Looted art story inspires young Chinese-American writer on literary journey

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Grace Li and her book cover. SUPPLIED 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 an artwork looted in China.

The novel, slated for publication in April, is inspired by the true story of Chinese art that disappeared from Western museums years ago.

Portrait of a Thief is the debut novel by Grace Li. 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 of the series.

“Several years ago, Chinese art started disappearing from museums around the world, and no one knew who was behind it. Many people speculated different things. But as a Chinese American, I was really fascinated that the only pieces of artwork that were stolen were originally looted from China,” Li told China Daily.

“As someone who’s always loved heist movies and heist stories, I wondered what this kind of thing would be like if the thieves weren’t expert criminals, but Chinese Americans like me. “

In stark contrast to the “great”, “nerdy” or “fun-averse” 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 student at Harvard University who has always been the fulfillment of his parents’ American dream.

His crew includes a “crook” who is a public policy major at Duke University who can get away with anything; a “thief” who is a premed student who is good at lockpicking; a “driver” who majors in engineering and loves car racing in her spare time; and a “hacker” who is an MIT dropout and a software engineer in Silicon Valley.

If they succeed, they win $50 million from a mysterious Chinese benefactor and a chance to go down in history. But if they fail, they will lose everything they dreamed of, and it will be another foiled 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. “, said Li. “So this book aims to examine what it means to return looted art home and how important it is for museums to return this art to its country of origin.”

Identity issues

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

“I grew up speaking Chinese at home. All of my extended family is still in China. And part of the reason I was so excited to tell this story was that although it’s t 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 ultimately recognize that you can’t be part of both,” Li said.

“These conflicting identities are something that I really struggled with growing up. Because I grew up in Texas…I often got questions about my identity. Like I was born and raised in the United States, but I was often asked where I was from and then where I was really from,” she said.

“I often felt like even though I was American, I wasn’t American enough. those questions that were very well-meaning, but also made me feel like I couldn’t belong in either the United States or China.”

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