Like many Americans, Nghi Vo’s first introduction to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel The Great Gatsby was during a high school English class.
“I was given the book as part of the American canon as when I was a sophomore. To me, it’s always been like the rest of the American canon, in that it was given to me as a gift,” Nghi said. “So if it’s a real gift, no one should have any problem with what you do with it.”
Vo’s debut novel, The Chosen and the Beautiful—which was released on June 1 by Tor Books—takes that gift of The Great Gatsby and not only centers Jordan Baker, the seemingly vacuous best friend of Gatsby’s long lost love Daisy Buchanan, she also transports the iconic story into a world where Gatsby himself is a bisexual vampire and blood-infused cocktails are served inside his legendary mansion. The novel is the latest piece of speculative fiction created by Vo, who has also released the novellas The Empress of Salt and Fortune, which was a finalist for the Hugo, Ignyte, and Locus Awards, and Tiger Came Down the Mountain. The draw of the world of science fiction and fantasy is one that is closely linked to her experiences as a Vietnamese American.
“Growing up as a member of the diaspora, among the first memories you have are of your parents telling you who the monsters are. They’ll say, ‘Don’t go out there,’ ‘Don’t play with them,’ ‘Don’t talk to these people,’” Vo said. “Then when you leave the family enclave, you’re basically outside and suddenly you’re the monster. That’s according to people who yell in the street or according to the history lessons you get.”
Jordan’s unique position in the milieu of Fitzgerald’s fictional West Egg was also apparent from the very first time Vo read the book, especially when contrasted to the way the ethereal Daisy was presented. Vo saw Jordan as “a bit of an outsider.”
“She struck me as a bit androgynous. As a queer woman those are definitely things that get my attention when they’re flagged in literature,” Vo noted.
In Vo’s otherworldly retelling, Jordan is the ultimate outsider in a world of rarefied wealth and beauty. She is also a Vietnamese American adoptee who is open about her bisexuality. Telling Jordan’s story from an Asian American, immigrant perspective was an easy decision for the author, given the fact that The Great Gatsby has been presented to generations of students as a story about chasing the American dream.
“The question then becomes—especially if you’re an outsider—‘Whose dream is that now?’” Vo said. “In this case, I very much wanted to make it the dream of a queer Vietnamese American woman who comes from a rather troubled background.”
That’s why the Jordan Baker of The Chosen and the Beautiful is a Vietnamese orphan from what was then known as Indochina, who was then adopted out of a missionary-run orphanage by a wealthy American woman. But in addition to putting her own unique stamp on an American classic, Vo also wanted to create a story in which an Asian American woman is at the center of a work of historical fiction.
“Especially if you are Vietnamese American, there’s this idea that Vietnamese Americans weren’t in the country until Vietnamese American War,” she noted. “But that’s not true. There have always been Vietnamese in the country.”
Diving into the impact of the colonization of Vietnam and the impact of missionaries on the region was a sometimes emotional research process. To create Jordan’s backstory, Vo drew on her own family’s stories about life in Southeast Asia in the 1920s and read about the history of missionaries in the region at the time.
“It got increasingly dark. I don’t know that’s a perspective that I would have if I were Christian myself, which I am absolutely not, but it’s a very strange and dark place to investigate,” Vo said. “It is a legacy of pain and it’s a legacy of imperialism.”
Fans of Fitzgerald’s original novel may remember Jordan as the love interest of Gatsby’s narrator, Nick Carraway. Vo’s reimagining of The Great Gatsby brings to the forefront the queer subtext of the book that has been a major part of Fitzgerald scholarship since the late 1970s, in particular the longheld belief by some readers that Carraway was bisexual. Like many readers who first read The Great Gatsby as teenagers, the possibility of Nick’s queerness—and the now-famous fleeting scene in which Nick is inside a man’s bedroom after a night at a drunken party—was initially unnoticed by Vo, who did not learn about the scene until reading some of the literary criticism that mentioned it in recent years. Afterwards, “I went back to my copy on the shelf and read it myself and I’m like, ‘Oh, I don’t know what’s going on there but it sure ain’t straight.’”
Writing scenes in which Nick and Jordan interact with one another also allowed Vo to explore the intricacies of a bisexual romantic relationship on the page. It also creates a specific set of tensions that Vo’s version of Jordan and Nick have to navigate. While Jordan’s bisexuality is widely, if quietly, acknowledged by Daisy and the rest of her social circle, Nick is much more secretive and circumspect.
“That was really fun to dig into,” said Vo, who is also bisexual. “It’s one of those situations where, even if you have a cis man and a cis woman in a relationship together, when both of those characters are bisexual, you have a queer relationship and you have a relationship that runs differently than a heterosexual couple does.”
The fact that Jordan’s Asianness and status as an adoptee already marks her as an outsider also in many ways allows her to express herself more freely than her peers from more conventional backgrounds could.
“That is very much a strange and awkward gift that I think a lot of queer people of color have and It’s one that is very familiar to my life, where it’s like, ‘Well, alright. I’m different enough, let’s just keep going with it,’” Vo said. “When you’ve already decided that you are unacceptable in some ways, you start being a lot less flipped out about other ways in which you are unacceptable.”
Despite The Great Gatsby’s iconic status in American literature, Vo says she did not hesitate after she got the idea to tell Jordan’s story. She recalls the exact moment she told her literary agent her idea for The Chosen and the Beautiful and her agent’s immediate response.
“I told her that I was writing a novel and that I also had this idea for a retelling of The Great Gatsby,” she recalled. “There was a long pause on the other end of the line and then she very seriously said ‘Stop what you are writing and write this.’”
With The Great Gatsby now in the public domain, readers and pop culture fans should expect a variety of Gatsby retellings in the months and years to come. Vo’s The Chosen and the Beautiful is a great place to start.