An excerpt from the fiery, acclaimed debut novel by Jade Chang, “The Wangs Vs. the World,” and a frank Q&A with the author post-11/9.
Charles Wang was mad at America.
Actually, Charles Wang was mad at history.
If the death-bent Japanese had never invaded China, if a million — a billion — misguided students and serfs had never idolized a balding academic who parroted Russian madmen and couldn’t pay for his promises, then Charles wouldn’t be standing here, staring out the window of his beloved Bel-Air home, holding an aspirin in his hand, waiting for those calculating assholes from the bank — the bank that had once gotten down on its Italianate-marble knees and kissed his ass — to come over and repossess his life.
Without history, he wouldn’t be here at all.
He’d be there, living out his unseen birthright on his family’s ancestral acres, a pampered prince in silk robes, writing naughty, brilliant poems, teasing servant girls, collecting tithes from his peasants, and making them thankful by leaving their tattered households with just enough grain to squeeze out more hungry babies.
Instead, the world that should have been his fell apart, and the great belly of Asia tumbled and roiled with a noxious foreign indigestion that spewed him out, bouncing him, hard, on the tropical joke of Taiwan and then, when he popped right back up, belching him all the way across the vast Pacific Ocean and smearing him onto this, this faceless green country full of grasping newcomers, right alongside his unclaimed countrymen: the poor, illiterate, ball-scratching half men from Canton and Fujian, whose highest dreams were a cook’s apron and a back-alley, back-door fuck.
Oh, he shouldn’t have been vulgar.
Charles Wang shouldn’t even know about the things that happen on dirt-packed floors and under stained sheets. Centuries of illustrious ancestors, scholars and statesmen and gentlemen farmers all, had bred him for fragrant teas unfurling in fresh springwater, for calligraphy brushes of white wolf hair dipped in black deer-glue ink, for lighthearted games of chance played among true friends.
Not this. No, not this. Not for him bastardized Peking duck eaten next to a tableful of wannabe rappers and their short, chubby, colored-contact-wearing Filipino girlfriends at Mr. Chow. Not for him shoulder-to- shoulder art openings where he sweated through the collar of his paper- thin cashmere sweater and stared at some sawed-in-half animal floating in formaldehyde whose guts didn’t even have the courtesy to leak; not for him white women who wore silver chopsticks in their hair and smiled at him for approval. Nothing, nothing in his long lineage had prepared him for the Western worship of the Dalai Lama and pop stars wearing jade prayer beads and everyone drinking goddamn boba chai.
He shouldn’t be here at all. Never should have set a single unbound foot on the New World. There was no arguing it. History had started fucking Charles Wang, and America had finished the job.
We Are America: Q&A With Jade Chang
AFLW: You’ve written a book about Chinese-American characters who believe they are central to the story of America. They don’t see themselves as immigrants or children of immigrants but individuals simply wanting to live their lives. Do you think that attitude is possible in the post-11/9 world?
Jade Chang: I wouldn’t say that they “believe” they are, I’d say that they are absolutely central to the story of America! Also, I’d say that the Wang kids are very aware of the fact that they are children of an immigrant father: their mother’s family has been in America — mostly in Chinatowns — for a few generations, but their stepmother is also an immigrant. It is something that they think about and that colors the art that Saina makes and the comedy that Andrew does, but that is not their only story. They are simultaneously the children of immigrants and just people trying to live their lives, just as they are simultaneously completely Chinese and completely American. To me, the most important work of fiction is empathy. And I hope that multilayered characters remind all readers that everyone they encounter is a multilayered human who exists in so many different ways all at the same time. In this definition of the attitude, yes. It’s not just possible, it’s necessary.
AFLW: In a recent reading and conversation with novelist Marisa Silver, you used the phrase “weaponizing humor.” Could you tell us what this means in terms of resistance?
JC: Humor is always a weapon. It is simultaneously an invitation and an act of aggression — we say that you make someone laugh. With humor, we disarm. And that changes the battle itself.
AFLW: You’ve not written an immigrant story about the typical issues of identity and belonging, but about staking one’s claim, and doing so with a brash sort of anger. This rage feels so timely.
JC: Absolutely. I started writing this book in 2009, which now feels like quite a different time, but all of the things that I was interested in addressing have come more to forefront in 2016.
AFLW: In one way, the rise of Trump has been so shocking because it’s not something most Americans expected; we thought we were more evolved as a nation than we actually are, but Charles Wang is under no delusions about America. Why? Does he as an immigrant understand America better than native-born Americans?
I actually disagree. I wasn’t surprised that Trump won—I hoped that he wouldn’t, but I knew that he might. Did you see this SNL sketch, with Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock at an election viewing party where all of the other attendees are white? Yep.
I’m not really sure how to answer this question … I guess I’d say that his understanding of the world that he lives in is not solely based on his status as an immigrant, it’s also rooted in his personality as Charles Wang and a million other things as well. I don’t think there is any one single immigrant way of seeing things, and being American-born doesn’t necessarily limit your field of vision, either.
AFLW: You write, “America, that fickle bitch, used to love Charles Wang.” Can we say the same of all of us who are now targeted by the new post 11/9 regime? Is America done with us? Or is there hope?
JC: How can America be done with us when we are America?
Jade Chang’s debut novel, “The Wangs vs. the World,” was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in October. It has been named a New York Times Editors’ Choice and is one of Buzzfeed’s 24 Best Books of 2016. The Wangs will be published in 11 countries and NPR.org said this: “Her book is unrelentingly fun, but it is also raw and profane—a story of fierce pride, fierce anger, and even fiercer love.”