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‘Breath of Fresh Air’: Kevin Kwan Brings Joy Amid Pandemic, Uplifts Hapas in Sex and Vanity

‘Breath of Fresh Air’: Kevin Kwan Brings Joy Amid Pandemic, Uplifts Hapas in Sex and Vanity

Fully Booked got the chance to chat with the bestselling author of the Crazy Rich Asians trilogy, as he recently released his new book Sex and Vanity. 

During the Fully Booked Chats with Kevin Kwan, the author talked about his creative process in writing Sex and Vanity, thoughts on social media, and what it means to be a champion for other Asian writers.

Congratulations on your new book! So how was it like releasing a book in the pandemic? Do you think people’s relationship with books changed during the pandemic?

When we were planning the book’s release, we actually had some serious talks. This was last year at the beginning of the pandemic. Is this the right time to release a book like this? A fun, frothy summer romance? I really had my doubts. I didn’t want to be tone deaf, I didn’t want to be insensitive to what was happening with the world. My publisher really convinced me and told me, “No, this is what people need. People can’t travel for real, they’d want to have the fantasy of travel and this is what the book gives them. So please release the book.” So I agreed and have heard nothing but positive comments. People have enjoyed the fantasy of being away in Capri and the Hamptons, if they can’t go there directly.

What made you decide to base your novel on A Room with a View?

A Room with a View is a novel that I have loved since I was a teenager… I got to return to Capri many times and I would start to fantasize and think about: if I could retell the story of A Room with a View and reinvent it for the modern age, this is where I would set it. This is the modern day place where tourists would want to go. How can I make this my own story? How can I take this inspiration point and evolve the story so that it’s relevant to today where it showcases diversity, tackles some serious problems. But it also makes you laugh, makes you angry, makes you dream of fashion and fun. All those things.

Reading the book transported us to different sceneries in Capri, not to mention museums, yachts, and restaurants. How did you use the glamorous settings to tell the story? Are these based on your personal experiences during your visits?

A lot of what you see in Capri are my favorite things about the island. I wanted to showcase what I love about the island. But Capri is only half of the book, the other half is in New York and the other half in the Hamptons. At the heart of it, I really saw this book as my love letter to New York. It’s the city that raised me. I went to college there, and spent more than 20 years living there. It’s a city that has been so good to me.

I googled the words “Capri,” “Wedding,” and “Vogue,” it gave me a great picture of a lavish wedding in the book. I thought it was unreal but when I googled those words, it did actually happen.

Many of the crazy rich weddings have been happening in Capri. I think the one that you Googled was my friend Feiping Chan’s wedding, which really was an inspiration point for me when I was designing my wedding for this book. She had this gorgeous wedding, they put all those rose petals on the ground and it was just stunning.

Now, let’s talk about your creative process. What was your process in writing Sex and Vanity, and what’s the difference from writing the Crazy Rich Asians trilogy?

This feels like a breath of fresh air. Crazy Rich Asians is so rooted in my past, in my childhood, stories I knew from growing up, stories from my family. So it’s so loaded, there’s so much baggage there. This time, with Sex and Vanity, I could really just invent a world. It has nothing to do with me or my personal life, and there was a freedom in that. There was a lot of game playing in the trilogy and here, I just wanted to do something that was fun and fresh and easy.

It was apparent that fashion and style were detailed in Sex and Vanity, but having read Crazy Rich Asians, fashion was a little less detailed on this book. Can you tell us more about that?

This is a story about Lucie Tang Churchill. She’s a New Yorker, born and bred in New York, but she is hapa, a mixture of Chinese and sort of classic white New Yorker. She’s not really into fashion because of her background. She has nice clothes, she has nice things, but she’s not really a fashionista. So I wanted to be true to the character. It’s really about her love life. I also wanted to change things up a bit. The Crazy Rich Asians trilogy is so much about fashion and here, it’s been toned down a little bit.

We can see that the book is rich in art references, how did this influence and shape the personality of some of your characters?

First and foremost, Lucie is an artist. She trained as a studio artist and now she’s an art advisor. It’s so important in her life. It’s also something that she denies to herself. I think at the back of her mind, she thinks that she has to do something more practical in her life. But if it’s in your soul, it’s in your soul. Once an artist, always an artist. So, in many ways, she can’t help her nature. That’s who she is. She discovers what is true to herself and where her true passions lie, in art and life.

Sex and Vanity is a lot of things other than a love story. It offers social commentaries on racism, privilege, beauty standards, microaggressions on Asians, etc.  Why do you think it’s important to tackle these in your stories?

I think this is the world we live in now. I think more and more, we’re becoming a more globalized, more international society. More and more different people from different races are intermarrying. I have seen so much of the struggles of hapas. It’s an interesting way to examine race in America. What is it like for her to grow up in New York looking the way she does? She actually looks more Chinese, and she has a younger brother, Freddie, who looks a little more white. It’s interesting to see the experiences they both have as they go through life, looking the way they do. I really felt that it was important for me to keep investigating these issues and bring light to them as I do in all my books.

Lucie is an interesting protagonist as she stands in between her Western and Asian roots. In one of the lines in the book, Lucie was asked whether she felt like she was more Asian or Caucasian. She answered, “Well, I’m equal parts… I feel like I’m just me.” What was on your mind when you wrote this line?

It was an actual quote from a hapa friend. So I borrowed that quote, but it’s funny because after the book came out so many people have come to me and said, “Oh my God! You have no idea how many times a week I get that question.” People come to me and ask, “What are you?” without even realizing how potentially offensive that can be. I think it rang true for a lot of hapas, Asian Americans in America. 

Marian, Lucie’s mom, was also a pivotal character. She was grounded in her Chinese roots and at the same time, was supportive of her children’s passions as well as never getting in the way of Lucie’s relationship with Cecil. In your own opinion, how important is it for Asian-Americans or immigrants to stay connected to their culture?

Personally, having that connection to my cultural roots has been incredibly rewarding. It’s really helped me find pride in my own identity and meaning in my life. I think it’s important. Some people might not feel that way, but everyone has their own journey.

You are a very powerful voice in Asian American literature. How does it feel to hold this influence, as well as the expectations that come with it?

If I have to really think about it, I could get very intimidated. So I try to really keep things as personal as I can. If I can do something to help, I will. If lending my voice to an effort is helpful, I’ll just do it. I was very active over the past year on the Stop Asian Hate campaign that was going around the US. If it just feels meaningful and personal, I’ll try to help. I can’t really think and strategize much about it. For me, it begins in the heart and you go forth and do what you can to help, hoping that it makes a difference. But I think there are so many amazing voices out there that are now really being heard and being seen around the world and in the US. So I’m hopefully just one of the voices.

So for you, amid all the fame and money, what is life’s greatest joy?

For me, personally, my greatest joy comes from being able to wake up every morning and do something creative; something that inspires me and brings other people joy. That, for me, has been the most satisfying thing that I was able to achieve in my life. I’m so grateful I get to do that. I’m so fortunate, I’m so lucky, and so privileged to be able to do this--to be able to write a book or tell a story and other people want to and enjoy it. That, for me, is very, very meaningful. 

Your success, and your stories have inspired a lot of Asian writers. What’s your hope for Asian writers, any advice for them?

I’m always trying to be a champion of other Asian writers, especially young emerging voices. So I always just say, make it specific. Tell your story. Tell your truth and try to really mine from your experiences. I’d like to share with you a post I saw the other day on social media. She wrote a new book and she said, the most important advice she can give someone is to “Write the book you’d want to read.” I think those are such simple, but so true words. I did that in Crazy Rich Asians. I wasn’t thinking of getting it published. I wasn’t thinking about it becoming a bestseller, I just wrote a fun thing as a hobby to amuse myself. Look what happened. So I think we all have original stories. For those of you out there who aspire to write, write the book you want to read.

Watch the full video of Fully Booked Chats: Kevin Kwan to know more about the author and Sex and Vanity. You may also order Sex and Vanity and the Crazy Rich Asians trilogy on Fully Booked.

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