Kevin Kwan: ‘I don’t want ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ to be my enduring legacy'
In an exclusive interview, writer Kevin Kwan speaks about his new novel ‘Sex And Vanity’, the BLM movement, and being mistaken for a delivery boy
He shot to fame with the best-selling Crazy Rich Asians trilogy, which was translated into 40 languages and adapted into a blockbuster film. Kevin Kwan hasn’t looked back since. Featured in TheHollywood Reporter’s “most powerful authors" list and Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in 2018, he is back with a new novel, Sex And Vanity, which, he says, is the first in a trilogy.
Inspired by E.M. Forster’s A Room With A View, the novel tells the story of the internalized racism of Lucie Tang Churchill, a half-American, half-Chinese girl born into a wealthy, snobbish family from New York. Conflicted between her WASP identity and her two antipodal loves, she stumbles and falters till she comes to term with her identity. Kwan speaks to writer Shunali Khullar Shroff about the book and his life during the pandemic. Edited excerpts:
'Sex And Vanity' is already on the New York Times best-seller list and its adaptation rights have been picked up by a big studio. Did you worry that whatever you wrote next would be compared with ‘Crazy Rich Asians’?
For me, writing started as a hobby and for it to have become what it has, I am so grateful. In some ways, though, it’s terrifying because I don’t want Crazy Rich Asians to be my enduring legacy, because I feel I am so much more than just one book. I had a whole other life before this book that I was very proud of (Kwan owned a successful design studio in Manhattan). (Sex And Vanity) is more personal. It is straight from the heart and more me.
You cock a snook at the snobbery of the patrician classes and at the same time satirize the desperate pretensions of the new rich. Does this offend people you know since you come from a family of generational wealth too?
I have done my satire of the East Coast WASP elitism with so much love because I feel like I was welcomed into that world. Some of my dearest friends are part of this world. I am just looking at the quirks of a community, like I did with Crazy Rich Asians. In Sex And Vanity, I am looking at old money in New York and at new money in New York. It isn’t meant to offend anybody because I don’t tear people down and I haven’t done a hatchet job of it. I am also not the first one to write satire about this class. There have been so many before me, writers like Dominick Dunne, Tom Wolfe and Edith Wharton, who was the original WASP satirizing WASPs.
Does satire or comedy get taken seriously in the world of literary fiction?
Satire and comedy, I think, are always given short shrift in the literary world. But I don’t write my books just to watch them be nominated for awards. I write out of pure joy for myself, and for my readers. That’s the bottom line. Besides, beyond all the satire, Sex And Vanity is about a girl from a privileged class and a subtle investigation of how she evolves, perceives the world, and struggles from being biracial.
I am getting responses from people who are biracial saying that this is the first book they have ever read that addresses their issues. At the same time, I wanted this book to be a fun summer read and, of course, when I was writing it, I did not expect our summer to be like this one. But people are telling me that reading this book has made them forget their anxiety and I love that. The whole point of all my books is to bring joy to people, and I tried to find that same solace and escape for myself.
I have been watching Made in Heaven and I'm loving it, that is my escape. It is the whole different side of India. The India I have seen with all the complexity and sophistication and its heart and its extraordinary warmth that I have personally experienced.
Lucy Honeychurch from ‘A Room With A View’ existed in Edwardian England. But do naïve, over-sheltered girls like Lucie Tang Churchill exist in Manhattan today?
They absolutely do. People have asked why Lucie is old-fashioned or repressed but the truth is that in the rarefied world of Upper East Side, girls are being raised with the rigidity of always having to present a perfect façade, be at their best behaviour and observe perfect decorum. I know so many Lucies (from WASP families) who are being raised to be perfect Infantas in that world. They go to the best private schools and, in a sense, they are thoroughbreds. They are being bred for perfection so that they can marry the right hedge-fund millionaire and unite their fortunes, just like it happens in India with certain families.
To retell a masterpiece from a different era is a daunting task. Did you have any apprehensions while writing the book?
Initially, I did have a lot of trepidation because I know it’s such a beloved book. It is one of my favourite books as well and it is such a perfect book that there was a ‘how dare I even go there’ feeling about it in me. I wrestled with it for some time and then told myself that this was my new challenge: I really wanted to do it because I do love the book so much. So, I was coming from a place of respect for this great source material I was trying to play games and have a dialogue with.
There is an incident in an elevator where a lady mistakes Lucie for a home delivery girl and asks if she gets good tips. Does that sort of obvious racial stereotyping still exist towards the Asian community in New York?
That exact incident has happened to me. So much of my personal experiences in New York are in this book. That’s why I call it my love letter to New York because I have loved my life in New York—for the most part, it has been amazing. But once in a while, you have these strange encounters. I had no idea what the lady in the elevator was talking about. Only after she became embarrassed and began apologizing did I understand what had happened.
Did it not offend you?
I did not take it personally. I just saw the absurdity of it but for other people, it cuts deeper, right? For me, it was too funny because usually, people think that I am the snob and I go out of my way to be normal, and then to be perceived as the deliveryman, is fantastic.
Your acerbic humour comes through in this book in full force. It even seeps down to your hilarious footnotes. Are you this funny in real life?
My humour only comes out when I’m writing. I’m very moderate, reserved, and shy in person. And I think writing gives me a chance to vicariously be someone else. The thing I hate most is pretentious people and I feel there is no reason for pretence to exist. The greatest people and the most accomplished people in the world are the most modest people and so when I meet these pretentious idiots it is so fascinating to analyse them and look at them. People like Mordecai and Cecil in the book are people I have seen and known in real life. And so writing about pretentious people in my books is my way of poking fun at them.
Your writing is cinematic and your eye for detail, when it comes to art, design, fashion and architecture, is extraordinary. Did you go to all the locations to be able to describe them with such flair in your books?
I was a design consultant for many years and my love for all these things comes from my passion for design. I also have a photographic memory. I see something once and I can remember every little detail forever. I go to Capri every summer so I know the place intimately, it was easy to write about it. I see it as a blessing and also a curse because there are some things you wish you had never seen. Like that George Floyd video. I can never un-see that again.
How has the Asian community in the US responded to the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement?
I feel like this struggle is my struggle. I want to help the movement as much as I can. But I think for a lot of Asian Americans, it’s also an education process because we have been this model minority—we haven’t had it as bad anywhere close to what black people have experienced in this country. So, we are all learning and trying to see how we can be helpful. My mother is 80 and she has learnt a lot from BLM about her biases and how she can change her behaviour. At the same time, there’s also been a backlash towards Chinese people in the US. I cannot tell you how many friends and relatives have been yelled at, spat at and shouted at in public.
What have you been doing with yourself during the pandemic?
Life has not been that different for me during the pandemic because I started writing this book in October 2019. And I wrote like a dervish, it was crazy. I just locked myself away, didn’t talk to anyone, didn’t see anyone. So I was in self-isolation anyway. I felt I could finally exhale when I handed it over on 15 February and was trying to go to Japan to meet up with some friends. But two weeks later, the lockdown was announced. So I went right back to my isolated life and writing desk. I have been working non-stop on a TV show I am developing. I think when we come out of the pandemic, I am going to be a very different person. So many things that were important to me are not so any longer.
What sort of things?
Like collecting art. I used to be really interested in it but now I feel art should be in a museum, it doesn’t have to be on my wall. I am thinking of ways of helping others, especially young and emerging artists. I want to nurture the next generation of talent by setting up a scholarship programme for underrepresented voices and for people who haven’t had the opportunity for the best education—in India, China or Singapore. I have been so blessed, I have to pay it forward.
How do you think crazy rich Asians have been spending their money during the pandemic?
If you look at what is happening in the global luxury market, auction prices are at an all-time high. Galleries are having virtual shows and selling out. The stock market is up 60% this week at the height of unemployment in the US. So, on paper, gazillionaires are still making money and spending with a vengeance. I don’t want to be preachy but so much could be done with this money because hunger is a very real problem in our world right now.
Shunali Khullar Shroff is a writer based in Mumbai. Her latest book is Love In The Time Of Affluenza.
FIRST PUBLISHED17.07.2020 | 10:00 AM IST