Reimagining the Great American Novel with an Asian American Cast

Lillian Li, author of ‘Number One Chinese Restaurant,’ on challenging the bounds of the immigrant narrative

What does it take for someone to work at a Chinese restaurant for decades? This is the question that catapulted Lillian Li into writing her debut novel, Number One Chinese Restaurant, a multigenerational family saga set in Rockville, Maryland, that reimagines the (somehow always white) Great American Novel with an Asian American cast.

Number One Chinese Restaurant

The novel opens with Jimmy Han trying to sell the Duck House, which his father left to him and his brother Johnny, in order to start a fancier restaurant across town on his own. He finds, however, that a fresh start isn’t so fresh when he tries to extricate from the complicated web of relationships with blood relatives and longtime Duck House employees. When tragedy strikes and unearths family secrets, each character must confront their own limits and decide what they are willing to sacrifice for the life they want.

Lillian Li and I met at the 2017 Kundiman retreat, she as a fiction fellow, and I as a poetry fellow. I was thrilled to speak with Li months later over Skype about the alienation of being a Chinese waiter working in a Chinese restaurant, writing the immigrant underdog who behaves badly, and hiding Easter eggs in her book.

Marci Cancio-Bello: What was your inspiration behind setting your novel in a Chinese restaurant?

Lillian Li: I happened to work in a Chinese restaurant the summer before grad school. However, I didn’t ever think that I was going to write a novel set there. Even when I quit, I wasn’t thinking of how to write about the experience, how to get a story out of it. In fact, I tried to leave that restaurant experience behind me entirely. But it followed me to grad school. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. What haunted me was not how physically hard the work had been, but the emotional challenge of it. I was so lonely and isolated. I was working six days a week, twelve hours a day, serving customers who looked right past me. I mean, no one really treats waiters well, but it felt like an extra layer of alienation to be a Chinese waiter in a Chinese restaurant. Like I wasn’t totally seen as human.

I wondered how anyone could last longer than I did (barely a month), yet all my coworkers had been working in that restaurant for years. It led me to compulsively imagine what it would be like to continue to work in that space for months, years, even decades. What would a person do over the years, how would they change in that environment, what kind of life would they make for themselves as a substitute for the outside world, and what would they be willing to give up to sustain that life?

During this time of compulsive imagination, I was also experimenting with ways to write about Chinese American characters without making their race the most important part of them, but it was difficult because the act of naming a character’s race in your writing inadvertently puts a spotlight on it. At the same time, if you don’t name your characters, most readers default your characters to white. I wanted to define a space where the default was Chinese American. That’s when I realized my experience in that restaurant had been a space where the default was just that, and any reader coming into that space would default to a Chinese American experience. The collision of those two ideas created the novel.

I was working six days a week, twelve hours a day, serving customers who looked right past me. It felt like an extra layer of alienation as a Chinese waiter in a Chinese restaurant. Like I wasn’t totally seen as human.

MCB: This book challenges stereotypes of the Chinese restaurant worker, and I got the sense that both Asian and non-Asian readers would be able to relate this novel to their own American experience. Can you talk about constructing a dual readership for a widely varied audience?

LL: In some ways I felt I had written two books. I wrote this book for me, for readers like me, with my cultural background and reference points that I find familiar. I wanted to be uncompromising. At the same time, I understood that a book is something that everybody gets to read, which is to say, anybody can pick up a book and read it. How do I speak to a reader that I did not write the book for? Do I even try to speak to that reader?

I took a lot of inspiration from Maxine Hong Kingston’s Woman Warrior. In interviews, she said she put “Easter eggs” in Woman Warrior — untranslated words or references, unexplained material that many readers would come across and not notice or recognize, but which wouldn’t distract them from their reading experience. I tried to do something similar in my book, to be uncompromising without being exclusionary. There will be readers who won’t catch any of the Easter eggs, but still enjoy the book, still get something from the experience. However, for the reader who finds those Easter eggs, I want them to feel a moment of communion, to realize that, while this is a book that everyone gets to read, this universally accessible thing has a little moment just for them. I wanted to see if I could have both.

I think it’s also helpful that all readers are, in some way, outsiders in the world of the Duck House. Most Chinese Americans have little experience with the Chinese restaurant space. Even those who have worked, or have family who has worked in a Chinese restaurant will still be partial outsiders because there are so many different kinds of Chinese restaurants, and I tried to write the Duck House to be as specific a kind of restaurant as possible. So in the end, there’s distance for every reader, and I wanted to both close and keep that distance by different degrees for every kind of reader.

MCB: Speaking of closing distances, your characters move so fluidly between speaking English and Chinese that I barely registered the markers. Was that intentional?

LL: I thought a lot about how language was going to be used from the start. In a lot of ways, I wrote this book for myself, and I wanted to replicate how I hear and understand switches between Chinese and English. When I’m talking to my parents, I don’t notice if they’re speaking Chinese or English. What I notice is a change in effort. I notice when they switch from English to Chinese that it’s like they’ve taken a slight weight off their words. The language feels lighter and easier for them. The opposite happens when I switch from English to Chinese. I wanted to try to capture that sensation in the work. I originally wanted no markers at all that something was being said in Chinese or English. I wanted the reader to figure out the language being spoken based on the level of effort in the dialogue. In the end, that was too confusing, and the confusion only called more attention to the switches, not at all my experience with bilingualism.

I also chose not to include pinyin because, again, that points to a self-consciousness in translation that wouldn’t be accurate to the characters who speak Chinese as a first language. I tried always to think about what the characters would notice and what they would hear, rather than what the reader would notice and hear.

MCB: You mentioned that Number One Chinese Restaurant was your master’s thesis at the University of Michigan. Did you feel that your MFA program helped you finish the book?

LL: Definitely. The finished novel looks nothing like my thesis, which was more like a prologue to what became the actual book. In the original manuscript, Jimmy hadn’t even bought the new restaurant until after the first hundred pages.

My classmates and teachers were so helpful in helping me write my way into the novel. Eileen Pollack, one of my thesis readers, was hugely instrumental in helping me learn what the structure of a novel even was. I felt like a baby writing a book. Even though I had read so many books, I didn’t even know how to start a novel. I thought a novel could just be detailing a person’s everyday routine, which some authors can do successfully, but Eileen taught me that most novels look at what happens when that routine is disrupted. I’m sure that’s something most people could learn on their own, but I probably would have written a lot of bad novels before this one if I hadn’t learned so much from people who knew much better.

MCB: Your novel leaps deftly through forty years’ worth of character perspectives. What was your process in organizing the complex maze of plot lines and character histories?

LL: I’ve always loved ensembles, in books, TV, movies. I love communities that both know each other well, and not at all. When I was younger, I wrote a lot of fan-fiction, and I was never interested in the main characters. I was always more interested in side characters, the ones who don’t get much screen time. I thought, “Why don’t we get more of you? You seem really interesting.” So I knew that when I wrote a novel, I’d have multiple perspectives, a real ensemble cast. In terms of how I nailed down the plot and the character histories, in some ways, they ended up being reverse processes.

With the plot, Eileen, again, was instrumental. She gave me this great analogy when she asked me to think of plot as a sequence of dominoes. One plot point creates ripple events that fall to hit the next domino. Of course, then I came to her with fifteen dominoes, and she had to tell me that you really should have at most two or three dominoes. If you have too many plot points, readers have no idea what to invest in and the stakes are constantly in flux. She told me to come up with three big-ass dominoes. I worked a long time to get those dominoes. Once I did, it felt almost like mile markers for a 5k. I wrote until I hit the first marker, and that oriented me enough to get to the second, and so on.

For character histories, I worked backwards instead of forwards. This happened because I came up with characters in tandem with their relationships to each other. For example, I came up with Nan at the same time that I came up with Ah-Jack, because I wanted a friendship that was complicated and intense and long-term. I wanted two brothers with sibling rivalry, so that led to Jimmy and Johnny. I wanted Nan to struggle to maintain a relationship with her child when her restaurant work kept her from being home, and Pat sprang to life. Once I had these specific relationships in mind, I just had to work back from that point. It was a useful guiding light to ask what had to happen to this person in their lifetime, what kind of personality they had to be born with, so that thirty years later they could get into a relationship as weird and specific as the one I’d created. Like with the plot, there was flexibility, but also direction. That’s how I kept the entire book straight in my head.

In a lot of immigrant narratives, people are only ever fighting against external forces, like war or poverty. When they behave badly, it’s because of the tremendous pressure and/or suffering they are experiencing, and it’s much easier to forgive them. What I don’t often see is the immigrant underdog who fucks things up for himself, who faces internal forces like hubris, spite, pettiness, or laziness.

MCB: Craft-wise, you’ve done such a marvelous job with each element that I want to call it a reinvigorated version of the “Great American Novel.” The book had such a satisfying ending for each character too, which I don’t always find.

LL: Realistically, with a timespan of just over a month, I couldn’t expect the characters to be too different from who they were at the start of the book. I understand that it’s satisfying to see someone make radical changes in their life. I love books that show me a better version of ourselves, I find them very comforting and aspirational, but what I write toward is maybe a more honest reflection, which is that it’s really hard for a person to actually change, and that, in some ways, books with really revolutionary character arcs set up unrealistic expectations for our own lives. If people only read novels where big changes happen, I wonder how useful it is when they look back on their own lives and evaluate how they move through the world. Can they really use that book as a model for themselves and the people around them? Maybe what I’m hoping to do is create a more accurate measuring stick to show what change actually looks like on a human scale.

MCB: One of my favorite parts of the novel is the brief internal monologue of Feng Fei, the mother of the two restaurant owners. She describes beautifully the constant struggle between a person’s nature and the stories they tell themselves and others. That theme powers through the whole novel.

LL: That was also my favorite section to write, partially because I finally got to tap into Feng Fei’s internal logic, the values and ideas that dictate her behavior and attitude. In general, I loved accessing all my characters’ internal logics because that was the moment I felt like I really knew them. Every person has their own internal logic to which they tend to be fairly consistent and certain, and I think that consistency creates the familiarity necessary to forge connections between people, even if the logic is flawed or dangerous. I wanted to see if I could make all my characters consistent and convincing in their own logic, and if readers would be persuaded to empathize even when that logic made certain characters act poorly. Like Jimmy, who is consistently an asshole; will readers eventually like him because he has become familiar?

One of the things I wanted to expand in my writing is the idea of the immigrant underdog. What I mean is that I was seeing a lot of immigrant narratives, especially Asian American immigrant narratives, where people are only ever fighting against external forces, like war or poverty. When they behave badly, it’s because of the tremendous pressure and/or suffering they are experiencing, and it’s much easier to forgive them. What I don’t often see is the immigrant underdog who fucks things up for himself, who faces, instead, internal forces like hubris, spite, pettiness, or laziness. It’s harder to love a person who makes their own problems, yet that’s what every single person does. Yes, systemic racism and oppression are always factors — Jimmy acts the way he does in part because he is a Chinese American man in America — but there’s no single reason someone is the way they are; there are ten reasons you can see, and 20,000 reasons you can’t.

Certain novels can feel like lab experiments. So-and-so behaved this way because A and B happened in their childhood, and then incident C catalyzed the reaction, the end. But there are no perfect conditions in life. We will never fully know why we do the things we do, and I want my writing to reflect that mystery and mess.

MCB: One of your characters says near the end, “You are the stories people tell of you.” Getting a bit personal here, what kind of story do you think this book tells about you?

LL: I hope this book is a meeting place, a sort of communion between the reader and myself, a two-way street. Even though the book itself is a static object, the ideas I had while writing it are not. I’m still thinking about them, and I hope the reader can evolve those ideas further too. I want this to be a way for conversations to happen even when I’m not in the room, even if there’s just one person: the reader. That’s the perfect book for me, and I hope in some ways this book will do that.

MCB: Lastly, what question do you wish I had asked you about this book?

LL: A lot of people ask me which authors have influenced my work, but I feel like that’s an answer that I’d prefer other people to answer for me. Instead, I’ve been thinking a lot about asking, instead, “Which authors do you share a worldview with?” The books that resonate the most with me are those in which the authors either share a similar way of looking at and understanding the world and writing’s place in the world, or have a worldview that I aspire to emulate. Two authors who do that for me are Ruth Ozeki and Karen Joy Fowler.

In A Tale for the Time Being, there’s an end that shows the magic and mercy of fiction. Fiction doesn’t always have to be like reality. It gets to have loopholes. It doesn’t always have to follow the rules. There’s something gratifying about authors who know that. They have a chance to fuck up your heart, and they rescue you instead.

Karen Joy Fowler is magical in a different way. Her writing is so funny, and she uses humor to articulate something about the world that I just find incredible. I love The Jane Austen Book Club and We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves because both books are uncompromising about the darkness in the world, while also understanding that humor is a way of both elevating that world and resigning yourself to it. The humor is not there to rescue you, but rather a way to deal with things. This is not always the best way out, but sometimes it’s the only way to keep going until you can find a better way out. That’s how I see the world too, and I hope my fiction communicates that.

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