Last week, a kerfuffle exploded on Twitter over Roxane Gay’s review of Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians on NPR’s “Code Switch” blog. Gay called Crazy Rich Asians “refreshing” as it featured an entirely “people of color” cast. Singaporean literary types rightly pointed out that her review conveniently ignored Singapore literary history, a canon that has often rendered non-Chinese narratives invisible (as I’ve alluded to here). Gay then responded defensively and even blocked her critics!
In Gay’s defense, I “get” her perspective as a USian POC and would likely have seen Kwan’s book in the same light just a few years ago. I, too, have imposed my own narrative onto other parts of the world; this, too, is a privilege. But living internationally has shifted my disturbingly provincial, U.S.-centric point of view. It’s hard work to throw off the hegemonic/neo-imperialistic/exceptionalist claptrap that we USians have been indoctrinated with, even for feminist and progressive POCs like me.
Kwan’s second novel, China Rich Girlfriend, a sequel to Crazy Rich Asians, also features only Chinese protagonists and minority characters for “color”—a driver named Ahmed, two nameless Thai ladies-in waiting (?), Gayatri Singh, the daughter of a maharaja (??), who warns that her gem-encrusted dagger is “an ancient Hindu relic” in which a “evil spirit is being held captive” and will cast great misfortune onto the firstborn of the person who unleashes it. (Magical Brown Person™ much?) And over half of Kwan’s novel is set in “new China” where “people attend church in a penthouse above the clouds” and “private jets are decorated to looks like Balinese resorts.” There exists a subtle Orientalism in the way the exploits of rich Chinese people are reported for the consumption of Western readers; China Rich Girlfriend is guilty of this as well.
China Rich Girlfriend‘s thinnest of plots that is as predictable as any of the beach reads that have come before it. And Kwan’s prose is weighed down by earnest and unnecessary footnotes—do today’s readers really need translations for “xiaolongbao” and “xie xie”?—and ponderous and awkward expository dialogue. China Rich Girlfriend was a bit of a slog, tbh, and not as “glittery,” in Gay’s words, as its predecessor.
(Many thanks to Doubleday [Random House] for sending this book my way.)