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Stateside Podcast: Growing up with Detroit author Jack Cheng

Penguin Random House

Middle school is a strange, uncertain time. You’re figuring out who you are, and so is everyone else around you. Detroit-based author Jack Cheng brings light to this awkward and transformative time period in his new novel, The Many Masks of Andy Zhou.

 Jack Cheng wearing a red and black flannel with dyed orange hair.
Jarod Lew

In writing this book, Cheng wanted Andy Zhou, the novel’s protagonist, to be a more realistic middle schooler than the typical hyper-goal-driven, exceedingly self-assured protagonist. Andy is brave enough to ask himself: What if I don’t know what I want? What if I haven’t thought about what I want?

On top of his own self-questioning, a significant part of Andy’s story is his dynamic relationships with the other middle schoolers around him. Cheng, who grew up around a large Chaldean population, wanted to bring attention to the diversity within the metro Detroit area beyond his own Chinese American community. Toward the beginning of the novel, Andy meets Jameel, who is initially characterized as the bully. However, as the story evolves and the two characters get to know each other better, readers see that Andy and Jameel have more in common than they thought.

Cheng said that these two characters are on two sides of the model minority myth. Andy’s labeled early on as the good kid, which places unreasonable expectations on him, while Jameel is labeled as the bad kid, which results in one of his teachers not giving him the benefit of the doubt. Cheng flips this narrative on its head, and creates a cast of characters who are “complex human beings with their own desires and their own faults.”

“To me, when we're including characters from groups that are not our own in our books, I think it's actually a disservice to paint them as two-dimensional characters,” said Cheng.

Before this book was known as The Many Masks of Andy Zhou, its working title was “Andy In Between.” Drawing from his own experience of feeling like an outsider in predominantly white or predominantly Black spaces, Cheng created a protagonist who is in between many spaces and identities.

Andy’s multilayered identity speaks to the common experience that Cheng said he found in many Chinese Americans: a feeling of not being fully Chinese or not fully American. Readers get to follow along as Andy learns to embrace this liminal space, as he comes to the understanding that “this Chinese American thing … can be its own thing,” said Cheng.

Courtesy of Jack Cheng

Andy's self discovery is in part catalyzed by art. In the novel, he develops his artistic side after joining the production crew for his school's dance performance.

“One of the the currents in this book is about the power of art to create that space for a person to wrestle with their identities and make sense of them, and figure out and understand what's going on in their lives,” remarked Cheng.

While diversity of representation has become much more normalized in children's books, Cheng noted that book bans have accompanied this normalization. Representation has come a long way since Cheng was reading children’s books as a child, but he affirmed that there is still a way to go.

Jack Cheng will be at the Ann Arbor District Library’s downtown location on July 23rd at 6:30 pm to talk more about The Many Masks of Andy Zhou and the vibrant stories it tells. To hear more about this novel in the meantime, listen to the Stateside Podcast.

[Get Stateside on your phone: subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, or Spotify today.]

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Olivia Mouradian recently graduated from the University of Michigan and joined the Stateside team as an intern in May 2023.
Rachel Ishikawa joined Michigan Public in 2020 as a podcast producer. She produced Kids These Days, a limited-run series that launched in the summer of 2020.