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Tale of looted art inspires young Chinese-American writer on literary journey

By LIA ZHU in San Francisco | CHINA DAILY | Updated: 2022-03-15 09:12

Grace Li and the cover of her book. PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY

In the new novel Portrait of a Thief, the "thieves" are not expert criminals but young Chinese American students who share the same goal of returning a piece of looted art to China.

The novel, scheduled to be published in April, is inspired by the true story of Chinese art disappearing from Western museums years ago.

Portrait of a Thief is Grace Li's debut novel. It is currently in development at Netflix as part of the streaming service's commitment to programming that details the Asian American experience. Li is an executive producer for the series.

"Several years ago, Chinese art began disappearing from museums around the world, and no one knew who was behind this. A lot of people speculated different things. But as a Chinese American, I was really fascinated by the fact that the only pieces of art that were being stolen had originally been looted from China," Li told China Daily.

"As someone who has always loved heist movies and heist stories, I wondered what this kind of thing would look like if the thieves weren't expert criminals, but Chinese Americans like me."

In striking contrast to the "genius", "nerdy" or "uninterested in fun" stereotypes of Chinese American students, the characters in Li's book are charming, adventurous and have unique skills.

The protagonist, Will Chen, is an art history major at Harvard University who has always been the fulfillment of his parents' American dream.

His crew includes a "con artist" who is a public policy major at Duke University capable of talking her way out of anything; a "thief" who is a premed student good at lockpicking; a "driver" who is an engineering major and enjoys car racing in her free time; and a "hacker" who is an MIT dropout and software engineer in Silicon Valley.

If they succeed, they earn $50 million from a mysterious Chinese benefactor and a chance to make history. But if they fail, they will lose everything they have dreamed of, and it will be another thwarted attempt to take back the stolen art.

"There are many reasons why the characters in my book want to steal this art, and part of it is the monetary reward. But part of it is that all the characters have a connection to China in some way," Li said. "So, this book is about examining what it means to return looted art back home and how important it is that museums return this art back to its country of origin."

Identity issues

Li was born to Chinese immigrant parents who went to the United States to study. She grew up in Texas and is a graduate of Duke, where she studied biology and creative writing. She said her own experiences informed her book.

"I grew up speaking Chinese at home. All my extended family is still in China. And part of the reason why I was so excited to tell this story was because although it is a heist story, it's also an examination of what it means to be Chinese American and to feel caught between two cultures and to ultimately recognize that you can't be a part of both," Li said.

"These conflicting identities are something that I really struggled with growing up. Because I grew up in Texas … I would often get questions about my identity. Like I was born and raised in the US, but often I would be asked where I was from, and then where I was really from," she said.

"I would frequently feel like even though I was American, I wasn't American enough. And when I went to visit family in China, I would still get questions about whether I could speak Chinese, whether I knew how to use chopsticks-all these questions that were very well intentioned, but also made me feel like I couldn't belong either in the US or China."

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