blackbirdonline journalSpring 2018  Vol. 17 No. 1
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A Reading by Jade Chang
captured November 16, 2017

John Ulmschneider: It is great to have you all with us. My name is John Ulmschneider—I am the University Librarian here at Virginia Commonwealth University—and on behalf of the faculty, students, and staff of Virginia Commonwealth University, I extend to everyone the warmest welcome for the seventeenth celebration of the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award. It’s great to have everyone here. I actually have an opening tonight that’s only tangentially related, but I think it’s an important announcement. I am proud to say that effective January 1, 2018, VCU Libraries will become members of the Association of Research Libraries: a preeminent organization, [applause] thank you, and one of the largest and most accomplished university library systems in North America.

VCU is the first US member to join ARL in over fifteen years and joins University of Virginia and Virginia Tech as the only Virginia members of this distinguished company. ARL membership is truly a prominent recognition of VCU’s maturation as a major research institution and a major step forward in our development as a research university. As you can see, we join a distinguished company in the Southeast, and what you will see up here is that every major flagship university in the Southeast are members of ARL. We join that company—we deserve to be in that company, as Virginia Commonwealth University. Give yourself a round of applause.

Thank you. The VCU Cabell First Novelist Award is one of the most important community engagement programs we have, and it is among the many that supported ARL’s recognition of VCU as a flagship institution. We are proud to partner with the Cabell Associates and others to provide some of the financial and logistic support that make this program possible. Beginning last year we are also delighted to provide this new, more permanent home for the VCU Cabell First Novel Award, and I think such a highly successful and recognized program deserves the kind of world-class facility that we’re in tonight.

This lecture hall has proven to be a really fabulous space for readings and programs and events of all kinds, and it’s been in very high demand by folks across the university. In the last fiscal year closing on June 3, 2017, we held over one hundred and fifteen events in this space that engaged over twenty-four thousand people in our first full year of operation. We’re running ahead of that this year too. So this is a great university resource and I am really glad to have the VCU Cabell First Novelist in this space.

But I do have an advertising request for you as you’re here in this space: we need your help to make sure that this is truly the very best space of its kind in any library in Virginia for the kinds of author readings and scholarly lectures of the sort that we’re going to experience tonight. So your donations are helpful and important and essential that we use to fulfill the full promise of this space. We have a lot left to do, we have all kinds of new events that we want to do and we want to improve the experience that you have in this room, so help us. It’s the support of you that makes these kinds of programs possible. You’ll find on all your chairs a little advertisement about the Friends of the Library. Please pick up that brochure and I hope that you will join all of the Friends of the Library here tonight to join them and help them bring these programs in. We do have members of the Friends of the Library and the Cabell Associates Board here; I wonder if they could stand please and be recognized. Thank you so much for all that you do. Thank you so much for all that you do.

This is the tenth year of the cosponsorship between the College of the Humanities and Sciences, the Cabell Associates, and the VCU Libraries in support of the Cabell First Novelist program, and few partnerships have enjoyed the kind of success that we’ve enjoyed in this collaboration. Since 2007, the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award has grown enormously in stature and recognition and is now a keystone literary event for writers that are publishing their first novel and, I hope, a keystone literary event for the Virginia literary arts community—I think you can see that with the attendance here tonight.

Many thanks, especially, go first and foremost to the Cabell Associates for their support of VCU Cabell First Novelist. A little bit of background: the Cabell Associates were founded in 1981 by Margaret Cabell, the wife of Richmond novelist James Branch Cabell, after whom this library is named. The Cabell Associates continue today to encourage scholarly work on James Branch Cabell, to foster his legacy, and to elevate his profile as one of America’s most distinguished literary writers—in fact a writer who helped define the art of fantasy writing for the likes of Neil Gaiman and others and who remains today one of our most distinctive, historical voices of political satire. If you haven’t read any of his books, read Jurgen: you will enjoy it, and you will be shocked by it, so I hope you go ahead and do that.

Joining the Cabell Associates tonight as cosponsors are VCU’s College of Humanities and Sciences and the Department of English, the VCU Libraries and VCU Friends of the Libraries, and the Barnes & Noble bookstore here at VCU. And we extend special thanks tonight of course to our colleagues in the creative writing program here at VCU, which does almost all the hard work in reading all the candidates, administering the award, and selecting the winners—no easy task. And finally we owe many grateful thanks to everyone in the VCU Libraries, the Department of English, and everyone else who have done all the logistics works for tonight’s event, so that all you have to do is sit back and enjoy it. So please a round of applause for all our sponsors.

Now on with the show. The VCU Cabell First Novelist Award annually honors an outstanding debut novel published in the preceding calendar year. Each year the English department receives hundreds of submissions and recruits a small army of students, faculty, staff, and others from around the university to help do the initial screening on these books and to vote on their favorites. We have many members of our broader community here, who are a well-educated lot here in Richmond, especially when it comes to literary fiction. We are delighted that they also have the opportunity to participate in this work. In fact, community members including the Friends of VCU Libraries and others can actually check out, I think, right now the first batch of novels that are here for the 2018 contest, so if you want to check it out and make your opinions known please do so. You can find them, I think, on the first floor of the James Branch Cabell Library: just ask at the desk there if you don’t see them.

Guided by these kind of screener reviews, the English department chooses three finalists, and these finalists are then sent to a panel of judges, which includes always the previous year’s winner, other authors, and local readers who choose the final award. The diverse group of past Cabell First Novelists includes many novelists who have gone on to become major voices in their field. Recent winners include Angela Flournoy for her novel The Turner House, which was a National Book Award Finalist last year; Boris Fishman for A Replacement Life, a captivating first short novel from a Soviet immigrant with an astounding command of English, for a Soviet immigrant; Helene Wecker for her celebrated fantasy-tinged novel The Golem and the Jinni, which was so successful that she is now working on the sequel to that book; and Ramona Ausubel for No One Is Here Except All of Us, a magical tale that grapples with history and the horrors of war. You can see a full history of these on the exhibit that we have on James Branch Cabell: just go to James Branch Cabell exhibit on our website, and you can click on the winners of the First Novelist and see all, all the way back.

So you can see from the process we go through and the astounding winners of this award that selecting the First Novelist is a rigorous process, and the winners have gone on to do just wonderful things. That’s why we’re so proud to have this year’s winner, Jade Chang, with us tonight, and I know we’re all looking forward to hearing her read, discuss her work, and hear more about the process of creating such a wonderful novel. By tradition, the VCU Cabell First Novelist Coordinator, who organized and oversaw the whole process that selected this year’s winner—the Cabell Fellow—has the great honor of introducing our author this year. So presenting the winning author tonight is Julie Geen, third-year student in the MFA creative writing program here at VCU and a specialist in fiction writing. So I don’t know where Julie is but, there she is, come on up.

Julie Geen: Thank you, John, good evening everybody, thank you for coming out tonight. I think you are going to enjoy Jade Chang; we have had a great day today with the kids at the Governor’s School and she was on television this morning and it’s been a blast. I just wanted to say a few more things about this award. It was created by Tom De Haven and Laura Browder as a celebration of VCU’s yearlong novel workshop, and it was the first of its kind in the nation. And I’ve had the privilege of taking Professor De Haven’s novel workshop last year and I haven’t had anybody show me so much patience since I learned to tie my shoes. Thank you.

One of the goals of creating this award was to give the MFA students a little bit of experience with the publishing world so we could meet agents and editors, and just learn a little bit about the publishing industry. Tonight we have with us Marc Gerald and Helen Atsma, Jade Chang’s agent and editor. One of the things we have to do as MFAs is read a whole lot of novels so I would also like to thank my fellow MFAs for all the reading that you are going to be doing, that you are doing, and I’d like to thank the MAs that I have cornered and they’ve done some reading too. This brings us to our winner Wangs vs. the World. I called dibs on this book right away because of the title and I thought the cover was gorgeous and I was not disappointed. The Wangs vs. the World is a twist on two quintessentially American stories: the road trip and the rags-to-riches immigrant tale. So this novel opens with patriarch Charles Wang’s fall from grace, his once-mighty cosmetics empire now belongs to the bank, so does his family’s beautiful Bel-Air mansion and everything in it. So his trip across the country—this road trip is no lark, as collecting his teenage children because he can no longer afford the tuition at their elite private schools. They are all now homeless, but with really expensive clothes, and the family must drive across the country to seek refuge at oldest daughter Saina’s rambling house in the Catskills.

Saina is, well she was, a successful Manhattan artist who is now in hiding after a show that offended the entire art world, and that offending the entire art world part was really, really fun to read. Charles is brash and impulsive, his second wife Barbara bitter and withdrawn, high schooler Grace successful style blogger, college student Andrew dreams of being a comedian. So what could go wrong on a road trip like this? This book is laugh-out-loud funny and it’s heartrending; it tells the story of a family scraped clean of everything they hold dear and their brave scramble to salvage their lives.

The Wangs vs. the World is a New York Times editors’ choice, and one of Amazon’s best books of 2016. NPR called the novel “unrelentingly fun, but it’s also raw and profane. A story of fierce pride, fierce anger, and even fiercer love.” In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Jade Chang remarked, “I really wanted to tell a different immigrant story, about an immigrant family that doesn’t necessarily want to fit in, nor do they see themselves as ‘other.’ They are central to their view of America.” And Ms. Chang succeeded in doing just that. I don’t think I have to explain to anyone in this room how important the work that this book does is in the America we find ourselves in today. This book is fierce. Let’s welcome Jade Chang.

Jade Chang: Hi. Thanks so much for coming, and thank you for such a lovely introduction, Julie. Sorry, I guess I don’t need to stand that close to the microphone. It’s been so nice to be here in Richmond and on this campus; it’s gorgeous and I’ve never been here before so it is very exciting to see it all. I just want to say thank you so much for awarding me this prize. I feel very honored, especially once I heard about the way in which you guys select the finalists. I’ve actually never heard of a literary prize that engages a community in the same way. Yeah, so I really feel very excited to have received this one. So I’ll just read a little bit from the book for you guys. This part is from Andrew’s story and it is one of the stand-up chapters. At this point it’s a little over halfway through, but there aren’t any huge spoilers—I don’t think—and Andrew has done one or two stand-up sets somewhat unsuccessfully thus far. We’re in New Orleans right now.

[“New Orleans, LA” Jade Chang, The Wangs vs. the World, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016.]  

John Ulmschneider is the university librarian at Virginia Commonwealth University’s James Branch Cabell Library.

Julie Geen is the VCU First Novelist Fellow and a third-year MFA student in fiction at Virginia Commonwealth University.

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