Chinese Lawyer Pens Novel on Challenges to Make Partner

Helen Wan with her first novel "The Partner Track," released in September. (Photo by Mike Hong via World Journal)

It took her 12 years, but Helen Wan published her debut novel, “The Partner Track,” last month. (Photo by Mike Hong via World Journal)

“A publisher once told me, ‘We can publish your novel but can you make your protagonist a white woman rather than a minority woman.’ I said clearly: ‘No.’” 

“The Partner Track,” the debut novel of Chinese attorney Helen Wan, has finally been published, after being rewritten three times and changing publishers twice in a long journey of 12 years.

The lead character of the novel is a second-generation Chinese immigrant lawyer named Ingrid Yung. The story tells how she paved her way through hard work in a prominent law firm dominated by white men, and eventually became the first female minority partner of the firm. It sheds light on the corporate culture of the white-male-dominated industry, the challenges minorities and women face in their career, and the glass ceiling Chinese women encounter.

Wan herself is a second-generation Chinese immigrant. She was born in California and grew up in Virginia. After graduating from the University of Virginia School of Law, Wan worked for a big law firm in Manhattan. Now she is a full-time attorney and a legal counsel for Time Warner. Because of her own experiences, some readers thought the novel might be autobiographical. But Wan said: “If I chose myself as the protagonist of my book, the book would be boring.”

Wan said she interviewed many friends who work in big law firms, including many minority attorneys, and showcased their professional experience and the details of their lives and work in the book.

She originally wanted to write a nonfiction book when she started 12 years ago. But after rewriting it three times, she turned it into a novel so the struggles of the protagonist could reflect the hardship professional minority women face in big companies and appeal to a broader audience.

Wan also hoped to encourage minorities, especially Chinese, to be self-confident, and to challenge corporate culture set by white men.

“I dreamed of becoming a writer when I was a kid. But my parents, like many first-generation Chinese parents, expected me to become a doctor or a lawyer,” said Wan. She added: “It would be really hard to make ends meet in New York by being a full-time writer from the beginning.”

Therefore, even after publishing “The Partner Track” and garnering praise from critics, Wan is keeping her day job.

“Working as a lawyer satisfies my needs in everyday life,” she said. “Writing nurtures my soul and satisfies my hobby.”

She explained her job as a lawyer keeps her very busy and she was able to finish the book by working hard on weekends and during vacation days for the past 12 years.

Through writing the  book, Wan also realized that as a Chinese woman it is as difficult to find her own space in the writing and publishing industry, as in a big corporation. Wan pointed to the image of a white woman on the cover of the book: “Look, even the cover is not an Asian woman.”

But she never budged from her original idea of raising the voices of minority women in the book.

Her hard work and persistence eventually got rewarded. On September 17, the book that took 12 years to write was finally published. Wan, like the protagonist of her novel, fulfilled her American dream. Wan hopes one day she can be a full-time writer and realize the dream she has had since childhood.

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