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Author Juli Min tells the story of a family in reverse in her book 'Shanghailanders'


Do you ever meet someone new and find yourself wondering what happened to them to make them the way they are now? Like, where is this sadness from or this anger or this tension in the marriage? How did the past shape who they are now? Well, a new novel by Juli Min presents these questions by introducing us to a family in the future, the year 2040. And then it slowly fills out who these individuals are by telling their stories in reverse. A wealthy Shanghainese man, his beautiful Japanese French wife, their privileged, complicated daughters - each narrator takes turns unspooling the past, leaving us at the end with a better understanding of the beginning. Juli Min joins us now. Welcome.

JULI MIN: Thank you so much for having me.

CHANG: Oh, well, thank you for being with us. So I loved how this book flips around what we think of as the beginning, the middle and end of a story because you tell the story in reverse chronological order. Like, we start in the year 2040, and we're in 2014 by the end of it. So I want to ask you, like, why did you want us to move through these characters' lives backwards?

MIN: I really wanted to create that sense of surprise for the reader. I wanted the reader to first encounter each character and have their impressions, their judgments, their biases, and then, by going backwards in time, really understand them more fully through different points of view, through other family members and through the different secrets and kind of traumas...

CHANG: Yeah.

MIN: ...That they go through in the past.

CHANG: Yeah, and it made me wonder, like, what does it mean for a story to move forward anyway? Like, a story unfolds the more we learn and understand, right? And often, we can only understand things when we go back to the past.

MIN: That's right. The two mother and father characters, Leo and Eko - they're kind of at this midpoint crisis in their marriage. They've been together for decades, and they both are thinking about leaving the marriage and the family...

CHANG: Yeah.

MIN: ...When we first encounter them. And so I wasn't necessarily so interested in kind of the plot of, will they or won't they stay together? I was really interested in understanding who they were as people, how their marriage and their relationship impacted their family, and where they came from - not just their pasts, but their family histories.

CHANG: Yeah. But it was so interesting - I'm glad you brought up Leo and Eko. It was so interesting to me what moving backwards in time did to my emotions as I was reading about their love story because if I had met them at the beginning of their romance, when Leo thought of Eko as the loveliest, most reckless person he knew, I would have been tantalized, like, seduced by the promise of them. But reading their origin story at the end of this book - it made their blossoming romance ultimately sad to me.

MIN: Yeah. There's a bittersweet quality to going in this way. But, you know, I think that in a long relationship, any relationship - could be sisters, could be, you know, parents, could be lovers - there's a way in which the past carries through with us into the present and into the future and sometimes, I think, sustains a relationship through difficult periods. And I wanted that bittersweetness but also the hope of the ending to kind of be something that the reader takes away and has to decide what they want to feel about.

CHANG: You also pull in the vantage points of characters who are behind the scenes in this extremely wealthy, extremely self-absorbed family's life. Like, we're inside the driver's head, inside the nanny's head. And they know this family so intimately, yet they are always so separate. Why did you want to include their stories, too, in this book?

MIN: This book is the story of a family, but I also wanted to capture something I felt was true about contemporary Shanghai. I wanted to capture the variety of experiences, the extremity of experiences, the intense social stratification, and the way in which, you know, a city, just like a family, is kind of an ecosystem of relationships. We all depend on one another. We all feed each other in various ways, fuel each other economically, emotionally. And so the people who work for this family - the nanny who's been with them for six, seven years, their private driver - I wanted to show the ways in which those lives are so rich and full but also quite unseen by the Yangs.

CHANG: Right. And quite intensely painful sometimes - I was so drawn to the nanny, Ayi, because she had so much love to give to these troubled daughters, but it did make me think about what is it like to love someone you can't call your own?

MIN: She was inspired actually by my own search for a nanny when I was a new mother. And I remember I interviewed one person who I asked her about the previous child that she took care of, and she broke down crying, sobbing, saying that she missed this girl so much. And you could feel the force and the purity and the intensity...

CHANG: The real love.

MIN: ...Of that love. It was true love. And not, you know, shortly thereafter, I kind of sat down to write that character down.

CHANG: Well, in this book, we not only visit people from the future and go back into their past. We also meet a future Shanghai and then travel back in time to a Shanghai of the past, specifically back when the city was still foreign to Eko, the wife in this book. And you mentioned - I know you lived in Shanghai for so many years now after marrying a Shanghainese man. When I was reading your book, I wonder, did you, too, feel like an outsider in Shanghai when you first arrived, the way Eko did?

MIN: You know, I had a very complicated relationship to Shanghai when I first arrived. I was quite sick when I first arrived for...


MIN: ...Quite a long time. And I didn't know - was it a result of Shanghai or...


MIN: ...You know, what was going on. And then when I got better, I really started to enjoy the city. And one way in which I created a bond with the city was through writing. I wrote for several years and researched a historical novel set in kind of the early 20th century, jazz Shanghai.

CHANG: The often romanticized era...

MIN: Yes.

CHANG: ...Of Shanghai.

MIN: And, I mean, that novel sits in my drawer...


MIN: ...Locked away.

CHANG: It never came out. OK.

MIN: But, you know, that really helped me form a relationship to the city. And then when I wanted to write something more contemporary, I had lived in Shanghai at that point for more than five years. I had met so many people. I spoke Mandarin. And I really felt like I wanted to capture something true about contemporary Shanghai, and I felt I was better equipped to tap into something true to the city that I lived in and the city that I love now.

CHANG: Does Shanghai feel like home to you now as someone who is not Chinese, who is Korean American?

MIN: It does feel like home.

CHANG: Yeah.

MIN: I mean, I have two young children. They speak Chinese fluently. You know...


MIN: ...We have a home, and, you know, I have a family now, and I am, you know, the - kind of at the center of that family as the mother, and it's really become a home.

CHANG: Juli Min's new novel is called "Shanghailanders." Thank you so much for speaking with us, and congratulations on your debut.

MIN: Thank you so much, Ailsa.

(SOUNDBITE OF ORIOL SIRINATHSINGH'S "OPEN SKY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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.