Meilan Hua’s world is made up of a few key ingredients: her family’s beloved matriarch, Nainai; the bakery her parents, aunts, and uncles own and run in Boston’s Chinatown; and the Chinese fairy tales Meilan is obsessed with. After Nainai passes, the family has a falling-out that sends Meilan, her parents, and her grieving grandfather on the road in search of a new home. They take a winding path cross-country before landing in Redbud, Ohio. Everything in Redbud is the opposite of Chinatown and Meilan’s not quite sure who she is — being renamed at school only makes it worse. She decides she is many Meilans, each inspired by a different Chinese character with the same pronunciation as her name. Sometimes she is Mist, cool and invisible; other times, she’s Basket, carrying her parents’ hopes and dreams and her guilt about not living up to them; and sometimes she is bright Blue, the way she feels around her new friend Logan. Meilan keeps her facets separate until an injustice at school shows her the power of bringing her many selves together. The Many Meanings of Meilan, written in stunning prose by Andrea Wang, is an exploration of all the things it’s possible to grieve, the injustices large and small that make us rage, and the peace and joy that’s unlocked when you learn to find home within yourself.
About the Author
Andrea Wang is the award-winning author of The Nian Monster and Magic Ramen. Her debut middle grade novel, The Many Meanings of Meilan, releases in 2021. Her work explores culture, creative thinking, and identity. Andrea holds an M.S. in Environmental Science and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing for Young People. She lives in Colorado with her family. Website: www.andreaywang.com Twitter: @AndreaYWang Instagram: @AndreaWhyWang
Interview by Megan E. Freeman
Hi Andrea! Thank you so much for joining me to celebrate your forthcoming debut novel, The Many Meanings of Meilan. I was lucky enough to read an Advanced Reader Copy, and I loved it.
I’m so happy to hear that! Thanks for interviewing me, Megan!
Before we jump in, can you please tell readers a little bit about the book?
The Many Meanings of Meilan is about 12-year-old Meilan Hua, who has grown up in Boston’s Chinatown with her extended family, who run a Chinese bakery together. Meilan is an avid reader and storyteller. One night, she makes up a story while babysitting her cousin that changes everything. The family is already grieving the loss of their matriarch, Meilan’s grandmother, and her story drives the family members further apart. Meilan, her parents, and grandfather end up moving to Redbud, Ohio, where no one looks like her. Her parents start calling her by a new nickname, Lan, and the school principal renames her Melanie, supposedly for her own good.
Meilan begins to question her identity, and her sense of self fractures further when she discovers there are fourteen Mandarin homophones of Lan, each with a different meaning. She decides that she is the Lan that means “basket” at home, because she carries her parents’ hopes and dreams. At school, she is the Lan that means “mist,” endeavoring to remain silent and invisible. Away from school and home, she is the Lan that means “blue,” which describes both her grief and the way she feels around her new friend Logan. As she tries to reunite her family, she also deals with microaggressions, loss, and a school assignment that sets the different versions of herself against each other.
The Many Meanings of Meilan deals with universal themes that I think all middle school readers can relate to: belonging, family, identity, and friendship, to name a few. Was there one idea or theme that you were particularly curious to explore in writing this book?
I think I started with the idea of different identities in different situations – kind of like code-switching. I’ve also been fascinated with all the homophones in Mandarin, especially since discovering that an endearment my grandfather used to call me has a very different meaning that I’d thought! So those two ideas merged pretty naturally into a main character who discovers different meanings of her name and creates different personas based on those meanings.
My own personal experiences influence what I write, and it was no different with this book. Having grown up in a small town much like the fictional Redbud, I’ve always felt like I was living between two worlds and never really belonging in either. Also, at the time I was writing the book, I was still grieving the loss of my parents and grandparents, and also coping with a cross-country move that took me away from my hometown. Meilan’s story was a way for me to process all the emotions surrounding those experiences. The themes of belonging, family, and friendship arose from there.
The title The Many Meanings of Meilan reflects the main character’s ongoing exploration of her name and her identity, and you recently wrote an article for Medium about the importance of pronouncing names correctly, both to honor the individual and the culture from which the name is derived. How did you choose the names for your characters in the story? Are there special meanings behind any of them, or were there other reasons for your choices?
I spent way too much time reflecting on and choosing all the characters’ names! Meilan’s name, of course, had to have homophones with meanings that corresponded well to the different personas she creates. The family song referred to in the book is actually my mother’s family song – my grandmother insisted we sing it at every family get-together – so it was especially meaningful to me that the word “orchid” (the real meaning of Lan in the book) is also in the song. The names of the twins changed a couple of times until I finally settled on Logan and Liam. I liked the name Logan and its meaning fit well into a scene in the book. Liam came about because I asked my sons’ the names of their childhood “nemeses.” LOL. Many of the secondary characters’ names pay homage to family and friends, so they all have some significance to me.
Many of us who write fiction are asked how our personal experiences inform our writing. I’m actually curious about the opposite question. What aspects of this story were completely invented out of your imagination and bear no resemblance at all to your own life or experience?
Actually, very little in the book bears no resemblance to my own life or experience in some way. Not that Meilan’s story mirrors my own childhood exactly, but I definitely drew upon my years growing up in Ohio, having a large extended family, and struggling with my identity as a Chinese American. That said, I am not a twin, so Logan and Liam’s characters were invented, although I did research what it is like to be a twin and some of the identity issues twins face. The beetles that Meilan imagines as inhabiting her stomach and that reflect her feelings were also something I created while writing. I was riffing off the “butterflies in your stomach” cliché and wanted something with more edge, more bite than a butterfly. Beetles are hard-shelled, have pincers and mandibles, and are kind of gross and fascinating at the same time. I loved that I could express Meilan’s conflicting feelings with insects that people have conflicting feelings about. Oh, and <spoiler alert> I have never run around outside during a tornado warning. I was very good about staying inside and keeping safe!
Some stories flow out of authors easily and are a pleasure to write. Others take some coaxing and are more of a struggle to get on the page. Where did this book fall for you on that continuum?
I am not a fast writer. I tend to do a lot of research, note-taking, and stewing before I write. I still do all that while I’m writing and revise as I go, which makes for very slow progress. So I feel like every first draft is a huge struggle, but then the final version comes together much more quickly. In the case of Meilan, I started writing it from two alternating points of view – Meilan’s and Logan’s. But eventually Meilan’s story took precedence, and I axed Logan’s POV. At that point, I had to go back and flesh out Meilan’s back story and do character exercises to figure out how she would feel about everything. I needed to give her some external obstacles and action scenes, too – otherwise her journey would’ve been too internal. So, the first draft was difficult, but when I had all the pieces, it was clear where they needed to go. I definitely prefer revising than drafting!
You’re having a heck of a year as an author, what with the publication of your beautiful picture book with Jason Chin, Watercress,and now The Many Meanings of Meilan. How do you think about these books in relationship to one another? Are they connected for you in any ways? Or do they feel like totally separate and discrete projects?
This year has definitely been a wild and wonderful ride, book-wise! This is such an interesting question because even though both these books reflect so much of me and my experiences (Watercress is semi-autobiographical), I thought of them as very separate works. It wasn’t until my agent explained the premise of Meilan to my editor for Watercress and he said something to the effect of, “Oh, it’s like a prequel to Watercress but for older readers,” that I realized how connected the books really were. Meilan is a kind of “fish out of water” story, and Watercress continues that theme while also showing the main character that she has connections to her family and heritage no matter where she is. There are shared themes of belonging, identity, and family in both books – I guess I just really love exploring these issues!
What surprised you about the process of publishing a novel compared to your previous experience as a picture book author?
I was surprised by how much more freeing it felt to write without trying to limit my word count. I still have a tendency to write very sparely, so the first draft of Meilan was maybe 40,000 words. My editor gently pointed out that I didn’t need to put the inciting incident in the first chapter and that she wanted to know more about Meilan’s life before everything changed. She also wanted the ending to be fleshed out more. My reaction was, “Really? You want more words?” I had so much fun adding in those chapters and really developing Meilan’s character and world. I didn’t have to be so conscious of every word choice. By the end, I think I added about 30,000 words!
Where can readers find you and how can they get their hands on their very own copies of your books?
There is more information about me, my books, and upcoming events on my website, https://andreaywang.com. There are also buy links on each book’s webpage. If you’d like a personalized copy of The Many Meanings of Meilan, please order from www.secondstartotherightbooks.com.
I post sporadically on social media, but you can find me on Twitter at @AndreaYWang and on Instagram at @AndreaWhyWang.
Thank you so much, Andrea, and congratulations on such a wonderful book!
Thank you, Megan! It’s a pleasure to chat with you, as always!
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Megan E. Freeman attended an elementary school where poets visited her classroom every week and she has been a writer ever since. She writes middle grade and young adult fiction, as well as poetry for adults. Also an award-winning teacher, Megan has decades of experience teaching in the arts and humanities and is nationally recognized for her work leading professional development workshops for educators. Website: www.meganefreeman.com Twitter: @meganefreeman