The family at the center of Portland-based author Cecily Wong’s new novel, “Kaleidoscope” (Dutton, 2022), is a mixed-race Chinese American family that has built an empire on clothing and textile imports in their bicoastal retail store, the titular Kaleidoscope. The Brightons’ 20-something daughters — Morgan, the older sister design prodigy who works with her parents out of their newly acquired New York City brownstone; and Riley, the independent younger sister who feels herself somewhat in Morgan’s shadow — are very close despite some complex dynamics. But when tragedy rents the Brighton family, the way they cope and come apart very much mirrors the fragmented nature of the object after which they named their store — and in many ways built their lives.

Wong grew up in Hawaii and Oregon, graduated from Barnard College in New York City, and now lives in Portland. Her previous work includes her debut novel “Diamond Head” (Harper, 2015) and the book “Gastro Obscura: A Food Adventurer’s Guide” (Workman, 2021), which she co-authored with Dylan Thuras. We spoke with Wong over Zoom about the bond between sisters, place and travel, and abortion representation. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

“Kaleidoscope: A Novel”

Cecily Wong, Dutton, 320 pp., $27

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How did the Brightons develop in your mind, and what drew you to writing about familial relationships?

I’m Chinese American. My family has been in Hawaii for the last three generations, but I also grew up in Oregon where the book opens. That was a unique experience for me. I was one of the only Chinese Asian kids all throughout my growing up. I wanted to explore this feeling of what it was like to be that only Asian family in this very white town, but also to be admired — and examined. The town of Eugene was intrigued by our Asianness, and we ran an Asian business. I’ve always been drawn to writing about families. I think I’ll probably always be writing about families in some form. They’re endlessly fascinating to me. It’s this dynamic that you can’t really re-create in any other relationship, because you get so little choice in who your family is, and yet you’re so beholden to them. They know you so well, but understand you so little. I find that dynamic endlessly alluring.

Illustration by Jenny Kwon

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In what ways does the relationship between Riley and Morgan drive the story?

I have a sister, so it probably stems also from there, but in their relationship is everything I know about female friendship. It is filled with this intimacy of this shared lexicon of years and years of shared experience. I call it the shared trauma of growing up within the same family. They had this shortcut to all sorts of things, and yet they would probably never choose each other as friends. I find that lots of relationships that develop either as siblings where you, again, don’t get a choice, or friendships that develop in youth, you often grow apart and yet you have this core that you’ll always circle around that might keep you close even as you drift. The sister bond and what happens between the two sisters was sparked by an experience I had while on a long backpacking trip with my boyfriend in my 20s in India. After learning the story of the tragic death of the owner of a family business, I became fascinated with this idea of having a younger sibling having to step into his older brother’s shoes like that and what it must feel like to be asked to be a replacement for a person who you can never be.

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Can you talk about the importance of place in the book?

Place is always a big character for me in my writing. I feel that place shapes you as a person in such a profound way. It’s almost impossible to separate you and where you were raised, where you choose to live, where you choose to plant roots. I wanted to follow Riley through her journey of each place that really marks her and her longing for bigger and bigger [things]. She keeps enlarging her view and she’s craving more and more dislocation as she gets older and is seeking to find herself. For me personally, I found that the feeling of dislocation when nothing feels familiar except yourself, that’s when you have to dig in the hardest. Whenever I’m feeling stale or stuck, I like to move. I like to see who I am when stripped away from what’s familiar. That’s a lot of what Riley does, and I think that’s one of the great pleasures and challenges of travel, is that we see who you are on your own terms and when nothing makes sense and everything’s a little hard.

There’s something in the way that travel and the import business that the family runs encourages this cultural awareness, and also cultural appropriation. It both affirms and challenges American narratives of the virtue of the “melting pot,” which goes alongside a flattening, or even attempted erasure, of people, place and culture. What did you want to explore about ideas of culture in the book with having the family build this empire on imports and multicultural objects?

On this backpacking trip that I took, one of the things I was fascinated by was this huge world of shopping that I kept in encountering, just massive amounts of things to buy, really amazing things, traditional handicrafts, leather goods, textiles. They were being sold in the local currency at a price that to the Western eye seems cheap. I encountered a lot of foreigners who run import businesses into Western countries and mark things up. I started thinking about the ethics of that and what it means to then become the Western representation of what is “good” in terms of taste of a culture to which you don’t belong, which is why I wanted the Brightons to be Chinese and have a business that was largely centered in India. They are not white, but they are not Indian. What I think often happens in the Western world is that they are Brown enough to represent a business like this. Because they’re mixed race, which was another reason why I wanted them to be half white, half Asian, is they embody this feeling of multiculturalism that I think is sometimes all you need to get by in for a business like this. I wanted to play with that because there is something really alluring about the aesthetics [of the products]. They’re beautiful. I think that this store would actually do pretty well if it was real, but there’s this very thin line between what is right and wrong. I didn’t really seek answers in this book, because I’m not sure there are answers. It’s all about the nuance of how you are with what you’re sourcing, if you’re using it correctly, if you know what it is in a real way, or if you’re just making it whatever you want it to be. The Brightons tread that line and I wanted it to be complicated.

Given the context we’re living in right now, can you talk about the decision to make abortion an experience that these sisters shared, and your thoughts about abortion representation in fiction more generally?

I fought to have that scene open the book. I was not warned against it so much, but cautioned that it was perhaps a divisive beginning. I was craving a nuanced portrayal in fiction. I feel that whenever you see an abortion in fiction, it’s largely a deeply traumatic, deeply melodramatic rendering of someone’s life being torn apart because of something they’ve done wrong or something very wrong that was done to them. Granted this experience dovetails, and there is more to it. There is more weight to it than what you see initially in the beginning. But what I wanted to show was the friendship and sisterhood aspect that comes with going through an experience that is heavy. It’s empowering to do it in such a tender and loving way, and with some humor and a little bit of levity, because there’s different kinds of trauma and it doesn’t all have to be dark and heavy. I wanted to show that sometimes this is a day in a life. I wrote this scene years before Roe v. Wade was overturned. When that happened, obviously, everything was settled with the book. I remember having a call with my team and it just felt like the earth had moved under us. In no way did I think that this would end up being as much of a hot topic as it ended up being. I thought genuinely that I was writing a hard day in a woman’s life, but that is bolstered by female friendship.

Cecily Wong with Lucy Tan

7 p.m. Aug. 15; Third Place Books, 6504 20th Ave. N.E., Seattle; free; thirdplacebooks.com/event/cecily-wong-lucy-tan.

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