When I first read Weike Wang’s name on the roster of the Penn English Department, I was thrilled. The Chinese–American author, teaching one course this semester and two next semester, is not only known for her debut novel, Chemistry—which received the PEN/Hemingway Award—but also for the journey she took to get there. With an undergraduate degree in chemistry and doctorate in public health from Harvard University, as well an MFA in fiction from Boston University, Weike’s career trajectory reflects a curious intersection between two areas that do not often mix.
The move away from a pre–planned career in STEM, and toward one's passions, is also the story of the unnamed protagonist in Chemistry. However, unlike her fictional character, for whom the pressure to choose culminates in a breakdown, Weike’s move was strategic—choosing to finish her public health doctorate and pursue her MFA at the same time. This was partly due to how she grew up, but also her own practical nature. “This idea of writing and art not necessarily being a viable path is so ingrained in the community that I grew up in,” Weike said. “I wanted to prove to myself that I have this degree—If this writing thing doesn’t work out, which 99% of the time it doesn’t… I needed a job.”
But the relationship between Weike’s two areas of studies went beyond that. Although Weike has no plan of returning to the sciences (“Once you get off the STEM train, you can’t get back on”), her background has proved to support her writing in many ways. It has taught her about hard work, provided a familiarity with the scientific world that many of her works are set in, and rewired her brain so that she is almost clinical when it comes to writing. “[With] my background in STEM, I’m just not that emotional when it comes to my own writing,” She chuckled. “Sure, there is emotion in it, but you have to figure out a way to control it.”
Really, it's this cool, critical approach that has allowed for what PEN America praised in Chemistry as “elliptical prose, spare and clean as bone.” While her writing style varies, she never overwrites. Chemistry features probably the sparest style that she has employed, but sometimes, with essays or short stories, she lets herself go a little bit—"Not a lot,” She added. “You can expand or constrict, depending on what the piece needs.”
For Weike, writing is and should be hard work, “In the same way that STEM requires creativity, writing should actually require rigor.” She holds her students to the same standard that she holds herself. “Sometimes students now, especially in workshops or writing, they just want you to say that this is so great, but sometimes it just sucks,” She explained, “And that is true for me, and true for any writer right now—there is always gonna be room for improvement.” Weike is never under the illusion that writing is something that can be grasped in a day. “There are rules, and knowing them is important—not necessarily following them."
In fact, Weike is never under any illusion about writing at all. When she first began, she had no expectations, but did have a strong support system in the writing community and a great professor as her mentor. Today, that realism persists. “I think everything [since] I came into this field has obviously exceeded expectations,” she said, “but there’s still a sense of being realistic about what you can write, and being practical about [how] you can’t necessarily support yourself writing after a certain amount of time—you have to teach, you have to have side jobs.”
For students who may want to pursue writing, Weike advised caution instead of blind passion: “I wouldn’t necessarily recommend for students to say, ‘Oh, I’m gonna definitely be a writer,’ because I feel that those are the students who end up quitting writing… because it’s hard. It gets super hard after a while.” She suggested figuring out if they really want to tell the story—a story so important that they can’t give up—and if they’re willing to put in the work. “I’d only recommend [writing] after they’ve figured out that there’s really nothing else they can do, or there’s nothing else they’re willing to do, and that takes some time.”
The final decision to write was made for Weike through a passive, yet almost inevitable, draw to writing. “I had heard everything there was to hear about not giving up STEM, and I still didn’t pursue it,” she said. “The choice to write—I fell into it, and it was also made for me by an inactivity to do something else.” Regardless, Weike had definitely taken the time to decide what she truly wanted, and she represents the middle ground between the two opposing camps that we often see at Penn—following liberal arts passions and pursuing pre–professional fields. And that is incredibly refreshing.
Today, Weike is working on some short stories, as well as a second novel that also features a female, Asian–American protagonist in the STEM world—a physician. When asked about her place in Asian–American literature, Weike answered matter–of–factly, “For novels, I am mostly going to write Asian–American characters. If I don't do it, who’s gonna do it?”
Weike is teaching two courses next spring: Intro to Creative Writing, which she described as a more fun, relaxing class, and Advanced Fiction Writing: The Novel, for which she asks students to come with a project to work on. If you choose the latter, be prepared for some hard work and honest critiques.
I jumped at the chance to speak to Weike, because I wanted to learn more about her unique career trajectory and her straightforward, searing writing style. In the end, she was all that I expected, and more—her pragmatism and honesty was a welcoming change in a field that is often self–indulgent. Whether you’re asking for her feedback on a piece of writing, or advice on how to pursue your dreams, you can be sure that she will tell you the truth.