Li’s fiction novel ‘Portrait of a Thief’ explores what achievement and success really mean for its Chinese American art bandits.
Bestselling author Grace D. Li has guided many tour groups through the Cantor Arts Center‘s marble entryway. As a docent, Li kept a careful eye on museum security, brainstorming break-ins for her fictional heist novel “Portrait of a Thief” and thoughtfully examining each jade bowl and quartz snuff bottle. Her experiences on Stanford University’s campus have led her to explore the questions of who art is for and who art is taken from. However, the biggest dilemma Li currently faces is how to handle the rapid success that has transformed her from a full-time student into a television producer and author on a cross-country book tour.
The accolades are piling up for Li, a Stanford medical student: New York Times bestselling author. Executive producer of an upcoming Netflix series based on her book. A shoutout from Steph Curry, who featured her novel in his book club. Regardless, like her seemingly successful cast of Asian American art bandits, Li finds that the honorifics aren’t all that fulfilling.
Inspired by the real thefts of Chinese art from European museums, Li’s “Portrait of a Thief” engages in the discussion regarding museums displaying artifacts taken from other countries, especially former colonies.
In Li’s vision, the art thieves are a group of high-achieving, young Asian Americans. Many of the group’s members have Bay Area ties, including Alex Huang, an MIT dropout and Google engineer who moves to Mountain View for the job; ringleader and Harvard student Will Chen; Daniel Liang, a pre-med student; and Irene Chen, a public policy major at Duke University, Li’s alma mater. Each struggling with their own relationships to China and the measures of success imparted on them growing up as Chinese Americans, the crew members risk their university diplomas and stable careers for a chance at $50 million dollars. The purse is theirs if the crew successfully brings several art pieces back to China.
Grappling with the mounting recognition for her novel, Li, like her characters, finds that even the most prestigious honors can sometimes feel empty. We spoke with her to learn about the Peninsula’s noticeable impact on her work and how she’s redefining success in her life.
This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.
The Peninsula roots of an international crime novel
The Six Fifty: How has being here on the Peninsula and at Stanford influenced your work and your writing? Could you talk a bit about how your writing and your interests in a medical career intersect?
Grace D. Li: Being here at Stanford and in the Bay has given me a lot of flexibility in terms of being able to pursue writing. Currently, I’m on a full-time Stanford-funded writing year. In a broader sense, being in the Bay has really influenced the setting of my book and a lot of the characters’ backgrounds.
Something I really appreciate about being here at Stanford is that they’re very supportive of medicine and the humanities together. For me, medicine and writing are complementary because they both involve thinking deeply and thoughtfully about things in the world.
A lot of what I love about medicine is talking to patients and hearing their stories and finding ways to work with them. And similarly, with writing, it’s getting to learn my characters a little better, and telling their stories in a way that feels true to them.
One of my first salient memories from early on in med school is when I was trying to figure out how to present a patient’s history and what brought them in. And my adviser was like, “Oh, don’t stress out too much about it, just tell me the patient’s story.” That’s something that I’ve tried to hold on to. It’s just people and their stories.
The Six Fifty: I saw you also mentioned in another interview that you had spent time at the art museum learning more about that world.
Grace D. Li: I’m a tour guide at the Cantor and Anderson museums on Stanford’s campus. From a personal angle, I love being able to step into museums and how it just transports you into a different world. But also, it has been really valuable in terms of writing the book.
There are definitely practical things I’ve learned when it comes to museum security. But I also think a lot about the accessibility of museums and who art is for. As someone who grew up loving museums, but who also struggled to ‘figure out’ or ‘connect with art,’ I would always try and understand, “What does this art mean?” I would get worried if I didn’t understand it because I never had any formal training in art history. Making art a little more accessible and welcoming has been very valuable for me.
Something I wanted to tackle in my book was this concept of art as power. How colonialism and these Western forces have looted this art from China, and in doing so also taken a part of Chinese history and culture. I think that’s an ongoing theme when it comes to colonialism. Art is just one example of that.
Unraveling academic achievement and self-worth
The Six Fifty: I grew up here as an Asian American with a lot of ‘traditional expectations.’ I was wondering about your characters since many of them attend elite universities or have success in traditional fields but want something more. What do their journeys mean to you?
Grace D. Li: Absolutely, I wanted to address the pressure that Asian Americans, and children of immigrants more broadly, feel to succeed in a very specific, academic way. The idea that once you go to a good college, you’ve made it.
The characters in my book have arrived, yet they don’t feel satisfied or complete. I want to tease apart this idea that academic success is always tied to self-identity and self-worth. Especially when it comes to the Bay Area. Two of my five characters grew up in the Bay, and a third character moved here when he was 10. I had a lot of conversations with friends who grew up in the area and my own experiences going to med school here. I put those experiences together and thought about how they would shape characters in their early 20s.
Finding one’s own way of measuring success
The Six Fifty: I’m curious, you have these titles attached to your name now: New York Times bestselling author, Stanford Medicine student. A lot of people will probably pick up the book or read this article because of those titles, even if they aren’t what brings us fulfillment. How do you deal with that?
Grace D. Li: It’s been very strange. It’s exciting, but also disorienting. A lot of my own personal growth in the past several years has been trying to find fulfillment in other ways. Especially because of, as I’m sure you also felt growing up, many of the pressures of growing up Asian American. Whether because of parental expectations or not, feeling that it was important to succeed, to excel.
I’m trying to focus less on the titles and more on the things that bring me happiness and value in my life. Even when it comes to this book, I set out to write it because I wanted to read it. Everything else is just a bonus.
The Six Fifty: Pressure can be negative and certain measures of success can be limiting. Yet it also takes so much 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 maybe this immigrant mindset, with aspects that are more detrimental?
Grace D. Li: There’s a lot to think about. I feel very lucky when it comes to my parents, who pushed me only in the sense that they wanted me to do my best at what I wanted to do. But I also had a lot of self-imposed pressures. I thought about how far my parents had traveled, how different their childhood was and how much I wanted to achieve because of them.
I’ve been trying to come to terms with the idea that what they want for me is my happiness, and to them that is success. I feel lucky and grateful, I think that my culture has influenced me in many ways, and most of them are positive. Circling back to the question of balance, that is definitely something I am still figuring out.
But I do writing because I love it. It’s now a part of my public identity, but it was something I always did. I would have kept doing it even if I hadn’t had a book come out and everything else that came with it.