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 semiautobiographical 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 50 awards, 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.
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.”
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.
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