Simultaneously thought-provoking and fun, Jade Chang's debut novel, The Wangs vs. The World just hit bookstores with a bang, winning the heart of every reader who picks it up. One of this fall's must-reads, the book tells the story of a rich Chinese-American family, whose cosmetics empire comes crashing down in the early days of the 2008 financial crisis. Suddenly broke, the Wangs set off on a desperate road trip from LA to upstate New York, with each family member pushing for their own agenda.
At the helm is Charles Wang, an immigrant and self-made cosmetics tycoon, who in the face of his bankruptcy, is determined to reclaim his family's land in China. "Charles Wang definitely came to me kind of fully formed," Chang tells Bustle. "That first chapter was the first thing that I wrote, and that chapter honestly hasn't changed that much from when I first wrote it so many years ago. You know, he was always this kind of like, brilliant, lovable, asshole."
Meanwhile, Charles' family has their own individual set of goals. Barbra, Charles' second wife and his children's stepmother, has wagered her entire life on Charles' success (breaking ties with her family and immigrating from Taiwan to marry him) and is now reassessing her place in the world. Charles's eldest daughter, Saina, is an artist who, after a career upset and a bad break-up, has secluded herself in the Catskills. Andrew, the middle child, is pulled out of college upon the bankruptcy, and embarks on a mission to ignite his stand-up career and find real, actual love. The youngest daughter, Grace, (who still can't really believe that she's just been ripped out of her fancy boarding school) is a teenage fashion blogger, obsessed with her dead mother, a woman who died weeks after she was born.
Chang was interested in depicting the sector of the Chinese diaspora that consists of people who had fled to Taiwan during the communist regime in mainland China, and then immigrated to the U.S. and raised families in America. "I really wanted to tell an immigrant story that was like a little bit of a 'fuck you' to the traditional immigrant story," says Chang. "[A story] that's not just about people who are struggling to fit in or just feel like they can't measure up, but is very much about people who see themselves as being completely central to the story of America, and completely central to their own story. And I think that's something that we don't see enough. You know, we really see mostly stories of immigrants and people of color being outsiders. And that's not the way that I see myself at all. "
"You know, we really see mostly stories of immigrants and people of color being outsiders. And that's not the way that I see myself at all. "
The story is driven by the passions of a phenomenal cast of characters, each one of them full-hearted and one-of-a-kind. "I do a lot of character work, in some ways kind of similar to the way that an actor does character work," says Chang. In order to build her characters, she starts by mimicking the old format of MySpace profiles, creating lists of things each character likes.
Chang then goes on to ask herself questions about the characters, and the answers to those questions might go on to turn into sections of the book. She says: "It might be something like, 'What does Charles think about brunch?' Charles probably thinks brunch is super dumb. But that could lead into a rant on, you know, the like ridiculous American predilection for trying to make up things, trying to combine things that don't need to be combined. Like celebrity portmanteaus, and like this and that... So there'd be kind of really silly questions like that, but then also much larger questions like, 'Does Saina care about her place in the art world? Does Andrew feel like he deserved to inherit the money that he thought he was going to inherit?'"
One of my favorite parts of Wangs is seeing how each of the characters deal with the magnificent loss of their fortune. The 2008 financial crisis is in its beginning stages when the Wangs lose everything, giving the story's atmosphere some extra heat — the feeling that something is on the verge of bursting. Chang says that, at the time of the crash, she was working at a luxury magazine and "had a front row seat to the kind of exciting, kind of frightening spectacle of rich people really freaking out."
Around the same time, Chang attended a "crazy" over-the-top party for the Trump Tower Dubai (a building that is still has yet to be built). "There really was a sense of 'Oh, this is a herald of end times. The world is about to collapse under the weight of its own luxury, of its own excess." she says. It was the last big splash before the recession solidly hit, and Chang remembers driving home from the party and feeling both scared and electrified.
"There's something about that — when everything is in upheaval, when you're just in this time of total change, it is also a time of opportunity," she says. "There is also this sense of... anything could happen. If the mighty are fallen, then who knows, like, who could rise to the top. And so I knew I wanted to set characters who are having their own big problems in this time when America was having major problems as well."
"I wanted to set characters who are having their own big problems in this time when America was having major problems as well."
In the midst of their crisis, left with essentially nothing, the Wangs all pile into a fragile car to travel from their Bel-Air mansion to Saina's house in the Catskills. They pass through Austin, New Orleans, Alabama, and more, each stop on their route leading them on one misadventure after the next. To research the trip, Chang tapped into the "subculture" of long-haul truckers who make fast-forwarded dash-cam videos of their routes and post them to YouTube. (Yes, that's a real, awesome thing.) "I haven't driven that as a continual drive," says Chang, "so I really wanted to get a sense of what the freeways were like on the routes that they took, and so I watched those videos for that entire journey."
Chang also drew on both research and her experiences as a journalist to cultivate her characters. The Wang children are each immersed in a different artistic field — Saina is an artist, Andrew is a budding comedian, and Grace is a fashion blogger. Chang has had a long-standing interest in each of these worlds. She says, "I think, in the same way I've always kind of wanted to be a stand-up comic, I've always kind of wanted to be a conceptual artist, and so I think coming up with all of Saina's different shows was so fun for me."
She also watched a lot of stand-up in order to write Andrew's character, but she's always had an interest in the art form. You can certainly see this in her writing. Chang says that she often just sees the funny side of the world, and she loves really over the top, absurd humor. Recently she's been watching Ali Wong's Netflix special, High Maintenance, and Idiot Sitter.
While The Wangs Vs. The World is her first novel, Chang has spent much of her career writing as a journalist, covering arts and culture. She says that being in media was excellent training for becoming a fiction writer. "You just learn to let go of your words," she says. "You learn to find a story, and you learn to just be not that precious."
The Wangs vs. The World by Jade Chang, $15.60, Amazon
Images: Teresa Flowers/Unsplash