Particle physics art

This California med student planned art heists for her debut novel ‘Portrait of a Thief’ – San Bernardino Sun

In recent years, Chinese art has disappeared from Western museums – looted art being stolen again. The Chinese government has denied accusations that they were behind the theft as a GQ article about “The Great Chinese Art Heist” is being made into a movie by Jon M. Chu.

There is another completely fictional version of the subject: Grace D. Li’s debut novel, “Portrait of a Thief”, which imagines five students, all children of Asian immigrants or born in Asia, hired to steal five zodiac heads. missing in museums. the world.

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Li was inspired by the political issues surrounding looted art, but also by the heist movies she loves, like “Ocean’s 11,” and her characters lean into the tropes of those movies, especially in the early chapters. as Will Chen gathers his team for work.

But Li, 26, did not envision a career as a crime novelist. In fact, she finished the book when she was a freshman in medicine at Stanford University. And although her book has already been picked up by Netflix for a series, Li is still deep in medical school.

Li recently spoke on the phone about how she juggles two disparate lives as a writer and a student and asked if she would help steal the art if she knew she wouldn’t get caught.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q. Did you want to be a writer or a doctor growing up?

I have always loved to read and write. When I was in elementary school, my parents had an appointment with the school librarian because they were worried that I was reading too much. But I never thought of writing as a career path.

In college, I majored in biology and minored in creative writing. I wrote my first novel in college while taking organic chemistry and physics classes – I needed to do something that was neither. I wanted to see if I could do it. I wrote it down and put it away and no one will ever see it again.

I thought I would always have a file on my computer with all these unfinished stories, so this has all been very weird.

Then I did Teach for America in New York for two years, teaching high school biology and a creative writing option.

And I wrote my second novel when I was studying for MCATs. It was a fantasy novel that was a feminist reimagining of the Iliad from the perspective of Helen of Troy. This book got me a literary agent and we revised together and had a few close calls with publishers but nothing ever landed.

I was always writing, thinking, “I write my little stories in my spare time.

Q. How was this novel born?

I really wanted to read a book on this subject and no one had written it. I wrote it for me. I finished writing this book during the pandemic the summer after my first year of medical school, and things turned out differently this time.

Q. Why didn’t you think you could be a writer?

I’ve never read books by Asian American authors – I read “Joy Luck Club” in high school and that was it. That didn’t change until after college. I thought writing books wasn’t something people like me did.

I remember the first time I read a book and thought, “Oh, that’s me.” It was “Chemistry” by Weike Wang, about a Chinese-American chemistry graduate student. I had no idea stories like this were possible in fiction. It completely changed things for me.

Q. You worked with the publisher, Tiny Reparations, which was started by Phoebe Robinson to publish more underrepresented voices. How has this shaped your experience?

Tiny Rep does life-changing work in an 80% white publishing industry, where 89% of published books are written by white authors. Almost my entire editing team is made up of people of color, and they really understand what I’m trying to say about identity, diaspora, and belonging. It means so much to me. It is not an experience that would have been possible at any time but now. I am so lucky to be alive and writing at this time.

Q. The five leads are all Chinese or Chinese-American, but they live in different parts of America, come from different socio-economic backgrounds, and have had very different coming-of-age experiences.

This has always been very important to me. There is this idea that there is a monolithic Chinese-American or Asian-American identity. If you bring five Chinese Americans together, their lives won’t be the same — I wanted to talk about how economy class and location can influence how you grow up and see the world.

I could take advantage of all the different parts of my life, from growing up in Texas to living in New York and now in the Bay Area. I felt the most similarities to Lilly, her identity struggles of being Chinese-American in Texas is something I felt growing up there. It was rewarding to give him that bow to work on.

Q. The book returns again and again to the theme of Western imperialism and the morality of stealing art that has been looted. If you could do the heist yourself and guarantee you wouldn’t get caught, would you?

I had stressful dreams about those burglaries, but I could do it.

I generally believe that looted works of art should be returned. If the country of origin wants it back, it’s a flimsy argument to say that a Western country is better able to preserve the art or can show it to a more educated audience. When I read that Chinese art was disappearing from Western museums, even if the people who seized it did something illegal, in principle I was all for it. I thought, ‘Go ahead.’

Q. Does the fact that you serve the interests of a government that crushes dissidents and runs concentration camps for minorities make you think?

The Chinese government has many problems, but Chinese culture and Chinese history do not belong exclusively to the CCP. My whole extended family is in China and I can love them without supporting the ruling government. It’s a complicated question, but things can be kept separate. The Chinese people cannot be punished at any time and in any way for their government.