Kevin Kwan's New 'Sex And Vanity' Is A Summer Romp With A Satirical Sting

Jun 28, 2020

The settings: A lavish Capri wedding, Italian villas, mansions in the Hamptons and a mega-yacht.

The love interests: George Zao, a Chinese-Australian surfer, and Lucie Tang Churchill of, yes, those Churchills.

The book: Sex and Vanity. And it could only be written by Kevin Kwan, author of Crazy Rich Asians, who says he felt like it was time to move on from the decadent, glamorous world of that series.

"I mean, I'd written three books, you know, over 1800 pages worth of this epic story about the Young-Shang-T'sien family. And I just wanted to try something new. I wanted to challenge myself, but I also wanted to do something that to me would be kind of like a little breath of fresh air. You know, this was meant to be a light summer romp."


Interview Highlights

On updating A Room With a View

You know, it's one of my favorite books of all time, and one of my favorite movies of all time. And so it was always a fantasy of, how could I retell this in a whole new way? You know, with a whole new Lucie dealing with very contemporary problems. And there is a looseness to the storyline, there's so much more I could build from that, from the premise of just swapping a room. That presents the, you know, the meet-cute. But it was my way of really exploring so many other issues. And my Lucie is, of course, biracial. You know, she's half Chinese and half very old establishment WASP. And I wanted to be able to tell that story of the fusion of that, and the the problems and struggles it creates in her life as she tries to really find her own identity.

On Lucie's love interest George

George is is one of these classic modern Asian men. He was born in Hong Kong, but he was schooled in Australia and now he's going to college in the U.S., he's going to U.C. Berkeley, studying environmental architecture. So he's very much, you know, the hybrid of the modern Asian man. And he has no patience for the social fripperies of, not just the crazy rich Asian set, but also the WASP set. You know, he really could give a damn.

On Lucie's feelings towards both George and her Chinese heritage

She's ... I think, forced to confront her inner racism towards the Asian side of the family, the side that's perhaps not as neat and tidy as pedigreed as her father's side of the family.

I think for her, it's a lifetime of tiny paper cuts. You know, I think the family is well-intentioned, but even in their good intention, there is this unconscious racism, you know, that has been infused throughout her life. And that's what she takes in. She doesn't see the love that they have for her. I mean, she just hears the criticism ... And I think it creates a part of her that really wants to self-censor.

On using satire to illuminate racism

You know, it hopefully will make them think, it'll make them laugh a little bit. But it will really hopefully let people consider that different people have different struggles. - Kevin Kwan

It's such an effective tool to really explore subject matters like identity and racism in a way that's meaningful to me, but that doesn't hit people over the head. You know, it hopefully will make them think, it'll make them laugh a little bit. But it will really hopefully let people consider that different people have different struggles. I should say, I mean, this was very much inspired by so many friends and even family members of mine who are biracial. I've grown up just watching their struggles and their triumphs, integrating into the families that they come from.

In Lucie's case, she had a mother that actually kind of aided and abetted and really tried to sublimate her Chinese side for the sake of her children. And that had its unintended consequences.

On the Crazy Rich Asians movie and its promise of more Asian representation in Hollywood

I think we're in very early days. I mean, if you really think of it, Crazy Rich Asians came out in 2018 and Hollywood, you know — it takes three, four, five years to develop projects and really get them off the ground. I'm very hopeful. I have seen change up close. You know, last season in the TV world, for example, there were six greenlit pilots by the networks that involved Asian casts or more casts that had a lot of diversity in it. The fact that a movie like The Farewell could do so well and that Awkwafina could win the Golden Globe. I'm hopeful, but we are by no means done.

This story was edited for radio by Samantha Balaban and Barrie Hardymon, and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

The settings - a lavish Capri wedding, Italian villas, mansions in the Hamptons and a mega yacht, of course. The love interest - George Zao, a Chinese Australian surfer, and Lucie Tang Churchill of, yes, those Churchills. The book - "Sex And Vanity." It could only be written by Kevin Kwan, author of "Crazy Rich Asians," and he joins us now to talk about it. Hello.

KEVIN KWAN: Hey, it's a pleasure to be here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It is a pleasure to have you. First of all, this book made me even sadder about being stuck in my house. Capri is lovely, and I wanted to be there.

KWAN: I am so sorry. That was not my intention that people would have to read this, you know, while they were self-isolating. But, hopefully, it brings them a little spark of joy, a little laughter. And we can all imagine that we're at the beach, you know, drinking a nice Mojito or something like that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Absolutely. Why did you choose to move away from the decadent, glamorous worlds of Hong Kong and Singapore and set this book mostly in Italy and New York and the Hamptons?

KWAN: You know, I felt it was time for me to move on. I mean, I'd written three books, you know, over 1,800 pages worth of, you know, this epic story about the Young-Shang-T’sien family. And I just wanted to try something new. I wanted to challenge myself, but I also wanted to do something that to me would be kind of like a little breath of fresh air. You know, this was meant to be a light summer romp.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, this is essentially an homage to "A Room With A View," even has main characters with the same names. What made you want to update that story?

KWAN: You know, it's one of my favorite books of all time and one of my favorite movies of all time. And so it was always a fantasy of how could I retell this in a whole new way, you know, with a whole new Lucie dealing with very contemporary problems. And there's a looseness to the storyline. There's so much more I could build from that, from the premise of just swapping a room. That presents the, you know, the meet-cute. But it was my way of really exploring so many other issues. And my Lucie is, of course, biracial. You know, she's half Chinese and half very old, establishment WASP. And I wanted to be able to tell that story of sort of the fusion of that and the problems and struggles it creates in her life as she, you know, tries to really find her own identity.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Let's talk about the characters. Lucie and George meet at this wedding in Capri. Lucie spends a lot of time pretending that she does not like George, but we know better. Tell me about George. Who is he?

KWAN: George is one of these classic, modern Asian men. He was born in Hong Kong, but he was schooled in Australia. And now he's going to college in the U.S. He's going to UC Berkeley studying environmental architecture. So he's very much, you know, the hybrid of the modern Asian man. And he has no patience for the social fripperies of not just the crazy rich Asian set but also the WASP set. You know, he really could give a damn.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Lucie thinks he's an inappropriate match. She's afraid of what her sort of Wall Street fortune baring WASPy side of the family might think because they might feel like he wasn't the right kind of rich.

KWAN: Exactly. And she's also, I think, forced to confront her inner racism towards, you know, the Asian side of the family - the side that's perhaps not as neat and tidy as pedigreed as her father's side of the family.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. Let's talk about that. Lucie always feels like she's too much of a Tang, and she has to put up with people like her cousin casually saying things, like your mother's Chinese, so it's no surprise you'd be attracted to someone like him, meaning George. And these kinds of racist statements really affect Lucie and the choices that she makes.

KWAN: I think for her it's a lifetime of tiny paper cuts. You know, I think the family is well-intentioned, but even in their good intentions there is this unconscious racism, you know, that sort of has been infused throughout her life. And that's what she takes in. She doesn't see the love that they have for her. I mean, they - she just hears the criticism in her voice. And I think it creates a part of her that really wants to self-censor.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You know, you've written this very fun, luxurious, romantic novel, but you don't shy away from race and racism. You really shine a light on it. Why was that important to do?

KWAN: Using satire, it's such an effective tool to really explore such matters like identity and racism in a way that's meaningful to me but that doesn't hit people over the head. You know, it hopefully will make them think. It'll make them laugh a little bit. But it will really hopefully, you know, let people consider that, you know, different people have different struggles. I should say, I mean, this was very much inspired by so many friends and even family members of mine who are biracial. I've grown up just watching, you know, their struggles and their triumphs, you know, integrating into the families that they come from. In Lucie's case, she had a mother that actually kind of aided and abetted and really tried to sublimate her Chinese side for the sake of her children. And that had its unintended consequences.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I want to talk about "Crazy Rich Asians." The movie when it came out two years ago got a whole lot of attention for being the first movie since "The Joy Luck Club" to have, you know, an all-Asian leading cast. Headlines proclaimed it would change Hollywood and was a major step forward for representation in the industry. It definitely debunked the myth that minority movies don't sell, but has the rest of its promise sort of come to fruition, do you think?

KWAN: I think we're in very early days. I mean, if you really think of it, "Crazy Rich Asians" came out in 2018. And Hollywood, you know, it takes three, four, five years to develop projects and really get them off the ground. I'm very hopeful. I have seen change up close. You know, last season in the TV world, for example, there were six greenlit pilots by the networks that involved Asian casts or cast that had a lot of diversity in it. The fact that a movie like "The Farewell" could do so well and that Awkwafina could win the Golden Globe. I'm hopeful, but we are by no means done.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, I mean, "Crazy Rich Asians" also set this other trend. I'm going to quote from an executive from a Bloomberg piece that I read right after the film came out, and I haven't been able to get it out of my mind. It's about how Hollywood was viewing pitches by Latinos after "Crazy Rich Asians," and an executive at a film company said that the secret to making films with mass appeal for minorities is showing a character that people would aspire to be. He said, and this is a, quote, "if someone comes to me with an immigration story of the poor immigrant, I'm really not that interested." What are your thoughts on the sort of effect that "Crazy Rich Asians" had or at least the way it was interpreted by certain Hollywood executives?

KWAN: I mean, I think that's exactly what we don't want (laughter), quite frankly, you know? Because I think there are amazing stories, you know, in every genre, in every age group and in every socio-economic class. And in the classic immigrant story that, you know, this executive might so frown upon could be something that's genius and beautiful and just waiting to connect to the rest of the world.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Kevin Kwan. His new book is "Sex And Vanity." Thank you very much.

KWAN: It's been such a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.