'The Family Chao' centers on good food made by a not-so-good person
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
When Leo Chao is murdered at his Fine Chao Restaurant, it makes many people in Haven, Wis. remember their fine times over scallion pancakes, steaming soup and dumplings, as well as their respect for a hard-working immigrant family that includes his wife Winnie and all three sons who earned their way into top schools. Leo's death, family secrets and resentments are revealed as in Dostoevsky's "The Brothers Karamazov." Lan Samantha Chang writes in her new novel "The Family Chao," no one could have believed that such good food was cooked by a bad person.
Lan Samantha Chang, who is the author of the previous novel "All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost" and is also director of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, joins us now from Iowa City. Happy Year of the Tiger. And thanks so much for being with us.
LAN SAMANTHA CHANG: Thanks. Happy New Year to you, too.
SIMON: We mentioned Dostoevsky because you really did find some inspiration there, didn't you?
CHANG: Oh, yeah. I didn't read that novel until I was 40 years old. And I became so obsessed with it that I instantly started holding these non-credit, slightly coercive group discussions with my graduate students where I would make them promise to read it so I'd have someone to talk to...
CHANG: ...About who'd read it.
SIMON: So what did it set off in you, do you think, when you came to write "The Family Chao"?
CHANG: At the time, I think I was undergoing a rebellion from the rules of writing that I had been taught. And I found in Dostoevsky this tremendous kind of permission to break these rules. And once I got started, I really couldn't stop.
SIMON: What are the rules to writing fiction? - I asked the director of the Iowa Writers' Workshop.
CHANG: Well, so there are no rules, but...
SIMON: That's what I thought. Yeah.
CHANG: Right. But when I was growing up - like, in my 20s, when I was learning to write fiction, I had a series of beloved teachers. They had ideas that they really felt we needed to impress into our brains. Some of those included, for example, using as few words as possible, using as little dialogue as possible and also, the big one, no exclamation points.
SIMON: I've been told that. Wait - I've been told that! How was that?
CHANG: (Laughter) My novel has 419 exclamation points.
SIMON: Oh. Well, help us understand Leo Chao, the father of the family. He leaves complicated thoughts and memories with his family and people he knew in Haven.
CHANG: Well, Leo is a sort of unreconstructed tyrant - a larger-than-life, tyrannical man who came to this country to make a fortune and does pretty well at his Chinese restaurant in a small, fictional town in Wisconsin.
SIMON: Let's put it this way. He has impressed a lot of people, and he has hurt some people.
CHANG: Yes. He has definitely driven his wife to a point where she's decided to leave him and go join a casual spiritual community of Buddhist nuns. And he has angered his oldest son, who wants to take over the business.
SIMON: This is Dagou. Yeah.
CHANG: Yeah. This is Dagou. He's telling Dagou, his oldest son, that he's not going to give him a partnership after Dagou's been working for the restaurant for six years.
SIMON: And there's Ming, who is financially successful but has personal challenges. James is the youngest. One of the sons is charged with murder. I'm not going to give anything away. And there's a trial, as there is in "The Brothers Karamazov." But you're much funnier than Dostoevsky. What are some of the challenges of trying to work wit into a story like this?
CHANG: You know, it's interesting. I thought "The Brothers Karamazov" was pretty funny. I mean, it's funnier than, say, "Crime And Punishment."
SIMON: I guess if those were the only two options, yes.
SIMON: But I - yeah.
CHANG: I did find myself enjoying the writing of this book so much that humor just became a part of it. I've written three books. And some of my friends have said to me the books don't really reflect all of me because I actually can be funny, and they're not funny at all. So I just gave myself permission to try to be funny.
SIMON: You - I gather you grew up in a large Chinese family in Appleton, Wis.
SIMON: Did you want to write a novel that kind of broke the mold in the minds that a lot of people might have of Chinese families?
CHANG: Well, if it turns out to be that way, I can understand the process that I went through that made that happen, which was essentially that I started writing at a time when a kind of understated, minimalist quality was admired. And that kind of dovetailed with a certain silence that happened in my family around anything to do with the past - what my parents had been through, what my father had been through during the Sino-Japanese War and what they'd been through afterwards. As a result, my first book had a very understated kind of quiet suffering in it. That I think is one immigrant's story.
But the whole time I was writing that book, I felt like I wasn't getting it quite right. And as time has gone on, I've started to think about ways in which I could portray us as, you know, portray - not us, my family - but portray a family - a fictional Chinese family - as having the same just spirit that we had. We were loud. We were, like, angry, and we were kind of verbally abusive to each other at times. I mean, we were just all full of life. And I wanted to put that into a book as well. So in that way, I think the book is different from the immigrant novel as it's come to be known. Another thing about the book is that it describes the lives of immigrants who've been in the United States for over 35 years.
CHANG: And at this point, they've done a lot of bad things as well. It's not simply that society is making their lives hard. They've made other people's lives hard. And this is...
SIMON: Well, they're human.
CHANG: Yes. They're human beings, and they've become themselves in the new country. The complicated thing in the book, however, is that the people around them still see them as Chinese, even though they've started to move on and see themselves as post-immigrants.
SIMON: Yeah. I wonder, when you've finished a novel like "The Family Chao," do you begin to think about what's next?
CHANG: I do. And, you know, I have a terrible time in between projects. I take a long time. None of the books I've written has been similar to the others. They've all been very different. And I can't tell whether the sort of sea change I went through in order to write this book is going to stick with me in my next book. I'll have to wait until there's a quiet space in my mind for something new to come into it.
SIMON: Lan Samantha Chang - her new novel, "The Family Chao" - thank you so much for being with us.
CHANG: It's been a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.