Sophomore Novel Explores the Fortune and Mystery of Being Human

Posted by Cybil on April 1, 2024
During the Cultural Revolution in China in 1966, May Ling steals and swallows a centuries-old magical lotus seed, makes a wish, and starts the story of Real Americans

Rachel Khong’s sophomore novel spans generations and genres and asks not only what it means to be a real American, but also questions the relationship between luck and choice, freedom and destiny, science and magic. 

Told in three parts, the book shows how fortune falters and family fragments through the perspectives of May’s progeny. 

May’s daughter, Lily, meets the love of her life on the eve of Y2K in New York City. Years later in the post-pandemic Pacific Northwest, May’s grandson Nick struggles with unanswered questions about his absent father. And in a futuristic San Francisco, mad scientist May lives with the fallout from her genetic experiments. 

Real Americans is part family epic, part sci-fi fantasy, and a look at chasing the American dream. 

Khong spoke to Goodreads contributor April Umminger about gene modification, unintended consequences, and how a Pizza Hut reading program helped her become a writer. Their conversation has been edited.

Goodreads: I was wondering about your background—I read that you, yourself, are an immigrant and were born in Malaysia. Does that inform your writing, and particularly some of the issues of identity and fortune that come up in Real Americans?

Rachel Khong: I was born in Malaysia, and my family came to the U.S. when I was two years old. I think of myself as an American, primarily, but I am also from Malaysia, and I'm also Chinese. 

With this book—I didn't write about Malaysia—I was interested in writing about these two places—America and China—that loom really large in people's imagination. 

I'm accustomed to imagining other ways that my life might have turned out and imagining, “Oh, if I had stayed over there in Malaysia, what would my life have been like?” I think everyone feels a version of this especially as we get older. We think, “What if I had taken this job but not that one? What if I had married this person and not that one?” 

Your life gets put in certain grooves or goes in certain directions based on things that happen to you and decisions that you make. That informs the book a lot with this feeling of limitation. Even the fact that we only get to live our one life and as we move forward doors close behind us. 

It feels often to me that there are these moments of pure chance—like if I hadn't met this person randomly at an internship, I would not have met my husband. There's so many of these moments that feel so random, and they feel so improbable, and they are lucky because they create the rest of our lives. 

Everyone in the book, there are things that, on paper, make them lucky. Some characters are born into wealth, but then they're also predisposed to depression or something like that. It's always a grab bag what you inherit.

This book is very much about that mix of what we've been given and what we have control over. 

GR: How did you start writing? I would assume that you wrote before it became your career. What got you started?

RK: I started writing, probably, when I was six years old. I've been writing for a long time. I just loved making up stories as a kid. My parents aren't big readers, but they would always take me to the library, so that was where I came to love stories. 

There used to be this thing called “Book It.” I don't know if you remember, where you would write out these lists of books and then take it to Pizza Hut, and you could get a Personal Pan Pizza if you had read a certain number of books. So I was a voracious reader of books and consumer of Personal Pan Pizza.

That really contributed to my wanting to become a writer. I was just reading so much, but I have been writing for as long as I can remember.

GR: I'm sure Pizza Hut would be very pleased! And then, how did you get the idea for this book?

RK: That's such a hard question to answer. I start writing books not knowing what the idea really is or where I'm going with them. 

Part One was the first part that I wrote. At the time I was starting to write, it was December 2016. The election had just happened. I wanted to write something that was a distraction from what was going on in the world, a distraction from the news. 

I wanted to write something that felt like a romance, that felt escapist. But at the same time, of course, I was thinking about all the themes that were swirling around in the air. I was thinking about power and about identity and about how our lives get shaped by what we're born to, and also, what we make of our lives. 

The story kept snowballing from there, and I realized it wasn't just this escapist story. A lot of my writing is always about parents and children, and just the ways in which we often misunderstand one another because we have these different contexts and different upbringings. 

Each character came to me really distinctly. I could hear their voices, and that's where the story began for me. It's always more with character than it is with plot or knowing the “aboutness” of the book.

GR: You said you started this book in 2016. How long did it take you to write? What was your process?

RK: It's a little bit hard to say because there's so many times you think that you're finished, and then you're not finished. But it took about six years. And it wasn't like I put it away for a year and then came back to it. I worked on this book almost every day.

GR: How did it change? Were there any sorts of big radical shifts between what you thought you were doing in the beginning to how it turned out in the end?

RK: It's such a huge answer, but just everything in the middle. It took so long to figure out what the heart of the book was. 

Here's an example: I was writing these time “blips” for each of the characters—each of the characters experience this weird thing in time where time feels like it's getting stuck. I knew that was happening way before I knew why. So it took many years to just experiment with reasons why that might be happening to them.

I didn't know if it was a scientific explanation or if it was a magical explanation. It's things like that, where the characters demanded that they go in a specific direction, and as the writer, I had to catch up with them. I had to figure out through a lot of long walks and thinking and daydreaming what they were actually up to and what was actually happening to them.

GR: That was one of my favorite aspects—this mythology of moments frozen in time, seemingly from a wish made by May as a college student. That was an interesting juxtaposition between what you’re doing in some parts with hard science, in other parts with magic, and then there is this whole historic overlay. 

RK: Probably five years into writing the book, I realized that there had to be magical components to the story. I think up until then I was really trying to force the science of it all and trying to force these explanations that would be perfectly corroborated by science. 

I definitely resisted it at first—it felt like it would just mess up the whole book—but now it feels crucial to me. 

This book is very much about narratives that we have—as a country, as individuals. And one of these narratives is that we can understand everything with science. 

But there's still so much that we don't know about being human, there's a fundamental mystery to what we're all doing here and what life is about. Introducing the magical components was a way to include that, too—to not just buy fully into this idea that we can understand everything through science, because there's so much even within science that we sort of accept as fundamentally mysterious. 

It made sense to me to have the magic appear in the book and insist on the mystery, insist on the fact that we don't fully know what's going on.

GR: How did you come up with your characters? Do you base them on people you know?

RK: These characters, they're completely imaginary, but they're also very emotionally true to myself.

It’s mysterious to me where they come from—when Lily came to me, I knew that she was living in 1999. I knew she was at the age she was. Nick is a younger boy, which I don't have a lot of experience with, but his experience in college is something that I took from my own life. He is questioning his place in the world and trying to figure out what kind of a person to be. I think that's the question that I constantly have. 

GR: Back to fortune: In this story, there are definite aspects focusing on the word itself. It was interesting how you pick apart the double meaning of “fortune” as luck but also wealth. 

RK: It was one of those things that I kept meditating on: “What does it mean to be fortunate?” 

You mentioned those two meanings. In our culture, those two meanings are intertwined, right? Someone can have a fortune; they can be rich. It also means luck, or it means that good things have happened to you. 

In a way, it's amazing that you or I exist, right? That is this really minuscule probability. The two of us talking to each other? In a way, that's fortune, that's our fortune to be talking to each other.

I would love to disentangle the idea of being lucky with this belief that wealth is the most important indicator of success or luck, and to have each of the characters reflect on that and in their own lives.

GR: OK, so after ideas of fortune, let’s talk about intent and outcome. The parents in Real Americans and their relationships with their kids—their intent is so pure, wanting the best for them. But in almost all cases, it just causes resentment and separations. Looking at the power and the problems of intention, how does that figure in these family dynamics? 

RK: This goes back to something I said earlier about the ways in which parents and children misunderstand each other because we don't fully have one another's context, we don't fully understand what it was like to live another person's life. 

With this question of good intentions and the road to hell being paved with good intentions, I was very much thinking about both gene editing technology today and this evergreen question of how much should parents decide for their children? 

We're living in an exciting time for science and gene editing. Parents are making these huge decisions about their children or for their children because we can do things through procedures like IVF, choosing the healthiest embryo, things like that. 

It does slightly concern me, and that's something that I wanted to bring up and explore is how much should we be deciding for other people when we don't fully understand their lives? How much should we be giving other people our priorities? 

GR: So much of this story does hinge on understanding genetics and modifying outcomes. How did you do the research? Do you have a scientific background? 

RK: I don't have a scientific background. That gave me a lot of anxiety as I wrote this book because I wanted to get things right, or as close to right as possible, so that any scientist reading this book would not be totally upset with me and not fling it across the room. 

I did a lot of reading about it, and I just cold-emailed a bunch of people—I emailed professors, I emailed scientists. A man named Derek Jantz, who I saw on the website of this biotechnology company, responded to me. He had worked in gene editing for a long time and helped me understand what I had read about, which was really kind of him. 

The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee is incredible. It has the whole history of genetics going way back and is really readable and fascinating for the questions that it brings up. 

But the reason that I wanted to write about science was secondary to wanting to write about this family and the ways in which people within families, parents, are often choosing for their children or trying to make good decisions for their children. 

I see that in my own life with my friends now who are becoming parents. I have no idea. And I think most people don't have any idea. And yet we're having to make these decisions. 

[We’re] trying to decide how much screen time, for example, a child should have. It's this new world that we live in, and we have no idea the right amount of YouTube that a kid should watch. 

I was observing that, and I was thinking about IVF—as a society, this is something that we're actually doing right now—we're deciding what kind of humans are going to exist into the future. But where might that go wrong?

GR: After I read the book, I was thinking about the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward and Mao. Some of the things that he did during his time in power, killing the sparrows, and the downstream effects of his actions that ultimately had really negative outcomes throughout China. That type of manipulation seemed to mirror the other types of manipulation that these characters are doing. Was that intended to be an extended metaphor? 

RK: I love that you picked up on that because that's exactly what I was thinking about. I was thinking about the fact that Mao was this person in power; he had a lot of power over the lives of ordinary individuals. But he really shaped the lives of these people, he really shaped these landscapes, based on a very limited understanding—he was missing a lot of information. 

That's something that's true of each of these characters in the book. They're doing the best that they can, often they're harming other people in the process, but unintentionally because they just don't have the full story. 

That's related to what I was saying earlier about needing the magic to exist in the story. The magic of saying, "We don't really know everything." It's easy to believe that we do now because we live in such a quantified world—it's so data driven, it's so technological, we feel so advanced in all of these ways. 

I think this book is a little bit of a case for humility, a case for remembering that we are limited, and we don't know everything about one another. We don't know everything about the world. 

I think that's what fiction is about, too, is about trying to understand other people's perspectives and understand where they might be coming from.

GR: The title of your book—was it always going to be called Real Americans

RK: No, I didn't have that from the beginning. At the beginning, I called it New Thing: 2016. Then I just had to stare at the title as the years passed, and that it was no longer “new” and it was no longer “2016.” 

I called it Real Americans quite a few years into it. The question of what is real America and who is a real American is orbiting this book, and so [that title] felt really perfect and expansive. 

GR: I always look at the book covers, because I think that they can tell the story of the book in such layered and nuanced ways. Did you hope that this one would convey anything specific?

RK: I sent ideas and inspiration, but it was really the cover designer, Linda Huang, who pulled all these different images. One of them is from, I think, an illustration of San Francisco's Chinatown, one is just this beautiful painting of a lotus flower. 

It captures so perfectly what the book is about, and each of these pictures feels like a window into that specific part of the story. There's an actual DNA helix—the cover contains a helix, but it's not immediate. It just feels so layered and beautiful. 

GR: I did not pick up on the helix. Now that you've said it, I definitely see it. 

RK: I love that. It doesn't feel like you're being banged on the head with this DNA idea. [Laughs.] If you notice it, then that's exciting. I love a cover where you feel like you understand it better after you've read the book. 

GR: Do you have a favorite genre of book?

RK: The kind of book that I love to read is the kind of book that asks questions about what it means to be a human being. I love books that are uncategorizable. 

One book that comes to mind is A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki, which is a book that I read in the middle of writing this one that helped me understand my own project and helped me understand that I could mix up all these genres and it could be OK. 

GR: And then, what books are you reading now? 

RK: I'm reading a book of short stories called Elsewhere, by a writer named Yan Ge. Speaking of mixed-up genres, she's a Chinese writer, and these are short stories that are really diverse—some of them are set in the present day, some of them are set thousands of years ago, some of them have a little bit of a fantastical component to them. 

And I'm reading a book by a friend of mine named Susanna Kwan, who has a book coming out next year. It's called Awake in the Floating City, and it's about San Francisco in the nearish future that is completely ruined by rain; it's been raining for years. And it's about an artist who is a caretaker for this super senior who is well over 100 years old. It's about remembering lives. It's also about remembering a city. It's about climate change. It is about so many things. I know it's pretty far into the future that it is coming out, but it will be here before we know it. 

GR: I totally agree. Then, one last question: Are there any takeaways that you hope folks reading Real Americans will think about? 

RK: I don't like to say that there's a moral or anything like that—for me, both of my books (Real Americans and Goodbye Vitamin) are more about asking questions.

For both books, they're me telling myself to be present and to just pay attention. That would be the hope for readers as well, to just be present. Pay attention and remember the ways in which you are lucky.

Rachel Khong's Real Americans will be available in the U.S. on April 30. Don't forget to add it to your Want to Read shelf. Be sure to also read more of our exclusive author interviews and get more great book recommendations.

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message 1: by Law (new)

Law A historical/literary fiction starring Chinese Americans in the early 2000s and 2020s. Okay... I guess I have to look elsewhere to find British Asian or Asian Australian books then.

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