No One Knows if Joan is Okay
Weike Wang's new novel follows a Chinese American doctor processing her grief during the early days of the pandemic
Weike Wang’s witty, moving new novel tells the story of Joan, a thirtysomething ICU doctor. The daughter of Chinese immigrants who have since returned to China, Joan is not only incredibly good at her job—she loves it, finding a deep sense of purpose in the long hours, grueling shifts, and day-to-day routine of her busy New York City hospital, despite her family’s attempts to shape her to their own expectations and worries that she is overworking herself.
When Joan’s father suddenly dies and her mother returns to America, Joan is shaken out of her comfort zone as she reckons with the sacrifices that her parents have made for her and her brother, the cost of migration, and the unbridgeable gulfs between families. Into this mix comes Mark, an overbearing white neighbor whose cast-off belongings begin finding their way into Joan’s apartment as he offers her unsolicited advice and recommendations. Joan wonders how to live life on her own terms and grapples with her unresolved grief, just as her hospital, her city, and the world are upended by the COVID-19 pandemic.
I spoke with Weike Wang over Zoom during the last days of 2021. We discussed the origins of Joan Is Okay, gendered double standards in the sciences and in the humanities, misconceptions around the model minority myth, and the drive to feel useful.
Gina Chung: How did you decide to incorporate the pandemic into Joan Is Okay?
Weike Wang: I had been writing a failed novel right at the end of Chemistry. It was about two friends, and I was tracking their trajectory from college onward. I was having a lot of trouble with the book, until one of the characters started to interest me a little bit more, and this character eventually morphed into Joan. I found that I was more interested in this doctor figure and thinking about the forces that created her. I just knew so many of these characters in real life. I came from a pretty intense STEM background; most of my friends are attendings now.
I had finished the novel in February 2020. Then obviously, stuff hit the fan, and my editor was like, “We have to have a discussion about this, and how you’d incorporate present-day events.” Given that I had created Joan as a pulmonary specialist, it just seemed like either a missed opportunity or like I would be making an intentional choice to exclude it, and I didn’t know if I wanted to do that. Realistically, it would make sense that she is engaged in this situation.
GC: While working on the book, did you learn anything about how doctors and nurses were coping with the pandemic that surprised you?
WW: It depends on how the person approaches medicine. If they approach medicine like a job, they’re almost clinically detached from it, because you have to be. My aunt’s a nurse, and she was dealing with some of this. Nurses are just more hands-on. They have to be there all the time. They’re seeing a lot of things that doctors don’t see. I imagine the burnout comes from physician assistants, nurse practitioners, nurses, residents, who are there doing the grunt work of what the doctors assign. But the actual attendings themselves are probably just trying to organize everything.
And then I had friends where their calling is medicine, so they just wanted to be on the frontlines. They really, really wanted to prove themselves. So I also saw some of that as well, this desire to be there because your utility cannot be denied. You are irrefutably useful, and that must be a good feeling. As a writer, I’m totally useless, in many ways. But to be totally useful, that’s somewhat of an ego-boosting feeling, and I think some people do enjoy that.
GC: Why do you think no one else in the book believes that Joan is mostly content with her life?
WW: I think when you make certain choices that other people wouldn’t make, there’s a sense of projection. One of the things about Joan is that she is so taken with medical training, and she’s so willing to be edited down at work, to be the most efficient worker that she can be. And that’s taken a lot of her personhood, and that’s true—when you go into medicine, you’re told you’re going to be standardized. She’s very good at that, and I think in doing that, she just closes the door to so much of her other choices. I think her neighbors, her coworkers, and certainly her family have this mantra of “You could have it all,” and as a result, be this “fuller person,” instead of maybe a person that’s pulled in multiple directions.
Joan has this admirable focus. She’s able to focus for a very long period of time, and be okay with it, whereas others, I think, can’t see themselves being happy with that choice and so assume that she must not be and say, “You must be like this because it was forced upon you, or because society told you that you had to be a model minority, or because of some terrible trauma.” I was trying to play with that a little bit, obviously playing with the cliches and tropes, but also playing with a character who could lean into this in a baffling way that could create some absurdism.
GC: A lot of the characters surrounding Joan are preoccupied with appearances. Her brother Fang and his wife Tami are very focused on the trappings of material success, while her neighbor Mark is obsessed with consuming the right kinds of media, having the right furniture, etc. What do you think that indicates about their worldviews, versus Joan’s?
WW: Joan needs rules. She loves the ICU because she has total control over this very, very small area of space, and that’s really all she needs. As long as she has control there, she doesn’t need to impose her will on everyone else. I think I wrote these characters because I’m also exploring this: why do some people have this deep desire to push their own sets of standards onto you? With the family, I get it, because you’re related. Fang is also older, so there’s this sense of “I need to take care of you. This is out of love,” but it’s very oppressive, because family is very oppressive.
With Mark, it’s gendered, like maybe he’s mansplaining certain aspects of life. He sees how empty her apartment is, how emptiness must mean that she lacks any sort of personhood, and he finds that completely unacceptable. He feels that he’s doing this out of a sense of kindness, and he’s trying to save her. I was also trying to play with this sense of “distributing culture,” exploring who owns culture, who decides culture, the control of culture. I think I wrote this because I’ve experienced this, not coming from a background where I grew up watching Seinfeld and Friends every other day. If you’re watching different things, you’re told, “How could you not know this?” and that if you didn’t do so and so, you’re not a New Yorker, you’re not an American. Who decides these things? No one, actually.
GC: There are many insights in the book on the challenges that women face in the workplace, even in fields as seemingly “merit-based” as medicine. Joan is also seen as having certain advantages because she is a woman and a minority. Can you talk a bit about your own relationship to those challenges and assumptions, as someone who’s worked in the sciences and is now a writer?
WW: It’s very prevalent. Being told “You’re very ambitious” can be either a compliment or an insult for women. That’s true in the sciences, definitely. If you’re an authority figure in the sciences and you’re too nice, they just think you’re soft. If you’re too mean, they just think you’re a bitch. The standards are just not set for a certain type of personality, because they’re so defined by men. There’s this assumption that if you are choosing your job, you must not be choosing family, and that makes you a terrible person, because all women choose their family. Some of the measures of how good you are at a job are just defined by your hours of work, and I think that’s just quite black-and-white, and not inclusive.
In writing, I think, it is certainly gendered—like this sense of, “This is a female story,” or “This is about domestic issues,” or “This is not about ideas.” Ann Patchett even said she always gets asked why she doesn’t have children, and one time I think she asked this radio announcer if he would ask Jonathan Franzen this, because he doesn’t have children. Men are just able to be asked about their work, but if you ask women purely about their work, you have to factor in “They gave up on family,” and I don’t even know why that’s in that equation.
In terms of race, that’s almost a separate issue. You worry that, “Am I capitalizing on these identity issues, or are these things that just naturally make sense for the story?” I’ve gotten a lot of feedback questioning my success: “Did you get here because you were writing this at the right time, at the right moment?” instead of, “Maybe you just worked hard, and luck and timing matter, but you also have to work hard for something.” Having your success questioned is a bummer. It really is. But I do think that women get that so much. You always have to talk about what you gave up to achieve something.
GC: You also write about the racism and discrimination that Joan and her family experience in her childhood, as well as the anti-Asian violence that occurs during the pandemic. Can you talk about what writing about that felt like for you?
WW: It’s hard. The easy solution is to not write about it, to sweep it under the rug, which is, I think, how I personally and maybe people in my close community have actually dealt with racism—you just pretend it doesn’t exist, or you just take it as an inevitability. My choice to mention it in this setting was my first attempt to say, “This is a problem that she is actually dealing with.” She’s dealing with this weird stereotype “boost” at work, that she’s this great worker. It is very insidious. This compliment of “You’re such a good worker” can be pretty racist, in terms of deciding what she is and what she isn’t.
Asians represent—I just saw a statistic on the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) website—23% of all upcoming residents, even though we’re like 5% of the population. We’re a force of the medical field. That’s huge. And to go to work and to hear what the virus was being called—you go into this field hoping that essentially erases your identity, which has its own kind of assimilation problems. I think there are subtle things at hospitals that doctors just think are normal, like you have to make sure to let them know that you speak English; if they really don’t want to be treated by an Asian doctor, you have to stand aside. So I knew I had to put that in here, just to question this path a little bit, of what we give up to achieve this jump.
GC: I found the book’s explorations of grief and trauma particularly poignant, in great part because of how understated they are. Much of Joan’s grief over her father’s death has to do with the things that were left unsaid between them. Was it your intention to keep that grief understated?
WW: Yes, a little bit. One of my favorite books in college was The Stranger. I really liked the idea of this death of the father catalyzing this apathetic person. Obviously Joan’s not a murderer, but I was interested in the idea of this one huge event that really starts to tear this character apart. Fang is grieving in his own way by trying to throw money at the problem, and Joan is just thinking, “My mother is here, I should go see her.” She’s trying to figure out how she feels with her dad gone, because they didn’t really talk that much. She might have only talked to her father once a year, every few months. Him being permanently gone—she doesn’t quite realize it, except as more time goes on, it does sink in. There are no more memories of him. There are just past memories of him. I think the more she starts thinking about these memories, the more it makes her think about, “What did my dad mean at that time? Why was he saying that? Why was he like this?” And that reflection makes her a little bit more self-aware.
GC: The book is also very funny, and there are a lot of discussions about humor and how culturally specific it is. For instance, in the scene where Mark throws a party for Joan in her apartment, her Korean neighbor says that she learned English by watching Friends, and that “you had to be funny in English. . . or else it was no go.” What is your own relationship to humor as a writer?
WW: That line was taken from my mother, when she first started watching television. American commercials always have this sense of humor to them, whereas Asian commercials just sell you the product in this very specific voice. My development of humor has mostly been a coping mechanism—if you can make someone laugh, they’ll like you better, or they won’t be so threatened by you. Given the background that I’ve had, I think people would think “You’re too intense, you’re too scary,” especially guys. Like, “You’re smarter than me.” That’s all true, maybe, but if you can make them laugh, they think you’re a real person.
One of the nicest things about learning to write was that humor was not something that I had to be taught, which was a relief, since writing humor is hard. Teaching how to write humor in workshop is almost impossible. When I first started writing, one of the reasons I got into it was because having the ability to be funny on the page was nice. I didn’t know I could be funny on the page. I didn’t know that people cared about writers who are funny on the page, because you want writing that has gravitas and ideas. There’s this sense that humor is a cheap shot, in writing. But humor makes so many things better. It adds lightness to the tragedy, otherwise there’s just no way to bear it.
GC: There’s also something so powerful in being funny as an Asian American woman—since people don’t expect you to be funny.
WW: They expect you to be sad. Or quiet and sad. Sure, you go through a lot of crap, but you can also laugh about some of it.
GC: How does it feel to have this book coming out now, in January 2022?
WW: I was like, “Well, what if it gets totally better? I guess it’ll just be a relic and be dated.” But I don’t know. It’s not March 2020, but there is still this fear. I don’t think this virus is going to go away, and I’m sort of despondent to say that I don’t think the borders of Asia are going to open anytime soon, so I think that we’re in a standstill, until something changes. Everybody’s in this depressed place, because the world’s just falling apart, world leaders kind of suck, and now we all have to be at home all the time again. And no one knows anything. I just feel like I’m being gaslighted. That’s just the perpetual feeling now, that “Is this real? Is this not real? I guess it’s real.”
GC: What do you hope readers will get from the book?
WW: I guess I hope that a reader will read a character like Joan and come to an understanding of what created her, but not have this judgment of “She’s definitely A, B, and C” the way her counselors are like, “She definitely needs to get diagnosed with something or be on this medication.” Or not compartmentalize her by saying, “She’s just this model minority” or “She’s just this blank slate,” and see a little bit of her interiority, and not just assume that when you see your doctor and they happen to be Asian, that they’re just this vacuum of feelings, like they have no emotional life, no landscape.
A “model minority” can be a myth, but it’s also a reality. If we never write about that kind of person, so many people disappear. I think about my parents, who worked really hard to get me here. They were model citizens, and I don’t think that I would have been able to do the luxury of writing—which is a complete privilege—if they didn’t do what they did, to give me that chance. If I don’t write about these characters, I’m also erasing them, and I’m pretending that they don’t exist when they do.
GC: I’m thinking now of a moment from your first book Chemistry, when the character is watching a cooking show and she sees a Chinese American contestant being praised by the judges for rebelling against her parents’ expectations by becoming a chef. For many Asian Americans, there’s this idea that you have to repudiate where you’ve come from to be successful. It feels like Joan is a response to that.
WW: It’s something I think about a lot. I love the arts. I love the humanities. I love creating art. But sometimes being around writers is kind of strange. I love them, but sometimes there’s just this sense of impracticality with writing. It’s just such an inefficient system. I feel like I’m always straddling the middle place. I have no desire to write this character that’s a repudiation, because that in and of itself is a stereotype. That is defined by white marketing, I think—the dominant race marketing whatever they think “good Asian people” or “cool Asian people” are supposed to be. I don’t want it to be that tidy. I don’t want people to dismiss Joan—I want them to really stay with her and see how she’s managing this difficult year in her life.
GC: Lastly, what do you think Joan would make of where we are now, in terms of the pandemic, and do you think she’s okay?
WW: I think she is. She probably took on a lot of shifts. She was built for this. And I think because I modeled her after three of my closest friends, I’m thinking about how these three friends are doing, and they’re kind of thriving in certain ways, and obviously not thriving in other ways. I do think this is Joan’s moment. This is almost what she wanted, this continuous work, and no time off, and no thoughts about wellness. She would have loved it—not because it’s heroic, but because she’s thinking about utility, what she can do. And maybe during this time, no one’s asking her about getting married or having kids.
But obviously she’d be a little bit sad, since, if her mother left the States, and I do think she would have, I don’t think her mother would be coming back anytime soon. There’s a certain sense of loss in the family that she’s just now more aware of, not that she can do anything about it. She lost her mother before, when they went back. She’s just more aware of that absence now.