Richard Dawkins

Kevin Kwan: The unlikely friendship that got me through lockdown

When the pandemic pressed pause on his chaotic life, the author Crazy Rich Asians and new novel Sex and Vanity found himself mentoring a young writer. It changed his outlook on the world.

Kevin Kwan

If there's anything I’ve learned from the past year, it’s that you have to live in the present. Before now we were living so fast and expecting everything to happen instantaneously, but that’s not how nature works. Instead we’ve had to come to a place of acceptance and learn to adjust slightly every day to what we know about the pandemic. It’s such a profound accomplishment that, with one year, we have effective vaccines when previously they took decades to develop. I have been trying to focus on that and learn to stay grateful.

The pandemic has changed my life profoundly. For one thing, I’ve really upped my cooking game. I used to eat out roughly 100% of the time, but now I’ve discovered some fantastic cooking hacks. I know a lot of people have added the ‘pandemic 15 pounds’, but I’ve kept relatively healthy. It helps that, in California, you can hit the mountain trails and do a lot of hiking. It’s been my one salvation: being able to enjoy the outdoors. I'm also reading more fiction than I ever have in my life. For the past 20 years I’ve read mainly non-fiction; a lot of current affairs, history and politics, whatever sparked my interest. Now I love to escape into a story again that doesn’t have anything to do with reality. 

But the thing that has really changed my life is mentoring. I’ve been helping a friend’s kid, who is still in high school, discover his talent as a writer. It started virtually by just critiquing some of his work, then we started talking on the phone, then later meeting up to go for walks together outdoors. There is something so refreshing in his brashness: he doesn’t perceive me as famous in any way, I’m just a friend of his mother's who happens to be a writer. He is very grateful for the feedback, but just treats me normally. 

'I can say for sure: this would not have happened without Covid'

I can say for sure: this would not have happened without Covid. I normally live in such an adult world, and so much of my old life, before the pandemic, was about travel. Since the success of Crazy Rich Asians, which came out in 2013, I have spent the years nervously thinking: I have to keep doing this, I have to accept every opportunity offered to me. Actually, when you sit back, you realise these deadlines are arbitrary. Instead, I’ve discovered a desire I didn’t know I had to impart some of what I know back to others. Earlier this year I did a guest lecture for Columbia Business School; later this month I’m teaching a masterclass at the University of British Columbia. Next, I’d like to try and set up the scholarship programme for young writers and artists. I feel like there's so much young untapped creativity that needs to be fostered and given the opportunity to grow. 

Mentoring has been really quite beautiful; spending time with someone so young and bright and, in a strange way, full of optimism. I realise now there is a new generation who are so conscious of what's happening in the world, and who want so much to be part of important change to social justice, politics, the environment. A lot of teenagers these days are off campaigning and volunteering and knocking on doors – this is not what I was doing at 16! – and they're not just posing or being trendy either; they’re really concerned what the future will bring for them and want to fix it urgently. It fills me, despite everything, with hope.

What did you think of this article? Email and let us know.

Kevin Kwan is the author of Sex and Vanity.

Reasons for Hope is a series of essays to mark the one year anniversary of the Covid-19 crisis. The author's fee for this article is being donated to the National Literacy Trust. Read more of the essays here.

Image: Alicia Fernandes / Penguin  

Sign up to the Penguin Newsletter

For the latest books, recommendations, author interviews and more