Qian Julie Wang’s memoir is an unforgettable account of what it means to live under the perpetual threat of deportation and the small joys and sheer determination that kept her family afloat in a new land. Told from a child’s perspective, in a voice that is intimate, poignant and startlingly lyrical, Beautiful Country is the story of a girl who learns first to live – and then escape – an invisible life. Read on to find out more about how the author came to write this book and enter the competition to win one of five copies.
Can you tell us a little bit about Beautiful Country, for anyone who hasn’t been lucky enough to read it yet?
In 1994, I moved to New York City from north China with my parents. I was 7 at the time. Overnight, I went from being a typical kid in China to being an undocumented child who had only two people to trust in the entire western hemisphere. Beautiful Country is about the very early years of our immigration journey. It is, at its core, an exploration of what it means to make a home. And perhaps even more than an immigrant narrative, it is a return to the wonderous and terrifying world of childhood, back to that time when we were all still tender and open. It is a voyage into the love, pain, and secrets of family, a flight through the confusion, resilience, and delight of coming of age. In the vein of Angela’s Ashes and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Beautiful Country embarks on a special field trip into the childhood wounds, love, and laughter that form the indelible core of our adult selves.
What was the point in your life where you felt ready to open up about your experience of growing up undocumented?
I had always dreamed about writing this book because while I grew up learning English on library books, I never found a book that depicted characters who looked like me and lived in the way my parents and I did. It was my biggest and wildest ambition to write a book that might allow others out there to see themselves reflected in literature, and have them know that it is possible to survive similar circumstances. Even so, I figured I would never make it happen, because I had for so long lived under messaging that my past was shameful and had to be kept hidden. It wasn’t until the discourse of the 2016 election, which took place just six months after I became a naturalized US citizen, that I discovered that I had a newfound power and thus responsibility to share my story, that at that juncture of my life, I was making an actual decision to stay quiet—a privilege that millions of undocumented immigrants did not have. It was then that I realized that what I had long thought of as singularly mine was no longer my secret to keep.
The recollections in Beautiful Country are so vividly described from your childhood perspective. How did you find the process of writing the book and recounting these stories?
Writing this book was transformative and healing. In fact, it was similar to the processing I did in therapy, where I went back into my childhood memories, parented myself, and allowed little Qian to feel everything that she could not afford to feel in the moment. In the act of combing through memories, revisiting diary entries, and looking at the photos from that time, I found myself finally healing in a way that I never before felt in all my decades of running from my past. But the biggest and most vital transformation that the book has bestowed upon me is in my relationship to my parents. In writing the book, I was able to simultaneously honor for the first time both (1) my experience of the events as a child and (2) their experiences as adults in their early 30s who gave up absolutely everything they had for a sliver of a chance at a better future. Writing this book necessarily forced me to recognize that it is possible to both stand firm in my childhood truth while empathizing with my parents, and so much closure has emerged from that harmonious duality.
Your passion for books hugely shines through in the book, both as a tool to learn English and also in finding yourself. Could you elaborate on how books provided comfort to you growing up?
When I moved to America, books became my surrogate family and friends. I lived and breathed books, and considered fictional characters my most trustworthy companions. For me, books like the Babysitters’ Club and Sweet Valley High were my means of escaping into a normal American childhood, whatever that meant, and those like the Diary of Anne Frank and Julie of the Wolves were my lifeline, showing me how other children had made it through early hardships with resilience and hope. It was also in this new family that I learned that literacy was my key to empowerment and agency—that it mattered less what happened, and more the stories I told myself about what happened.
Your book provides a perspective of a life we don’t often hear about. What do you hope your story will leave with readers, either with or without similar experiences to your own?
I wrote Beautiful Country with the hope that readers will experience it as a train ride back into that familiar, joyful, and sometimes terrifying forest of childhood. More than an immigrant narrative or an Asian American story, at bottom, the book is an exploration of what it means to be human, and what it means to make a home. My deepest hope is that it awakens in readers a recognition that beyond superficial labels—undocumented or American-born, Asian American or not, rich or poor—there are universal strands of the human experience that connect all of us. We all, I suspect, have had a teacher who was not altogether nice to us; we all have at some point felt like we did not fit in, and we all recall fondly the first time we discovered our favorite food and our favorite book. Our childhood experiences comprise the hidden force that continues to wield power over our adult selves. I hope Beautiful Country will serve as an invitation for readers to revisit their own childhood terrain anew, and consider just how much of our society might be healed if we honored the hold childhood continues to have on us and on those all around us.
Tell us why you would like to win a copy of Beautiful Country on twitter, Facebook or Instagram or if you are not on social media you can send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Competition is open to UK residents only and ends on Thursday 21 October.