Abigail Hing Wen on Asian American Identity, Changing Career Paths, and “Loveboat, Taipei”

Photo courtesy of Abigail Hing Wen

By Tracy Fuentes

With a law degree from Columbia, a career in politics and venture capital, and a young adult novel on the New York Times bestseller list, Abigail Hing Wen has lived many lives. 

Wen is the author of Loveboat, Taipei and its sequel Loveboat, Reunion. The first book follows Ever, an Asian-American high school student from Ohio who is anxiously waiting for college to begin. I fell in love with the book when it was first released in 2020, as I thought Ever’s story touched on many aspects of the Asian American experience in a relatable and fun way. 

Ever fails to get along with her parents and their values, as they wish for her to become the doctor her father couldn’t be when he immigrated to the United States. Ever dreams of dancing and choreographing her own shows. She plans to spend her last summer before pre-med classes at Northwestern dancing, but her parents completely throw off her plans by sending her to Chien Tan, a cultural immersion program in Taipei nicknamed Loveboat.

Ever’s experience in Loveboat is not something that I can personally relate to, but while she’s there, she grapples with her parents’ expectations and how they relate to her own identity. I think that’s something a lot of us have experienced, even if we haven’t gone to Taipei and partied with a bunch of Asian American teenagers (mostly) unsupervised. 

I had the opportunity to talk to Wen about her novels, the topics she explores in them, and being a creative. I was most interested in her journey to becoming a published author. 

“So I started off my career in law, and government and politics,” she says. “And over time, I moved more into finance, like into venture capital and technology when it came up to Silicon Valley.” Wen had followed her husband to Silicon Valley for his career, and she tried the jobs that interested her the most, which involved working for start-up companies. 

But Wen also pursued another interest during this time: writing. Wen dedicated her holidays and about 25 hours a week to her MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and it was a transformative experience for her.

“I found that I was able to kind of derive inspiration from just my everyday life, living life, I think it’s important to have life experiences. And so over time, my writing career grew bigger and bigger. And so I began to take steps to make my corporate life smaller and smaller. And so eventually, I did leave my corporate job a year ago, in May of 2021,” she says.

Wen’s career shift was certainly successful. Not only did she publish two books, but Loveboat, Taipei is also being adapted for film, with the studio behind To All the Boys I Loved Before to bring it to life. The film stars Ashley Liao as Ever and features Ross Butler from 13 Reasons Why and Nico Hiraga from Booksmart and Moxie to play love interests. Wen tells me she also has other novels in the works, as well as other film and TV projects she hopes to pursue. Wen has many talents, and juggles a lot at once. After all, she made time to speak with me from her hotel room in DC, right after speaking at the United Chinese of America Conference that day.

Her many projects and work ethic reminded me of my friends as well as Kindergarten contributors and readers. I would say that many of us are interested in many different creative projects, and we want to be able to explore all of them. I asked for her advice in dealing with many creative pursuits.

“I think there’s not a rush. Take your time, explore your different interests. I think knowing what it is that you want to spend time on, you don’t have to do everything all at once. And I didn’t – I shifted, right?” She says.

Much of the novel draws from Wen’s personal experiences – both she and her husband are alumni of the Chien Tan program. Like Ever, Wen hails from Ohio, a predominantly white area where she did not have much exposure to her Chinese culture. In an interview with the BookPage, Wen mentioned that she did not always grow up proud of her Asian heritage. Ever has this same experience in the novel, not fully learning or appreciating her heritage until she spends some time in Taipei surrounded by other Asians.

Not all of us have the opportunity to go to an amazing cultural exchange program like Chien Tan to learn about our cultures, so I asked Wen for advice – What should those of us in predominantly white towns do to feel less alone, or to feel more connected with our ethnic identity?

Wen says, turn to the growth of representation in the media around us. “Fortunately, there are an increasing number of books that are out there. So my partners have written a bunch of them: Stacy Lee, Kelly Loy Gilbert, IW Gregorio, Sonia Mukherjee, Sabaa Tahir, there’s like so many others. Joanna Ho, who just put out her first novel, and she wrote the picture book, Eyes That Kiss in the Corners. So I’m thankful we have an explosion of more and more stories out there. And there’s more. Same with you know, film, but not so much. I think we’re still working. We’re still in the very early stages of breaking in in Hollywood.”

Wen herself seeks to provide genuine representation in her work, just as these other authors do. Her writing is primarily informed by the lack of Asian representation she saw growing up. 

In the media Wen consumed when she was younger, Asians “were the sidekick, they were nerds. The girl never got the boy, the boy never got kissed on screen. And there just weren’t that many of them. And they were never the main characters.” Wen felt that Asian men in particular were underrepresented. 

“And as I grew older, and saw more of the world, and I was like, Wait, this is not the reality of the world. Like in Silicon Valley, there’s so many Asian Americans, but they weren’t actually reflected in the films about Silicon Valley and TV series.”

Wen wanted to address these representations by creating her own that shows the diversity of the Asian American community. Loveboat, Taipei explicitly discusses these stereotypes, especially with Asian men. This was Wen’s desire, as she explains, “I wanted to really say, This is not who we are as a community, we’re so diverse. We’re human inside and out.” 

In Wen’s main character, Ever, you can find a three-dimensional representation of a modern Asian American teenager. “Ever, she goes on this journey, she has struggles with her parents, she falls in love, she makes stupid mistakes, she recovers she, she’s a good friend, you know, they’re just many, many facets to our personality that often weren’t shown. Which is the case when you’re not the main character, usually the side character,” she explains. 

In addition to the comforts of representation in the media, Wen offers another resource that can offer some comfort or connection for those who are struggling with their identity or simply seek to deepen that connection. 

“I feel like every state probably has some organizations that they can belong to, or they can join to learn.” The conference Wen spoke at in DC is part of this piece of advice and recalls Wen’s personal experiences yet again. “I remember going to some of these as a child with my family, I went to the Organization of Chinese Americans even in Ohio and I learned things that I never learned in school, about the Chinese Exclusion Act and about the Chinese building the railroads and being erased from history,” she remembers. “So I think those are really wonderful resources that I’m pretty sure are in almost every state.” 

As we wrap up our conversation, I gush to Wen about how excited I am about the upcoming Loveboat, Taipei movie and am curious to know what the filmmaking process is like.

“Every time I saw a different take, it’s kind of like Loki coming face to face with another Loki. So it’s just like, experiencing like, these characters were so much a part of me like over and over in different ways. And so that’s been really fun,” she says.

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