Let’s get one thing out of the way: The Problem with Helena is not an autobiography of author Joy Chen. While Phoebe and Helena, the best friends who take turns narrating the story, are “born from [the author’s] own flaws,” the book is neither a travelogue of Chen’s study abroad experience nor a diary about her own friendships and romances. The Problem with Helena is a distillation of friendship, growing up, and living in China as a Chinese American. The story is brief, clear and simple; in other words, danchun (a phrase the author uses to describe Chinese language and culture).
While completing her degree in comparative literature with minors in East Asian studies and creative writing, Chen got to see China through the eyes of a young adult, and not just a kid tagging along after her parents. The Problem with Helena is written intimately and quietly from this perspective.
In the book, Phoebe asks Helena a simple but profound question: “Were you the Chinese writer because you’re ethnically Chinese, or because you wrote about China?” Both are true for Chen, of course, but she also wants the freedom to write without always shouldering a larger political or social agenda. She believes you “shouldn’t have to feel obligated to write about China if you’re Chinese,” but also that Asian Americans are “well positioned” to tell those kinds of stories.
It seems to be an apt moment for stories by, about, and for Asian Americans. The release and success of Crazy Rich Asians inspired Chen to publish her book, which began its life as her senior thesis. Like Crazy Rich Asians, The Problem with Helena is a story about Asian Americans in Asia, rather than America. Chen wants to continue exploring “Asian global narratives” made possible as travel becomes easier and Asian Americans have more opportunities to “go back,” or perhaps go forward, to countries their parents or grandparents left decades ago.
Chen self-published The Problem with Helena not only as a way to check off an item on her bucket list, but as a way to share her story with other Asian Americans and Americans living in Asia. When asked to share advice with other Asian American creatives, Chen gives simple encouragement: “Take yourself seriously even if it feels uncomfortable or you’re just promoting yourself. If you don’t take yourself seriously, no one else will.” Self-publishing The Problem with Helena was Chen’s way of taking her own work seriously. And now it seems like the rest of the world will take her seriously as well.