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Rachel Khong explores genetics, race and the idea of being American in new novel

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

A story of young love across class at the turn of the millennium in New York City, a young man coming of age in the Pacific Northwest, a Chinese science student determining her own future as communism takes hold in her country - these are three of the people we meet in the new novel "Real Americans" by Rachel Khong. The book explores not just what it means to be American and who gets to be one, but also questions about ethics, genetics and power. Author Rachel Khong joins us now. Welcome.

RACHEL KHONG: Thank you so much for having me.

SUMMERS: The first character that we are introduced to is Lily. And when we meet her, it is 1999, and she's a recent college graduate working at this unpaid internship in Manhattan. Can you tell us a little bit about Lily?

KHONG: Yeah. Lily is in her early 20s. She is really adrift in life. She's not quite sure what she wants to be when she grows up. And she's been raised in America with so much privilege sort of under the watchful eye of her mother, who is a much more ambitious person and has lots of big dreams for her. Lily is an art history major. She's someone who, at one point, believed she might be an architect, but then sort of realized she didn't have the ambition and the drive for it. And she's kind of looking just for a place to belong. She's looking for someone to belong with. And that's kind of where we find her when she meets Matthew, who is, I think unbeknownst to her, the wealthy heir to this pharmaceutical empire.

SUMMERS: There's this moment early in the book that I want to ask you about, and it's when Lily is at Matthew's very expensive condo. And she talks about how she catches a glimpse of the two of them together in one of the many mirrors in this condo, and she says, and I'm quoting her here, "in our reflection, I saw an all-American man with a foreign woman, even though I was also all-American." And this really felt to me at the heart of so much of what the book gets into throughout all three of its parts.

KHONG: Very much so. I mean, it's a thought she has that I wish she didn't have. I wish she weren't raised in a country that made her feel this thought. She is fully American. She was born in America, raised American, but there's still a sense that she has that when other people view her, they're not viewing a, quote-unquote, "real" American, and she's still othered in her own culture. I mean, it's really the only culture she's known, but she still feels a little bit outside of it.

And this book is very much about the ways in which we bring our preconceived notions to the way that we approach other people, the way we view other people. Often it's based on really superficial traits, and there's just so much more than meets the eye. And I think for each of these characters, that's very true. You might look at them and think that you know their story, but really it's anything but what you've imagined.

SUMMERS: There are also a number of scenes that explore interracial relationships and particularly ones in which there are white men who are romantic partners of Asian women. I'm thinking specifically - there's that scene where Lily takes Matthew out to meet two of her friends, and she's kind of questioning herself, like, why are they all in relationships with white partners? And she's reflecting on the ways that she sees her friends kind of changing their behaviors, talking differently around these men. And I wonder how you thought about those dynamics.

KHONG: Yeah. I mean, that's such a rich question - right? - because I definitely wanted to explore this phenomenon. I mean, I think it's - Asian woman, white man relationships are - they are quite common. And I think that Lily sort of sees - I guess she sees that she's become a part of this narrative sort of unwittingly, right? Like, she's become an example of someone who is glorifying her white male partner even though she hasn't really - yeah - maybe, like, signed up for it, agreed to it explicitly. It was sort of something that she was almost just, like, told the story of and then adopted and then looked around and wondered, oh, is this what I actually - is this what I actually want?

SUMMERS: So much of this book is about conversations across generations between members of a family, whether it's Lily and Nick, Nick and Matthew, other family members. And these are often really challenging conversations. And I have to say, at least in the family that I grew up in, they don't happen unless someone forces them.

KHONG: Yeah.

SUMMERS: But they were such a big part of this book. How did you think about the things that these characters say to each other, to their loved ones and the things that they can't find a way to say?

KHONG: Yeah, I relate to you. I think it's really hard to have those conversations, especially once you have a sort of pattern of communicating with your family. If you're not regularly delving into people's complicated histories, it might be hard to just bring that up at the dinner table on some random night. So I have always felt that.

But I've, at the same time, been so curious about my parents' pasts, about my grandparents' pasts in part, I think, because there's this huge gap in all sorts of knowledge. I mean, there's cultural knowledge. There's just a difference in the way that we use language, you know, because I'm a more native English speaker. And there can be so much difficulty in communicating our realities to one another, and yet I really want to know. You know, I really want to know what makes my loved ones who they are. And especially with older folks, it's so easy especially, I think, in American culture to sort of valorize youth and to dismiss the elderly when, to me, it seems like that's just - it should be the other way around. You know, there's so much to learn. Yeah, I just want to compare notes.

SUMMERS: Right.

KHONG: You know, I think that history - we always talk about history repeating itself, and so we need to know what it is.

SUMMERS: I wonder, for you, is this book an invitation for us to explore the lives of our family members, those close to us, or perhaps is it a cautionary tale, a warning about what happens if we don't do that, if we don't ask those hard questions?

KHONG: I think it absolutely is. Yeah. You know, it's - I think it's an invitation to be present with your loved ones, to ask them their stories, but also, you know, if that's not really their emotional currency, if the story - if the stories don't come, that's OK, too. I think there's a sort of just presence that's more important than the words themselves. You know, I say this after having written a whole book in order to try to communicate with both my family and other people, but I think that words can only go so far. And it's the physical being in the same room with other human beings and trying to connect - like, that, to me, is sort of paramount.

SUMMERS: Rachel Khong, her latest novel "Real Americans" is out now. Rachel, thank you.

KHONG: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.