“Making a Home While Invisible: A Conversation about an Undocumented Childhood” SwatTalk
with Qian Julie Wang ’09, author of “Beautiful Country”
Recorded on Monday, Nov. 22, 2021
Twan Claiborne '07 Again, good morning, good evening, good afternoon. Welcome to our Swarth Talk, where we interact with esteemed alumni from across the Swarthmore spectrum. And tonight we are blessed and very fortunate to have the illustrious, Qian Julie Wong, who is the author of the memoir "A Beautiful..." Not a beautiful country, excuse me, "Beautiful Country", which has had an accolade of recognitions and awards, including this morning being announced as... Or being like... Not announced. Being on the list of New York Times' notable books of 2021. It is also a New York Times bestseller and editors' choice, a Today Show read and an instant Amazon bestseller and editors' choice. And as she just noted, there is an audio book version that was released in September of 2021, so you can get a copy that way. In her lyrical debut, that critics have deemed a new classic, Qian Julie traces her coming of age, following her move from China to New York City at the age of seven with her parents who were professors in their homeland. In the vision of her child... Through the vision of her childhood, she relives the struggles she and her parents endured with poverty, physical labor, and access to medical care, all while clinging to hope with a dash of humor and a vision of what America could be for them. In addition to being a graduate of Swarthmore College, Qian Julie is also a graduate of Yale Law School and is a civil rights litigator. Fun fact that is related, we just found out that... I'm a special education teacher by trade, and some of her clients are students at the school I teach at. So that world of Swarthmore is just an infinity of interaction. In addition to writing her novel, her writings have also appeared in the New York Times, The Washington Post, Elle Harper's Bazaar, and The Cut. And she, we'll get into it a little later, but she's in the process of writing a novel. So please give a round of applause to Qian Julie. Well, thank you for taking the time to converse with us this evening.
Qian Julie Wang '09 Thank you so much for having me. This is my first Swarth homecoming since the book came out. So I am just delighted to be here. And as I said before we went live, to Twan, he was always such a great presence in the Swarthmore community whenever they were in the room, just felt like there was positivity and radiance coming out of them. So thank you, Twan for being here.
Twan Claiborne '07 Oh, you're welcome. Thank you. I appreciate that. We're gonna give some of that with each other and through this screen from wherever folks are watching. So I wanna get started in talking about this powerful story and I would like you to walk us through the evolution of writing the story. From our previous conversation, you hinted that you began the process of writing at Swarthmore. So trace us from the beginnings of the book and it evolved to where you released it in 2019.
Qian Julie Wang '09 So a very long story. So I will try to condense it a little bit, but I moved to New York City from Northern China in 1994 at age seven, and found myself overnight going from an average or typical child in my neighborhood who never had to worry about belonging or safety to someone who didn't know anyone in the entire Western hemisphere, other than her parents. Didn't speak the language and did not know what the rules and morays were and quickly I learned that I was also undocumented and had to fear for deportation for possibly forever. And the savior and salvation I found in these years was actually the public library. The day I discovered the public library, I realized that I was no longer without friends or family, even though my friends and family in China could not be brought back to me, I had a whole room and shelves and shelves of friends and family in books. And I started breathing and living books. But I quickly learned in that experience that there were very few books then in the '90s that reflected me, both my race and the undocumented status that felt all-consuming in our lives. So some time around when I was eight or nine, I looked at my mother and I said, "We cannot possibly be the only ones who are living like this. I look around Chinatown and I see others like us. So where are we on TV and in books?" And my mother, ever wise and strong and faithful, told me that I would be the one who would bring that story to the page. So that kind of planted the seed for this project. When I got to Swarthmore, I was an English major. And in my senior year, I tried to write a novel that was in part inspired by much of my experiences during these years. Gregory Frost was my creative writing advisor. Betsy Bolton, my esteemed English professor and mentor also was privy to some of that process. But I quickly found that at age 21, I simply had not healed enough to render the story well and truthfully on the page. In fact, I still, at that point had never told anyone outside of my parents, that I had once been undocumented, that this had been my reality for the formative years of my childhood. And that was why I sought to write it as a novel because I could not claim my truth. But in, so doing, I felt that I was really sinking into the shame of the idea of being "illegal" or undocumented and I just was not there yet psychologically and emotionally. So I went on to law school and thought, I'm just gonna give up on this book. It didn't come true. I'm just gonna pursue my legal career. But in 2016, in May of that year, I became a citizen. 22 years after I first stepped foot at JFK Airport, I finally earned my citizenship. And during that ceremony, there was a video of President Obama, greeted everyone in that room as a fellow American. And I realized what a profound privilege it was to finally be recognized as an American. Finally feel like I was safe and accepted even though for so long, I had already been American. And at the thresholds of that room, I told myself to never forget that feeling of privilege, to never ever take it for granted. And of course, going into the November, 2016 election, it was impossible to take that fact for granted. Almost overnight, the rhetoric around immigration just got ramped up 10 notches. And on the political debate stage on the headlines were diatribe and terms ascribed to people who were in my community, who were part of my family, who I identified with. And it was at that point that I realized that I had a choice to speak up, whereas 11 million undocumented people and many more documented immigrants didn't know whether they would have the safety of naturalization so that they might be able to speak up. So it was then that I decided to return to that project that I had abandoned at Swarthmore and take a stab at telling it as truthfully, as honestly, as rawly as possible. And from there, there was a lot of crying, a lot of therapy, a lot of unearthing, but that was how this book into life.
Twan Claiborne '07 That seems very telling a lot in just the memoir experience. You start off with one image of how it's going to be and then when you allow yourself that grace and time, it evolves into something beautiful. And it sounds like that is the experience that you had in writing this book. Now, thinking about some of the major points that you mentioned, right? You talked about not seeing images of yourself in '90s television, and frankly, it's still a work in progress today and combine being Asian and an undocumented person at the time and the images that we see of undocumented people don't always include the full spectrum of folks and the members of various communities. How do you see your story in "Beautiful Country" fitting into the larger conversation about the intersection of being Asian and undocumented?
Qian Julie Wang '09 So much of being Asian-American is tied to invisibility. Many facets of our experience and experiences over the history of this country have been erased. The contributions of the Japanese-Americans during World War II, the interment of not just Japanese-Americans, but also Chinese-Americans during that time, the early lynchings of Chinese immigrants, none of this, it feels like, is almost ever acknowledged. And being an undocumented immigrant, being a big part of that population is not really in the American consciousness. After Mexican-Americans, Chinese immigrants are the top percentage of the undocumented population in the United States and yet our voices are not heard, our interests are not sought out for. So I really felt compelled to bring to the page a nuanced and real true to life rendering of what it's like to be, not just a new Chinese immigrant, not just new to being the idea of American, but also grappling with racism and misogyny and the particular brand of racialized misogyny against Asian-American women while under the power of the immigration system where you don't really have the resources or tools to navigate yourself into safety and acceptance. My dream with this book was to show the beating heart, the resilience and joy and strength and hope and sometimes despair behind the headlines that so often erases and melds all undocumented immigrants and all Asian-Americans into one faceless word. And so that is also why I chose to tell the story and chose to render this book through the eyes of the younger version of me. I didn't want there to be editorializing, I didn't want to speak to the mind, I wanted to speak from the heart and to the heart. And I wanted readers to feel like when they opened the book, they were getting a board a train and able to see the terrain and landscape of my childhood, including very universal childhood experiences like being bossed around by adults, figuring out rules and your place in society, but also some of the things that are not so represented in our media, such as grappling with food insecurity and struggling with learning English when public school resources are lacking and the joy, again, of the public library and of books. So I hope that readers who have already read my book here felt some of that vision in their experience of reading it.
Twan Claiborne '07 Yes. And for those of you out there, let that be a reason for you to champion public libraries wherever you are because they are so valuable. And even in my own experience, I'd definitely found a public library to be a refuge in so many ways. And seeing that it was the same for you, it's so important for people to see that access to things really can change a person's world and allow them to be fruitful and thrive instead of constantly scrounging and surviving. Speaking of parents, it's so interesting that you said there is a universality in your book in terms of parents bossing around their children. And you said earlier that your mother, when you talk to your mom about the lack of representation that she said that you're going to be the one to tell her. As you've grown into your adult self, and you've written this book and you are now a litigation lawyer, do you feel that you are embodying and understand that statement wasn't just like a throw away? Or do you feel like it's been... How do you feel in terms of that statement and its purpose in your life?
Qian Julie Wang '09 That statement represents my mother's parenting approach. It represents everything she did for me during those years to hang on to hope. I am so privileged to have had such a wise mother. She never tried to live her dreams out through me, but instead, always reminded me that I could do whatever it was that I set my mind to. And while it was unclear to her whether she and my father would be able to make it out of poverty, out of being undocumented, she never left a doubt in my mind that for me, at least, it was temporary, that I had agency to carve out my own life and carve out my own role in this world. And that message gave me a profound sense of hope and also responsibility. I understood that with that agency, I could choose to do anything I wanted and I never doubted her, which maybe that was questionable, but when you're a child, again, I think all of us can remember when our parents were godlike and we just believed everything they said. And so with those statements, with her reminding me, not just once, but on a daily basis, that I would make it out, I had hope and I had a future and I worked towards that. And to this day, I don't think that there is ever going to be any point in my life where I say I've done enough to live up to that. Everything I do is anchored to that idea, that sacrifice of the immigrant parent, that vision of the immigrant parent who says, "My life might not be great, but my children will be able to carve out their own future and be able to make and create a community and a society that is better for everyone else like us." I know that that's not just my parents, it's a lot of parents out there, including non-immigrant parents who have had their own share of hardship and adversity. And so I see myself very much rooted in community, rooted in the Asian-American community, the immigrant community, the people of color community. And now having made it to a place in life where I have profound privilege, that I never let myself forget to spend every minute thinking about how I can live up to that privilege and how I can make it easier for everyone else in the communities that I am plugged into.
Twan Claiborne '07 Community is such a big concept and an important word and an important philosophy in general in guiding inside of pandemic, outside of pandemic in general. In your book, you start out writing from your seven year old self, Pinyin is the language you began the book with, and then it evolves into English as you are coming of age and you begin to understand the world around you. Now, keeping in mind that community, how do you find your communities through all these stages? And have you found your definition of what community is and means to you? Have you found that to evolve as you've gone through these various stages in your life?
Qian Julie Wang '09 I wanted Pinyin to honor. So I use Pinyin in the beginning of the book, particularly with terms that are important for children at my age, like and adults was a important distinction between children like me and bigger people. And I use Pinyin Chinese alongside English in the early parts of books and in equal parts in that I don't italicize it because I wanted to represent how in the immigrant's mind, in the immigrant community, Chinese and English are of equal import and equal representation. And as I become more assimilated, that Pinyin seeps out and Americanisms, that act of assimilation starts to evolve and represent itself on the page. And looking back, as I wrote this, I realized how long I had buried that early part of myself, that early immigrant, that Chinese half. I mean, when I was at Swarthmore, I just went by Julie Wang, misrepresenting my full name and mispronouncing my last name because I so badly wanted to whitewash myself. And so for so much of my early adulthood, I fully rejected community in part because the secret that I had to guard about my past built a wall that intimacy could not break through. If nobody could know the truth of my childhood, why I was... Whether I was that poor, why I was that poor, then I could not really connect with anyone heart to heart or feel rooted in the immigrant community because I could not own my full truth. And I just wanted to be safe. And so long as I was in that survival mode, I felt this need to efface myself and thus not embed myself in the communities of Asian-American culture and immigrant culture. But as I have learned to find my truth, understand my truth, and embrace it, that act of being able to connect with others, whether it's on the basis of being immigrants or writers, or lawyers, or memoirist, that has opened up kind of the font of my ability to connect and find community everywhere. And I think anyone who's immigrated knows that the inclination is to go it alone, is to not rely on anyone else, to not trust anyone, because you don't necessarily know who is safe to trust. And for so long, those rules guided my life. And the minute that I started to speak my truth, say, "Yes, I too was undocumented. I too was ashamed. I believed that my being was illegal." And that shaped who I was in the early years of my life. I found so much power in that and I found that when we speak our own truths, we give others permission to speak theirs and there in lies community and coalition building. So yeah, it's still evolving to this day. I'm still have to... Some days I wake up and I still have to remind myself that I'm not in survival mode, that I can trust people, that I can be open. But it's just been kind of a fruit of being open and writing about this and I'm looking forward to all the communities out there that I can connect with.
Twan Claiborne '07 I think it's so important that you mentioned the work that this takes, and that it is ongoing. You have to remind yourself every single day. And I think that, especially in the climate, I hate to use those terms, the cultural climate, the political landscape we're in, a lot of people think once you've reached a certain plateau that you're just done. And that's not... I mean, look at as you are an award-winning novelist and a profound lawyer. And here you are still waking up every day having to remind yourself that you are still on this journey. Now, speaking into your writing process, in general, a lot of times with folks I've spoken with who've written memoirs, they have unearthed some truths about themselves or learned things they never even imagined or understood they knew. And you talked about how you were coming to terms of what it meant to be undocumented and how that had weighed on you. In writing this book, what lessons did you learn about yourself? And did you capture those lessons in this story or are they going to appear in your new novel?
Qian Julie Wang '09 I learned so much not just about me, but about my parents, about family, about our country, about how immigration systems work. And the number one thing I learned was that it's the things that we don't ever let ourselves think about or talk about that actually dictate our lives. So because I had not talked about these years or thought about these years, when I started to examine them after 20 some years of burying them, I realized, oh, I went to school hungry every day as a child. That is why when I go into a supermarket in my 30s, I have this inclination to just buy every piece of food in sight. I understand that now. And there were so many layers of that, of taking brick apart from brick and understanding how they were still very much controlling my life. And this idea of shame, I came into this country, was immediately confronted with caricatures of my race. I had never known race before. I'd only been around people of my kind and immediately, whenever we were on the street in Brooklyn and Manhattan, people would be shouting slurs at me. I mean, the racial slur for Chinese was among the first English words I learned because it was just everywhere and people would pull their eyes into slants and I would see that depicted in the Simpsons and on TV. And then of course layered on top of that was this idea that we weren't allowed here and so I had to turn and run every time I saw anybody in uniform because I couldn't tell a cop apart from a janitor. I just didn't have the American understanding of that. And I just never let myself look at how deeply embedded that shame had become in me, even as an adult. Like I mentioned not going by... So I was born as Wang Qian, Qian being my first name and immediately on my first opportunity, I just kind of erased that part of myself because I had associated Qian with shame and being bad and being illegal and being unacceptable, too Chinese, too much of a new immigrant. And looking back through this little girl's eyes and feeling for the first time, the range of emotions that she didn't feel safe to feel, I started to see, oh, what is so wrong with the little girl? Yes, there were times that she had to lie. And yes, there were times that she felt wholly inadequate to take care of her parents and she felt like a failure, but that was not so much an inherent flaw with who I was at the time, so much as a society around me. And in talking to my parents, when I finally found the courage to tell them that this book was coming out, which took me many months to tell them after I got the book deal, their immediate reaction, and my mother's immediate reaction was, "So you want the whole world to know what an awful mother I was?" And then talking with both of them over the course of that night, it came out that all three of us secretly and individually blamed ourselves respectively for those years. We each carried the guilt and shame of society on our own. And I felt inadequate to protect them. They felt they had failed me and being able to go back in those years and not just see my parents as I saw them as a child, but also as an adult looking back at someone who was around my age, they were in their early 30s when they came here, and seeing the mountains of barriers that they were faced upon, it gave me a sense of healing, a sense of empathy towards them and understanding of the fact that they truly did the best they could. And they were not perfect, they made a ton of mistakes. But going back there and honoring what they were dealing with, what I individually was dealing with for the first time gave me that sense that maybe we could start to heal those long festering wounds and close that chapter and move on and build a new future that's untethered to the secrets that we never let ourselves think about. And I think that is very common, very universal to all families, that everyone privately blames themselves for things that happen to the family. And there is this inability, I think, to have the perspective to step back and understand that everyone in that unit sometimes might just be doing the absolute best that they could. And so, yeah, the act of writing this, processing this book, and then writing it and editing it gave me that understanding and it also allowed me to see that there were joy, there were moments of joy and laughter and humor. My father played disgusting pranks on me, wrote songs just to make me laugh. Things that when you look back on traumatic periods, as we all have those periods, we tend to assume that they were all gloom and doom. And that was not the three dimensional life that we were living, that my parents really did try to hold on to their sense of humor and their ability to fracture in joy into our family.
Twan Claiborne '07 And it goes back to a comment you made at the very beginning about viewing your parents as these sort of superheroes. And then in the process, you began to humanize them. They always say, in the entertainment industry, they're always like, "Never meet your idols because your opinions will be destroyed." But then you have beetle... You don't meet them and you miss out on beautiful moments like this, where you find more about their stories. And we know that our families can be very guarded. And like you said, that's very universal on so many fronts. You get a grandparent or a great uncle to sit down and talk about some things and it just can be so profound and healing in that regards. Can you give us-
Qian Julie Wang '09 Absolutely.
Twan Claiborne '07 Yes, can you give us-
Qian Julie Wang '09 I was gonna... Sorry. I was gonna say, I think everyone who has been an immigrant, especially an immigrant early in life, and even those who haven't, but maybe had a parent who was sick, knows that turning point when all of a sudden you feel responsible for your parent and the roles have reversed because you have to translate for them or you have to take care of them or get medical care for them and make sure they're able to get healthy or get food. And once that role reversal happens, it's nearly impossible to switch it back. And it so seeps into how we grow up, how we understand ourselves in the world, how we even continue to relate to our parents as adults. And that was one major reversal that I happened upon in processing what had happened and then putting it down on the page and it explained so much of my adult relationships that were not with my parents, with friends and my husband and everyone around me. And so I think that it can be incredibly liberating to go back and understand the blueprints that we received so early in life and how we can't help but replicate them until we confront them. And that is actually why my book opens not with my earliest memories, but my father's because I started to understand how his growing up in the cultural revolution as part of a dissident family, kind of propelled our family unit into this dynamic which shaped the ways in which I grew up.
Twan Claiborne '07 Oh, that's fascinating. And it also, it harkens how you have to sort of grow up a lot faster than you would want to and given the conventional American ideal childhood, you stay at childhood forever, depending on the community that you come from. You're not always granted that process at all, which, who knows what that can do? And luckily for a lot of us, including you, it has turned out to be something that is empowering. It takes time to get there because definitely trauma is very real, but it turns to be empowering. Just a quick plug, if you all have questions, I forgot to mention that in the beginning, please start typing them to chat. We're gonna start to intersperse them as we continue on this lovely conversation. Before I get to some of those questions, I wanted to know if you could give us a little hint of what your novel might be about, what we can look for, will it be in the same vein of "Beautiful Country"? Are you gonna steer far from it? What can he tell us?
Qian Julie Wang '09 So I love novels. I mostly only read fiction. So it's highly ironic that my first book was nonfiction. And I thought it was about time that I tried my hand at it. And so often my story, my life's story is cast as the American Dream, a term that I really take issue with and I disagree with because it suggests that once one has achieved material wealth, they are perfect and fixed and there are no psychological or racial or social barriers. And that's life... And so my novel is a really examination of the American Dream in reverse. We start with a woman of color who's high powered in a law firm, a world that I know very well, and her life starts to unravel as she starts to pick apart why she is living the way she is. And it's really... She's brought to that realization and inquisition through things that are happening at her firm around both ethics and how cases are managed and run, but also diversity and inclusion. So I really wanted to look at the legal world, the elite legal worlds from the woman of color lens because I feel like we're surrounded by a lot of legal dramas, but so often they are told from the white male lens and it is a very different experience and a very different sphere for those of us who do not identify as a cisstraight white man.
Twan Claiborne '07 I'm excited for that. I just got to like, oh. I was having visions of like, sort of... I know it's grounded in real life, but sort of like it's still science fictiony, sort of get out sort of mentality where you're within this world and you have to adopt the mannerisms of those in charge in order to survive it. So with like a disembodied experience, which I feel like has been a lot of your experience being coming from China at age seven, to going by Julie Wang, then going by Qian Julie Wang, you've been going through this disembodying process.
Qian Julie Wang '09 That's so wise and apt, yeah. That's a great way of putting it. And it's really fun too with this project because there were a lot of tears and crying in agony with the first book. In this one, I was just like, "Let's create the perfect life, the perfect career from the standard American commercial lens, and then let's tear it apart." And this poor woman has to find out who she really is. And the biggest thing that I learned in going from memoir writing to novel writing is that I thought that I could create characters and control them and have absolute control of the plot. But as it turns out, the characters you create, much like as I hear, the kids that you create, they start to have a mind of their own and a personality of their own, and they start to pull you in different directions. So it's also a process of exploration for me and I'm excited to see what I might learn about our society in the process of writing this.
Twan Claiborne '07 Now, you mentioned that fiction is your bread and butter, your favorite. Well, you're still in the process of writing this novel, and you mentioned how creating a fictional character that you can have control over is not with how it's going 'cause it's developing a mind of its own. Since you've already sort of written a book, though it is a different style, are you finding the writing process for this novel easier, or have you encountered newer challenges outside of the characters being uncontrollable?
Qian Julie Wang '09 It's just different. I think it's very hard to write a second book from what I hear from fellow writers. And with the first book, anytime I thought about anyone outside of me reading this book, anytime I thought about my parents and how they might feel about the book being out there, I just shut down. It was very much tied to my mental wellbeing, my psychological state, that I was able to find time and space to be able to put the story out there. It was so deeply personal and tied to who I am. And this novel meanwhile, does not implicate those challenges because I am able to make things up and have that layer of detachment, but it feels like every plot point, every character name has to have literary significance, it has to have some sort of meaning. And then of course there's always that voice that all writers deal with. For the first book it was, "Who do you think you are? You think you can write a book?" And now it's, "Who do you think you are? You think you can write a novel?" And so I think that self-doubt will probably never go away. It'll just shift and change and that's what keeps me on my toes and makes me make sure that I bring my best work forward.
Twan Claiborne '07 Yeah. You sound like an English student.
Qian Julie Wang '09 Yeah, Swarthmore should be proud.
Twan Claiborne '07 Yes. I need you to bring that to my classroom and tell these students like, you know what? Differentiate genres of writing present different challenges and you got to have an open and flexible mind in order to encounter them.
Qian Julie Wang '09 Yeah, and self-doubt is part of the human experience, so.
Twan Claiborne '07 Yes, and embracing that self-doubt and learning to which is a whole other skills to embody inside of being a capable adult. I'm gonna go to some of the questions here because we some great ones. The first question is coming from Cynthia. She says, "I am just learning about your book. Am I correct that it would be a good present to give teenagers?"
Qian Julie Wang '09 Yes, I've actually had quite a few high school and middle school teachers reach out and say that they are planning to teach my book, which I had not even thought might be an option. I'm also speaking at the First Year Experience Conference in February for all college administrators. So there's talk about implementing it into the freshman core curriculum across colleges. So apparently it is. I had not thought of it that way, but the book follows me from age seven to 12, and I really did write it with an eye towards thinking that the reader might be able to come back to the book at various points in their lives and read it with new meaning and new layers accessible, because that is something that I've done with "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" and "Middlemarch" and it's important for me that my book be able to have that kind of grounding, comforting presence for people who are growing up and making their way into the world. So yes, it sounds like from the people who know what they're doing, which is not me, that it might be good for teenagers.
Twan Claiborne '07 Yeah, so get them all, create the book clubs and tell your English teacher friends to bring it in. This question is coming from... I wanna say Daniella. She says, "Thank you so much for sharing your story with us. I would love to know if you have any advice for anyone interested in sharing their stories, but not sure where to start."
Qian Julie Wang '09 Yeah, so every writer's experience is different. And I will just share a little bit of mine and hopes that it help you. But if it... It may not work for everybody. And for me, like I said, every time I've thought about anyone reading the book, I'd just shut down because this is literally the book of all of the secrets I've kept my whole life. So the idea that it would be out for public consumption was almost a non-starter for me. What helped me was my incredible self-doubt, which told me I was never going to finish this book anyway, so it didn't matter. I was just writing it for myself, for my future children and grandchildren, so that they might one day know where they came from. And a mentor of mine, who's a judge actually told me that she said, how thrilled would you be to have a book like this from your grandmother? It would give you so much understanding of where you came from and how your family came to be here. And so that was the anchoring message for me whenever I felt terrified. It was that, this is never going to see the light of day. I'm never gonna finish this book, I'm just making notes for myself. And I actually, I wrote this book on my subway commute on my phone to my law firm. And I think that was really required because I had no time in the day, but it really did help me and liberate me because it felt like I was just texting a friend and writing a diary instead of actually writing for... Capital writing, capital W writing, capital B book, Writing Book. And so it felt much more casual. The other way that I kind of tricked myself was that I... One of my notes documents is just a list of memories that I thought were important to anchor the readers. And every morning when I got on the subway train, I would look at the list and find one that was most accessible to me. And often at the beginning of the project, it was a positive memory, that my first time eating pizza and not knowing what cheese was, was a very easy entryway for me into that world. I did not write chronologically because I just could not... The start of my book is leaving China, which was very traumatic and stressful for me and I just couldn't get there. So I actually wrote the beginning of my book last. The other piece of advice I would have is just to have a lot of grace and love for yourself. I truly never thought I would finish this book and in fact, I took a year and a half off in the middle of writing it because I said, I can't do this. This is too painful. It's too stressful and it's too scary to be embarking on this project. I can't even let myself get near finishing it. And I went back and forth on that front repeatedly throughout the publishing process. Even when I was editing it with an editor at a publishing house, I was like, maybe I just... I'm not gonna do this. I can always back out. Even up to the day before the book came out, I was kind of lying to myself and telling myself that, but also recognizing that, yes, of course, this is scary. This is so intimate and personal and it's very politicized. So I didn't know how people would respond. And so having that kind of grace, knowing that your story lives within you, you will tell it when you are ready and maybe that's not this year. It wasn't me and at Swarthmore, that was for sure. And maybe sometimes you just need to let go of it and go pursue something else, but know that while you are doing that, you are not wasting time. You are processing, you are marinating, you are growing your understanding and the story will simply flow out when it is ready.
Twan Claiborne '07 If the lawyer thing doesn't work out, you can always be and educator professor 'cause that is literally everything that people who are writing need to understand. And just also living life. I think it's so important that you've mentioned grace so much here in this process for you has been about giving yourself grace. And that is something that in our American consumerist culture, there literally is no time for. So you had to fight to make grace. And I'm so glad that this book, for you, the writing of this book in this process, you have given yourself grace. So definitely if you're interested in mining memoirs, take all of those bullet points. I hope you all took notes. Like I said, bring the note pad out. The next question. "Did you find other memoirs of other immigrant youngsters or from other cultures of any assistance to you in writing your memoir?"
Qian Julie Wang '09 So I said, I don't read much non-fiction. And when I do it's nonfiction that's written like a novel, like you can really immerse yourself in the world. And my north stars for that were, "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings". Maya Angelou also tells from her childhood lens and the voice also shifts as she gets older and Frank McCourt's "Angela's Ashes", which builds in that humor against the dark landscape. Those were non-fiction books that I truly lost myself in and I had hoped that maybe my readers might feel a little bit of that influence and that immersion when reading my book.
Twan Claiborne '07 Excellent. Speaking of books, you mentioned "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" and "Angela's Ashes" which are favorite books of teachers that see it. What books are inspiring you now, and have inspired you as a writer outside of those texts?
Qian Julie Wang '09 Last year was very difficult for the AAPI community. I mean, it was very difficult for everybody, but there were some additional textures that the AAPI community had to deal with. And I felt very fortunate to have had access to Cathy Park Hong's "Minor Feelings" during that time. I had for so long told myself that Asian-Americans didn't experience any racism, there was nothing particularly systemic about the barriers that I seem to find over and over again, that I was taking things too personally, I was too sensitive. I had internalized so much of the gaslighting that is around in American society and media. And I think it took things getting really, really bad. I mean, I had threats and slurs thrown at me pretty much every time I left the house during the pandemic, I didn't go in the subway for 20 months. The subway is my home, I grew up on the subway, and not being able to get in there felt like I was not in New York anymore. And then of course with the Atlanta shooting, I felt like members of my family had died. I felt like I was in mourning and I didn't understand even why because I couldn't let myself acknowledge the extent of systemic barriers that I had faced, that people who look like me had faced. And finding Cathy Park Hong's book in the midst of all of that, her being able to identify the problem with racialized misogyny, the problem with telling a group of people that they are not facing oppression when they are day in and day out, erasing that reality, it really gave voice to what I had felt and buried for so long. If this woman across the country, so much older, was feeling the very same things that I had felt over and over again, it must not just be me. And her book, I read it when I was editing and finalizing my book and it really gave me the courage and strength to put my book out there and to embrace my truth and not constantly ask myself, "Am I making this up? Am I being too sensitive? Am I making a mountain out of a molehill?" And yeah, and I think her book has been really at the helm of a growth of passionate AAPI voices who are pushing progress forward. And so I am very hopeful that we are at a turning point in our country in terms of Asian-American representation.
Twan Claiborne '07 Absolutely. I'm reminded, I don't know if you got a chance to see this, but I believe it was Johns Hopkins put out some interesting admissions statistics where they actively separated Asian, Asian-American, Pacific Islanders from people of color in their statistics and lump them in with white folks, which we all know is a traditional tactic to divide the communities. And it's so interesting that you said you didn't conceptualize your identity first when you came here from China to the United States as an Asian person, because what is that? Coming from another country to this country. Then on top of that, what we are faced with in the media and sort of the erasure of Asian, Asian-American, Pacific Islander folks as the model minority, yet the perpetual foreigner leaves a whole lot of gray room for them to be used as tools and be disposable in a lot. It was very troubling to see that even with the rise of conversations with representation and lots more people in the Asian, Asian-American, Pacific Islander community feeling empowered to speak their voices, there are still major universities actively trying to say, "No, you guys are fine. You're with us."
Qian Julie Wang '09 I think the idea of being proud to be Asian-American is still very foreign to people of our generation. I was talking to a friend over a weekend, she's like, "Yeah, my son's proud to be Korean-American." I'm like, "What is that? That's just brand new." But the fact that younger generations do feel that pride is promising to me and the understanding that the model minority myth and how Asians are often used as a wedge and that divide between black culture and Asian culture is so often serving white supremacy is something that seems inherently understandable to younger generations is such that people, my age, at least for me, it took me a while to really see the many ways and facets in which that is truly at work. And so I am just so excited for the future generation to continue building coalitions and doing anti-racist work.
Twan Claiborne '07 Yeah, I mean, they honestly got it off the back We had to be in that housing bubble and also just 2000 United States was just a weird time coming off of the '90s where they began these conversations of multiculturalism and what does representation look like? To then go back to the 2000s in sort of regressive, it's like, we're all doing work that we started and then having to redo it because we had a decade sort of reset. And just the early... Like during our own conversation before this, just talking about early 20s, just being a mess, you're just trying to figure out how to do things that are associated with adulthood. On top of that, let me unpack this trauma. Why can't I eat pizza? Every time I hear a song, why am I in tears or inner rage? What? I have to do that work too? It's just much at times. We have another great question here. Oh, this is the fundamental question. How does a lawyer find time to write?
Qian Julie Wang '09 My first book event was with Charles Yu who won the National Book Award last year for "Interior Chinatown". And we both agreed that anyone who's a corporate lawyer who then seeks out to write a book is not sound of mind. I stand by that. I don't know what I was thinking, but I felt constant pressure from every direction and I was working 80 hours a week trying to make partner and meanwhile, I was like, "I have to write the great American immigration book." But I, as I said, realized that there were dead spaces in my day, particularly during my commute, when I was often underground, didn't have reception to call clients and handle filings, that forced me really to build into my day an hour in the morning, an hour at night, where I could sit and just write and feel like, okay, now my creative work is done. It's time to do the corporate work, the rational, logical work that actually pays my rent. But I have to say that I'm also very proud that this book has gotten me to a place and understanding where I realized that corporate law was not why I became a lawyer. I decided I was gonna be a lawyer at age eight because in the library, I found the biographies of Thurgood Marshall and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. And it reminded me that it was civil rights that drew me into the law and what was I doing there after so many years? So in the middle of the pandemic, my husband and I started our own firm focusing on litigation of educational rights for children with disabilities, but also focusing on immigrant families. And it's been an incredibly rewarding and empowering, and I no longer feel like I have to divide my day between what I feel I owe the world and the stuff that makes money, that I can kind of marry the two.
Twan Claiborne '07 Yes, that is always the dream. And that's also such a unique population, intersectional population to work with because we don't really talk about disabilities or the disability community a lot. And then to marry that being undocumented and the complications that could present when students need services and all the information they had to present, just I can only imagine what your days are like at times.
Qian Julie Wang '09 Well, the intersection really came to me when I was reflecting on how early in my years in America, I was put in a special needs classroom because I didn't speak English and they didn't know what to do with me. The school didn't have any ESL funding. So I was placed in that other room. And it was fortunate for me that I didn't have any learning disabilities that I learned visually, I was able to pick up a book and press the buttons and learn, oh, star, they're saying stars, so that must be a star, and teach myself English that way. Whereas I don't have visibility into what is happening to children who are both in that boat, but also dealing with learning disabilities and other physical disabilities and the myriad of limitations that society just does not acknowledge, and again, erases from our common discourse.
Twan Claiborne '07 Absolutely. And it's very interesting, not surprising that you were put in a special education class because even in the great city of New York City, that still unfortunately is happening. And a lot of times, especially with strategies in teaching language, you find there's overlap between ESL, ELL students and students with learning disabilities, which is kind of troubling when you get down to it philosophically, 'cause it's like, these are not the same, yet they're still treated as such. I have one final question for the night. Did you find yourself tempted to write... Oh my gosh, polemics about immigration and policy, as you were trying to write your own story?
Qian Julie Wang '09 Actually, no. So when I was writing this book, I had to take my lawyer hat and my adult hat entirely off because I did not want this to be an editorializing. I did not want this to be a mimic of the words that go on in the political debates stage because so often we talk about immigration from kind of logical, like, well, if we let these immigrants in, what about those immigrants? And I see in the courtroom, the validity of that, but what I found as someone who works in the art of persuasion more than anything else is that it's often more persuasive to communicate heart to heart and it feels like a growing dearth of that in our country, especially with regard to racial dynamics and treatment of immigrants. So I wanted to speak from that childhood lens and speak from the heart, because that is the one thing that children are just so good at. They're just innately born with being open and wearing their hearts on their sleeves and that is the beauty of children. And I really did have to take my lawyer hat off because if I didn't, writing a memoir, writing nonfiction, I would have constantly been worried about people suing me and what would have resulted would have only had scenes where I was the only person in the scene because then no one could sue me. So it was also liberating in that way that I could really retrace my past and tell it as my emotional truths rendered it.
Twan Claiborne '07 Yes. Also, we wouldn't want to take away from your book writing experience because then you might actually have to do your job more than do the fun part, which is tell us these powerful and enriching stories 'cause it's like, someone's going to be upset about it. Well, thank you so much for taking the time out of your beautiful, busy day to share with us the story. Please pick up your copy... Your copy. Pick up a copy of "Beautiful Country" at your nearest book retailer, preferably buy it in person, support our local bookstores. If you want, we put Qian Julie's email in the chat. I'm also going to put her website so you can check out some more information about the book and also upcoming tours and speakings. Speakings, that's not what they're called. Tours and conferences and just keep up with our... Litigation lawyers, civil rights, educators, storyteller, inspiring the world to give themselves grace. Any final words you would like to share before we go?
Qian Julie Wang '09 Yeah, this was a very special evening. I wanna say everyone in the Swarthmore community has a very special place in my heart. And I want to particularly thank Twan and all educators out there. You are making a bigger difference than you can possibly know. To this day, the best teachers I've ever had, the biggest influence influences in my life are my third grade and ninth grade teachers. And yet, I've never really had the opportunity to tell them the extent to which they have changed my life. So please pretend this is one of your students talking to you, thank you for all you do. You are really saving lives and I'm just so grateful. And the same goes for public librarians. Please consider supporting your local public library. Thank you so much, I hope that our paths cross again soon. It was just a pleasure to be here tonight.
Twan Claiborne '07 Yes, thank you. Such beautiful last words. And I hope our paths cross as you are moving through the world in Brooklyn and I say hey from my lovely little school building. Thank you, everyone. Have a good morning, evening, night, and we will catch you at the next Swarth Talk. Talk care, everybody.