The author of Chemistry talks mad scientists, model minority, and defending your imagination as a writer of color.
January 31, 2018
“In Arizona, a PhD advisor dies. Authorities blame the grad student who shot him, but grad students around the world blame the advisor. No student can graduate without the advisor’s approval. This advisor had kept the student in lab for seventeen years, believing him too valuable to be let go or simply having gone insane. I think, Kudos to the student for making it to seventeen years. I would have shot someone at ten.”
This is how we meet our narrator of Chemistry: habitually overachieving, hilariously deadpan, and suddenly flailing. She’s a PhD student in synthetic organic chemistry this close to finishing, with a seemingly perfect boyfriend who wants to sweep her into marriage, and parents who expect perfection, completion, and progress. It might seem on the surface that it’s a picture of the model minority, but Chemistry is anything but that, and her deviation from the stereotypical norm is thrilling. What is recognizable about this story is the scary, scattered, uncharted place that she feels stuck in. She can’t come up with an answer: not about why she can’t finish her PhD, why she can’t connect to her parents, and why she can’t answer Eric. Science, her saving grace, can’t explain the sticky place she feels blinded by, and the fragmented identity she can’t explain.
The two days in which I sped through Chemistry are crystallized in my memory. I cradled Chemistry around the city with me, from subway to park bench to couch to leafy coffee shop, enjoying the humor and the close-to-life retellings and the voice, until one single page surprised me by pricking my eyes with tears. It’s easy to get sucked into Weike Wang’s writing: it’s spartan and succinct, and so undeniably full of sucked-dry, smart humor, that you don’t realize just how clear, just how painful, everything she’s telling you is––and then it’s like she’s pushing on a cavity until you cry out.
This book explores family and its impact on your identity in a way I haven’t encountered before, and how we struggle with the words and the spaces between them that can’t be translated to others. “In China,” the narrator tells us, “there is another phrase about love. It is not used for passionate love but the love between family members. In translation, it means I hurt for you.”
I met Weike Wang at a coffee shop in Harlem on a wintry Friday evening. She sat down and we immediately started chatting about literary magazines, books (Jenny Zhang’s Sour Heart and Patricia Park’s Re: Jane), writing residencies (I’d just returned from one), and MFAs. She was so genuinely curious about my own writing and thoughts on it that it took half a cappuccino to talk about hers. But once we did, there was so much to say: about mad scientists, about male-dominated culture, about the similarities of obsession between writing and chemistry, and about being the only Asian American in a default white town. Chemistry pushes deftly against society’s stereotypes, but it also entertained me, taught me, and surprised me, and so did my conversation with Weike Wang.
—Kyle Lucia Wu
Kyle Lucia Wu: In the book, the narrator says she thinks about being a writer but that it’s blatantly impractical. I felt that was funny because when she’s describing searching for this molecule in her chemistry experiments, the idea of that search sounds pretty blatantly impractical. That made science and writing seem similar to me, that sense of discovery.
Weike Wang: I think they are very similar! I used organic synthesis because I think it’s the most useless of all the chemical sciences. It’s highly respected, but you’re not really doing anything that nature couldn’t have done anyway. It’s more of a mountain climbing mentality, like climbing Everest, which is sort of like writing. That idea of “I’ve written this book” is like “I chose that field instead of something a little more practical, like computational science.” [Writing and science] are similar—the people are similar, the ambitions are similar, the behavioral patterns are similar. It’s obsessive.
And the life or death aspect of it, that wouldn’t be known to the outside world.
It feels like life or death, right? I think when you’re in a project like that, obsessively, it’s really hard to be an outsider looking in. I’m sure you know when you’re at a residency, the novel is the thing, it’s the be-all-end-all. Every day is a struggle, and filled with choices, but to somebody else it’s just like you’re doing this project, it doesn’t look that dire.
Yes, sometimes I felt like it seemed to my non-writer friends that a residency [like the one I just got back from at Millay Colony] is like a month-long vacation. It was great and I loved it there, but each day I spent the whole day at my desk.
How was your experience in your workshops, writing about Chinese American or immigrant identity? I went to an MFA, I’ve worked in the literary world, so having my own experience of diversity or lack thereof, I’m wondering about your cohort’s reactions.
When I began writing, I was very conscientious of not wanting to be pigeon-holed. At the beginning, I was trying my best to not write about race. I tried to make it as universal as possible. I didn’t give my characters names because I didn’t know what to call them. Names called into question this idea of, are they American, or are they not? I liked the anonymity of it. I just wrote stories of two people in a bad relationship, in a good relationship, sibling stories, that kind of thing. When I started doing the novel, I felt like I had enough space to tackle bigger issues. I thought it was an opportunity to make an Asian American character, but not let her race define her entirely. It obviously defines a lot of her, but she’s also quitting her program and having these problems for other reasons. She wants to be independent. She feels persuaded into STEM because she’s good at it, whether that’s manipulative or feminist, it’s hard to say. She also has those issues along with her other identity issues… It’s so interesting because the last few days I was at a boarding school doing workshops for them. And every student kept asking, is this character you? And I’d say, no, not really! And they’d say, but she’s Asian.
Why does that make a work better or more interesting if it did happen? You’d think it would be considered better if it didn’t happen and it was purely creation. They say that women deal with this question a lot more, especially women of color, than men. Most of [the novel] is not true except for the dog. I have a dog who’s exactly like this and that’s the true thing. And everybody is so disappointed. I felt the whole workshop was compromised because it felt like you’re defending your imagination and your ability to create something new.
That’s so real to me. When I started writing, I would only write stories about white people, because if I wrote them as Asian, everyone would assume they were me. It actually shaped my writing for a very long time because I was so averse to that, so frustrated by it.
You get scared to be slotted into that.
Now that I’m older I’ve heard a lot of non-white writers saying that in the beginning, it’s really scary to write anything other than the white default because there’s so much pressure on those characters and those stories. In a short story sometimes it’s hard, unfairly hard, to tackle that. You feel like you need to give them so many answers once you introduce a non-white character.
Yeah, like white is the baseline. I had to answer that question of “is the character me” a lot. It’s such a silly question. I think there are more Asian people on this earth than there are white people, so to say that there can only be one version of an Asian character, but ten thousand different versions of the white family, is so ludicrous.
I wanted to talk about race, but not make race this almighty thing. Sometimes even though the novel has a lot of space, one issue can take over. I didn’t want it to say, “she’s this way because she’s Asian,” which is the wrong way to think. It’s a lot more complicated than that. I want them to be this race, but not necessarily focus in on that as a reason for every one of their actions.
I feel that you really get to that. The idea of stereotypes is very heavy in this book, one because she may represent some version of the “model minority,” but actually she’s very atypical to that. She’s not polite, and she’s often angry. The part that really stuck with me was when she was watching the cooking show, and this Asian American contestant brings up these stereotypical traits her parents has, and the judges are all saying, oh thank God she rebelled. But your mother can be quiet, and your father can be strict, and that doesn’t automatically make you this one type of stereotypical family. There’s so much room within those things.
Yeah, and I think when I was writing that I was thinking about myself as well. We can’t always blame people who receive that information. We have also propagated that information. I’m not innocent in this. I think pre-20, I was sort of telling everybody, I have really strict parents, I have to go to a really good school, they’re very practical. I was also my worst enemy because I said, oh they are this way because they’re immigrants, or because they’re Asian. I think I did myself a huge disservice because I never explained the humanity behind it. They’re in a new country, and they’re trying to survive: obviously they’re going to be strict, because they don’t want you to be homeless. You’re so close to homeless when you’re here in the beginning! The closer you are to that, the more afraid you are of it. That’s a human trait, that’s not an ethnic or a gendered trait. When I was writing that, I was also blaming a lot of myself for being that kind of person, and helping propagate those stereotypes.
Growing up, I was in a very rural town, and everyone was white. I was the only Asian person in my school. And kids, right? They want the easiest answer. They’re like, oh you’re Asian! And if you don’t help to explain it—and when you’re 14, you don’t understand enough to explain it. All they hear is, she has a strict Asian mother, she has a strict Asian father, so they’re strict because they’re Asian. Once that thought is in there, it stays.
When you’re a kid you think it’s easier if, rather than pushing against those stereotypes, you kind of just accept them and move on. It’s a survival tactic—it’s not the better option, it’s just the one that helps you make it through.
As a teenager it’s easier to fall into those stereotypes. You just want to survive high school! The last few days I was in a high school and I was like, oh my God! I’m so glad I’m out of this.
There’s so much in this book that’s about translation. Not just languages, but translating culture or another person’s experience. Even how you, the author, are translating chemistry to the reader. And that is a work of translation, because chemistry is not something the average person understands.
I have always been interested in the English language. It’s one of the most flexible and honestly one of the easiest languages to write with because there’s so much freedom in it. I like that. I got a lot of that from working under Amy Hempel, because she really looks at language so carefully.
With this novel, I wanted to make science a little more palatable to the average reader. There’s a lot of people who see the word chemistry and they skip to the next paragraph. I wanted to make it entertaining and engaging.
[Chemistry‘s unnamed narrator] thinks in both Chinese and English. She’s trying to reconcile how, if she thinks more in one versus the other, does it make her more one than the other? Which is not really logical. She’s trying to be logical about her identity, but it never works that way. When I was writing this, the idea of translation wasn’t necessarily on my mind, but figuring out how she would think as an individual. She would pull random stuff from the arsenal that she knows, but she would also use another language, because she’s bilingual, to figure out things of her own in English. The ins and outs of putting Chinese in, putting science in, is a way to connect the story, but also for her to not think about this whole Eric question, this whole failure question. It’s a way to meander and connect things that are not necessarily the most important things in her life. And also I just wanted to put Chinese in. Junot Díaz will literally write paragraphs in Spanish without any sort of apology. It’s very bold. I think Chinese is written as a very cautious language. I wanted to put in the sort of Chinese that I wanted to put in, and to have it be meaningful for the rest of the novel.
It’s interesting that you say that Eric is not a good guy because I like that he seems so perfect on paper.
He is perfect, yeah.
But then there’s these things where he won’t speak Chinese to her mother, and that’s very revealing.
That’s when you see that he says he understands, but he doesn’t really. Because once you ask him to sacrifice something, like maybe his own confidence in himself when speaking in another language, he won’t do it.
I liked the history of the famous male chemists throughout.
Aren’t they crazy? I did a ton of research for that. They’re nuts!
I know! So all the famous male chemists are courters of natural disaster. And they are the ones with the names that we all know. They invented these diabolical things—
And they wanted to kill each other. One of them had a wife who committed suicide. That was the point of the novel when I did a ton of the research and you sometimes get lost in research, you can’t include everything. I was appalled at the history of this great peace prize, how it was founded in dynamite. [Editor’s note: the Nobel Peace Prize was founded by Alfred Nobel after he made a fortune from inventing dynamite.]
Yeah, how you said that he founded the Nobel Prize so his name would be remembered for something else—and it totally worked.
And he got all the money from his weapons. With time, everybody starts to admire certain people who were not the best people in their time. Watson and Crick, I didn’t include this, but they didn’t discover that DNA was double-stranded, this other woman did, but she was just not given credit. It was the culture then. It’s kind of the culture now.
And science is not receptive to women, in general.
No, it’s not. It’s such a strange dynamic. You’re encouraged to go into STEM because you’re a woman but then you’re mostly kind of like a workhorse. I just have such trouble dealing with that. What disheartened me most about biostatistics was that I got into a room and the people giving me orders, were all white. The people doing the coding were all Asian. They kind of promote within the work field—you can be a senior coder, senior researcher. But you’re still the work field.
I think you unpack that well. As scientists, do you have an obligation with what you invent to think of humanity? And we see that question now still with science but also with technology, how we’re inventing all these new things without asking if they should be invented.
A lot is forgotten in the history of this. Marie Curie had an interesting history too. She was very encouraging of using radium for everything. There’s a time when you could just drink radium water, like vitamin water. You could just buy a bottle of radium water.
Being a scientist feels a little like playing God. I liked that strand throughout of the madness and destruction, especially because science is often thought of as orderly, academic field of people who are very smart and very dedicated, but there’s also this strain of madness and chaos.
This is where the mad scientist stereotype comes from. But on one side of that stereotype, you have Frankenstein. I wouldn’t say Marie Curie is Frankenstein, in terms of her creating a monster. I think she meant well, but as a scientist, you’re just so ambitious. You want your discovery to change the world. And in doing you might end up killing some people, but you don’t consider that, you’re just blinded. Haber and Nobel [when making their deadly discoveries] thought, we’re doing this for our country, so all is absolved. The idea is at the time when they’re discovering all of this, gas, weapons, radioactivity—they’re only thinking about the project. I think that’s very similar to writing. When you’re writing a novel you’re thinking, I just need to write the novel, I just need to write the story. You’re not thinking of the consequences. What if somebody reads this and completely misinterprets it? What if this becomes a book for a revolution, or it’s completely taken the wrong way?
And even on a personal level, people who write about their families—you’re not supposed to think about those repercussions as you’re writing it, that’s what you’re taught. To only think about your project, not the effect it might have on others.
And what if your parents hate you after? I wonder how you deal with that.