Books That Represent Us: Grace D. Li on her debut novel — and its Netflix adaptation
When Grace D. Li read about Chinese art that was originally looted from Beijing's Old Summer Palace being taken from museums around the world she was intrigued. "As a Chinese American and someone who always love heists stories, I wondered what the heists would look like if the [thieves] weren't expert criminals, but Chinese Americans like me," she says. It inspired her to write her debut novel Portrait of a Thief (out now) about a group of Chinese American college students who pull off a series of heists.
Using popular films and nonfiction books as inspiration, Li built out the world the crew would inhabit. A fan of heist films including Ocean's Eleven and the Fast and the Furious franchise, the author was able to watch movies she loved and call them research. "There's a part of the book where the characters sit down and watch Ocean's Eleven. They're taking notes while they watch it and that was directly lifted from my own research process," she says. Li mixed in nonfiction reads about art crime and art history to make the story as realistic as possible. "I had a lot of fun figuring out how I would have their interests and abilities map onto these heist archetypes we're so used to," she says.
Through the five central characters Li explores the ideas of Asian American ambition and the expectations placed on young people who may have different ideas about what success means to them. Take central character Will Chen, who "represents a lot of the ideas of what the perfect Asian American child is," says Li: a Harvard student and oldest son who has spent his whole life striving for goals his immigrant Chinese American family has set for him. Still, the Will feels unsatisfied — and that lack of fulfillment leads him to start a heist crew: Irene, Daniel, Lily, and Alex. "They have such different experiences and relationships with China and their identities," she says. "The big thing I wanted to address in the book is that Chinese American identity is not a monolith."
Portrait of a Thief may just be hitting bookshelves now, but it's already inching closer to the screen, with an adaptation already in the works at Netflix. "Growing up I never felt represented, I never saw movies or shows with Asian American leads," says Li, who cites 2018's Crazy Rich Asians as a moment where she saw people that looked like her in pop culture. She's incredibly grateful to be working on the adaptation as Asian American representation is media is increasing. "This growing change would have meant the world to me when I was younger, and hopefully will open doors and offer new opportunities and experiences for the younger Asian Americans coming up right now," she says.
Here are some other books featuring diverse characters Li is currently loving.