Around twice a year, publishing houses used to hold informal drinks parties where journalists could meet authors and chat about their forthcoming books. That was all pre-covid. Nowadays, we are sent a link to a video where authors have recorded a short blurb about their books. We were watching one of these earlier this year and our ears pricked up when an American came on who spoke extremely eloquently about her debut book. It’s the extraordinary story of her childhood. Qian Julie Wang was born the daughter of two professors in China and when she was seven, they moved to ‘Mei Guo’ (the Beautiful Country) – America – and became undocumented immigrants. It’s an incredibly moving, eye-opening book told from the point of view of seven-year-old Wang about the struggles they endured. We spoke to Wang (who subsequently went to Yale and is now a managing partner of a law firm dedicated to advocating for education and discrimination rights) to ask her more:
The book is very moving and feels extremely personal. Was it hard writing such a memoir?
Absolutely, although as a child I had always thought I would maybe one day write it. I lived and breathed books. That’s how I learnt English but nobody in literature looked like me – an undocumented immigrant. When the 2016 election happened, it jolted me awake. I had become a citizen six months before and felt I had a responsibility to tell my story. It was still difficult as I hadn’t thought about the events for decades so I went into therapy to talk about what had happened. I had to start with the happy memories to crack that door open and then start working on the harder memories. What helped me a lot, was that I didn’t have lots of time. Working on 80 hour a week as a lawyer, I wrote on the subway commute and it felt like I was texting somebody my story rather than writing a book.
You were only 7 when you arrived in the US and you recall the events with amazing clarity. Did you speak to your parents about them – how did you remember so much?
Big events in your childhood tend to be crystallised in lightbulb moments. I also took copious notes in my dairy from an early age, especially after I had read the book Harriet the Spy. Those notes helped to jog my memory – me being jealous of my classmates eating an ice cream every day, for example. I even found a poem about my cat. The diary really transported me back. There were also some conversations with my parents but they not very comfortable talking about it all. And a very few photos which helped me remember things like my favourite clothes.
The young girl in the book is such a strong character – resilient, humorous, scrappy. Do you recognise her in yourself now? Or did you have to take a step back?
The act of writing was transformative and incredibly healing. In each of the scenes, I was able to be back there and also as an adult in the background. Writing really forced me to do to relive my traumas. There were all these emotions that I couldn’t acknowledge as a child because I didn’t have the resources to deal with them. I was afraid they would cascade over me. So letting that child in me feel those feelings for the first time, there was huge sense of closure and healing. In going back I came to appreciate how incredible children are, how special that time is and what innate resilience we all have as kids.
The book is only the first chapter of your life, you cover moving to Canada and getting your legal documents quickly in the last chapter. Are you writing another book about the second half of your life?
My parents would have a heart attack if I wrote another memoir right away! I’m working on a novel right now but after that I hope to return to the point where this book finishes – our life in Canada. The second memoir would have a different tone – it was a different set of struggles.
What would you say to somebody who had read the book and felt moved to do something?
The number one message is there are more undocumented people around us than we think. A girl I went to law school was also undocumented but I never knew. There are millions of us but we need people to understand that we aren’t that different from everyone else. Channel that empathy into your everyday life. The person that you engage at the restaurant and shop – they could be one of those people and they need empathy and kindness. My third grade teacher gave me a copy of Charlotte’s Web because she knew I loved books. It made my whole year. Another way is just to get involved – for example Make The Road New York helps undocumented immigrants get pandemic relief. If people want to get involved, I’d recommend they donate or volunteer.
In the book near the end a Judge says this very powerful line that seemed like the core of the book. ‘Secrets: they have so much power don’t they’. The fear of keeping that secret (of being undocumented) seems to be central to your life as a child. Do you agree?
The act of having to keep something secret formed a cloud over me. It weighed constantly on my psyche. Adults often say that children cannot help but tell the truth. But I had to maintain this secret everyday, almost like a double life. It’s why I wanted to open the book with my first lie on the plane which I told to protect my mother. All of us have secrets but once you’re told to keep something a secret, there is an inherent shame to them. Whether they are or not. It took me decades to unroll the physiological effects it had on me.
Your parents are such a central part to the book, particularly as you are an only child. How did they react to it?
It took me 6 months from when I got the book deal to tell my parents because they are still very much afraid that we could all be deported. It was very stressful and I didn’t know how they would take it. They didn’t take it very well. Now they have resigned themselves to it. The Chinese – we do not like airing our dirty laundry – it was how I was raised and it feels very exposing. I have shown them chapters and fact checked parts (particularly the opening chapters about my father) but I haven’t shown them the whole book cover to cover. They carry such guilt and shame over my childhood because they couldn’t provide for me and I would love it, if it offers them some sort of healing.
Books played a central part in your childhood. Which books inspired you to write your memoir and which have inspired you most recently?
Books are my constant friend. I always loved books but after we moved, they took on the role of an adopted family. I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou and Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt really inspired me to write my book. They are both books seen from the child’s perspective. A more recent book would be Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong which was the first book that I read that tackled face-on the dynamic of being an Asian American woman and the racism you deal with on a daily basis. Before I read it, I never complained because I thought black Americans had it worse but to see somebody older than me writing about the same feelings that shaped her growing up, it really opened my eyes to how valid my feelings were and that there was something very real about the oppression we face.
If you’d like to hear Wang talk more about her book, don’t miss her in conversation tonight Thursday 30th September at 7pm. The live stream is free but you will need to book tickets here.