Elena Bowes spoke with debut author Qian Julie Wang about her poignant and often humorous memoir ‘Beautiful Country’, an instant bestseller that tells the childhood story of Qian Julie when she moves to New York City with her undocumented, highly educated parents.
It’s hard to believe that Beautiful Country a moving, immersive and at times very funny and hopeful memoir is your first book. You wrote this astonishing, poignant family story on your phone on the subway as you commuted to your job as a litigator with a national law firm. Your book has received so much well-deserved acclaim. It’s a NYTimes Bestseller, a NYTimes Notable Book of 2021, an instant Amazon and Barnes & Noble bestseller, a Best 2021 Memoir pick by the Times (UK) and it’s one of Barack Obama’s favourite books of 2021.
Your mother was right when she told you when times were toughest, “With your writing, Qian, Qian, you can do anything. One day, you will have enough to eat. One day, you will have everything.”
Do you think you always knew deep down that you would write this story about your family and the trauma you and your parents experienced being “undocumented” in America?
When I taught myself English on library books in the 90s, it was very difficult to find books that reflected me and my reality. That lack of representation left me feeling even more lonely and shameful. When I expressed that to my mother, she never failed to tell me that I would one day have the power to change that. So thanks to my mother’s wisdom that vision and dream was always with me. I’m just grateful that it is now a reality.
Can you tell us about the irony of your book’s title, Beautiful Country.
“Beautiful Country” picks up on the idea of the country America likes to see itself as and promote itself as being on the international stage. At the same time, though, the title and the book also highlight that that vision of America—the land of justice, equality, and freedom—does not yet exist in reality. There are two sides to America, and people are assigned to either version based on who they are and how they are born. The title of book thus at once examines the reality of America while holding out hope and light for the country it is capable of becoming. As I say often, I criticise America because I love it, and because I believe that it can do much, much better.
You landed at JFK age seven in 1994 accompanied by your mother. Your father had moved to the States two years earlier. Your parents had both been respected professors in China, but because of their undocumented status, they worked in sweatshops in New York City to eke out a meagre living of $20 a week. Hunger, hardship and loneliness were constants in your life. You spoke no English, and your teacher no Mandarin. You write so vividly about those times, never without hope. And then you meet your first friends, The Berenstain Bears, Clifford, the Big Red Dog, and Amelia.
Can you explain how books helped you?
In our undocumented existence, it was unsafe for me to be fully honest about myself and my reality with any other real person. Fictional characters thus formed my safe circle — the place in which I was safe to be my full self. Overnight, I also saw all my loved ones and family disappear, and I didn’t know whether I would ever see them again. The characters of these books filled that void of loneliness, and in their presence I learned that it was natural to be scared sometimes, or lonely. They also taught me the power of storytelling, and of words. Because my father had been an English literature professor in China, I’d always known that stories mattered, but I did not experience that for myself until I found myself lonely and hungry, with largely only library books to teach me English and keep me company. That message—that understanding of books as holy and life-changing—has never left me since.
One of my favourite things about your book is the voice. You write from a seven-year-old’s perspective which gives your story a sense of innocence, tolerable pain and joy that might not have been achieved by an adult looking back. The sheer delight you experience finding those six Polly Pockets in a white plastic bag on the side of the road is just one example.
Was it difficult to channel that 7-12 year-old Qian?
It was shockingly easy. In therapy I had processed a lot of those early memories, and explored for the first time what it was like to see those scenes again through both child and adult eyes. In looking back on (limited) photos and reading my (many) childhood diary entries, I could see and hear little Qian clearly. Once I allowed myself to see the full spate of everything she lived with, I realised that she was far more vibrant, mischievous, and joyful than I’d given her credit for. The act of processing the memories I had suppressed for decades had freed me to see not just younger me, but the younger versions of my mother and father in their full dimensions. That in turn allowed me to honour everything we had been and had experienced—both the good and the bad.
What advice do you give other aspiring writers who read your book and think, ‘my story isn’t nearly as interesting, as material rich as Qian Julie’s’?
In books, both fiction and nonfiction, what matters is not what happens in the book but how is it is told. By virtue of living, we experience facets of the human experience. How we experience those facets and what we take away from them are both fascinating because they are uniquely ours (because there is no other person exactly like each of us on the planet, and no one who will respond exactly the same way) and because it is universally human. Thus, it does not so much matter what you write about, but how you choose to write and what messages you share. To aspiring writers: I hope you will remember that there is magic and beauty in your experiences and perspectives simply because they are yours.
Do you recommend writing a book on your phone on the subway? I can see how freeing that could be, no pressure, just jotting down a few stories on the train.
Writing on the subway was certainly freeing for me, but I can see it not being the case for others! I would recommend that people write in whatever way easiest for them, whether that be by pen, typewriter, chalk, or paintbrush. The hardest part of creation is finding the safety to allow art to flow out of you. How that safety appears varies from person to person—but all that matters is that we each find the medium available to us.
What do you wish someone had told you, an undocumented, first-generation American, all those years ago when you got to New York City?
My mother’s messaging helped me immeasurably during those years, and it was that it was temporary, that our conditions did not define me, and that I would make it out. In addition to these critical notes, I would have loved to hear, whether it was from the media or people in positions of authority, that it was not my fault and that there was nothing singularly wrong with me. As children, and as human, it is so easy to blame ourselves and believe ourselves to be singularly unworthy of belonging and acceptance. That is the affliction I think most adults deal with on a daily basis, and it is particularly the case for immigrants and people of colour. I know I could not have heard these messages enough growing up, and if all people could hear these important messages early in life, there would be a lot less hurt and pain in our world.
Being playful, childlike, telling dumb fart jokes – a childlike sense of fun is something that despite your family’s struggles, you still retain. Why do you think?
My parents have always had easy access to the child version of themselves. As I’ve grown up and met more parents, I’ve been shocked at how easily my parents can become playful, silly, and childlike. It has been similarly easy for me to retain that side of myself. I think this is the case because one, my parents modelled it for me. But two, I suspect that for those (like me and my parents) who didn’t have as much of a chance to play as children, it might be easier in adult years to access the inner child and continue to explore that lingering hunger for innocent and silly joy.
What’s next? This memoir ends when you turn 12. Will there be a sequel?
I am currently writing a novel that follows women of colour navigating the world of elite big law firms. It posits and answer the question, “what happens to you when you achieve all the material trappings of the American dream?”
I did not initially plan for a sequel of Beautiful Country, as I did not really see the memoir as being about me or my parents, but rather as centring the experience of being a new immigrant and an undocumented immigrant, as well as the experience of a young and her parents encountering brand new joys as well as unfathomable pressures. But since the book’s release, many readers have inquired about a sequel, so I am now considering writing one after I finish my novel.
Thank you so much for writing this book and agreeing to answer my questions. I haven’t read a book so well-written and moving in years.