ANGELES — "In a lot of ways, a country is like a
family," says Jade Chang.
seated across from one another at a table in her West
Hollywood apartment, blithely laying slices of cold
butter onto vegan banana bread and discussing her debut,
bestselling novel, "The Wangs vs. the World,"
which charts one Chinese American family’s fall from
riches to rags, and the epic, cross-country road trip
that brings them together again. An attentive hostess,
Chang pushes a pot of ruby-colored "seasonal
surprise" jam toward me, insistent that I dig in.
("Get like, a whole berry," she says.) She’s
dressed casually in jeans and a soft gray T-shirt,
delicate gold bangles encircling her wrist.
usually think about it as a family is like a country, in
the sense that a family has its own language, its own
laws, its own bill of rights, but I think the opposite
is also true," she says. Chang sweeps the hair from
her eyes; a native of the San Fernando Valley, she has a
short, dark bob, like Louise Brooks with a laid-back
California edge. "In that same way that you love
your family and you rebel against them, you love them
for all the things that you know to be good and true
about them, you also feel more hurt and upset at
anything they’re doing that’s not living up to what
you hope. That’s very true for us in America right
now, and always. America loves to feel that way about
Wangs," whose chapters toggle between perspectives,
inhabiting the experience of each family member in turn,
opens with its patriarch. "Charles Wang was mad at
America," the book begins, establishing its
ambitious scope from the get-go and escalating in terms
of conflict, comedy and the challenges of staking one’s
place in the world from there.
in October, it hit best-seller lists across the country
and Chang, a first-time author, found herself on
television as a guest on "Late Night: Seth
Myers." Has the attention been jarring?
"Honestly it’s just been really fun," she
Wangs" often walks the line of the tragicomic, but
it also rides other tensions — like national identity
versus individual identity — as well. Against the
backdrop of the financial collapse, Charles Wang, a
Chinese immigrant who earned a fortune assembling a
cosmetics empire, loses everything, prompting a mad
scramble to gather his family and return to China to
reclaim his ancestral land. Charles and his wife,
Barbara, abandon their foreclosed Bel Air mansion to
pick up the kids: Grace, a fashion-conscious teen exiled
to a Santa Barbara boarding school; Andrew, a virgin who’s
spending college working on his stand-up routine; and
Saina, a conceptual art star regrouping in the Catskills
after a public break-up and a fall from critical grace.
she doesn’t consider "The Wangs" a comic
novel, a gimlet-eyed humor buoys every page. "I
just generally think that everything is simultaneously
absurd and funny and totally heartbreaking all at the
same time," Chang says.
herbal tea in her apartment — she hasn’t moved since
the book’s success, including talk of a "Wangs"
movie — I notice that her plates are charmingly
mismatched, and that she’s given me the most ornately
decorated. Chang, who previously worked as an
entertainment journalist, was an editor at luxury
magazine "Angeleno" when the market crashed.
"It was just this front-row seat for how very
wealthy people were responding to this financial
collapse that was affecting all of us, the entire
country." Inspiration for the novel hit while
leaving a lavish Bel-Air launch party for the Trump
Tower in Dubai. "It really was this moment [of]
fiddling while Rome burns," she said.
Wangs" is rife with passages attuned to the
talismanic quality of displays of excess: "the
thick, buttery leather and polished gold clasp" of
a designer purse "became an axis around which the
whole chaotic world would spin." But as adept as
Chang is at describing the spoils of privilege,
"The Wangs" isn’t pure candy; there is heart
and depth to her work too. A novel at its core about
family, it recognizes that regardless of wealth and
status "in the end, all we had were the people to
whom we were beholden." Chang also credits
"The Wangs’" sharp dialogue to her time as a
reporter. "When you do an interview, you record
someone talking and then you transcribe it, and you’re
literally writing the way that people actually
and entertaining, "The Wangs" draws urgency
not only from its many voices and from the inherent plot
of a pilgrimage but from the way it subverts the reader’s
expectations of an immigrant narrative. "The Wangs"
is a fresh take.
a very common immigrant tale of people who come to
American and feel out of place, they’re always
struggling, they feel like they’re outsiders. It’s
always this story of why these people of color are on
the outside. … That’s absolutely a truth, a worthy
story to tell and a necessary story to hear, but I also
think that’s not the only story," she explains.
"I wanted to tell a story where they are absolutely
central to the story of this country."
Wangs aren’t outsiders, but rather, consummately
American: They are popular, successful, brazen and
flagrantly themselves. "‘I finally see myself in
a book,’" Chang says fans have told her.
"And these aren’t all super-wealthy kids that
lost their fortunes. That’s not what they’re
responding to. It’s also not just Asians. It’s a
wide spectrum of people who feel like some kind of
kinship with this story." "The Wangs" are
Chinese American, a compound word, both divided and
whole, and the immigrant narrative — no matter how you
slice it — feels more important now than ever before.
weekend after the election I was in New York, I was on
this panel," Chang says. "People were upset,
and people really wanted to talk about what do we do
now. What’s the point of comedy? What’s the point of
trying to write?" I wait. Sunlight spills onto a
crammed bookshelf in the living room. Chang, who is
already more than a year into her second book, looks
energized, smiling. "We started talking about how
joy itself is a rebellion, how living unapologetically
is an act of defiance."