Happy Friday, everyone!
Today I’m doing a review and discussion, based on The Family Chao by Lan Samantha Chang. I had a lot of feelings about this book, and also a lot of feelings about some reviews of this book, so my review turned into a combined review and discussion.
I do want to get a couple of caveats out of the way: I am a white person; my dad is an immigrant from Yugoslavia, but I really don’t have much connection to that part of his identity (nor does he tbh); the author of this book is a Chinese-American woman; a lot of the reviews I reference may be by Chinese-Americans. I am not trying to speak over anyone with lived experience, or trying to negate their experiences, or trying to speak for a community I am not a part of. But I do think it is possible for me to have these types of broader conversations about representation.
Anyway, let’s talk about this book and representation!
The residents of Haven, Wisconsin, have dined on the Fine Chao restaurant’s delicious Americanized Chinese food for thirty-five years, content to ignore any unsavory whispers about the family owners. Whether or not Big Leo Chao is honest, or his wife, Winnie, is happy, their food tastes good and their three sons earned scholarships to respectable colleges. But when the brothers reunite in Haven, the Chao family’s secrets and simmering resentments erupt at last.
Before long, brash, charismatic, and tyrannical patriarch Leo is found dead—presumed murdered—and his sons find they’ve drawn the exacting gaze of the entire town. The ensuing trial brings to light potential motives for all three brothers: Dagou, the restaurant’s reckless head chef; Ming, financially successful but personally tortured; and the youngest, gentle but lost college student James. As the spotlight on the brothers tightens—and the family dog meets an unexpected fate—Dagou, Ming, and James must reckon with the legacy of their father’s outsized appetites and their own future survival.
I really enjoyed this book! It was really engaging; I thought about it when I wasn’t reading it and wanted to read it as soon as I had free time. I’ve been in a terrible reading slump lately, so the fact that this managed to hold my attention is a good sign.
One of the biggest critiques of this book on Goodreads is that the characters read more like caricatures than actual people, but I found the characters interesting and nuanced. Sure, if you’re just taking the book at face value, you would find them caricatures. But there’s a lot more depth to them than it first seems. Ming cares so much for his community and is much more scared than he lets on; James isn’t as perfect as everyone thinks he is and is greedier than he thinks; Dagou ultimately wants to do what’s right for those he loves but is unable to act on those wants. Even a lot of the side characters are more nuanced than they first appear to be. There’s a lot of depth to each character, you just have to read the book.
I also thought the story was really interesting and entertaining. The first half of this book sets up the story, the characters, all the moving parts. The murder and trial don’t happen until about halfway through the book. But the payoff wouldn’t have been as great without the set up, and I found the first half equally interesting. This book explores a lot of interesting themes and topics, largely racism, self-hatred, and the immigrant experience. The family drama is the backdrop for the exploration of these themes, so it was necessary to set up the family and characters before the trial and murder could occur. I also thought the trial part was really interesting and engaging. There’s an open ending, with ambiguity, but also a good resolution. So I thought that was really well done.
I also loved the writing. I read some of Chang’s short stories a few years ago, and loved her writing. She’s just so engaging and manages to capture such complex, nuanced emotions in the simplest way. That definitely comes across in this book too. I don’t think there is a single misplaced word in this book, and if it seems misplaced, it’s probably for a reason.
Two main critiques of this book on Goodreads seem to be “well this isn’t my experience as a Chinese-American” and “there’s a lot of racism and self-hatred in this book”. My response to those would be: (1) everyone has different experiences; there is no one universal Chinese-American experience, and just because yours was different from this one doesn’t mean this one is bad or untrue; and (2) yes, that is the point.
As mentioned, one big theme of this book is the complex feelings about being an immigrant, particularly the self-hatred that can come with it. The characters don’t want to hate themselves, but they’re ultimately products of their racist environment. I don’t think having characters hate themselves is a bad thing; I think it’s very realistic, especially if you grow up in a community that is actively and passively hostile towards you, your family, and your community. At some point, you will likely internalize those feelings. That’s how things like internalized misogyny, racism, fatphobia, transphobia, homophobia exist.
One argument could be that good character growth would be for the characters to realize and move past their self-hatred, for the message of this book to be “you should love yourself”, to which I would respond not necessarily. A lot of people never get over their internalized feelings or self-hatred. Characters do not need to address every single flaw for them to be good, well-developed, interesting characters, or for there to be good character development. Most people never address their flaws. Having these characters remain flawed but change in different ways is also good character development. Not all stories need to be feel-good stories, where the characters become the best versions of themselves. Sometimes, shitty people stay shitty.
I think ultimately, this book and the reviews of this book bring up an interesting conversation that’s been happening on book tumblr and, to a lesser extent, book twitter, that conversation being about the types of books marginalized authors are allowed to write. This tumblr post really sums up my thoughts, and this book is, I think, a great example of what OP was saying:
I really felt like a lot of the reviews of this book were taking the reductive lens mentioned by OP when they said this book had a lot of hatred, or portrayed Chinese-Americans in a bad light. These reviews seem to be saying that the characters couldn’t hate themselves, that there couldn’t be racial stereotypes, that everything has to be outright solved or critiqued in order to be good, that this book was harmful because the characters hated themselves. Isn’t it worse to say that certain characters can only be portrayed in a certain way? To say that Chinese-Americans can’t be portrayed as hateful or crass? That Chinese-American families or immigrant families have to be portrayed in a particular way?
This book is written by a Chinese-American woman who grew up in Wisconsin, who has written extensively about the Chinese-American and Chinese immigrant experience, who, for much of her professional life, was the only Chinese woman in the room. Is she not allowed, in 2022, to write a book about Chinese-Americans who are unlikeable, crass, greedy, hateful people?
Additionally, I do think saying things like “this book has racial stereotypes” is reductive when the racial stereotypes are a big theme of the book. The rumours about the family eating dog are explicitly called out as racist and have a very specific utility in the plot. Many of the characters reflect on their own racial beliefs and stereotypes, and how those affect them and their thinking. The characters talk at length about how they are treated differently because of the town’s racism. They talk about how the trial is going to be affected by the racism, how an all-white jury will view the unlikeable, Chinese man on trial, how the trial will affect the entire Chinese community in the town.
This book is not racist for the sake of being racist or to promote racial stereotypes; it demonstrates how people are personally and materially affected by those stereotypes. It explicitly calls out those stereotypes. It uses them to make a point. Again, should marginalized authors not be able to write about how they and their communities are impacted by (and maybe occasionally embody) racial stereotypes?
One last thing brought up by the reviews that I wanted to address was this. One of the reviews says this:
As a reader, I have to ask myself: why did the author choose to write this? If you were going to write a story about a minority group often misunderstood, and you portray each person in the most simple and dehumanizing way […] and you include some stereotypes that seem to further the misconception of who they are, what can possibly be the goal?
A book is a forum for an author to reach across the table to those they may not interact with otherwise. It’s a chance to further understanding and portray people as both complex and human, in all the ways that are beautiful and ugly.
(I should say that this reviewer is Chinese-American. My comments here are not to disregard what she has to say, but rather to pushback on some of the beliefs that she seems to hold. We can have respectful conversations with constructive criticism)
The reviewer is essentially saying that the purpose of a book, of media in general, is for people to learn more about or to interact with cultures and people they may not normally interact with. I don’t disagree. However, I do pushback on the idea that people need to be likeable, perfect, unproblematic, not stereotypical, in order for them to be accepted as equals. This reviewer takes issue with this book because she seems to believe that portraying Chinese-Americans in a negative way will lead to the public
(white people) to not accept Chinese-Americans.
Why are we more worried with what a Chinese-American author writes about Chinese-Americans than we are about why white people won’t accept Chinese-Americans? People do not need to be perfect to be accepted and treated as equals by society. Having acceptance hinge on likability leads to the type of lowest-common-denominator representation OP mentioned in the tumblr post. It leads to further and continued discrimination, marginalization, and hostility. Acceptance hinging on likability is one of the reasons we don’t have widespread acceptance. Crass, unlikeable, hateful people still deserve acceptance. Ultimately, it is on the white people to overcome their biases. It is not on marginalized people to make themselves palatable.
The characters in this book are interesting and complex. They portray several different sides of Chinese-Americans. They explore the racial stereotypes in their small town and how those stereotypes affect them. They are shown to have full, interesting, complex lives and thoughts. Seeing the characters only as the stereotypes they embody is reductive and dehumanizing. Writing a story with stereotypes is not.
So anyway, there are my long, rambly feelings on both this book and representation as a whole. I would love to hear your thoughts below!