Lan Samantha Chang’s The Family Chao, released this February by W.W. Norton, on the surface, is a story about a Chinese immigrant family and the death of its patriarch. It is also a portrait of America, its many illnesses and dreams. A kaleidoscopic work, it has been called a murder mystery, a love story, a legal drama, an homage to The Brothers Karamazov, and a family drama. It is all of these labels at once and none of them alone, completely its own in the denial of a singular narrative, a singular truth.
Lan Samantha Chang is the Director of the celebrated Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she is also the Elizabeth M. Stanley Professor in the Arts. She is the author of the story collection, Hunger, and two novels, All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost, and Inheritance. Chang is a recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, and the American Academy in Berlin, and her stories have appeared in Ploughshares, The Atlantic Monthly, and The Best American Short Stories. She resides in Iowa City, Iowa, with her husband and daughter.
One of The Millions’ and Literary Hub’s Most Anticipated Books of 2022, The Family Chao explores the nuances of seeing and being seen. There is a distance between the way the town of Haven, Wisconsin, sees the family at the head of the long-running Fine Chao restaurant and the way that family sees itself. What can we never fully know about the people and places we call home?
“I assumed you all understood this: that you, your brothers, all three of you are lost,” a character in the novel tells Ming, one of the Chao brothers. As the novel progresses, Chang considers what it means to lose and to be lost, and what it might mean to find oneself again. With humor and wit, The Family Chao, says author Elizabeth McCracken, is “an intricate look at the so-called American Dream and one small-town American family trying and failing to save itself.”
While reading The Family Chao, I felt that its scope and approach challenge ideas of literary categorizations. It follows the twists and turns in the lives of members of a Chinese immigrant family while also including elements of mystery and thriller. How do you feel the novel responds to or confronts the often reductive label of an “immigrant novel”?
The American immigrant novel will, I assume, continue retelling itself afresh. The romanticized story of the hopeful family that arrives in the U.S. in search of a dream; the disillusionment of that dream; the sacrifices and role changes required to succeed in a new country; are part of our cultural narrative for better or for worse. My first book, Hunger, might be called a work of immigrant fiction. With The Family Chao, I would say I have written what one might call a “post-immigrant novel”—that is, a novel about brothers from an immigrant family that has been in the United States for such a long time that whatever their triumphs and tribulations, as well as whatever traumas they inflict upon others, have been done in the new country, and are entirely of their own making. (This is not to say that the narrative does not include the past, of course: the past, and the old country, re-enters their lives in an unexpected way.) As I mentioned earlier, they’ve made their ghosts in America. By the end of the novel, the parents are dead, and along with them, their memories of the old country. Toward the end of the novel, the middle brother Ming wonders if he and his brothers can call themselves an immigrant family any more. They have “made their ghosts” in Haven, and they understand that the U.S. is their home. The irony lies in the fact that, because of their Asian features, they will continue to be seen by many as foreigners.
How did The Brothers Karamazov influence the novel, and were there other influences on the work?
My interest in writing an homage to The Brothers Karamazov grew from an accidental collision of several factors. I had begun to write in the present tense and was interested in the slowly unfolding first two-thirds of The Brothers Karamazov, which covers only a few days in more than five hundred pages. I had made several false starts on unrelated projects before it occurred to me that it might be fun to write a series of significant events, in the present tense, unfolding over a period of a few days. I was also interested in Dostoevsky’s narrator, a member of the town in which the crime takes place: he knows the story from local gossip and news, and he is literally present at the trial, but he never becomes an actor in the story. I imagined that this element of community knowledge and observation might be of great interest in a novel where a primarily white town observes a trial among members of a Chinese American community.
I loved the emotional range of The Brothers Karamazov. The novel has many strong voices, often contradicting each other. There are monologues, rants, intense conversations. According to Project Gutenberg, the novel contains 2,739 exclamation points! The novel gave me permission to open my emotional range and create an Asian American family as spirited and noisy as my family was when I was growing up in Wisconsin.
Once I decided to try an homage, I was faced with the challenge of creating characters who might conceivably carry out the major events of The Brothers Karamazov. The characters came with surprising ease; I felt like I had only to find them. I often felt as if they were talking to me.
Other influences on the work include Philip Roth’s nonfiction work about the death of his father, Patrimony, and Roth’s more Dionysian novels, in which can be felt the outraged masculinity, the virulent rants, and the humor, that is the flipside of a more quiet and subdued immigrant assimilation story.
I know that you grew up in Wisconsin, and the setting of the story in Haven, Wisconsin, certainly shapes these characters’ lives. One neighborhood in Haven is described as “the kind of neighborhood where some residents stay put forever while some move in and out so frequently that you can’t keep track of who lives where.” What was important to you about the town of Haven that made it the right setting for the novel?
I grew up in the first Asian family to integrate the small Wisconsin city of Appleton, and my first impressions of the world outside my family were of a culture entirely foreign to me. The surrounding community was homogenous (white) and, although I sometimes felt invisible in the room, I was always aware of being seen as different. I attempted to construct this sense of invisibility and visibility in The Family Chao, particularly in the media coverage around the trial and in the trial scene.
A motif I noticed in the novel is the constant tension between the past and the present for the brothers. They wrestle between the old and new world, a grappling perhaps symbolized by the Americanized Chinese food at the family restaurant. Each of the brothers deals with this tension differently, accepting or rejecting their Chinese identity in various ways. During one of the conversations between James and Alice, Alice asks, “‘Do you think we’ll ever talk about anything except our parents?’” and James responds, “‘I don’t know,’…He thinks of what his father always said. ‘They gave up everything for us.’” How do you see the brothers moving towards self-creation while also recognizing the weight of their parents’ pasts?
Yeah, this is a good question. This novel is literally about killing the father. Without giving away the plot, the surprise is that all of the sons—the most outraged and offended brother, the most outwardly successful brother, and even, perhaps, the most loving brother—could have a motivation to do it. And yet all of the sons respect the father, they could even be in awe of him. Not only is he larger than life, but he has lived a life much larger than theirs, leaving the old country to come to the new country, making his fortune. Leo Chao is, to all of his children, a powerful progenitor, and they will spend much of their American existence trying to live up to him.
The characters are also working through their relationships to sex and desire. There is much the sons do not know about their own mother in relation to her desire: “They remark upon her appetite for food, but they have no idea that she liked to bite even her husband in the throes of passion.” James is trying to understand his intimacy with Alice, while one of the town observers, Ed Wong, comments about the Chao case: “At last, I’ve discovered the secret of how to attract women as an Asian male: get indicted for patricide.” How were you thinking about these characters’ relationships to intimacy and others’ expectations of their intimacies and desires?
In writing Book One of the novel, which is largely expositional, I intended to describe an American community in which almost all of the male characters were Asian. So, within this community, the conventional gaze of the white culture—by which Asian men are primarily seen through an emasculating lens—is generally absent. Instead, it is the tyrannical, foreign-born father, Leo, who mocks his American-born sons, as “You ABCs, so timid and brainwashed, will do anything for a woman who’ll give you a good lay.” Leo thinks his three sons have been brainwashed by the emasculating American cultural gaze that has made them too timid to express their virility. Of course, Leo’s idea of virility is somewhat toxic, and it has damaged his relationship with his own wife, the boys’ mother Winnie. Each of the three brothers makes their way into American adulthood searching for a way to attain intimacy despite their complex inheritance from Leo. In Book Two, the relationships among the men and women in the novel are subjected to the gaze of the dominant culture. The characterization of the three brothers (Dagou, Ming, and James) is then seen from another angle.
One of the most powerful, but not as present, characters in the novel for me was O-Lan. Her labor in the restaurant is not always recognized, but she is a significant part of its success. The mother, Winnie, has left the family, and the running away of the family dog, Alf, feels like a parallel to Winnie’s leaving. We learn later in the novel of the possibility that Winnie and O-Lan might have had a relationship of their own, outside of the men, but we never see that relationship unfolding; it is in the past. These women do not take up much space in the novel, but they are ever-present in its pages. Could you talk a bit about the choice to keep them “absent” in some ways, and the importance of their absences for the other male characters?
I have sisters, and have frequently written about sisters, so I wanted to try something different with this book. In choosing to write an homage to The Brothers Karamazov, I committed to the narrative constraint of three brothers who are possibly involved in their father’s murder. This required me to focus the action on the characters of the brothers and the father. The female characters were, by necessity, frequently off camera, and yet their decisions and desires determine the fates of all the major male characters, even Leo. I found each female major character quite fascinating and tried to build her into the story in ways that would develop each of them as individuals. Thus, Winnie chooses to leave Leo and seek tranquility, to become a Buddhist, because she suffered for so many years from the consequences of her own desires and her extravagance. Brenda tells people she’s seeking a man who can take care of her financially, but realizes on the night of the big Christmas party that she actually loves to work. Katherine became one of my favorite characters when I sought to understand why she so stubbornly devotes herself to Dagou and, perhaps even more, to his family. It was a real pleasure to write from her point of view. Her passages are some of the final bits I wrote. The other female point of view character, O-Lan, expresses herself primarily in dialogue. There are large passages of the book when she’s entirely offstage. Again, this absence is required by the plot. I tried to make it clear that O-Lan had her own life: she was, for example, interested in and knowledgeable about paintings and art history. She had, as you mentioned, a meaningful relationship with Winnie. Her real life exists, rich in its privacy, glimpsed in the scenes where she appears.
Much of this novel charts the Chao family’s patterns of movement, in the parents’ story of immigration but also the sons’ movement or stasis within the country. At the beginning of the novel, we follow James, the youngest son, who is coming home from college a thousand miles away for Christmas. He is moved by the sight of an old man who is traveling afar, “from the other side of the world, perhaps—to be united with his family.” At the end of the novel, Ming articulates a reflection: “If the past year has been about anything, it has been about their recognition—his, Dagou’s, and James’s—that they are Americans now. This country is the place where they have made their ghosts. It’s home.” Could you speak a bit about the roles that distance and travel play in the novel, and how these forces act upon the notions of family and home?
Early in the novel, Dagou Chao delineates to his brother James the ways in which the members of the Chao family long to be either in the future or the past. “None of us can bear to be in our present lives,” he says. “We’re charged up with unrelenting ambition for the future; it’s why Ma and Ba came to the States. Or we’re sad about what might have been…We want to go travel…in time, but we can’t, and so we want to go to a new place instead. Place is what we have instead of time.” Hovering over the sons’ lives is the fact of the parents’ previous lives on the other side of the world. Because of their longing for flight, the Chaos struggle with the constraint of existing in the flesh. Leo wishes to leave the U.S., to return to seek an even bigger fortune in China, but his life ends in Haven, Wisconsin. Each of Leo’s three sons is also arrested in mid-journey. The oldest son, Dagou, leaves New York to help out temporarily at the family restaurant in Haven and never returns to the east. Ming, the middle son, leaves Haven just before Christmas as a symbolic act of independence, but ends up driving back in the middle of a snowstorm. And James is ultimately stalled in his academic pursuits by an impulse he has to help a fellow traveler in a train station whose family photograph reminds him of his own family; he, too, ends up in Wisconsin. The novel portrays an immigrant family whose members are in flight and yet continually migrating back to each other.
Meghana Mysore from Portland, Oregon, is an MFA candidate in creative writing at Hollins University, where she is a teaching fellow and graduate assistant. The recipient of fellowships and support from the Tin House Winter Workshop, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and The Rona Jaffe Foundation, Meghana is also the second-place winner in prose in the 2021 Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing Annual Contest and the runner-up for the 2021 Melanie Hook Rice Award in Creative Nonfiction. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in The Yale Review, Boston Review, Roxane Gay’s The Audacity, The Rumpus, Indiana Review, and the Asian American Writers’ Workshop.
Lan Samantha Chang is the award-winning author of a collection of short fiction, Hunger, and two novels, Inheritance and All is Forgotten, Nothing is Lost. The director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she lives in Iowa City.