Word, Inspiration & Story – The Journey of Kevin Kwan
A self-professed “observer”, few modern authors can eviscerate class privilege and wealth with more flair than Kevin Kwan. Still digesting the overwhelming success of his bestselling, much translated and movie-adapted novel Crazy Rich Asians, he is back with his fourth novel entitled Sex and Vanity. Inspired by E.M. Forster’s A Room With A View, it is a homage to Kevin’s heroes such as Edith Wharton, Henry James and Evelyn Waugh.
Session host and author Shunali Khullar Shroff has shone a light into Indian society, writing on feminism, hierarchy, travel and modern life. Shunali quotes a critic in Publisher’s Weekly who describes Kevin’s latest as, “the literary equivalent of white truffle and caviar pizza”. He grants his readers full access to a world of love affairs, decadent travel from Capri to the Hamptons and, of course, lashings of deceit.
Born in Singapore, Kevin and his family immigrated to Texas when he was eleven. During return visits to Asia, he was staggered to find how extremely rich most of his friends and family were. Their ever-increasing wealth and status was so different to his “relatively normal middle class life in the US”. He felt like an outsider but would often find himself, “behind this velvet curtain, which allowed me to see the foibles, really the comedy and the absurdity of their lives”.
Shunting aside frivolity, Shunali describes the book as a “very nuanced exploration of class hierarchies, racism and people’s identities”. Undoubtedly it is Kevin’s diverse background in journalism, design, photography and a decade in publishing that informed his current success. He has done the hard graft. Interestingly Crazy Rich Asians was something he wrote as a form of therapy, a way of capturing memories while his father was fighting for his life. This deeply personal project found wings and carved out a new niche, but sadly after his father had passed.
After working with author Deborah Davis on a commemorative Oprah Winfrey book, he shared some of the manuscript with her. Deborah gave him stellar feedback and pushed him to pursue publishers. Despite huge reservations, Kevin finally took a meeting with an agent. He is still with that agent to this day and the rest is fabulous. Not only did Crazy Rich Asians mainline into the zeitgeist, but encrusted it with diamonds. Makes sense that earlier in his career, Kevin produced a coffee table book for legend Elizabeth Taylor, My Love Affair with Jewelry.
On reflection, “the books together with the movie dovetailed into a cultural moment that was especially meaningful for Asian Americans, and Asians around the world…who have not felt seen.” Highlighting a recent controversy at the Golden Globe Awards, he explains that a Korean American film that was funded in the States, shot completely there using Korean American actors, was insultingly classified as a Foreign Film because of some Korean dialogue. “I think there’s still a very, very tall mountain to climb, and we have to keep climbing it and chipping away, day by day.”
The intense racism that the Asian American community has been recently targeted with, the hate speech, regular beatings and senseless murders, is shocking. Referring to four deaths in the community just in the past few weeks, he says, “There’s so much pent up after the last four years, especially the last year of the pandemic, that I think the frustration and the anger had to go somewhere, and it’s very misguided.”
Citing Joan Didion as a massive influence, as well as Paul Theroux, Kevin harbours a profound respect for journalism. “Never have journalists come under such attack in countries all over the world, even in the United States. There has been such a dismissiveness for truth and for fact-finding…..part of me just wants to, you know, roll up my sleeves and get involved.”
Though satire really does seem to be his calling. “There are all these games you can play with satire that I think actually reveal the hidden truths, that you wouldn’t be able to do as a strict journalist reporting the facts.” In reference and deference to the person who helped him fall in love with literature, travel and particularly India, Kevin laughingly admits, “My aunt warned that I was a dilettante and I really am; there are so many things that I still want to do.” It’s hard not to fantasise about Kevin tearing strips off mega-rich Rupert Murdoch with his sleeves rolled right up. That would be magnificent!