Words by Samantha Pak
When Jen Sookfong Lee started writing her latest book, Superfan: How Pop Culture Broke My Heart, the plan was just to examine pop culture, and defend her love for it. It was never meant to be a memoir.
“I didn’t expect it to get as intimate as it did,” she admits.
Weaving together moments and figures from pop culture with key moments in her life—from her father’s death when she was 12, to dealing with being the subject of Asian fetish, her divorce and surviving sexual assault—Lee delves into her life growing up in Vancouver, B.C., as the daughter of Chinese immigrants, and how it all shaped her into who she is today.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Lee—whose past works range from the multigenerational family story in The End of East (2007), to the collection of essays she edited in Whatever Gets You Through: Twelve Survivors on Life After Sexual Assault (2019), to the children’s book Finding Home: The Journey of Immigrants and Refugees (2021)—about her new book. We bonded over our love of reading, our feelings on Amy Tan and Rihanna, wanting to be writers (with no backup plans), and the white female celebrities on our shit lists (Gwyneth Paltrow for her, Scarlett Johansson for me).
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Samantha Pak: Jen, thank you for meeting with me. I really appreciate it. You were traveling before this, so welcome home!
Jen Sookfong Lee: Oh yeah, thank you for having me!
SP: First, can you give me a little bit of background about how and why you first got into writing? When you thought, “I want to be a writer.”
JSL: I started reading voraciously when I was really young. I actually don’t even remember a time when I wasn’t reading all the time. So I think when I really wanted to be a writer, I was probably around 10 years old. I had always loved writing stories. It was something I did at school and stuff. But I think at 10, I really thought, “I’m gonna be a writer.” Never had a plan B. But I told my parents I was gonna go to law school. That really put my mom at ease for a while, but really I first wanted to be a writer at 10 years old and I’ve never changed my mind, which was a real blessing and a curse.
SP: I’m literally the same (laughs). Going through the books you’ve written and edited, it’s quite a mix. You’ve got fiction and nonfiction about different topics. So where did the idea come from for you to write about your own story? What led you to something so personal?
JSL: When I started writing Superfan, initially, I thought of it as a defense of loving things that are popular. Because you always go to a dinner party and someone like me will say, “Did anyone see the last episode of The Bachelor?” And there’s always someone else who’s like, “I don’t watch reality television.” What if I was talking to that person, and wanting to defend the environment and the prominence of pop culture and why people love it, what it means and what it says about us? The easiest way to bring a reader into why you love something is you really do have to show them everything about you in that context. I don’t love writing about myself, but that’s what the book needed. I will do what the book needs. How I personally feel about it doesn’t really matter that much. I’m a real slave to the book.
SP: I really related to your Amy Tan chapter. I feel all Asian American women who are big readers, I think we all go through an Amy Tan phase.
JSL: Of course!
SP: You went through a phase where you didn’t like her, and I get that too. The Joy Luck Club became a template for a lot of Asian American writing.
JSL: And it felt impossible! Because how are any of the rest of us going to write that story as well as Amy Tan? When I started resenting (The Joy Luck Club), I completely forgot that the book is actually really well crafted, really well written, really well structured. It’s a really good book, actually. And when I started hating it, I had totally forgotten about that. When I started writing Superfan, I still hated it. And then I went back because I was writing the book. And I was like, “Oh god, this is a good book though. She did a really good job.”
SP (laughs): You sound so resigned, like, “Ugh, okay. It is good. I accept that.”
JSL: Amy Tan as a public figure, I have a lot of respect for and a lot of affection for, actually. But the book, to me, it’s not her fault, because she didn’t know it was going to become the template for all other things we were supposed to do. That’s the world putting that on her book. Not even her, so much, but on her book. I felt so much remorse for hating it. I felt so bad—like I was her rebellious daughter being an asshole because I couldn’t see the value of what she was doing. And that’s unfair. And I think I address that in the book.
SP: In the book, when you saw (Canadian novelist and poet) Evelyn Lau’s story on the news, you write that that was the first time you saw someone like you in the media. Was Lau (whose life was later turned into a film starring a young Sandra Oh) your first point of representation you saw growing up?
JSL: Yeah, 100 percent. There were Asian women off and on, but (Lau) was so closely aligned with so many things: She was from the same area of Vancouver. She didn’t look that different from my sisters and me. She was a writer, right? So all of these things. She had this inner wildness that really longed to get out, which is a really difficult thing when you grow up in an immigrant family—particularly an Asian immigrant family—and you are a woman. It’s really, really hard, to want to be wild, or to want to have more choices. Because that’s not what’s offered to you ever. After I heard about Evelyn Lau as a teenager, there was almost nobody, for the longest time, to even feel that kind of representation. It was literally nothing, for me, until Ali Wong—which was when? Five years ago (laughs)! That girl didn’t show up again until I saw Baby Cobra when I was 39.
SP: That whole chapter about Gwyneth Paltrow and her being your nemesis cracked me up because I feel the same way about Scarlett Johansson.
JSL: She’s also odious! Honestly!
SP: For me, her whitewashing Asian roles, that’s why she’s on my shit list.
JSL: She should be on your shit list! There’s a particular type of famous white woman who really believes that they’re better than the rest of us. You can add a Gwen Stefani to that; you can add a Gwyneth Paltrow to that.
SP: Ugh (groans in agreement about Stefani).
Imagine if the book you wrote about Asian women, identity, and pop culture representation is going to be published in one week, and then Gwen Stefani literally says in an interview, "My God, I'm Japanese." I guess Gwen is my special troll now. https://t.co/Y6FEAXvQv9— Jen Sookfong Lee (@JenSookfongLee) January 10, 2023
JSL: (Stefani’s) on my shit list. But that’s recent-ish. Everything they say, they do, they’re telling us who they are. They have been telling us who they are for 20 years. And they genuinely think that the rest of us need to aspire to be them, and I find that so obnoxious.
SP: What was the writing process like (for Superfan)? Did you talk to family about trying to piece things together—especially with things when you were younger?
JSL: I did send a couple chapters to one of my sisters for fact checking. The really interesting thing is that I really tried to write most of it in isolation, for the most part, memoir is always a story that you lived and it’s your story. I kept it really tightly focused on my point of view. I have a really good memory. There’s a condition where you have hyper memory for long-term things, so that stuff is really easy for me to remember. My sisters who have read the book already, they did say to me, it’s really interesting how our experiences of the same household, of the same family, are so different. And that’s exactly the way it is, right?
SP: Also, because there was such a big age range. I think your oldest sister was 17 years older than you?
JSL: Yeah. She’s almost like my mother.
SP: I did like the Rihanna chapter. And I’m not a huge Rihanna fan, but I do like her. I appreciate that you used Rihanna and not Beyonce.
JSL: Oh yeah, Beyonce is the obvious choice for a lot of people. I tried to write (that chapter) differently. Where I was imagining a conversation with Rihanna. And then, I was like, “No. I cannot speak for Rihanna, who is my one true leader. That’s silly.” So I just wrote it like, “What if Rihanna was the boss of my life? How would my life be different?” I hope she reads it! I don’t know if I’m gonna send (a book) to her. I think it’s a real tribute to her. I clearly love her so much!
SP: You have a very complicated relationship with your mom. Has she read the book? Does she know what’s in the book?
I try really hard to understand her. I think she deserves that. Not to say that I don’t fight with her sometimes. But she deserves to be understood, as most people do.
JSL: No, she doesn’t read English—which is great. Very useful (laughs). She’s actually quite different now in her old age. She doesn’t have any anger left, I don’t think. Her edges are quite softened. The way she was growing up, I realize now a lot of that was situational. Imagine being the mother of five girls in a country in which you don’t know the language and you know your husband’s gonna die. It’s a horrible, terrible situation. We do have a complicated relationship, but I think she knows that. There was one time, not long ago, where she apologized for being absent when I was young. She knows that she wasn’t all there. I try really hard to understand her. I think she deserves that. Not to say that I don’t fight with her sometimes. But she deserves to be understood, as most people do.
SP: What were some of the more challenging parts to write?
JSL: The stuff on Asian fetish was really difficult for me to write. I think that that was really emotional, in a way. And then the women in Atlanta were murdered, that added a whole other layer to it that I did not expect, clearly.
SP: Were you already in the middle of writing that part when that happened?
JSL: Yeah, that chapter had been through three or four drafts by then. When that happened, I decided to add something. My editor said, “If it doesn’t fit and it doesn’t work out, don’t worry about it. But if you feel like you can, try.” And I did try. And I think it’s an integral part of that chapter. But it was very difficult for me. Because (Asian fetish) is a big social and political issue, but at the same time, it’s just you and another person in a room. It’s just so difficult. It may not be about my race for him, but the outcome of it is that it is about my race for me. I have no control or knowledge of what another person intends. I just know what it feels like on the receiving end.
SP: If you're not on the receiving end, if you’re not the one dealing with it, you can’t tell me what my experiences are.
It’s always white people that say, “What if it’s not about your race?” My response is always, “I don’t get to take my face off.” So it is. My race is a visible, obvious part of me.
JSL: No, you can’t tell me how this thing made me feel. It’s always white people that say, “What if it’s not about your race?” My response is always, “I don’t get to take my face off.” So it is. My race is a visible, obvious part of me. There is no world where I can walk through and people don’t know that I’m an Asian person.
SP: The parts about your dad and when he was sick, I related to that a little bit because my dad got sick when I was in high school. He had cancer—he’s good and he’s fine now. That was a very touching and very emotional section of the book for me. What was it like to write that?
JSL: I was 8 when he was diagnosed. He died when I was 12. I was pretty young, yeah. The stuff surrounding my father’s illness and death is one of those stories my family has retold to each other over and over again. It’s a family myth now at this point. So it wasn’t terribly hard for me to write about it. I think for a lot of people, those are really difficult emotions to read through. Everybody has an experience with grief and loss, right? I’ve heard from a few people that those chapters are really difficult for them because it brings up things that happened, traumas and losses, right? I guess I’m dead inside, because for me, it was fine (laughs).
SP: Or maybe you aren’t since you lived through it and you’ve already experienced those emotions and went through all of that.
JSL: Yeah, these stories about my dad are things I tell my kid all the time. He likes to hear about my dad, his grandpa, who he never met, obviously. These are things we talk about a lot and that’s good. That’s how I keep a relationship with my father, even if a lot of it’s made up.
SP: Did you have any cathartic moments after finishing chapters or certain parts of the book?
I have never spent so much time with Kris Jenner as I did when I was writing that thing. I thought I knew her and then I got to know her real well when I was writing it.
JSL: Yeah, I think for me, the Perfect Mother (chapter), which is about the Kardashians and Kris Jenner, that one was a real deep dive. It was difficult. My editor and I went back and forth on that a lot. Because we’re really delving into so much of who I am, who my mother is and my relationship with my mother. And in addition, my editor loathes the Kardashians. Hates them (laughs). She kept saying to me, “You need to make me understand why you care. I can’t stand them. They’re the worst. So, you have to convince me.” So that one was a lot of work. And when it was done, I remember, it was probably the last one to be really totally finished. And I remember my editor saying, “Congratulations, that’s it.” And I said, “Thank fucking god!” That chapter, man! I have never spent so much time with Kris Jenner as I did when I was writing that thing. I thought I knew her and then I got to know her real well when I was writing it.
SP: What has the reception for this book been like?
“You reeled me in with pop culture and then you hit me over the head with white supremacy.” And I’m like, “Then I’ve done everything I’ve come to do. That’s it!”
JSL: It’s been much bigger than I thought. So that’s been really nice. I get two reactions, typically. One is, “I feel like I’m talking to my best friend when I’m reading this book.” That’s very nice. It’s nice to have that connection with readers. The second reaction I get is, “You reeled me in with pop culture and then you hit me over the head with white supremacy.” And I’m like, “Then I’ve done everything I’ve come to do. That’s it!” One of my friends was saying that to me, “I love it. You’re just tricking all the white people into thinking they’re just gonna read about the Kardashians, but no!” That’s my radical act (laughs).
SP: I know this book just came out, but what other projects do you have lined up or in the works at the moment?
JSL: I’m writing a horror novel. I’m actually supposed to finish it today. We’ll see how far I get (laughs). It’s done, I just need to add a few things. That’s what’s happening for me. Usually, I have about three projects on the go and I don’t this time. Just one, which is unusual for me. But maybe I’m slowing down a little bit. I wrote a lot of books in a short period of time. So maybe it’s time for me to slow down for a little bit.
Superfan: How Pop Culture Broke My Heart is available where ever books are sold.
Published on March 3, 2023
Words by Samantha Pak
Samantha Pak (she/her) is an award-winning Cambodian American journalist from the Seattle area and assistant editor for JoySauce. She spends more time than she’ll admit shopping for books than actually reading them, and has made it her mission to show others how amazing Southeast Asian people are. Follow her on Twitter at @iam_sammi and on Instagram at @sammi.pak.