In Wendy Wan-Long Shang’s debut, The Great Wall of Lucy Wu, sixth-grader Lucy has a few problems. Just when she’s supposed to get her own bedroom after perfect sister Regina goes to college, Lucy’s great-aunt from China moves in. Then, Sloane Connors threatens to take away Lucy’s chance to be team captain of the sixth-grade basketball team. And don’t even get her started on Saturday morning Chinese school.
Shang’s funny coming-of-age novel tells the story of a girl torn between the culture of her family and her idea of a “normal” American life. In a Q&A with BookPage, Shang tells us about her own childhood resistance to Chinese culture, an upcoming project and why Lucy is so good at shooting hoops.
Can you tell us a little about what inspired you to write the novel?
A few years ago, a distant relative in China contacted my mom for family photographs for some genealogy research. After she sent him the photos, he wrote back, thanking her and saying that he had thought he would never see those photos again. His statement really struck me at the core—the idea of losing photographs in this digital age is pretty astonishing, and given China's modern history, I thought he must have lost them in a truly awful way. Particularly during the Cultural Revolution, you could be persecuted for your family's perceived misdeeds, so people often burned family photographs that they thought could implicate them in some way.
I knew I didn't want to write directly about the Cultural Revolution—I think that narrative belongs to the people who experienced it. But I did want to find a way to connect a modern character to her family's past.
Can you tell us a bit about your family's heritage and background? Did you ever feel the resistance to your family’s culture that Lucy experiences?
As children, my parents fled the communists in China and moved to Taiwan. They then came to the United States as young adults. Most of our close family lives in the United States and Canada, as well as Taiwan, though we have some relatives still living in China.
I grew up in northern Virginia, and at the time, it wasn't a terribly diverse place. (Unlike now—a woman in a hijab made my sushi the other day.) I did feel a tremendous resistance to my culture, probably because it was such a source of tension for me at school. Like Lucy, I did not want to go to Chinese school. I did eat some Chinese food, though I was a pretty picky eater, generally speaking.
Lucy and her siblings are very different—and sometimes clash. Do you have siblings? Which of the Wu kids do you most identify with?
I have one older brother—we are separated by 7 years. I have to say I identify with Lucy the most, particularly because when I was growing up, I felt different from my family. The rest of my family is very science and math-oriented, and I was more geared toward art and language. Kenny [Lucy’s brother] was written for every brilliant but absent-minded boy I know. And Regina—well, we all know a Regina, don't we?
What was your favorite subject in school when you were Lucy's age?
When I was Lucy's age, I loved reading. A great day for me was being dropped off at the library. I also had a wonderful teacher, Mrs. Thompson, and she let us work at our own pace through the class reader. There was a group of us who “competed” against each other to see who was farthest along.
I think like many passionate, lifelong readers, I can't imagine life without reading any more than giving up breathing or eating. I was a bit shy and sheltered as a child, and books were my way of exploring the world—not just different places but different emotions and ways of approaching life. I especially liked characters who did (slightly) naughty things that I wanted to do but didn't dare. The main character from The Alfred G. Graebner Memorial High School Handbook of Rules and Regulations by Ellen Conford was particularly great in that regard.
Who was your childhood hero?
My older brother was my hero throughout my childhood. He was so much older than I was, and he pushed himself to excel at everything. He was his class valedictorian, lettered in track and created these amazing adventures for himself. My parents would often ask him to get me to do things that I wouldn't do for them.
The Great Wall of Lucy Wu reminded me of one of my favorite books from elementary school, In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson. What books did you love to read when you were growing up? If kids finish your novel and want to read more about Chinese characters and families, are there any books you would recommend?
My favorite kinds of books were realistic fiction, often with a humorous edge. I loved Judy Blume, and I particularly appreciated her Tracy Wu character in Blubber. I can't say I was consciously missing Chinese characters at that point, but when I read about Tracy, there was a moment of relief. A there I am! moment. I also loved Harriet the Spy, the Little House books, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and books by Ellen Conford.
If kids are looking for more books with Chinese characters and families, there are great books to choose from. My middle child and I just finished Grace Lin's Where the Mountain Meets the Moon—it may have been the first book he read that didn’t have the word “underpants” and he loved it. While this book is a fantasy, I feel that there is still a strong Chinese sensibility in it when it comes to family and how parents and children are bonded to each other. I think readers would also enjoy Millicent Min, Girl Genius and Stanford Wong Flunks Big-Time by Lisa Yee, as well as the Alvin Ho books by Lenore Look. If they would like to read more about children who grew up during the Cultural Revolution, Red Scarf Girl by Ji-li Jiang is excellent.
Are you a basketball fan? Why did you choose for Lucy to be obsessed with (and very good at) basketball?
Honestly, I was not a basketball fan when I started the book. I chose for Lucy to be a basketball fan in part because as a Chinese-American woman writing about a Chinese-American girl, I wanted to be sure that Lucy was her own person. Consequently, I deliberately gave her some distinct characteristics I did not possess, namely, basketball prowess and a different height. However, in the course of researching this book, I watched women's basketball and read books, particularly by Tennessee women's basketball coach Pat Summitt, and I have to say, if you want to watch a game that's about teamwork and smart plays, women's basketball is where it's at.
Can you tell us about your next project?
I am currently researching a baseball book (funny you should mention In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson!)—there's an interesting point in time where Little League represented a lot of the hopes and dreams of Chinese-Americans, and reflected the changing culture in America as well. It's kind of funny for me that this book also has a sports motif, since I played exactly one season of organized sports as a kid. But my kids play a lot of sports, and for them, sports are a source of excitement, a chance to learn about sportsmanship, and of course, an opportunity to practice teamwork.
Author photo by Maria Pschigoda.