Exploration of the Power Elite: A Q&A with Kevin Kwan

by Annalia Linnan

Some books are like macarons—rich, delicate, meant to be sampled rather than devoured—while others are like potato chips: you sit down to read a chapter, and two hours later, you forgot about the laundry, you haven’t eaten dinner, and where did all those crumbs come from? Kevin Kwan’s latest novel, CHINA RICH GIRLFRIEND, is a bag of kettle cooked chips.

Growing up, my mother always had her nose buried in a book by an East Asian writer or books about East Asian culture; she read Amy Tan’s THE MOON LADY to me many, many times. Incidentally, I—an “actual” Asian!—gravitated toward books by other voices: Tanuja Desai Hidier, Amy Hempel, Kate Chopin. We have different tastes, but I think CHINA RICH GIRLFRIEND, Kwan’s sequel to CRAZY RICH ASIANS, is one we could agree on.

It has things I like (departures in form, time jumps) and things my mother likes (experience of another culture, a sprawling story). With snarky footnotes, snappy dialogue, and short chapters, it’s also a story that moves. As in CRAZY RICH ASIANS, CHINA RICH GIRLFRIEND plays on our fascination with wealth, offering us elite, decadent characters we both loathe and secretly envy.

Former Houstonian Kwan will read at the Asia Society Texas Center on Tuesday, June 16, at 7 p.m. In advance of his visit, I asked him some questions about CHINA RICH GIRLFRIEND and his notions of home.


Brazos Bookstore: The footnotes throughout CHINA RICH GIRLFRIEND are informative, laugh-out-loud funny, and add a punchy attitude to the book. They look at the characters and the situations they get themselves into and say, "Are you seeing this?" Did you always imagine the narrative and those annotations to be intertwined?

Kevin Kwan: I wanted from the start to feature footnotes in my books. I felt it was the only way to provide translations to some of the colloquial terms in a way that didn’t seem pedantic, and to also share further anecdotes that I just wasn’t able to fit into the narrative. The footnotes are very much a side character, and not many people realize this, but they are in the voice of Oliver T’sien, the erudite, snarky, art consultant character from CRAZY RICH ASIANS.

BB: In an interview you did for Booktopia, you cited SLOUCHING TOWARDS BETHLEHEM and Joan Didion's work as inspiration. What do you admire about her writing? Who are other female authors that have influenced you?

KK: I really admire Joan Didion’s earlier essay collections—SLOUCHING TOWARDS BETHLEHEM and THE WHITE ALBUM in particular. There is a spare, surgical elegance to the way she writes in this period that I find breathtaking, and I appreciate the stories she chose to pursue. I also loved her early fiction—PLAY IT AS IT LAYS and A BOOK OF COMMON PRAYER are two of my favorite novels of all time. In much of that work, there is this almost subversive exploration of the power elite that is also a recurrent theme that I explore in my books. Other female authors whose work has influenced me include Edith Wharton, Amy Tan, Terry Tempest Williams and Sharon Olds.

BB: Why did your family choose Houston? What are fond memories you have from your time here? (Did the weather shock you?)

KK: My father had business interests in Houston going back to the late 1970s, and he decided to move us all here when he heard about this fabulous Houston-based ice cream store called the Marble Slab Creamery that was selling franchises. He had always been an ice cream aficionado—he used to make his own ice cream back in his school days in Australia—so he thought it would be the perfect second act for him, and that Clear Lake would be the perfect place to start these ice cream shops. So my first job, at age twelve, was as an ice cream scooper at Marble Slab—I was so short that I had to stand on an ice cream crate just to reach the counter.

The weather did not shock me at all—Houston is actually less hot and humid than Singapore, if you can believe it. I have so many fond memories of my Houston years—I was a bit of a club kid during my college years—I loved going dancing at various clubs downtown and eating at Mai’s Vietnamese or House of Pies at 2:00 a.m. after the clubs closed, seeing films at the Landmark River Oaks, going to Sunday brunch at La Strada, hopping on the ferry from Galveston to the Bolivar peninsula and taking long drives down that beachfront highway, reading my poetry during First Fridays at the Firehouse on Westheimer.

BB: You grew up in Singapore, have spent most of your life in the West, and dream of living in Italy. Where is somewhere you would like to travel that you haven't been yet?

KK: The one continent I’ve yet to visit is South America. I’d love to spend some time exploring Peru, Argentina, and Brazil. I’d love to venture deep into the Amazon, and I’ve had this long-held fantasy of driving from Peru to Patagonia.

BB: Do you think of Singapore when you think of "home"? Are your ties to the East and the West equal?

KK: Singapore is my childhood home, but since I haven’t lived there in three decades, I don’t think of it as home at all. New York, where I’ve spent half my life, is truly the place I feel most at home. I don’t think my ties to East and West are equal at all. There are aspects of Asia that are familiar to me, and that I understand because of my upbringing, but I am so much more a product of the West.

BB: You have no idea who we'll talk to for the next Brazos Q&A, but never mind that: What should we ask him or her?

KK: If you could take only one memory of this life with you into the afterlife, what would it be?

BB: Speaking of, Zoe Pilger wants to know: What visual art has influenced your writing (if any)?

KK: My writing is incredibly influenced by the visual arts—since I also went to art school, I’m affected by design, photography, and most of all by films. When I write, I have to first conceive the scene visually and see it cinematically in my mind before I can commit it to paper. I’m constantly inspired by filmmakers like Federico Fellini, Wong Kar Wei, Pedro Almodovar, Bernardo Bertolucci and Claire Denis. CRAZY RICH ASIANS was hugely inspired by Luca Guadagnino’s I AM LOVE which is this incredibly sumptuous film about a powerful and privileged Milanese family.

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