A portrait of an Asian woman in a blue top, leaning against a gray-green wall.

Author Rachel Khong on her great American novel

“Real Americans,” the follow-up to her acclaimed debut “Goodbye, Vitamin,” is an intimate, extraordinary novel about the Asian American experience

Rachel Khong.

Andria Lo

Words by Chelsea Lin

It’s a testament to Rachel Khong’s generous spirit that when my recording software malfunctions at the beginning of our interview, she jumps in to record it for me.

I’m embarrassed because Khong is a bit of an idol: I’ve followed her writing for more than a decade, from her coverage of the food industry in now-defunct cult classic magazine Lucky Peach, to her debut novel Goodbye, Vitamin in 2017, to wherever, whenever her byline shows up, whether it’s an interview like this one or short story or her newly released novel Real Americans (Knopf).

I wasn’t the only one enamored with Goodbye, Vitamin—the book was received so well that when she was looking to sell Real Americans, it incited a 17-way bidding war.

The multi-perspective novel follows three family members: Lily, a New York-based 20-something daughter of immigrant scientists pushing against her parents’ expectations; her son Nick, on his own journey of self-discovery years later in his first years studying at Yale (Khong’s alma mater); and Lily’s mother May, now an old woman living in San Francisco and reflecting on the decisions that led to her family’s story in America. Through these characters, Khong weaves a poignant tale of the Asian American experience across generations, decades, and ties to cultural origin, and thoughtfully examines what it means to be a “real” American.

A week before her publication date, I called Khong, who recently moved to Los Angeles from San Francisco, to chat about the pressures of avoiding that sophomore slump, her characters’ battle with American expectations, and the question every creative hates: what’re you working on next?

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

The book cover for "Real Americans" by Rachel Khong.

The book cover for "Real Americans" by Rachel Khong.

Courtesy of Knopf

Chelsea Lin: Congratulations on your book making it out into the world. How are you feeling? Does it feel different than it did when you published Goodbye, Vitamin?
Rachel Khong: It's hard for me to remember exactly how it felt with Goodbye, Vitamin—that was my debut, so I just didn't know what to expect. And with this book, I slightly know what to expect, which makes it actually a little bit more of an anxious time. I feel like it is what it is: I did my best; I wrote this book. And it's not for me anymore. It was mine for so many years and now it's just not going to be mine anymore. The publishing process is so strange because you go from having absolute control over this piece of writing to not controlling anything, and it’s just such whiplash.

CL: Well, you’ve got a few days to fret still [laughs]. But you shouldn't, the story is truly beautiful. I loved Goodbye, Vitamin—as a fan of any musician, artist, writer who has a really powerful debut like yours, you think “How can it live up to that?” I'm sure you as a creator experienced pressure to really knock it out of the park.
RK: With a second book, it's weird that people expect something from you. Obviously, I couldn't just write the sequel. But there is a little bit of that fear—I didn't want to disappoint the people who really loved Goodbye, Vitamin. But there was also no way I was going to write that book again, because I just felt like a different person.

CL: Different in what way?
RK: I don't know... Goodbye, Vitamin was very much my mid-20s-to-being-30 book, and Real Americans feels like more of an adult book to me. I know technically I was an adult when I wrote Goodbye, Vitamin, but I still felt like I was learning how to be a writer, learning how to be a person. My life just looks a lot more stable than it did in my tumultuous 20s. I think the form of the story itself is reflective of the time I spent writing it, the times that I lived through.

CL: Even from inside the book jacket, I was really taken by this idea of, “Are we destined or made?” I know one of the early pages you talk about, “What has she chosen and what has chosen her?” Which of those do you feel like writing is for you? Did you choose writing or did it choose you?
RK: I love that question so much. That's part of why I wrote Real Americans, because I don't actually know the answer to that. My family immigrated to America when I was too young to remember; I was 2 years old. And I often think about other paths my life could have taken. I think we all have some version of that, but for an immigrant it's especially powerful because you can so easily imagine, “Okay, what if we just hadn't gotten on that plane and my whole family still lived in Malaysia?” I always wonder, “Would I have become a writer?”

When we came to America, I was a lonely kid in the suburbs; I visited libraries and bookstores, and books were my only friends for a long time. And that was sort of how I came to become a writer. But it’s so hard to say—is there a specific moment that makes you become something? I think it's just a big tangle of things that you can't quite disentangle. My parents are both civil engineers. They are more math- and science-inclined, and I could not be more different from them in that sense. So then I wonder, “Did I become a writer as a reaction to them?” Or was it something that I was sort of going to be no matter what, no matter where I lived? I don't know.

CL: It's interesting hearing you talk about this because there are so many similarities that you have to Lily's character. One of the things that I thought about in reading the three sections and the different points of view is how you as a writer embody each of these people individually. Is there one of the three characters you feel is more you? Was one of them more difficult to sort of get into the head of when you were writing?
RK: No, I think they are all equally me and not me, to be honest. I knew that because Lily was the character who started the book off and who seemed maybe demographically the most similar to me, that readers might suspect that she was the most like me. But in a lot of ways she is really not like me at all. I really identify with a lot of May’s struggles—May is someone who feels really ambitious, feels really pressed for time. Feels like she's always either living in the past or the future. And Lily, as a grownup, a mother, she’s someone who is just sort of content with her lot in life and doesn't have that same ambition. I aspire to that sense of contentment, that sort of presence with loved ones.

With Nick, I gave him a lot of my teenage and college-era angst—he’s definitely somebody who's questioning what it means to be a quote-unquote good person.

Part of the project of this book, too, was wanting to interrogate these American myths that I was raised with, and one of them is this requirement of Americans to become something, to become distinguished or to be productive members of society. And that is something that I question more and more as I get older: Is that the most important thing, or is the more important thing just sort of existing with your loved ones?

And for all of them, they were both easy to write and kind of hard to write. They were easy in a sense that the voices came to me very clearly, like I could clearly hear the beginning of each of their sections, the voice of their narration. But it was a challenge to parse out the shape of the stories themselves. I spent a lot of time just figuring out what happened to them and what we were going to include.

CL: I find it so fascinating the ways in which these three characters are similar and different. Each of them struggles with this idea of otherness: May as an immigrant, Lily as this sort of first-gen Asian American, and Nick is mixed Asian, but he looks white… They all say at one point that they wish they were a different kind of person. Is that a feeling that you have always had?
RK: Yeah, I think that I have thought versions of this. I think that's just part of this exercise of imagination that I mentioned before, like, “What if my life had just been different?” I think that everyone imagines this to some degree, and I always think about the fact that we just have our one life. And that means we can only experience so much, like being in one place means that we can't be in another place. We choose who to be in a relationship with; we can only devote our time to one thing at a time. And the limitedness of that can feel a little tragic or something. Being a writer of fiction pushes at that limit. It allows you to try on these other lives. And to just imagine what it might be to live as a different person, in a different body, with a different outlook on life.

Fiction has always been a way that I have just imagined myself into other perspectives. I've had that thought, like, “What if I were just somebody else? What if I were a person who was born in America?” That would have changed the way that I approached the world. Maybe the way even now that I'm putting this book out into the world. Like, what if I had the confidence of someone who had been raised with parents who gave them lots of affirmation? This is so fascinating to me, because they’re all part of this equation of, “Why do we become who we become?” And you can't separate all of these different factors, all of these different forces that create you, and result in your life.

CL: As I was reading this, it was in the food scenes—the lentils with the soft-cooked egg and all of the oyster descriptions—that I thought about how you are, you were, a food writer. Can you tell me a little bit about what it was like working at Lucky Peach? What role does food still play in your writing?
RK: Of course, I think about food all the time (laughs). To me, it's glaring when I read a piece of fiction and I don't see any descriptions of food, because human beings have to eat every day. That's how we sustain ourselves. So I notice it when people really don't care.

Lucky Peach was a lot of fun. I was both an editor and a writer. It taught me so much in terms of editing and writing honestly, also structure, and with food especially, you know, there's sort of limited ways to describe food. There's only so many times you can use the word “delicious.”

CL: And a lot of them are really gross.
RK: Some are very gross. Like “moist” or whatever. “Unctuous.” So writing does involve a lot of creativity. You have to get really creative about how you're describing things. But I also think it's such a window into who people are. At Lucky Peach I did a lot of profiles of chefs, and so I often got to taste their food, but also slightly got to know them as a person.

There’s just something so visceral about food… I love cooking, and I cook almost every night. But, in contrast to writing, it's something that just disappears. My mom cooked dinner for us almost every night growing up, and I can remember some meals, but the vast majority made for me are just gone. I do think about that sometimes when I'm cooking dinner for my own little family, and I think there's something that is a little sad about that. But it's also really beautiful, right? It's just this thing that disappears, that is an act of caring, but it also exists so much in the present moment. That's what I find really fascinating about food and about the people who prepare it. For me personally, over food is where I have the most connection with other people.

We choose who to be in a relationship with; we can only devote our time to one thing at a time. And the limitedness of that can feel a little tragic or something. Being a writer of fiction pushes at that limit. It allows you to try on these other lives.

CL: I know, a few years ago, probably pre-pandemic, I remember reading that there was a film adaptation of Goodbye, Vitamin going to happen with Constance Wu attached. Is that still happening?
RK: I don't think it's really happening anymore. It’s disappointing. My husband actually, he's a little bit in this industry, and he described it to me like waiting for a film or TV show to get made is like you're at a stream, and you're standing on this little bridge over the stream, and you're watching a twig just making its way down the stream, and sometimes the twig will get caught on a rock. And then that's the end of that twig. But sometimes the twig wriggles free and then it continues on its journey. So, I'm still watching the twig. I'm not sure what's going to happen. I'm hoping it might wriggle free at some point.

CL: I know obviously the industry has been through a great deal in the last four years… Do you have any other film or TV projects in the works?
RK: I have a short story of mine called The Freshening that came out in the Paris Review quite a few years ago, and that has been in development to become a movie. It’s going to be directed by Cathy Yan, who also directed Birds of Prey and this really great movie called Dead Pigs. She wrote the adaptation, too. I think it's official that John Boyega is attached to star in it. So that's the twig that has gotten the most far down the stream, and we'll see what happens. I think they're planning to film it this year.

CL: That's awfully exciting. Tell me about (San Francisco coworking and community space) The Ruby. I'd love to hear about how that got started for you.
RK: I started The Ruby in January 2018, after my first book came out, and after I had left Lucky Peach, and in part because I just missed my coworkers. I just was really interested in creating a place where creative people could come and both learn from one another and commiserate, because art making can be really frustrating and can just be such a long, lonely process. We have become so siloed, even before the pandemic, because so much of life has moved in the virtual direction. It's become harder to hang out in real life. I just really wanted to make a space that would be the antidote to all of these forces that I felt were in place. I'm the happiest when I'm in groups of people, especially groups of women and non-binary people.

I left at the end of 2021, after four years of running it, which was really like a more-than-full-time job. And especially after the pandemic, I just felt so burnt out. I realized in 2021 I was struggling to finish my book, which I had started in 2016. Once I left The Ruby, I was able to go on these longer retreats, and I finished the book in probably July 2022, when I had the draft that I sold to my editor.

CL: What are you working on next? Are you taking a breather? Writers never do that. There's always something.
RK: I have a book of short stories that's going to come out after this novel, short stories that I've been writing over probably the course of a decade at this point. And I'm excited about that because I just get really weird in my short fiction, because I feel like that’s where you can really experiment and just try things out.

I also have started a new project. I can't really say too much about it yet because it's still in pretty early stages. It was something that I felt a little bit of resistance to and maybe a little fear of. This project specifically was something that I thought, “Oh, no, I can't. I couldn't do that.” And having that thought made me sort of realize that it’s the project that I need to pursue.

Published on April 30, 2024

Words by Chelsea Lin

Chelsea Lin is JoySauce's Seattle-based managing editor and a lifelong storyteller (read: loudmouth). She loves memoirs, bold patterns and bright colors, travel (armchair or otherwise), and dessert—always dessert.