I meet Jade Chang in the crowded, Flatiron location of Maison Kayser, and she lands in the chair across from me with a smile. She laughs—she has a great laugh—when she hears I’ve ordered the chia seed pudding without quite knowing what it is. (I find it equal parts strange and good.) But really we’re there to talks about her debut novel, the raucous, funny, sweet, smart Wangs vs. the World, which came out to great acclaim in early October. Part family saga, part road-trip story, it follows patriarch Charles Wang after a complete loss of his substantial cosmetics fortune as he gathers up his children across the United States in the hopes of bringing the whole clan back to China. (A country, it’s worth noting, the Taiwanese-born Wang has never been to.) Chang returns to New York this week, making two appearances on Saturday, November 12 at Book Riot Live and another at the Asian American Writers Workshop on Monday, November 14. Go see her.
“I was working at a luxury magazine,” she says of how she began writing Wangs vs. the World. It was 2009: the financial crash. She recalls the opulent parties she attended—once in company with Donald Trump. “Being there at a time when rich people were losing their money was a really interesting experience,” she explains. There was a feeling of possibility, Chang continues, that anything could happen.
She had been was shopping around something else, a novel whose “aim was perfection and beauty instead of expansiveness.” The agents who read it in 2009, as publishers shed thousands of jobs, responded positively towards the book but not the climate it was submitted in. One wrote back, “I don’t even know if there will be a publishing industry.”
But her time the aforementioned lifestyle magazine, Angeleno, had inspired her. “I thought, ‘You know what, forget it. I’m going to table this book.’” She wanted to write something big and messy after a finishing a novel that was so controlled: “something really fun to read and over-the-top and exciting.” And, she says, “I really did want to tell another Asian-American story.”
Wangs vs. the World moves from Charles Wang’s perspective to his second wife’s, the practical Barbra, to his eldest daughter’s, successful visual artist Saina, to his son’s, sweet and bro-y Andrew, to his youngest daughter’s, fashion blogger Grace, to “the eighties Mercedes” (as Chang calls it), the car that ferries the family from West Coast to East. In them is a survey of American culture that manages to be both buoyant but skewering: readers see Charles’s financial troubles and industrial know-how, Saina’s cynical mastery of the New York art world, Arthur’s fumbling and painful attempts at stand-up comedy, Grace’s keen understanding of clothes and the internet.
“I really love things that are frivolous and fun,” Chang explains. “I love Gossip Girl. I love pretty clothes. I love shiny things.” But more than merely appreciating the shiny, Wangs vs. the World is also about the value of shiny-ness. “The assignation of value is essentially subjective,” she explains. “That’s why I wanted to write about the art world, about finance. They are really similar. I wanted to write about people who were insiders in that world.”
I ask what it was like to inhabit so many voices, including one car. “The car is your friend!” she insists. “It deserves a voice.” (Chang is right—the eighties Mercedes chapters were some of my favorites.) She explains that while she was working on the individual sections, “I had to truly adore each character while I was writing them.” Barbra—“she’s more chill then the rest of the Wangs”—“was a little vacation.” But Chang also loved writing Andrew, a character who is “in many ways a dude, a guy, but who is truly sweet.”
Wangs vs. the World has been justly praised for how it upends, or rather just plain ignores, stereotypes of Asian American life. In the novel, the Wang family’s success, charisma, and artistic vision are effortless—a given. Chang mentions Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie famous TED talk, “The Danger of a Single Story.” “The title sums it up,” she explains, and then points to the then still-ongoing presidential campaign as proof: Trump sells his voters a single story, and Trump is dangerous. “I was motivated by a desire to tell the stories of immigrants who don’t see themselves as outsiders, for whom immigration isn’t a struggle,” she continues. The Wangs “see themselves as central to the story of America.” Though Chang doesn’t see her novel as a political one, she sees fiction as absolutely necessary to the work of “expanding our view of what it is to be a human being.”
“Minus policy,” she says, narrative “is the only way to counter anti-immigration.”