Renowned writer Grace De Lee has led many tour groups through Cantor Art Centermarble entrance. As a lecturer, Lee has been keeping a close eye on museum security, brainstorming break-ins for her fictional novel about theft.picture of a thiefAnd he carefully examined each jade bowl and quartz sniffing bottle. Her experience on the Stanford campus led her to explore questions about who is art and what art is taken from. However, the biggest dilemma currently facing me is how to deal with a quick turnaround from a full-time student to TV producer and author on a cross-country book tour.
Honors pile up for me, Stanford medical student: New York Times bestselling author. Next Executive Producer Netflix series Based on her book. A shout out from steve curry, who featured her novel in his book club. Regardless, like her seemingly successful team of Asian American art bandits, Lee found that honoring isn’t all she satisfies.
Inspired by Real thefts of Chinese art From European museums, Li’s “Portrait of a Thief” shares Discussion Regarding museums displaying artifacts taken from other countries, especially former colonies.
In Lee’s view, art thieves are a group of young, high-achieving Asian Americans. Several members of the group have ties in the Bay Area, including Alex Huang, an MIT dropout and Google engineer who moves to Mountain View for the job; Will Chen, group leader and Harvard student. Daniel Liang, pre-med student; and Irene Chen, a public policy specialist at Duke University, Lee University. Each struggles with their own ties to China and the metrics of success that were bestowed upon them growing up as Chinese Americans, and crew members risk their college degrees and stable career for a $50 million opportunity. The wallet is theirs if the crew succeeds in returning many of the art pieces back to China.
In grappling with the growing recognition of her narrative, Lee, like her characters, has found that even the most prestigious awards can sometimes feel empty. The Palo Alto Weekly spoke with her to learn about the peninsula’s perceived impact on her work and how she is redefining success in her life.
This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Palo Alto Weekly: How has being here at the Peninsula and Stanford affected your work and your writing? Can you talk a little bit about how your writing intersects with your interests in a medical profession?
Mine: Being here at Stanford and in the Gulf has given me a lot of flexibility in terms of being able to continue writing. Currently, I’m in a full-time, funded writing year at Stanford University. In a broader sense, being in the bay really influenced the setting of my book and many of the characters’ backgrounds.
The thing I really appreciate being here at Stanford is that they so support both medicine and the humanities. For me, medicine and writing are complementary to each other because they both involve thinking deeply and thoughtfully about the things in the world.
A lot of what I love about medicine is talking to patients, listening to their stories, and finding ways to work with them. Likewise, with writing, I learn my characters a little better, telling their stories in a way that feels real to them.
One of my first notable memories from early in medical school is when I was trying to figure out how to present a patient’s history and what they brought. And my counselor was like, ‘Oh, don’t stress too much about that just tell me the patient’s story. This is something I tried to stick to. They are just people and their stories.
Palo Alto Weekly: I saw you also mentioned in another interview that you spent time at the art museum to learn more about this world.
Mine: I am a tour guide at the Cantor and Anderson Museums on the Stanford University campus. From a personal perspective, I love being able to get into the museums and how it transports you to a different world. But also, it was of great value in terms of writing the book.
There are certainly practical things I have learned when it comes to museum security. But I also think a lot about the accessibility of museums and who the art is. As someone who grew up in love with museums, but also struggled to “discover” or “connect with art,” I have always tried and understood, “What does this art mean?” I would be concerned if I didn’t understand that because I had no formal training in art history. Making art more accessible and welcome has been a huge value to me.
The thing I wanted to address in my book was the concept of art as a force. How colonialism and these Western powers plundered this art from China, and in doing so also took away a part of China’s history and culture. I think this is an ongoing topic when it comes to colonialism. Art is just one example of this.
Palo Alto Weekly: I grew up here as an Asian American and have a lot of “traditional expectations”. I was wondering about your characters because many of them are studying in elite universities or have success in traditional fields but want something more. What do their trips mean to you?
Mine: Certainly, I wanted to address the pressure felt by Asian Americans, and children of immigrants more broadly, to achieve success in a very specific academic way. The idea that once you get into a good college, you have succeeded.
The characters in my book have arrived, but they don’t feel fulfilling or complete. I want to joke about this idea that academic success has always been linked to self-identity and self-esteem. Especially when it comes to the Gulf region. Two of my five characters grew up in the bay, and a third one moved here when he was ten years old. I’ve had a lot of conversations with friends who grew up in the area and my own experiences of going to medical school here. I put these experiences together and thought about how characters are shaped in your early twenties.
Palo Alto Weekly: Pressure can be negative and some measures of success can be limited. However, it takes a lot of dedication to put out a novel and attend medical school at the same time. How do you balance some of the positive things that can come from our heritage, or perhaps this immigrant mentality, with more harmful aspects?
Mine: There is a lot to think about. I feel very lucky when it comes to my parents, who just pushed me in the sense that they wanted me to do the best I could at what I wanted to do. But I also had a lot of pressure put on myself. I thought about how far my parents had come, how different their childhoods were and how much I wanted to achieve because of them.
I was trying to come to terms with the idea that what they want for me is my happiness, and that is success for them. I feel fortunate and grateful, I believe my culture has influenced me in many ways, mostly positive. Coming back to the issue of balance, that’s definitely something I keep thinking about.
But I write because I love him. It’s now part of my public identity, but it’s been something I’ve always done. I would have kept doing this even if I didn’t have a book coming out and everything that came with it.
Anthony Shaw writes for TheSixFifty.comAnd the A sister post for Palo Alto Online, covering what we eat, see and do in Silicon Valley.