Vanessa Chan, photographed by Mary Inhea Kang. Chan wears a red dress and stands in front of a dark background of trees

Vanessa Chan | Photograph by Mary Inhea Kang

I first met Vanessa Chan at a microphone. This was a little over four years ago, before she’d written and published her first novel, The Storm We Made.

It was a winter night in Manhattan, and we’d gathered for a reading of student work from The New School’s Creative Writing MFA program. I remember my face itching with tiredness that evening. But when Chan stood up to read, the party started. I was struck by Chan’s smile, her radiant self-possession, and, most of all, her words.

Each writer had only a few minutes at the microphone; Chan read a short passage of fiction, in which Malaysian school girls giggle at their teacher, a Brit, who wipes his chalky hands on the seat of his pants as he teaches their class. The teacher is a dork, yet the narrator feels a strange twinge as she watches him at the blackboard. Desire.

The passage offered a snapshot of the themes that surge through Chan’s writing: colonialism, desire (especially compromised, discomforted desire), the question of who holds authority over a story—or a history. And it showcased her skill in intermingling, in a single image, pain with laughter.

The pandemic arrived not long after that reading, and in the lonely period that followed, Chan could not get home to her family. In those years, she lost her mother. She sheltered in place. And she wrote her first book.

The Storm We Made came out in hardback in January this year with Marysue Rucci Books. A Good Morning America Book Club pick, it quickly became a national bestseller in the United States; around the world, it will be published in more than 20 languages.

The novel is set in a small town outside Kuala Lumpur, weaving through the decade of 1935 to 1946 and between the perspectives of four members of the Alcantara family: responsible eldest daughter Jujube, easy-going Abel (favored, thanks to the colorism of colonial Malaya, for his light skin), and Jasmin, the baby. Finally, there is their mother, Cecily, a frustrated housewife who, by the end of the war, will feel responsible not only for her family’s collapse but for the disaster of the Japanese occupation.

Cecily had welcomed Japan’s promise of “an Asia for Asians” after a hundred years of British rule.  But the strategic triumph of Japan’s occupation—despite significantly less manpower, the Japanese humiliated the British with the rapidity and ease with which they seized the territory—did not augur a “better colonizer.”

Japanese occupiers, Chan writes, “killed more people in three years than the British colonizers had in fifty.”

As Chan observes in her introduction to the book, the wounds of the World War II’s Pacific Theater often go undiscussed in contemporary Malaysia. “Before writing The Storm We Made,” she recalls, “I could count on one hand what facts I knew about the Japanese Occupation.” Putting to paper the stories she’d heard told—but never read—was political project as well as a personal one. As she noted in an interview with NPR’s Rob Schmitz, it’s in the writing that a story becomes history.

Scenes of cruelty and domination recur throughout The Storm We Made, from the polished degradations that the white wives of British officers inflict on Eurasian women to the torture that kidnapped Malaysian boys endure in Japanese work camps.  

At the center of this storm is Cecily. Her lack of power makes her vulnerable; it also makes her dangerous. Early in the novel, she falls for a charismatic, soft-spoken man who listens attentively to what she has to say—and who assures her that she isn’t invisible, just underestimated. When her friend reveals that he is a Japanese general, Cecily has few qualms about slipping him information from the desk of her husband, a bureaucrat who falls over himself trying to please his British employers.

These details aren’t spoilers. The central concern of The Storm We Made is not how Cecily betrays her family but what drives her to do it. Survival means something different for each character in the Alcantara family, and Chan is interested in exploring behavior rather than judging it: “Morality is a function of one’s circumstances,” she pointed out on NPR. “It was important for me to show that even when someone has the best intentions or intends to be heroic, faced with dire circumstances, they may make different choices than we would want them to make.”

When we met over Zoom for an interview, Chan was still jetlagged from her book tour of Malaysia and Singapore. But as she sipped a mug of coffee and settled into conversation, it was clear that her wits were in perfect order. Like her prose, Chan’s conversation is both effervescent and focused, effortlessly combining anecdotes and analysis.  

Chan grew up in the Old Town neighborhood of Petaling Jaya, on the outer edge of Kuala Lumpur. She grew up in the middle of a large extended family; her father is among the eldest of 39 cousins, meaning that Chan, his first child, is only a little younger than the youngest members of his generation. Chan loved hearing her relatives recount the boisterous family parties of their childhood, she told me, because each cousin tells the same story from a different angle. Her novel would eventually take up that structure—and as she wrote it, her family pitched in.

One uncle sent her a collection of architectural photographs from the period. Her father, crucially, fact-checked the manuscript. (“I naively thought that the book could be fact-checked here,” Chan told me, “but of course that’s not true. Nobody knows this history. How can they fact-check it?”) And there are her grandmother’s stories of life as a teenager in occupied Kuala Lumpur, which Chan had pieced together in an “oral scavenger hunt” across years of conversation.

At 18, Chan received a scholarship to study at University of California Berkeley. She arrived with one suitcase and $50 cash in her pocket to tide her over until her scholarship money kicked in. It was her first time in the United States: “New and exciting and terrifying,” she remembers. Chan loved her time at Berkeley, but when she graduated with a degree in political economy in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, she had to scramble for what jobs she could get. A small PR firm she’d interned at sponsored her work visa, and after a few years of leapfrogging, she made her way, in 2014, to Facebook. By age 28, she was a director of communications, handling financial communications, crises—“things like that,” she told me, casually. But she still didn’t have a green card.    

In her early twenties, a creative life seemed impossible. “I was in survival mode,” Chan told me. “I was just trying to make it through every day and pay the rent and put food on the table.” And her immigration status made her life in the US not just precarious but vulnerable to harassment.

One workplace was particularly misogynist. “I was invited on my first ever business trip,” Chan told me, “and I was like, Oh my gosh, I’m rising through the ranks, how thrilling.” One of the firm’s partners was on the trip; before one client meeting, he advised her to take off her suit jacket. Chan, not understanding the request, complied. When they arrived at the meeting, her boss turned to the client and, pointing to Chan, asked: “Do you like her? I brought her just for you.” Chan was stunned. How is this real? she remembers thinking.

Chan’s ability to defend herself was limited by her work visa. If she filed a complaint and lost her job—a real possibility in a workplace where sexual harassment was dismissed as playfulness or “being one of the boys”—she would lose her life in the United States. She kept her head down, focused on work, and tried to steer clear of her colleagues. She found it hard to see beyond the exhaustion of making it through each day.

“It’s very difficult to think about conceiving of an epic novel,” she observed to me, “when you’re just trying to avoid getting touched by strange men who work with you and are responsible for your career trajectory.” All those men, she pointed out, now have daughters.

After some six years at Facebook, Chan got her green card. Finally, she told me, she had the mental space to figure out what she wanted to do. She applied to graduate school, and in 2019 joined the fiction stream of The New School’s Creative Writing program, where she studied with Mira Jacob and Alexandra Kleeman. It was in a seminar with Marie-Helene Bertino that the germ of the narrative that would become The Storm We Made first emerged. When Bertino saw that Chan’s story about a Malaysian teenager hurrying home before wartime curfew was the start of something bigger, she advised Chan to hold it close.

Writing through COVID pushed Chan to work from memories (her own and her family’s) in describing Malaysia. Accordingly, the observations of daily life that enliven the epic sweep of The Storm We Made have a burnished resilience: these details, preserved across time and distance, matter. Teenage Abel is incensed when Cecily adds tapioca to make their rice stretch further. (Sometimes, Chan’s grandmother recalled, her family would have to add paper to their meal.) A prized tin of Horlicks, a British powdered milk drink, offers a similarly rich metaphorical mix of colonial cultural values, social status, and sensual appetite.

When Chan returned to Malaysia this April, her friends dug up a short story she’d written for their school magazine: a tale set on “the moors.” Chan laughed wryly at the obvious influence of British literature. “I’m a Malaysian girl from a suburb—I’d never been to a moor in my life! It must’ve been my Sherlock Holmes era.” The Storm We Made, in contrast, is set resolutely in Malaysia—and in Malaysian weather. “I remember one agent asked me, Why is it that everyone in this novel smells bad?” Chan raised an eyebrow. “First of all, have you been to a tropical country? It is hot. You think New York in the summer is bad—imagine that all year round. People are sweaty. Even if they don’t smell bad, they worry about it.”

Her book events in Malaysia were a revelation. “It felt really great to be in a place where I didn’t have to explain who I am or my background or my history,” she told me. She was thrilled to look up from reading and see her audience nodding vigorously with understanding. And her family were elated. “At one point,” said Chan, “I spotted one of them thanking people for coming, as though they were hosting a wedding. They were like, ‘Thank you so much for being here, we are so happy to have you.’” She chuckled. “I’m like, ‘We’? Who’s ‘we’?”

Chan likes to joke that she’s an unserious person who wrote a very serious novel. Her forthcoming second book, the short story collection The Ugliest Babies in the World, is more playful in its approach, and she’s curious to see how readers respond to it after The Storm We Made. The collection is currently with her editor and will likely publish in summer or fall 2025.

I asked Chan where she draws her energy from. “Honestly,” she told me, “I’m unapologetically happy to be most places.” This was especially true for her New School MFA, but extends beyond her writing life. “Maybe because I have lived more lives, other lives that were much less happy, I am generally pretty happy. And I think that kind of joy is, hopefully, infectious.”

Unserious or otherwise, it had only taken her two minutes at a student reading to convince me that she was a writer who would make a storm of her own—and now she’s done it, on a global scale.