Cover Kelly Yang and her dog Cody in her Calabasas house (Photo: Jessica Sample for Tatler Asia)

Drawing from her own rich and often difficult life experiences, Kelly Yang explores a new avenue of Asian American young adult literature that questions the American dream

There are many facets of Kelly Yang's life that would seem ripe for adaptation into a book. The author's journey from childhood poverty to Harvard graduate to celebrated writer may seem like a Cinderella-style arc, but like every fairytale, her story contains darkness. Characters, events and places in Yang’s colourful young adult novels serve as a breadcrumb trail that hints at her true life experiences with every chapter.

In 2018, Yang burst onto the literary scene with the semi-autobiographical Front Desk, which details a Chinese immigrant girl’s struggle in California. As well as rave reviews, since its publication the book has won nearly 50awards, including the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature in 2019, and was one of The Washington Post’s best books of the year. Room to Dream, the much-anticipated sequel, will be released next month.

Yang’s work is praised for taking on tough subjects without being patronising to her readers. “A successful writer is someone who’s not afraid to put the deeper emotional truth on the page,” she says. “If you’ve done that, it doesn’t matter if you’ve won a million awards or no awards.”

Yang is one of a growing list of Asian American authors writing for young readers, but despite her impressionable audience, what she tells them isn’t always sunshine and roses. When Tatler met Yang three months before the release of Room to Dream, the conversation flowed through the highs and lows of a life in which a gifted student born into a poor family would turn down a job offer as a lawyer to follow her dream and become a writer.

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Highs And Lows

When she was six years old, Yang, an only child, moved from Tianjin, China to California with her parents as part of a wave of emigration when China’s economy opened up and citizens seeking better job opportunities, a western education or a more liberal lifestyle left for the West. Like many others, Yang’s family had long been enamoured of the idea of the so-called American dream and decided to chase it for themselves.

“As a child, I was full of imagination and creativity,” she says. “My parents thought America might give me a better opportunity.” 

However, the reality ended up being far from the idealised version depicted by relatives. “My aunt and uncle from my dad’s side were living in the US. People who had emigrated were only saying great things [about living abroad]. But they weren’t reporting back all the hard things because everybody wanted to save face. They basically reported a lie.” 

Crazy Poor Asians

The Yangs left behind their home town for California with just US$200, and poured all their hopes into their only child. “It was the opposite of Crazy Rich Asians. We were crazy poor Asians,” Yang says. “I had a pretty hard childhood. We bounced around a lot, taking odd jobs. Just being able to keep food on the table was a challenge.” At one point, her parents ended up managing a motel and a ten-year-old Yang would help staff the front desk every day after school.

In adulthood, she would draw from these formative experiences for her semi-autobiographical debut novel. In one chapter, for example, main character Mia Tang’s mother is kicked by a drunken stranger when she refuses to hand money over to him. The family hesitates about going to hospital as they cannot afford to pay the medical bill and end up pleading for the payment to be waived. 

“Sixty per cent [of the book is] real,” Yang says, explaining that her work is a compilation of her own memories and those of friends and family in the US. “My mother really was assaulted by somebody passing by at our motel. I remember running home and seeing her. My heart dropped. We did not have insurance, which is a big issue in the US. Even if you do have insurance in America, it’s not always permanent. If you switch jobs, get fired or take a temporary hiatus, you can lose your health insurance. Some of those experiences seem like they could never happen to me. But in reality, they happen to so many people in the US.”

The book documents the myriad struggles and cultural gaps the immigrant child faces. Mia is discriminated against by white students in school, bullied by a first-generation Chinese American classmate and demeaned by her own mother, who asserts that Mia, a non-native English speaker who wants to pursue her English writing passion, is a “bicycle, and the other kids are cars”. She witnesses how her good friend Hank, an African American tenant at the motel, is falsely accused of stealing a car and subsequently sacked from his job, and how other Chinese immigrants have their IDs confiscated by sweatshop owners, sleep in dingy basements with little to no food, and are beaten up by loan sharks.

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“My voice was my armour”

For many immigrant families, getting a child into a prestigious university is the culmination of a path to a better life. Unlike Mia, who stays in the family business, Yang was accepted to university at the age of 13 and had a degree in political science under her belt before she had even entered adulthood. “I thought that if I went to college early, I could get out early and start making money. It’s not something I would recommend to most kids,” she said in 2018. When Yang got into Harvard Law School, the future couldn’t have seemed brighter. Then she was sexually assaulted by another student in her freshman year.

Aside from the horror of the incident itself, Yang was subsequently forced to fight to get her story taken seriously, all the while attending lectures and law firm interviews alongside her attacker, who was found not guilty by the school’s administrative board. Yang was even required to sign a form agreeing not to bring the case to the police, in order for Harvard to investigate the incident in its own administrative court. “They also said that if I didn’t drop the case, they were going to look into whether I was guilty of malicious prosecution, and if I was making it up, I would not be able to graduate,” Yang says, her voice quivering with anger.

She continues, “By the time we got to the trial, I was 20. This wasn’t me, Kelly, a New York Times bestselling author. This was me before I had done anything, and to threaten to take away my degree, which I had worked so hard for, was unbelievably scary. I remember my parents said maybe I should just drop it, because they didn’t want me not to graduate. I spent three years in hell trying to avoid this guy just so I could get this degree. It didn’t feel like the system was trying to find justice, at least not for me.”

In an essay for Medium last year, Yang addressed her attack and subsequent quest for justice. “It’s a part of my life that I wanted to keep buried forever because it filled me with such shame. While I can never get back those three years of law school, I hope that in telling my story, more schools will prioritise protecting the students, not the brand,” she wrote, adding: “My voice was my armour.”

She now adds, “A lot of people think of Harvard as this amazing place where nothing bad could possibly ever happen to you. It’s the holy grail of education. That’s what my parents and I thought too. That’s why I went there.”

Leap Of Faith

Yang was offered a job at a law firm immediately after graduating, but going into her trained profession didn’t feel right when her faith in the legal system had been shaken. “The thing that took me to law school was my writing, which was the one thing I’ve always had my whole life,” she says, recalling how as a young adult she used to write stories for newspapers in China. “My dream has always been to be a writer.”

Yang took her own version of the gamble taken by her parents when she was a child and returned to Asia in 2005. It was Hong Kong that caught her eye first. “I had never really lived in Asia before as a grown-up, so to understand what it means to be Asian, I decided to reconnect with my roots. Hong Kong was the best of both worlds. It was East-meets-West,” she says. She wrote for the South China Morning Post newspaper as a columnist for over a decade and taught at several of the city’s elite secondary schools. Seeing her students’ struggle to find their voice also inspired her to start the Kelly Yang Project in 2005, which teaches young people public speaking skills and creative writing.

Writing makes me not afraid of what life is going to throw at me. With a pen, you can make art out of even the ugliest things and the most painful experiences
Kelly Yang

Yang also rekindled her own passion for creative writing, and found particular inspiration in the Asian American experience. Front Desk came first and then in May last year, after seven years’ work and a painful revisitation of the memory of her assault, she published Parachutes, the story of a wealthy Shanghai-born teenager sent to live and study in the US who, along with the usual coming-of-age trials and challenges of a new country, endures sexual harassment. In her author’s note, Yang shares her own experience of assault and subsequent betrayal by the university administration.

The book “is about the radical possibility of young women finding and detonating their voices”, reads its glowing review in the New York Times. “In giving her characters permission to bravely unburden themselves of the vileness of their abusers and the systems that protect them, Yang takes a sledgehammer to rape culture itself, swinging with equal parts artistry and force.”

Smash-hit novels by authors of Asian descent are often held up by western media as totemic of the Asian experience. However, while novels that tackle distinctively Asian themes, like Adeline Yen Mah’s Chinese Cinderella, Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians and Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club, helped paved the way for fellow Asian authors’ success in the western publishing world, Yang believes that there is no such thing as one Asian or even Asian American experience. “We’re not a monolith,” she says.

“We’re from all walks of life and different socio-economic statuses. In Parachutes, the kids coming from Shanghai have a tonne of money. But they’re also going through a lot of emotional issues. In Front Desk, Filipino Americans are trying to make a decent wage like my parents did. It shows kids the honest truth about life, hardship, bullying, racism—all these things that people experience every day but are shy to talk about.”

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Asian Representation

Now a mother of three, Yang knows first-hand how important it is for children from ethnic minority backgrounds to see themselves reflected in pop culture; unlike her children, she didn’t have a lot to choose from when she was young. “[Growing up in the US], I had never seen myself represented in a book before. I was reading books about white kids, like [horror series] Goosebumps.”

When Asian characters were featured, like Claudia Kishi in Ann M Martin’s The Baby-Sitters Club series, Yang still felt they were worlds apart. “She had a completely different life to mine. She lived in a beautiful house, had a dog and all these things that I didn’t have. I could not tell anybody how I lived, because they would make fun of me. As a kid, I felt really lonely. I wanted to write a book so that if I was a kid going through this experience, and I picked it up, I would feel so much less lonely. I would feel that somebody in the universe understood what I was going through.”

Showing young people they are not alone in some of life’s hardships motivates Yang to keep writing, but she also draws strength herself from creating new stories that are infused with her own.

“Writing makes me not afraid of what life is going to throw at me. You feel grounded in the fact that there’s at least something you can do with a pen, that you can make art out of even the ugliest things and the most painful experiences,” she says. “We need all these different stories. We have room for all these stories.”

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