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C.K. Chau's take on 'Pride and Prejudice' takes readers to 2000s New York Chinatown

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Bridget Jones, Jasmin Field, Ayesha Shamsi, I mean, those are just three of the many female characters inspired by Elizabeth Bennett from "Pride And Prejudice." The opposites attract, hate-turns-into-love epic saga of Elizabeth Bennett and Fitzwilliam Darcy has been told and retold so many times since Jane Austen first published her work back in 1813. And dare we say, another retelling is upon us again, this time with some delicious twists set in Chinatown in New York City during the early 2000s. The novel is called "Good Fortune," and the author who wraps the timeless tale in a brand-new package is C.K. Chau, who joins us now. Welcome.

CK CHAU: Hello. It's great to be with you today.

CHANG: Great to have you. Why do you think the story at the heart of "Pride And Prejudice" just will not die? Like, what gives it such enduring appeal, do you think?

CHAU: I think it brings together a lot of different stories that we are drawn to and care about. There's a family story at the heart of it. There's a love story. And it's a love story between these two leads, but it's also a love story between Elizabeth and her mother in some ways. And on top of that, I think that the concerns of the book about money, about class, about making sure that the people you want to impress are impressed by you are really timeless emotions. I think it carries you throughout your life, and it ages with you as all the great stories do.

CHANG: I love the way you put that. There is a lot to relate to in the original book. But I mean, I can say this about a lot of the English literature I had to consume in school - there was still a part of me that felt left out reading books like "Pride And Prejudice"...

CHAU: Yeah.

CHANG: ...You know, with their English mannerisms and witticisms. Like, I was always thinking, oh, my God, Bennetts, you would all be horrified if you ever heard my mom and dad yelling at each other across (laughter) my dinner table because even the poor people in "Pride And Prejudice" seemed kind of fancy to me, you know?

CHAU: Yes. No, I agree. I think she presents a slice of her life and her world that she sees and she understands. And the bones of it are things that we can pick up. But that was why I felt like I could transport it to a place like early 2000's Chinatown.

CHANG: Yes.

CHAU: I think so much of the social dynamics and the things that she's talking about in terms of feeling like you need a certain level of wealth to participate in a kind of social game has a resonance way beyond, you know, Regency-era England.

CHANG: Yeah. And I want to talk about some of the really noticeable ways you chose to deviate from the original script. Like, for starters, tell us why you wanted to make the Bennetts an immigrant Chinese family in your book, the Chens.

CHAU: Yes, I will go a little bit further and say it was very important to me to make them a Cantonese American family. I think because of the size of the Chinese American diaspora, we've gotten a lot of narratives that cleave towards certain, you know, migration groups or patterns. And I wanted to see a section of that community that I was very familiar with and that I grew up around. And that was, you know, working-class Chinese immigrants who didn't really have an educational background and really worked through it.

And I have a deep appreciation for the Cantonese language. It's got a huge footprint here in the United States, and I rarely see it come up in books or in movies that much in a way where it's commented on as anything other than a dialect or a character detail. And I wanted to flesh it out and say, I think this language is beautiful, and it has a huge role in our community in terms of connecting us all by culture. And I wanted to celebrate that.

CHANG: You know, one thing that has always irritated me about the original story is that it fed into the idea that a woman has to be with the right man to improve her own financial standing. But you create a main character in Elizabeth who wants to stay very close to her working-class roots. Can you say more about that choice?

CHAU: It was really twofold. So on the one hand, I think a lot of modern readers have difficulty with the conflict between Mrs. Bennett and Elizabeth because they think she's being a bit melodramatic trying to get her daughters married. But if you zoom out a little bit on that concern, it's really a question of her concern for their livelihoods. And to me, when I was thinking about that in terms of what that might mean today, you know, what does it mean if your daughters can't afford to pay their own rent, or you can't afford to help them? But they feel like there's an exchange that happens in terms of the immigrant narrative, right? You come here because your kids...

CHANG: Yes.

CHAU: ...Get the chance to choose something for themselves.

CHANG: Can I just say, that is a perfect example of how your book helped me look at the original "Pride And Prejudice" in a new way because in the original book, Mrs. Bennett always annoyed me with her hungry, openly grasping class ambitions.

CHAU: Yes.

CHANG: But then when you recasted (ph) Mrs. Bennett as Jade Chen, this immigrant Chinese woman, it made me view Mrs. Bennett more sympathetically because Jade reminded me of my own mother, a Taiwanese immigrant, and I get how my mom, as an immigrant, wants better things for me than she had.

CHAU: Yes.

CHANG: And that made me look at Mrs. Bennett, the original, with new eyes...

CHAU: Yes.

CHANG: ...Which was cool because I never thought of Mrs. Bennett so sympathetically until I read your book.

CHAU: That's fantastic. And I do want to stress that, you know, you should still be annoyed...

CHANG: (Laughter).

CHAU: ...Like in the way that sometimes your parents can annoy you (laughter).

CHANG: Oh, yeah. Jade triggered me. Don't you worry. There was some mother-daughter triggering there.

CHAU: Yes, exactly. But the annoyance has to be something that you can contextualize later. Like, ugh, she just wants me to do well. She just wants me to be able to have a nice house and not rely on anybody else, and those are all understandable things. But you have this new sensibility of - I'm an American. I get to choose my own path. I love to act. I love reading the news. I want to be a reporter. Even though if you look statistically at how those things break out, your parents might go...

CHANG: Not so great.

CHAU: ...Like, ugh, yeah.

CHANG: Oh, believe me, I got all the lectures - still am getting them. But anyway...

CHAU: (Laughter).

CHANG: The underlying story of "Pride And Prejudice" is about where someone is from versus where they want to go, right? What part of that arc do you think is more important?

CHAU: That's an interesting question. I think - I'm going to squirrel a little bit. But I think...

CHANG: Yes, squirrel away.

CHAU: ...(Laughter) You transform both. The places that produce you are not the same once you're produced. So I would say where you're from matters in terms of how it influences you and makes you think about yourself, but that's only because you influence it back. You help make that place into the idea that somebody else has of that place. You become a representative for that place...

CHANG: Yes.

CHAU: ...In the way that you conduct yourself and in the way that you talk about it. You can hate your hometown all you want. But there's still a part of you that can engage with it and tell funny stories and represent it as - maybe not the greatest place, but there were some good times. And I think that's a beautiful thing to see how that grows and changes as you do, especially the more places you move between and the different kinds of people you interact with.

CHANG: That was an outstanding answer. You squirreled beautifully.

CHAU: (Laughter) Thank you.

CHANG: C.K. Chau's new novel is called "Good Fortune." Thank you so much for sharing this time with me.

CHAU: Thank you so much. This was fantastic. It was great to talk with you.

CHANG: Likewise.

(SOUNDBITE OF HENRY MANCINI'S "LUJON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Kai McNamee
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.