The Many Meanings of Meilan by Andrea Wang is on sale now.
By Nawal Qarooni Casiano
To read this book is to be enveloped in the warm embrace of a wonderfully nuanced young girl whose emotional ups and downs are exactly as they should be: Nebulous and sometimes spiraling but gloriously thoughtful and ultimately, strong. The Many Meanings of Meilan, award-winning author Andrea Wang’s debut middle grade novel, is about a girl named Meilan whose storytelling gets her into trouble, causing her family to leave the comfort of Chinatown in Boston for an unfamiliar, predominantly white fictionalized Ohio town of Redbud. It is there that Meilan is given a new anglicized name, against her will, and fractures herself into many Meilans as a coping mechanism in an unwelcoming new school without friends or a strong sense of who she is.
“I wanted to explore the idea of identity like I usually do,” said Wang, who is also the author of the picture book Watercress.
Some of the plot is informed by Wang’s own experiences, having been born in Cambridge by parents who separately immigrated to the United States from Hong Kong and Taiwan after the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 lifted the previous visa quota of 105 Chinese immigrants per year. Wang was the only Chinese American in class when her family moved to Ohio when she was two.
“I found that a very isolating experience,” Wang said, recalling an amazing elementary teacher who allowed the building of book towers under her desk so she could hide from the class. “I retreated to books.”
She was raised in the 70s and her parents very much sent the message that she should assimilate, do her work, and stay out of trouble. That’s what Meilan does at her new school. “Just blend in,” Wang said. “And we experienced racism in that town. Our car got keyed. It made me feel definitely other.”
For this book, Wang wanted to think through what it might feel like to grow up surrounded by people who look like you, hence an initial setting in Chinatown. She was always fascinated by the tonal nature of Mandarin’s homophones, whose word meaning changes completely when the speaker’s inflections do.
As such, it was incredibly important to Wang to ensure that the cultural details of the text were accurate. There was an expert language reader, an expert for culture and an expert reader to be sure references to Native people were also exact.
“Rightly or wrongly, I recognize that people might see me as a representative of my culture,” Wang said, emphasizing the need for accuracy in the novel. “But of course there is more than one experience and story.”
For example, not all immigrant mothers spout idioms at every turn like mine and Meilan’s (there is a beautiful round-up of ‘Mama’s Meanings’ at the end with Chinese idioms). Not all immigrants feel uncomfortable with anglicized versions of their names. But Meilan in the text absolutely does not want to be called Melanie, a new name suggested by her principal.
“I believe that to be renamed is a violent act,” Wang said, referencing her recent article on pronouncing Asian names correctly. “It fractures your sense of self.”
This book is about code-switching, too. It’s about the hyphenated lives the children of immigrants live, to fulfill dreams for their parents while also trying to navigate spaces where they are made to feel different and find themselves. We have home versions of ourselves and school versions. We take care of our parents. We translate for them. We strive to understand the histories of our parents and grandparents and all that they left behind. This text elucidates a character trying to grapple with it all.
In her new school, Meilan resists injustice—finding her whole self along the way—and makes unlikely friends, too. Those friends show their true colors, eventually, and reveal their own young struggles. With that, Wang hopes compassion and camaraderie will shine through, as “everyone is struggling with something. Everyone has a story we aren’t aware of.” This book serves as a springboard for conversations about universal feelings and collective humanity, empathizing with others, and attempting to understand their experiences. While Wang wanted for Chinese Americans to see themselves on the pages, she hopes too that the story will feel relatable to all.
“At times, Meilan is not just speaking differently but trying to make herself invisible,” Wang said, drawing on her own experiences as a child. “Other times, she stands up because of injustice. Sometimes, she is the holder of expectations.”
Ultimately, Meilan knows too that stories and words are powerful, and that her family’s culture and history are an integral part of her whole identity. (“Your imagination and stories make our family richer, more fragrant,” her grandfather says). Though beetles scuttle in her belly as an apt expression of anxiety, she realizes that “story is an essential part of her life,” like it is to Wang’s. When Meilan feels comfortable and at home, there are references to warm baked goods, like egg tarts and curry-filled pastries.
The Many Meanings of Meilan, with its beautiful prose and poetic turns of phrase, is a testament to the strength of our words, family relationships, and culture.
“Stories can be soothing. Stories can create havoc,” Wang said. “Stories are powerful.”