You might have already gotten a taste of local author Abigail Hing Wen’s style if you tried the “Passion Attraction” specialty drink at Teaspoon in Los Altos this winter. The drink was created in honor of Hing Wen’s young adult novel “Loveboat, Taipei” (HarperCollins, 2020).
The drink and the novel are both ripe with juicy romance – and Hing Wen visited Los Altos last month to discuss how she created the book as a working parent, and how her experiences as an Asian-American directed her story’s exploration of parent/child relationships. She joined me on stage at Linden Tree Books last month for a conversation with local readers – most of them parents – about writing, families and how young people (and parents) can find a way to marry creative interests with the pressure to “succeed.”
Before Hing Wen’s “Loveboat” made the New York Times best-seller list in its first weeks on the market, before the movie deal, there lay 12 years of drafting, studying, rejection and starting over. A working lawyer – she specializes in artificial intelligence and the venture capital community – Hing Wen started writing when pregnant with her second child and over the years found different ways to cram writing into her life, including a period of leave, a correspondence degree in creative writing and a switch from independent firms to in-house legal work.
When Hing Wen sent her first book out into the world to find an agent and got turned down everywhere, one agent mailed her back a printout she hand-marked with feedback, and the comment that Hing Wen was on the right track.
“It kept me going because it was a big encouragement,” Hing Wen said.
That novel didn’t end up being picked up, and neither did the next three. But manuscript No. 5 – a story about Chinese-American teenagers visiting Taipei – became “Loveboat.”
Heroine Ever Wong, a teenager who lives in Cleveland and loves to dance, has immigrant parents who sacrificed mightily to bring their family to the United States and want Ever to study to become a doctor. They send her overseas the summer after her senior year of high school to learn more about her ancestral culture at Chien Tan, a program sponsored by the Taiwanese government to draw young people with Chinese heritage from around the world. Ever’s experiences in Chien Tan, jokingly called “Loveboat” by the young people who meet, misbehave and have adventures in the program, play out a coming-of-age story focused on immigrant identity, family expectations and defining your own personal values.
From Ohio to Taipei
Hing Wen writes from experience – in addition to being a Loveboat alumna, she herself grew up in Ohio, loved to write fiction, but pursued a legal career certain her parents would not approve of full-time work in the arts.
Beyond the central story of Ever’s coming of age, Hing Wen created a cast of 30 Asian-American characters in the book who represent the full spectrum of human experience, from learning disabilities to mental illness, academic achievement to high romance. A reader follows them on a classic teenage journey of self-discovery, with an intimate focus on the facets of Asian-American identity.
She described the romance and adventure of her book as something of a Trojan horse, providing entertainment and developing the story while she engages with serious social questions about the immigrant experience and mental health.
Hing Wen’s project – exploring the nonobvious aspects of how a young person probes his or her cultural heritage and relationship to it – clearly struck a note with the audience who turned out in Los Altos to hear from her. They raised questions about her central theme, the love and trouble bundled up in the phenomenon of children living out the dreams of their parents.
“My parents sent me to discover my heritage, but in the process, I’m also finding parts of myself, even if that self isn’t who they want me to be,” Ever says in the book. “Maybe none of us can hide who we are.”
Ever – and the reader, vicariously – probes the conflicted idea that she would make great sacrifices for her family, but because of the work they did on her behalf (crossing continents, working in unsatisfying jobs), she might not have to.
“I chose her to be the main character because I felt, OK – who really needs to go and just rebel? The girl who’s locked up, who feels trapped, and needs to be able to experience what freedom means. What does it mean to break all my parents’ rules, and then what does it mean to come up with my own rules,” Hing Wen told her audience. “Navigation of that pressure – she wants to be her own person, but she loves her family, even though she’s really angry with them, too.”
No easy answers
Asked what advice she has for kids experiencing a similar sense of pressure, Hing Wen responded with encouragement.
“I always feel really humbled by this question – I don’t have all the answers at all,” she said. “I think my answer there is, it doesn’t last forever, that relationship where you’re living under your parents’ roof – at some point you’ll go off and … then you realize, actually a lot of it’s coming from a well-intentioned place.”
She said open honesty isn’t always a realistic solution to complicated family dynamics, especially when a child is first starting to figure out where they stand.
“Pick your battles,” she suggested, knowing that childhood doesn’t last forever.
As children grow up enough to begin separating emotionally from their parents, she observed, they begin to learn to approve of themselves, rather than needing their parents’ approval. Although Hing Wen’s parents have surprised her with their engagement in her fiction writing, she didn’t expect a warm reception for this calling.
“That doesn’t mean that I can’t love them or they don’t love me, but to be OK with it, whether they approve of me or don’t approve of me,” she said. “I think that was the hardest piece that I worked on over the years.”
Collaborating as a family
Her sons, ages 17 and 12, are at a school where they are encouraged to “pursue their dreams,” but Hing Wen said she also expects them to find a way to support themselves. She said she guesses they may feel challenged in a manner similar to how she felt growing up, balancing artistic and technical interests.
“I think it’s been fun for them to see how my stuff has come together,” she said. “When you do what you love, you’re going to be the most productive person for your society and your community and to people around you.”
Learning to write with furious efficiency during the one-hour window of naptime or during the after bedtime shift forced Hing Wen to learn to “only do the essentials,” she recalled. “I learned to just focus on the important things – everything else, you just don’t have the time for it.”
Because she has been writing young adult and middle grade books, she could share her ideas with her sons, and she wrote picture books with one of them as well.
“I think of our family a bit like a mini incubator – together we will share ideas and whenever someone’s working on a problem, we all kind of bring brain power to it and we really enjoy that. That might just be a dynamic in our family, but I’m sure it’s probably common to Silicon Valley families.”
For more information, visit abigailhingwen.com.