of its themes: “Charles Wang was mad at America. Actually, Charles Wang was mad at history.” What made you decide to start there, with this question of who or what to blame for our circumstances?
Jade Chang: You know, growing up you hear so much about how World War II changed the course of history, how it just flipped everything around. And when I was a kid, I read so many World War II novels, so that thought must have been buried in my consciousness: fuck history, how did the outside world just walk in and toss everything around and tear it all apart? I might have been living this other life. As a child of immigrants, you think of the other life you could have been living, if things had gone a slightly different way. I think it came from an awareness of that.
CM: This is a story about a wealthy family who goes bankrupt. They’re used to this rarified lifestyle, with walk-in closets and designer watches. Of course your readership is all post-crash. Did you think about having to bridge the experience of the average American reader with that of the Wangs?
JC: When I first started thinking about this book, there wasn’t that same kind of animosity towards the wealthy. I wanted to write something that felt fun and delicious and kind of glamorous. But as I was writing the book, I was also seeing what was going on in the wider world. I was working at a luxury magazine that basically taught rich people how to spend their money. I also became more and more aware of all these predatory lending practices, all these financial issues, so I started to think, how do I write these characters in a way that is understandable? I feel like whenever I write anyone, I adore them, while I’m writing. Even if they’re doing something dumb or reprehensible, I still feel this affection. I was really interested in peeling back emotional layers in characters. We’re all human and when you really understand someone’s basic desires and fears and hopes and dreams, you can feel an empathy for them, no matter who they are.
CM: So did your knowledge of the crash come through the osmosis of living through it, or did you go back and do research?
JC: I’ve weirdly always loved reading the business pages, and I’ve always found writing about finance to be interesting. Because if you really think about it, money is the most abstract thing possible. It’s this essentially worthless thing that we decide is worth a particular amount. I read a lot of nonfiction books about the crash. I was working at that magazine, so I definitely got to see a lot of the immediate outcomes of the crash.
CM: It’s interesting you paired the story of “wealthy family falls from grace” with the immigrant narrative because those two don’t often go hand-in-hand.
JC: I wanted to write something that was over the top and fun while still being fairly serious at its core. I really wanted to write an immigrant novel that gave the big middle finger to the traditional immigrant novel that we see in America. I didn’t want to write about the Wangs like they were outsiders, like all they’re trying to do is fit in with society. I think you see that novel a lot. For whatever reason, the publishing industry loves to put forth that narrative. In TV shows and movies you see it a lot as well, and it’s not the only way to be an immigrant or a person of color. I didn’t grow up with money like the Wangs but I grew up in a mixed area and I never had that experience like, oh my god, I’m such an outsider in this country. And it was really important to me to centralize this perspective. But honestly it was less political and more like this is fun, you know?
I really wanted to write an immigrant novel that gave the big middle finger to the traditional immigrant novel that we see in America.
CM: Speaking of being a child of immigrants, in the book it’s not just America that is idealized and falls short, it’s also China.
JC: I’m glad you caught that. I think that it’s such a driving force for Charles— all he wants now that he’s lost the fortune in America is to go back to China and reclaim the life he feels is rightfully his. I like a book that has a compulsive force that pushes things onward, so that worked as something for Charles.
That first chapter still exists basically as I wrote it so many years ago. That anger, that joy, that drive, all those things were ways that I wanted the book itself to feel, and they definitely came to me in his voice first.
CM: He plays against stereotypes a little, because people expect rich men to be a certain way. Were you conscious at all of playing against those clichés?
JC: I really just thought about a person, like a full fledged person. I’ve met really wealthy men, they’re my friends’ fathers, I’ve interviewed them, and they are complex. Some are exactly the cold assholes who care about propriety and acquisition and very little else, but so many of them are all different things at once.
CM: Totally, though I feel like readers can actually get mad when you stray from those boxes, they’ll be like, “Oh, this doesn’t ring true.”
JC: Yeah, it’s interesting. I’m not a huge fan of workshopping my novel in progress, but I went to Squaw Valley, to a weeklong writing workshop, and I brought the first chapter of the book. It was really interesting, most people in the workshop were really into it, which was great, but there were a few people who were like, “Would a Chinese immigrant have these thoughts? Would he be able to articulate them?” It was fascinating… and offensive. To be clear, it was only one or two people, but it was really fascinating to me that other writers were like: we can’t see the possibility of someone slightly outside our usual experience existing. It’s sad.