In Real Americans (Knopf, Apr.), Khong explores the varied experiences of Chinese immigrants and their descendants.

This novel has a wider scope than your debut, Goodbye, Vitamin. Could you talk about what went into it?

My first book had one narrator, a young Asian American woman, and people love to conflate authors with their narrators. So with this book I was excited to write from different perspectives. Lily is an Asian American woman but she’s coming of age a little before I did. Nick is a teenage boy, and May is a much older Asian woman. I feel a lot in common with that teenage boy and with that elderly woman, but people often just see the demographic and make assumptions.

Or assume that Lily would be the easiest character for you to write.

Yes, but I actually did research for all three, because Lily started college in 1999, a few years before I did, and then I did research into May’s section in China during the Cultural Revolution, and then I talked to a high school guidance counselor for Nick.

One way Lily must differ from you is her lack of direction. She’s not sure what she wants to do and she doesn’t have the drive that being a writer requires. Did you feel aimless at an earlier time in your life?

No, but I don’t like that I am driven, either.


This novel is very much about various types of American propaganda—the belief in achievement and exceptionalism, the idea that it’s so important to have a career and be ambitious. I was raised with that, and it’s something I question as an adult because it feels so in service of capitalism.

What were you reading while writing this book?

I started working on Real Americans right after the 2016 election and I think I was in shock. I wanted to write something immersive and escapist, and I was sucked in by Ferrante’s Neapolitan series.

At one point May says about her daughter, Lily, “The way I loved her was different from the way she wanted to be loved.” What does that line mean to you?

I’ve thought versions of that sentence for a long time. I came to the U.S. when I was two; my parents are Chinese but from Malaysia, and there is a disconnect in how we communicate with one another. My parents speak pretty good English, but they come from a totally different culture. So often in my life they have expressed love that wasn’t the specific love that I wanted. Or I wanted them to say something, and they didn’t say it the right way. I think I just want to hear more positive reinforcement and they just want me to exist in the same room as them.