Writers & Company

Charles Yu's Interior Chinatown looks at anti-Asian racism through the eyes of a Hollywood actor

The American television and fiction writer spoke with Eleanor Wachtel about exploring the influence of stereotypes and representation in his award-winning novel.
Charles Yu is an American writer of nonfiction, sci-fi, literary and experimental fiction. (Pantheon)

When Charles Yu's Interior Chinatown was awarded the 2020 U.S. National Book Award for fiction, the jury described it as "a bright, bold, gut punch of a novel."

Written loosely in the form of a screenplay, Interior Chinatown centres on Willis, an Asian American actor who performs background roles — such as "Generic Asian Man" — in a Hollywood TV cop show set largely in Chinatown. By turns surprising, entertaining and enlightening, the book probes questions about representation and racism as it follows Willis in his pursuit of a leading role, in show business and in his own life.

Born in Los Angeles to Taiwanese parents, Yu is also a television writer. He is a two-time Writers Guild of America nominee for his work on HBO's Westworld. His fiction often conjures alternate realities, as in his acclaimed first novel How To Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe and his short story collection Sorry Please Thank You.

Yu spoke with Eleanor Wachtel from his home in Irvine, Calif. 

As seen on TV

"The story takes place through the eyes of a character named Willis Wu. He plays 'Generic Asian Man No. 3' in a TV police procedural. In the U.S., the most famous TV procedural is Law & Order, or maybe CSI. But Law & Order is what I think of as the original, the one that created a whole industry of these TV shows.

"Willis exists in a police procedural and he has to live by the rules of that. There's a Chinatown within that where you do the special 'Chinatown episode.' Once a season, the story finds its way into this ethnic ghetto, where they tell a story about the people of Chinatown. That's the Chinatown that I was writing about, which is a kind of TV reality.

"It's a bit like The Twilight Zone or maybe Black Mirror, in that this place is kind of a bubble. It is its own dimension. Willis tries to escape, or at least to understand the rules of this place. It is both a mental and physical place.

The story takes place through the eyes of a character named Willis Wu. He plays 'Generic Asian Man No. 3' in a TV police procedural.

"It's literally the place where he lives and works — there's a Chinese restaurant where he's a waiter — but it's also a composite where it's the cultural Chinatown as we understand it through TV and movies."

The burden of representation

"Willis, through the course of the book, is struggling with how he's perceived. One thing he doesn't totally know is how much of it is in his own head — how much has he internalized the idea that people perceive him as the 'other'? 

It's being acutely aware of being the only Asian in the room sometimes, and thinking, 'Why am I thinking about this? Are other people thinking about this?'

"Regardless of whether it's external or internal, Willis definitely feels like he's the 'other.' That self-consciousness is what I'm writing about, the sense of having to perform to fit in. Not knowing exactly when I'm performing and when I'm not is something that I have personally thought about in my life. It's being acutely aware of being the only Asian in the room sometimes, and thinking, 'Why am I thinking about this? Are other people thinking about this?'

"That was the psychological foundation and what I was trying to explore."

A wedding photo of the parents of American author Charles Yu. (Submitted by Charles Yu)

My lived experience

"I've always written about family and relationships. I had this sense that I hadn't cracked open parts of my parents' experience that I felt were waiting there. I didn't know if I knew how to write about them. I had a feeling of anxiety about whether or not I was equipped to tell stories about that experience. 

"I had published three books prior to Interior Chinatown. And I did feel like, 'Am I skirting around something?' I actually had a reader come up to me in Boston, when I was signing books, and bring that up. They said, 'Why do you think that you shy away from writing about certain topics?' 

I've always written about family and relationships. But I had this sense that I hadn't cracked open parts of my parents' experience that I felt were waiting there.

"That was an eye-opening moment for me. It got me going down a rabbit hole and thinking, 'Am I really doing that?' It brought about this feeling of wanting to tackle this subject — of what it was like, for not just my parents, but their whole cohort that came over in the 1960s."

The notion of the "model minority"

"The character of Older Brother in Interior Chinatown represents an idea. Growing up, I certainly felt there was a mythical version of myself. Imagine the platonic 'model minority Asian child.' I don't know if this is true of everyone's experience, but my parents weren't trying to make me into that. Not explicitly. But there was a sense of something or someone always just out of reach — however well I might have done, I could have done a little better. 

"Older Brother is the avatar, or embodiment, of this kind of perfection. Imagine if you could achieve everything that would make your parents proud, make you proud, and you would also be cool. Not just a nerd or a high achieving Asian American, but actually cool. It's all of Willis's inadequacies, projected onto one person.

There's all kinds of historical and other reasons why, for instance, there have been lots of Asians that have done well, especially in science and technology.

"But the concept of the 'model minority' is problematic, because it's very reductive. It homogenizes. It loses the variety of the spectrum of national, ethnic and religious origin and also the socioeconomic background of Asians. In the U.S., there are communities where Asians are among the poorest. 'Model minority' is often used as this kind of exemplar — look at this subset of people who have done well professionally or financially. It plays into a story that discrimination must not be insurmountable, because if it were, Asians couldn't have done this. 

"There's all kinds of historical and other reasons why, for instance, there have been lots of Asians that have done well, especially in science and technology. It's because a lot of the Asian immigrants that were let into the U.S., in the '60s, were let in specifically for that. You had this wave of people that only got to come here because they had special skills already, or had educational backgrounds that would allow them to enter the fields like medicine and engineering.

"To just draw one slice of a huge group of people — and to make a story around that — that's really problematic."

Charles Yu's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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