Beautiful Country: A Memoir
by Qian Julie Wang
(Doubleday, 7 September 2021)
Interview by Anna Roins
In Chinese, the word for America, Mei Guo, translates directly to “beautiful country.” Yet when seven-year-old Qian arrives in New York City in 1994 full of curiosity, she is overwhelmed by crushing fear and scarcity. In China, Qian’s parents were professors; in America, her family is “illegal” and it will require all the determination and small joys they can muster to survive.
In Chinatown, Qian’s parents labor in sweatshops. Instead of laughing at her jokes, they fight constantly, taking out the stress of their new life on one another. Shunned by her classmates and teachers for her limited English, Qian takes refuge in the library and masters the language through books, coming to think of The Berenstain Bears as her first American friends. And where there is delight to be found, Qian relishes it: her first bite of gloriously greasy pizza, weekly “shopping days,” when Qian finds small treasures in the trash lining Brooklyn’s streets, and a magical Christmas visit to Rockefeller Center—confirmation that the New York City she saw in movies does exist after all.
But then Qian’s headstrong Ma Ma collapses, revealing an illness that she has kept secret for months for fear of the cost and scrutiny of a doctor’s visit. As Ba Ba retreats further inward, Qian has little to hold onto beyond his constant refrain: Whatever happens, say that you were born here, that you’ve always lived here.
Inhabiting her childhood perspective with exquisite lyric clarity and unforgettable charm and strength, Qian Julie Wang has penned an essential American story about a family fracturing under the weight of invisibility, and a girl coming of age in the shadows, who never stops seeking the light.
A NEW YORK TIMES BEST SELLER • A NEW YORK TIMES NOTABLE BOOK OF THE YEAR • AN NPR BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR • A TODAY SHOW #READWITHJENNA BOOK CLUB PICK • The moving story of an undocumented child living in poverty in the richest country in the world—an incandescent debut from an astonishing new talent
‘..there are strong, universal strands of the human experience that connect all of us.’
AUTHORLINK: Hello Qian Julie! Thank you so much for joining us today at Authorlink . We loved what you said here to Penguin Random House…
‘It wasn’t until the discourse of the 2016 election, which took place just six months after I became a naturalized US citizen, that I discovered that I had a newfound power and thus responsibility to share my story, that at that juncture of my life, I was making an actual decision to stay quiet—a privilege that millions of undocumented immigrants did not have. It was then that I realized that what I had long thought of as singularly mine was no longer my secret to keep.’
‘My deepest hope is that it awakens in readers a recognition that beyond superficial labels—undocumented or American-born, Asian American or not, rich or poor—there are strong, universal strands of the human experience that connect all of us.’
We found this truly moving. Are you able to add to this?
“…what I endeavored to do with my book was to speak heart-to-heart…”
WANG: So often, issues of immigration, race, and wealth disparity are cast in political terms, with loaded labels thrown across the spectrum. What this elides is that while people might be easy to judge and hate from afar, they are also easy to love up close. When we editorialize and rationalize, we distance ourselves from humanity and its universal threads. So, what I endeavored to do with my book was to speak heart-to-heart, and the childhood lens allowed me the perfect avenue to do so. My vision for my book was that it might allow readers to feel as if they were getting aboard a train, which would carry them through the terrain of my childhood—through that journey, they would be able to see new sights, yes, but also revisit some of their own experiences and familiar landscape. Through this, I hope, people might start to see that underneath the labels and political divides, none of us are all that different from each other, and that at bottom, we all want much of the same things: safety, community, and meaning.
AUTHORLINK: This is very true. You also said once, ‘Qian represents the self and the precocious, mischievous child who went from knowing only love and acceptance to living in daily shame and hunger. And Julie represents the pre-teen, teen, and woman who was determined to survive no matter the cost, even if it meant hiding or obliterating her origin story and her authentic self. Both of these names are integral parts of me, and I can no more choose between them than I can between my left and right legs.’
Tell us how you were given/chosen the name Julie…
WANG: I discovered the name of Julie early in my time in the United States, when I came upon PBS Kids’s Puzzle Place, a show that featured a friend group of puppets of different races and cultural heritage. The Chinese American puppet was named Julie Woo, and while she was able to embrace who she was, she also fit in and was accepted by her friends. I longed to have that for myself, so in many ways the name “Julie” represented to me the first step to finding true belonging and community. When I became documented, I took “Julie” on immediately, as much to chase after that sense of belong as to bury “Qian,” which represented everything that was unacceptable and “illegal” about me. In the time since, I’ve come to see that I cannot live with integrity so long as I reject such a central part of who I am and my past, and that acceptance needs to come first and foremost from within. Hence my decision to go forward in life as “Qian Julie,” embracing all parts of my identity.
AUTHORLINK: This is truly moving. My best-selling author friend recently published on Instagram the following statement,
‘I’ve had to pause on reading a couple of books lately due to the casual use of an offensive word for East Asian people in them.
I can’t believe authors, editors and publishers deliberately allowed this because they’re fond of the occasional casual racial slur. I know you aren’t so it’s probably just a case of not knowing that this word – which I’ve had to include so there can be no confusion as to which word it is – isn’t ok to use.
Don’t give it as a name for any of your characters. Even if you’re talking about a beam of light or some clinking sounds, please use another way to say it. The extract from the BBC News site is from 2015; I won’t name either book, but they were both published this year. That sinking feeling East Asian folk feel when they hear that word remains unchanged whatever you mean when you say it.
So please don’t.’
You once said, ‘Chink was among the first English words I learned, and I’ve never been in a public space in the United States without some fear for my bodily safety. Throughout the pandemic, my parents were hesitant to go outside at all. When they had to, they wore hats, sunglasses, and double masks to avoid being recognized as Asian.’ (Kirkus, 2 September 2021).
Are you able to comment further on both Julie Ma’s post above, as well as yours?
WANG: I agree with Julie Ma’s urge for caution because feelings toward the word vary from person to person, and in my own personal experience, they vary even from time to time. I used to be deeply affected by the word. But at some point, over the course of the pandemic and in publishing my book—which has opened me to regular hate mail using the racial slur—the word lost its power over me. In the same way that it took a surge in anti-Asian sentiment for the AAPI community to find the strength of its voice, it wasn’t until I received regular hate mail that I realized the use of the slur says far more about the people who choose to use it. Now, when I heard the word deployed, I just feel sad for the speaker and their limited worldview. In many ways, publishing my book has allowed me to reclaim that word, and thus the power it once had over me. This is, of course, a privilege: if I still felt as in danger and powerless as I did as a child, this dynamic shift would not be possible. Everyone’s journey to that sense of safety, agency, and power is different, and it is the least we can do, in the face of all the systemic barriers still very much in place, to be aware of the power that our words can wield.
AUTHORLINK: Yes, the use of the slur does say far more about the people that choose to use it, you’re right. Your parents were academic professionals in China – your dad an English Literature professor; your mum was a mathematics professor in China and on the forefront of developing computer science. Yet, in the U.S., your mother’s first job was at a stinking sweatshop in Chinatown.
You say, ‘And my mother sat down in the back row, which was the least-paying row, and she started attaching labels to the back of shirts and dresses for three cents per article of clothing. And that was how our days in America started. And over the years, she made her way through some worse and some slightly better jobs, including processing salmon at a sushi plant, where she stood in ice water for 12 hours at a time.’ (NPR, 18 September 2021)
On behalf of all children of migrant parents from around the world, thank you for bringing home what it means to have valor and integrity in the fall of pride for the better of your family.
We felt for your mother reading this truly poignant account. Can you add anything to the above?
WANG: I am deeply troubled by how our national discourse—even when it favors DACA and Dreamers—villainizes the parents of undocumented immigrant children. Somehow, children allowed to be seen as human when their parents do not receive that empathy. For those tempted to think that in vain, I ask them to consider which is more heroic: to keep your head down and take the easy route, when you are fully aware that you are commiting your children to a life of systemic oppression, or to give up all the comforts you know in hopes of opening the doors to new, untethered freedoms for your children and their future.
AUTHORLINK: Yes. As an undocumented family, you three were always fearful about being found out. One night you found your mother rolling in bed in pain and were forced to call 911. Holding your breath, you waited to see if she would get medical attention overshadowed with the intense worry that as a result, you might be deported. Has this pervasive fear ever left you despite being a New York Times best-selling author and a successful partner in a civil rights law firm?
“As is the case for all people, my childhood wounds will always dwell within me. “
WANG: As is the case for all people, my childhood wounds will always dwell within me. As recently as earlier this year, when I went to get my COVID shot, I was stopped at the front door and asked for my ID. Of course, I knew that this would happen, and I was prepared with my ID in hand. Even so, in that second, I had to actively curb the impulse to turn and run for fear of being caught and deported. I have been exceptionally lucky in that I am now documented, and what’s more, I have access to mental health resources that allow me to process how these early-life experiences still affect me to this date. As such, I have been given the luxury of healing that is to this day denied to so many. But with that luxury has come the realization that though old wounds will always be with me, they are now in the form of scars—tissue that has healed and, in that healing process, gotten stronger, more resilient, more beautiful.
AUTHORLINK: Yes, well said. This also resonated with us…Apparently, your father no longer felt he had status as a man in the US, by virtue of being Asian…You (and he) felt he was seen as being weak. Do you feel this perspective has changed since Covid and the influx of more progressive, for instance, Netflix originals? It’s as if a trend has galvanized suddenly and far too late.
WANG: The growth of Asian American pride is heartening. The young generations of immigrants, Asian Americans, undocumented Americans, and Americans of color never cease to give me faith for the future. That said, new changes in the right direction do not necessarily erase previous wrongs and old hurts. Once someone has felt the acute pain of being dehumanized, that experience stays with them. It does not disappear overnight, nor do the barriers that are built into the foundation of our society. To achieve real, lasting progress, we must remember that.
AUTHORLINK: It’s an ongoing journey. You became a naturalized citizen in 2016. The moment President Barack Obama opened his video message with, “Greetings, fellow Americans,” everything changed for you. Can you describe for us what that felt like and how it changed the trajectory of your life?
WANG: I crossed a threshold in my life in that moment. I was able to, for the first time, realize how long I had needed to be recognized as American, and what a profound privilege it was to finally receive that safety. As I left the room, I told myself to never take that privilege for granted, because there were so many millions of documented and undocumented Americans who did not know when, if ever, they might receive it. The awareness of that privilege has never left me since that day. I knew from that point on that it was my duty to live up to my privilege—by sharing my stories so that I might erode some of the stigma affixed to my communities, to show the beating heart, strength, and joy behind the dehumanizing talking points.
AUTHORLINK: Once you finished your first complete draft of the book in 2019, you were so worried about your parents reading it. Yet, how did they react? Did it help them find some healing and closure and permission to forgive themselves?
“Now, for the first time, the three of us feel free to build a new future …
WANG: My parents said that they were not sure if they could bring themselves to read the book but could not keep themselves from doing so. With every page, they said, they felt liberated and healed by the book. Now, for the first time, the three of us feel free to build a new future untethered from the past we never allowed ourselves to acknowledge.
AUTHORLINK: That is wonderful indeed. Tell us about the writing process…How many drafts did you write? How many letters reaching out to agents? How many rejections? Once you had an agent, how many efforts to reach out to a publishing house? Once you landed a publishing deal, how many times was your manuscript edited?
“It’s been truly a dream experience, and I am so thankful to the most wonderful team in publishing …”
WANG: I’ve been extremely lucky; my publishing experience has been a true unicorn. I wrote one rough draft on my iPhone during my daily subway commute to work at my national law firm. Once I was done with the first full draft at the end of December 2019, I took a week off work to edit the manuscript in January 2020, and then immediately started sending it out to agents (I felt a great sense of urgency during the Trump Administration, and I was also concerned that if I didn’t do it right away, I would lose the nerve to go forward with publishing it at all). I had next to no publishing contacts, so I googled “literary agent” and “publishing agent” and sent my manuscript to everyone I could find. I did not keep count, but I papered the industry, and must have sent out at least 60 queries. I got interest from five agents fairly quickly, and didn’t hear most of the rest (in one case, one of the agents reached out with interest in July 2020, an entire month after my deal with Doubleday had already been announced). I typically don’t pay any attention to rejections—I’m sure I got a few, but as I recall, the majority of agents simply did not get back to me, either because they were not interested or because they never got around to reading my materials.
In any event, the agent who got back to me first was the one I happened to click the most with—I took time to interview the others as well, of course, but by February 2020 I had committed to my agent, and we work on two rounds of minor edits for the book. This took longer than it otherwise would have because I was flying around the country running major litigation. When the pandemic shut everything down in March 2020 was when I was finally able to find the free time to polish the manuscript for submission. Things moved quickly upon submission: my agent submitted to 20-some editors, and within a few short days, Doubleday came in with a preempt offer. I knew it was right when I spoke to my editor, Margo Shickmanter and the head of Doubleday, Bill Thomas—they really understood what my vision and what I was trying to do with the book, from both a practical and justice perspective as well as a literary and artistic one. The UK deal with Viking came in just as quickly—a preempt offer within a day of submission. And it continued to be smooth sailing from there—I could hardly believe it!—my US and UK editors and I did one round of substantive, microlevel edits, followed by another round of wordsmithing, before we finalized the book for proofreading and publication. It’s been truly a dream experience, and I am so thankful to the most wonderful team in publishing for bringing BEAUTIFUL COUNTRY to life.
AUTHORLINK: Thank you for outlining your publishing journey. How heartwarming for you. For you to be able to write your memoir, you required a lot of intensive therapy, unearthing traumas’, and memories that you had ‘shoved into the basement’ of your mind and of my heart. Was it worth it?
WANG: Absolutely. For me and my family, it has been the liberation we didn’t know we needed. But even aside from that, it is well worth it to know that my book might play the role that so many books played for me in childhood. It is humbling to think that my book might give hope and companionship to that immigrant wandering in the library believing that they are utterly alone, invisible and illegal.
AUTHORLINK: We’re sure you’ve helped many people by telling your story. What are you working right now? Can you tell us a bit about it?
WANG: I am working on a novel about women of color navigating the world of an elite law firm in New York City, drawing on my adult experiences. It’s an American Dream tale in reverse that evolved from one question: what happens when you have achieved every material trapping of success?
AUTHORLINK: Looking forward to reading it! Ms Wang, we can’t tell you how much we appreciate you joining us here today at Authorlink. Congratulations on the wild success of Beautiful Country and looking forward to reading more of your work in the future!
WANG: Thank you so much for your time and thought. As a lifelong reader, I know how much it means when a person chooses to spend time with my book: it is the honor of a lifetime, so thank you!
About the Author: Qian Julie Wang (pronounced “Chien Joolee Wong”) was born in Shijiazhuang, China. At age 7, she moved to Brooklyn, New York, with her parents. For five years thereafter, the three lived in the shadows of undocumented life in New York City. Qian Julie’s first book is a poignant literary memoir that follows the family through those years, as they held onto hope and joy while confronting poverty, manual labor, and the perpetual threat of deportation.
A graduate of Yale Law School and Swarthmore College—where she juggled classes and extracurriculars with four part-time jobs—Qian Julie is now a litigator. She wrote Beautiful Country on her iPhone, during her subway commute to and from work at a national law firm, where she was elected to partnership within two years of joining the firm. She is now managing partner of Gottlieb & Wang LLP, a firm dedicated to advocating for education and civil rights. Qian Julie believes that the first step to eradicating systemic barriers is affording underprivileged communities the quality of legal representation typically reserved for wealthy corporate interests.
Qian Julie’s writing has appeared in major publications such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, Elle, Harper’s Bazaar, and The Cut. She regularly speaks on issues such as immigration, education, discrimination, and the power of literacy at conferences, universities, corporations, community centers, and houses of worship.
Qian Julie lives in Brooklyn with her husband and their two rescues dogs, Salty and Peppers.