Welcome to my Taiwanese American Heritage Week feature series! Taiwanese American Heritage Week is celebrated every year in May starting on Mother’s Day and ending the following Sunday. Each year during TAHW I spotlight Taiwanese authors and books in some form or fashion on my blog. You can find all of the past features in my Post Index.
The second author interview in my 2021 TAHW series is with Ed Lin on his debut YA novel David Tung Can’t Have a Girlfriend Until He Gets into an Ivy League College.
David Tung is a Chinese American high-school student who works in his family’s restaurant, competes for top rank at his upscale, Asian-majority, suburban New Jersey high school, and hangs with his “real” friends at weekend Chinese school in NYC’s working-class Chinatown.
When popular girl Christina Tau asks David to the high school Dame’s Dance, David’s tightly regimented life gets thrown into a tailspin. He soon realizes that he actually has feelings for Betty, the smartest girl at Chinese school. But, as his mother reminds him, he’s not allowed to have a girlfriend! Should he defy his mother and go to the dance, or defy Cristina’s wishes and spend Saturday night studying for the MCATs?
Ed Lin’s YA-debut explores coming-of-age in the Asian diaspora while navigating relationships through race, class, young love, and the confusing expectations of immigrant parental pressure.
Q: Prior to publishing David Tung Can’t Have a Girlfriend Until He Gets into an Ivy League College, you wrote several mystery and crime novels for adults. What drew you to writing a young adult novel?
It was a bit of a natural progression. When writing stories set in Chinatown and Taiwan, I can’t help but see my family’s story in the course of research, and naturally, it makes me think about my own youth. I grew up in Jersey in the 80s, and I haven’t seen that reflected at all in coming-of-age stuff for those of East Asian descent. So much stuff is set on the West Coast, maybe too much. There’s a certain tougher, sarcastic edge to the Northeast, and it lends a great sense of humor to those lucky enough to have lived in the tri-state area, and I marinated the book in it. I’m doing it for the kids, but I’m also doing it for me.
Q: David Tung’s story is filled with a large cast of characters. Who was your favorite supporting character to write in this book and why?
All the characters are just different shades of me, really. I love them all, even the horrible ones, because they’ve been hurt, and this is how they react. Chun was out shoplifting because he wanted more attention from his mom, and also probably craved discipline. Andy can’t wait to be 20, so then he can procure his real-estate broker license, and try some international gray-market commercial-building deals. Jean probably won’t be happy until she moves back to L.A., which is something her family should heavily consider. Christina will probably double-down on studying just to make sure David can’t top her GPA, which would be especially humiliating.
Q: In an alternate universe where being a doctor isn’t his priority, what field(s) would David study and pursue instead? (Alternatively, what kinds of electives would he take while doing the pre-med track?)
Electives? Wow, this is really drilling down! I don’t think anything would dissuade him in this universe, but in a parallel, grimmer existence, maybe David would look into being a lawyer. Or, if he manages to work on his relationship with Betty, she might influence him into getting into global finance, or property development. The latter would be apt considering all the gentrification going on in Shark Beach. I guess he’d take electives in astronomy and geology, because the natural sciences do hold their appeal to him. He’d still do track in college if he can make the team.
Q: Food seems to come up a lot in your work, which isn’t surprising given your background. What do you think is the role of food in literature? And what are your favorite Taiwanese and/or Chinese foods?
I don’t know about the role of food in literature, but in terms of being authentic about having East Asian characters, they’d better be into getting good food! Don’t they say that Asians eat to live, and live to eat? Haven’t you ever had that experience in Taipei when you think you can’t eat another bite, and then 15 minutes later you see something that you have to eat right then? Get this. I’m allergic to seafood, including shellfish, so there are many things that I cannot eat. my favorite foods right now in my mind are: turnip cake (no dried shrimp, though!), pan-fried until crispy; a spicy beef-noodle soup with pepper grit on the bottom for texture; mango shaved ice; red-bean wheel cake, right out of the grill mold; and those giant boneless fried-chicken fillets sprinkled with chili powder.
Q: Since your debut in 2002, you’ve covered a lot of ground with 2 books set in New Jersey, 3 in New York City, and 3 in Taipei. What’s next for you in your writing career?
Make that three books set in Jersey: Math Paper Press, an imprint of Singapore’s Books, Actually, has just published Motherfuckerland, which is set on the Jersey shore. I plan to continue the Taipei series, and write some other weird books, as well. I don’t lack ideas.
About the Author:
Ed Lin, a native New Yorker of Taiwanese and Chinese descent, is the first author to win three Asian American Literary Awards and is an all-around standup kinda guy.
His books include Waylaid, and a mystery trilogy set in New York’s Chinatown in the ‘70s: This Is a Bust, Snakes Can’t Run and One Red Bastard. Ghost Month, published by Soho Crime, is a Taipei-based mystery, and Incensed and 99 Ways to Die continue that series.
David Tung Can’t Have a Girlfriend Until He Gets Into an Ivy League College, his first YA novel, was published by Kaya Press in October 2020.
Lin lives in Brooklyn with his wife, actress Cindy Cheung, and son.
Photo Credit: Anrong Xu