Beyond Crazy Rich Asians: Kevin Kwan on writing, remembering and being an observer, at Jaipur Literature Festival 2021
Kevin Kwan seems like the kind of writer you’d want to call on the phone; he’s a good conversationalist, talking about his work and life experiences and family and current events and themes like diversity and representation with great ease and charm.
Listening to Kevin Kwan during his session at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2021 brings to mind what Holden Caulfield says about his favourite writers in The Catcher in the Rye: “What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt it. That doesn’t happen much, though.” Among the authors Holden wishes he could call: Isak Dinesen [aka Karen Blixen], Ring Lardner, Thomas Hardy (but not Somerset Maugham).
Kevin Kwan seems like the kind of writer you’d want to call on the phone; he’s a good conversationalist, talking about his work, life experiences, family, current events, themes like diversity and representation with great ease and charm. In other interviews, he’s noted that he’s “very tense, mordant introvert”, but maybe like some introverts, he has a phone-call persona that’s more confident and outgoing. Anyway, this is the persona in evidence at the JLF session, where he’s engaged in a virtual exchange with Shunali Khullar Shroff. Kwan's tone is assured, introspective, such as when they discuss his gift for satirical observation: “Satire is a way to tell the truth in a way that is more obvious than stating the truth. Life is absurd, people are absurd. And we have to look at it under that lens to get at the truth.”
They’re talking about his new (well, relatively, since it came out in June 2020) book Sex and Vanity, which is an homage to EM Forster’s A Room With A View. “When you read books as a teen, they have an indelible impact on you,” Kwan explains, recounting how Forster’s novel, which he read at the age of 15 or 16, made him fall in love with Italy. He jokes that Sex and Vanity, set in Capri, was really a way for him to spend more time in Italy; as things turned out, however, he ended up being in Los Angeles, in prolonged lockdown.
“I was in lockdown for five months [while writing the book],” says Kwan, who follows a disciplined, distraction-free schedule when he’s writing. “I turned in [Sex and Vanity] in early February and thought, ‘Now, I’ll travel around the world!’. By the end of February, we were in [the coronavirus ] lockdown.”
The aphorism of “the best laid plans of mice and men” seems to be one Kwan has experienced several times over the course of his life. Among the earliest upheavals perhaps, was when his parents immigrated to the US from Singapore when Kwan was 11. His background — courtesy his literary superstar status post-Crazy Rich Asians — is by now well-known (Kwan’s family comes from the old-moneyed class of Singapore, and count several illustrious personalities among their numbers). The move to the US, therefore, entailed many different kinds of changes.
“I was old enough to have a consciousness of what was happening. But also, being brought to a very foreign culture — Texas — had the effect of crystallising all my childhood memories, as though they were preserved in amber,” says Kwan. At the same time, “I had to quickly compartmentalise to be able to fit in. Until I unpacked it when I started writing Crazy Rich Asians.”
His crystal clear memories had a vital part to play in investing the world of the Crazy Rich Asians trilogy (the 2013 novel was succeeded by China Rich Girlfriend in 2015, and Rich People Problems in 2017) with its keenly observed details and authenticity. Kwan notes, however, that he never entirely lost touch with this world he wrote about.
“When you’re Singaporean, you’re always Singaporean, no matter where you go,” he says. “And I would go back to Asia. It was so different from my middle class life in the US... Having that distance, being an outsider but also having access, allowed me to observe all the foibles of this world.”
More from the Jaipur Literature Festival 2021: Douglas Stuart on how he shaped the world of his Booker-winning novel Shuggie Bain
Kwan had a successful 15-year career that straddled publishing, design and photography, when he began writing Crazy Rich Asians in the midst of his father’s cancer treatments. On their way to radiation and chemotherapy sessions, Kwan would quiz his father about his memories of Singapore, writing it all down. These recollections made their way into a secret manuscript that was, at the time, a kind of mental diversion.
“No one knew I was writing Crazy Rich Asians until I got a publishing deal,” he says. “I never expected Crazy Rich Asians to be published.” Kwan had worked on commissioned and non-fiction books before, and had been through the “whole boot camp” in terms of having them published. In contrast, his debut novel seems to have had smoother sailing. And of course, its aftermath has been quite unlike anything Kwan experienced with his previous work. “It's very surreal,” he says, of his literary fame, “an out of body experience. All I did was sit in a room and write a book.”
A book that’s been credited, alongside its 2018 big screen adaptation, with paving the way for many other narratives focusing on Asian Americans. “Yes, there have been a lot of books that have come out after Crazy Rich Asians, but also filmmakers and writers,” Kwan says. “When Hollywood saw the unbelievable success of this small romantic comedy — that became the highest-earning romantic comedy in 10 years — their eyes opened. I hope that this is not just a trend they’re milking.”
While these incremental steps are being made towards inclusivity, Kwan is sanguine about the very real work that remains to be done. He points to the recent spate of distressing, xenophobic attacks against elderly Asian Americans in the US. He also highlights the prevalent double standards in Hollywood, citing the controversy around the Golden Globes snub for the critically acclaimed Steven Yeun-starrer Minari. “It has a Korean American cast, a Korean American director, and American producers. But because some [of it unfolds in the] Korean language, it has been nominated in the Foreign Language Film category. On the other hand, Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds — more than half of that movie is not in English, but no one thinks of it as a foreign film,” Kwan observes.
“So there’s still a tall mountain to climb, and we have to keep climbing it, chipping away at it day by day.”
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