The Kelly Writers House held a book launch for Penn professor Weike Wang's new novel "Joan is Okay," which explores the challenges of a Chinese American doctor navigating family relationships and the global pandemic.
The event took place on Feb. 7 at the Kelly Writers House’s Arts Café and was hosted by Penn Artist-in-Residence Piyali Bhattacharya, beginning with Wang reading passages from the book and discussing Joan, the central character. Later, Wang responded to audience questions, ranging from the responsibility of authors when representing minority characters to commentary on Wang’s own career transition from obtaining a Ph.D. in Chemistry to becoming an established writer.
In an interview prior to the event, Wang said that while Joan's story reflects some of her own experiences as a Chinese American immigrant, it is not entirely autobiographical.
“Joan's story is quite different from mine," Wang said. "I did not go to med school. I do not have siblings or siblings-in-law. My parents are both healthy and live in the states. Joan has less anxiety than I do — she is quite content and unapologetic about who she is. What I drew from in my own experience [was] being more or less addicted to working, especially during my 20s and now in 30s, for fear of losing out on writing, teaching, and publication chances!”
Wang added that "Joan is Okay" explores the abstract notion of the American Dream.
“I imagine each person's American dream is different," Wang said. "Joan just wants to go to the hospital. But Fang and Tami [other characters] really want to establish themselves within American society and culture."
Wang has published fiction in a variety of well-known organizations, including The New Yorker and Glimmer Train — in 2018, she won a PEN/Hemingway award for her novel "Chemistry." At Penn, she teaches several fiction writing and creative writing courses.
Wang said that she considered it necessary to incorporate the COVID-19 pandemic into the novel due to its impact on the Chinese American community.
“Writing about the pandemic was not the plan, it was simply the inevitable outcome during another year of edits. I don't think a reader would have accepted a story about a Chinese American ICU doctor working in a post-COVID world, that did not address the huge role of Asian Americans in the health force — how they are overlooked, yet how they have to show up, step up, especially during periods of anti-Asian hate. Anti-Asian hate is not new. It is a large part of American history and racial quotas, especially for Asians going into test-oriented fields like medicine, still exist," Wang said.
The book launch initially planned to include a special guest — Sully Burns, a College senior majoring in English and Creative Writing. While unable to attend the event in person, Sully said that he had loved Wang's work for a long time, crediting her as an inspiration for his own senior thesis, which she advised.
“I've been a big fan of Weike's ever since I took a workshop of hers in my sophomore year. That class actually inspired me to study English and to pursue writing, and I was thrilled when Weike reached out to me to do a reading for 'Joan is Okay," Burns said.
Burns also said that he encouraged anyone at the event interested in writing to try a workshop at Penn.
"Writing is one of the most fulfilling and often therapeutic things a person can do, and the workshops available at Penn are perfect for exploring that," Burns said.
A full recording of the book launch and the question and discussion portion can be found on Youtube.