It’s no surprise to author Lan Samantha Chang that some readers don’t care about Leo Chao, the tyrannical, charismatic, grandiose father at the center of her 2022 novel “The Chao Family.”
As a character, Leo is a challenge. He despises women, he is arrogant and easily angered. He is a bit of an idiot.
Still, “I really like Leo Chao in many ways,” Chang said. He is very direct, you know? And I find that refreshing. I feel there is something admirable about the man.”
Chang grew up in Appleton and has led the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa for 17 years. Her appearance at the Wisconsin Book Festival on Friday, October 14 at 7:30 pm at the Central Library is part of a mini tour of the Midwest. She is set to give a reading at the Fox Cities Book Festival the following night.
“The Family Chao” is set in a small town much like Appleton, when a family gathers for Christmas dinner at their father’s business, the Fine Chao restaurant.
The eldest son, William (“Dagou” or “big dog” is his nickname), has been in charge of the restaurant. At 33, his engagement of over a decade is on the rocks thanks to a new love interest. And he has left himself deeply in debt, hoping that his father will soon make him a partner in the business.
The middle son Ming is the most successful financially, having made his way in New York. But he feels alone and fights against self-hatred. Ming doesn’t even intend to stay for Christmas dinner.
James, the youngest, is a college student. He is a bit flaky and easily distracted, sweetly in love with the girl who works in the Asian market and devoted to her family.
His mother, Winnie, left “Big Leo” Chao when James left for college and his health has been fragile. He lives in a kind of women’s community center called Spirit House, which Chang modeled after a Buddhist temple in New York’s Chinatown. (Chang also based the Chao family’s dog, Alf, on a real dog.)
They all have a complicated relationship with Leo, a man with low morals and fewer alliances. Family tensions rise and Leo is unexpectedly found dead. Halfway through the book, we have a murder mystery on our hands.
Chang’s story provides the context of Leo’s struggle, showing how he reinforced his portion of the American dream among people who were nothing like him.
“There’s definitely a feeling in the city, of being surrounded by people who are different from you who suddenly take notice of you,” he said. “That feeling of being a stranger in a homogeneous space.”
His admiration for Leo as a character stems in part from what he has accomplished before the book begins. Leo goes directly against the “model minority” myth that has pitted Asian immigrants against one another.
“She came to this country with nothing and put salt in the nest, and she has raised three children,” Chang said. “He started his own business, made it flourish for 35 years. He does not let himself be commanded.
“It’s definitely not the downtrodden immigrant,” he added. “He has kept his personality, despite the stress of moving to a new country and learning a new language.”
Chang puts a little bit of herself into every book she writes. In this case, that was the scenario.
“The small town in the Midwest, in Wisconsin, and the weather,” Chang said. “The small-town feel, great privacy but some community, that’s what I wanted to try to write about.”
She grew up in a family of same-sex siblings (four girls, in her case) as the daughter of immigrant parents. That part is close to her experience, as is the restaurant kitchen. “The Family Chao” is full of rich and aromatic descriptions of food: sautéed pea leaves, mushrooms and garlic in meatballs, pork noodles.
Chang started thinking about Chaos in 2005 and imagines the book is set in 2009. He started writing it in 2015 and worked steadily on the novel for the next five or six years. Being around other people in writers’ workshop was helpful for her because of her focus on “transformation and growth,” she said.
“It’s very inspiring to be around people who are finding their unique way to express themselves,” she said. “It gives me this awareness of how prose feels when it’s written by someone who’s doing something new. That was especially significant when I wrote ‘The Family Chao’.
“I felt like I could take risks and try new things, because I was surrounded by people who were taking risks and trying new things.”