A few weeks ago I got the chance to attend an event for Chinese Lunar New Year at a Chinese restaurant in LA, featuring author Jade Chang of The Wangs Vs. The World as a speaker. Her book had such strong buzz around the book blogging world around its publication back in October 2016 and kept popping up on my radar through other’s positive reviews.
I jumped at the chance to learn more about the author and finally read her debut novel. I made sure to show up to the event with hardcover copies in hand to have signed (I’m becoming a signed copy addict), and found her talk about her transition from journalism to writing fiction and her experience producing and publishing this novel absolutely fascinating.
Keep reading for more details on what I learned about Chang from the event, as well as my review of The Wangs Vs. The World (4 stars), and make sure to enter the giveaway I’m holding for a hardcover signed copy of the book!
The Wangs Vs. The World Giveaway
I’m giving away a hardcover copy of Jade Chang’s amazing debut novel, signed by the author, to one lucky reader. Click on the Rafflecopter link below to enter. The giveaway will run for one week, ending at midnight on Tuesday the 10th of April.
*Only open to U.S. residents
10 Things I Learned About Jade Chang
- This was Jade Chang’s debut novel and it took her five years to write the book, primarily after work while holding down day jobs and with no idea if it would be published or not. She cites her supportive family environment and a friend of hers with whom she spent afternoons in coffee shops writing as what motivated her to keep going and finish her book.
- Before this novel, Chang actually wrote a whole other book that she completed in 2009 but that she says will never get released because it was really a learning experience for her through which she taught herself how to write a novel..
- She purposefully chose to make her novel a mix of entertainment and more serious themes, believing it’s a false divide in literature to dictate that books should either be serious, sad and smart or funny, happy and dumb. The Wangs Vs. The World is a comic, sociopolitical novel that is fun to read but doesn’t shy away from heavy issues of race, money, class and current events.
- Chang grew up in LA, in the San Fernando Valley, and it’s why she included LA as one of the settings of her debut novel. She was asked whether her book is currently being read in China and said that despite receiving offers from Chinese publishers, she had to decline because they were requiring extensive redactions to portions of the novel that portrayed the Chinese Communist Party in a less than positive light.
- She clearly has a strong love for her protagonist, Charles Wang. She described him as a brilliant asshole who loves big and hates big, and mentioned that his character and the first chapter of the novel told from his point of view came very quickly to her.
- The choice to include Mandarin dialogue within the novel without an accompanying English translation was one that Chang made very deliberately. She specified that context typically meant that the reader never missed anything important plot-wise from not understand the Mandarin exchanges, but that she had quite a bit of backlash from people who were disgruntled at the lack of translation.
- Chang was a journalist for years and even covered the art festival Art Basel in Miami one year, which is where she drew some of the inspiration for the artistic side of Saina’s character and her art exhibitions.
- The bombastic title of the book was something she had in mind almost from the outset, having written it down as a description of the book for herself which she then decided to use as the title.
- Chang described the publishing process in depth, from the many query letters she sent to agents, to the requests she received for manuscripts and then the pluri-month wait during which nothing much happened. She then sent another set of query letters with a more personal, heartfelt message and got a quick positive response, after which the book went to auction and was sold in April 2015. What followed was a year of editing before publication.
- I was super excited to hear that The Wangs Vs. The World is being developed as a half-hour comedy series for Hulu and that Chang is involved in writing the pilot. Definitely something I’ll be keeping an eye out for in the TV world.
The Wangs Vs. The World
by Jade Chang
Publication Date: October 14th 2016
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Length in hardcover: 355 pages
Goodreads rating: 3.3
Charles Wang is mad at America. A brash, lovable immigrant businessman who built a cosmetics empire and made a fortune, he’s just been ruined by the financial crisis. Now all Charles wants is to get his kids safely stowed away so that he can go to China and attempt to reclaim his family’s ancestral lands – and his pride.
Outrageously funny and full of charm, The Wangs Vs. The World is an entirely fresh look at what it means to belong in America – and how going from glorious riches to (still name-brand) rags brings one family together in a way money never could
The protagonist. Even if this were not a great book – which it is – Charles Wang would still be reason enough to read this book. I was hooked on him from the very first chapter of the book, which he narrated. Right from the beginning, you feel his humor, his larger-than-life personality and his tenacity. His character feels complete and extremely human, and I immediately found myself rooting for him. You can almost reach out and touch his ambition and drive, they feel so real and palpable. I loved how realistic Chang made his character (in fact, he often reminded me of my own father, also a very ambitious entrepreneur). Though Charles is seriously flawed, the reader still experiences him as nuanced and lovable despite his failings.
The premise. I was really interested to see how Chang would weave more serious issues into her family narrative, including the recent recession, racial discrimination, and the repercussions of economic loss on family relationships. The trope of the quest or adventure was really such a clever way to explore the changing family dynamic, by bringing by now nearly adult children back within the family fold on a cross-country car trip (which made me reminisce about the many car trips I took around Europe with my family growing up). In the end, Chang deftly managed the generational dynamic between immigrant parents who haven’t and will never fully assimilate into American culture, and their stand-up comedian, avant-garde artist and fashion-blogger U.S.-grown children. She truly unites the intimate and humorous experience of the Wangs with the larger social, political and economic events they are drowning in.
The writing. Often, contemporary fiction novels don’t really stand out to me when it comes to the writing. I’m more for the purposeful elaborate phrases of literary fiction, and sometimes contemporary fiction feels like it sacrifices artistry and depth of prose for immediacy of communication. In The Wangs Vs. The World I felt the convergence of a very colloquial, accessible writing style with a true mastery of beauty and meaning in passage after quotable passage. I picked a great quote for my post image, but here are two other favorites that stopped me in my tracks while reading.
“Every immigrant is the person he might have been and the person he is, and his homeland is at once the place it would have been to him from the inside and the place it must be to him from the outside.”
“Charles could feel himself sagging with middle-aged defeat, a loser who lacked the hot-blooded need to wrestle America to the ground and take her milk money, who never had the balls to flip his father’s shame into a triumphant empire, who marched obediently towards death and hid from life and always chose the wrong path. No. Not yet. He was still Charles Fucking Wang and he would lead the way out of the wilderness.” (**Ah, Charles***)
Secondary characters. I would like to open this section by specifying that I’m not including the step-mother, Barbara, among the secondary characters in the book that felt successful only in alternating phases for me. Barbara grew on me, and by the end I found her delightful. When it comes to Charles’ children however – Andrew, Grace and Saina – they all intermittently felt caricatured or a little meh to me. I didn’t particularly care for Andrew’s stand-up comedy story line – it was definitely designed to be cringe-worthy but may have been just a bit too successful at it. Grace felt somewhat forced in her teenage antics and Chang admitted herself during her talk that Grace’s character was the hardest one she felt to get right. I also really didn’t connect with Saina’s troubled romantic life and because she wasn’t on the family escapade across America, she felt a bit like an afterthought.
A tragi-comic family adventure, driven by a charismatic, flawed and unapologetic protagonist that will needle you to think just as often as it makes you laugh out loud.
Debut novelist Jade Chang is the author of The Wangs Vs. The World, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
She has worked as an arts and culture journalist and was recently an editor at Goodreads. Her first paying job after college was as a researcher for the J. Peterman catalog. (Yes, where Elaine worked on Seinfeld—it’s real!)
Jade is the winner of the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award and a nominee of the PEN/Robert W, Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction. The Wangs vs. the World will be published in 12 languages. She lives in Los Angeles.
Have you read The Wangs Vs. The World? What did you think? Let me know in the comments.
You can also read my other recent Just Read reviews, including for historical fiction novel The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin, nonfiction title The Stowaway by Laurie Gwen Shapiro, audiobook of Evicted by Matthew Desmond and novel Carnegie’s Maid by Marie Benedict.
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