Charles Yu knows the world isn't black and white
Steph Cha shares a meal and some notes on performing identity with the “Interior Chinatown” author
The day after “Parasite’s” historic Oscar sweep, I met up with Charles Yu to talk about his new book, “Interior Chinatown.” Yu and I are both Asian American Los Angeles natives who work as fiction and television writers, and we celebrated the Academy Awards about as soon as we said hello. “The thing that’s exciting” about the victory, said Yu, “is it reminds everyone that America is a place where that can happen.”
We were at Jun Won, a restaurant in Koreatown anointed by Jonathan Gold but still most popular with middle-aged Korean regulars. (The owner informed me he had just been texting with my father.) We ate a whole lot of home-style Korean food and discussed Yu’s brilliant, existential novel about identity and role-playing in life and on screen.
The story is set in a fictional Chinatown SRO where protagonist Willis Wu lives with his family and neighbors, all of them working at Golden Palace, a Chinese restaurant/television set on the ground floor. Yu’s Chinatown is an amalgam, based less on any geographical place than on a state of being. “It exists in a mental space,” he said, “a kind of collective imagination for Asian Americans who grew up in my generation, feeling like you don’t exist fully inside of America. The closest analogy I could come to is something like a cartoon, where the rules of physics or logic don’t always apply and you can walk from one room to another plane of existence, like sort of a Coyote and Roadrunner or Bugs Bunny thing.”
I pointed out that we were only 15 minutes or so from L.A.’s Chinatown, which largely owes its cinematic fame to Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown,” a movie about the white people of Los Angeles. “I didn’t spend a lot of time there even though I grew up in L.A.,” Yu said. “But in some of the research for the book, I realized that Chinatown has this dual function where it would have to play itself for Hollywood.”
Yu found a theatricality in the idea of the Chinese restaurant as well. “A lot of people, Asian or not, have their neighborhood Chinese restaurant, whether that’s in Ohio or Jersey or Florida, and that to me is also part of the Chinatown that this book talks about: the idea of this very American thing — the Chinese restaurant — but held apart from America, stylized with clear markers like you are now in a different culture.”
This marked separation is reflected in the structure and perspective of the novel, which is formatted like a screenplay and narrated almost entirely in the second person, creating an immersive but surreal reading experience.
“Ever since you were a boy, you’ve dreamt of being Kung Fu Guy,” it begins. “You are not Kung Fu Guy. You are currently Background Oriental Male, but you’ve been practicing.”
Yu, who has made a name for himself with high-concept fiction and screenwriting (including “Westworld”), decided on the screenplay format early on and the second-person narrative soon after. “I realized that it was doing two things for me.” First, “It was putting the reader inside of Willis’ perspective in a way that I don’t think you see that often with Asian American characters.” And second, “It captured something about Willis’ lack of agency — he’s being narrated too — and I hoped that throughout the book, that second person would shift and change here and there depending on what Willis is doing.”
Like all the other people in his building, Willis shifts among roles — Generic Asian Man, Striving Immigrant — hoping to one day become Kung Fu Guy. “I grew up in an era when Asian kids didn’t really have that many pop culture things — Bruce Lee was really it for a long time,” said Yu. “I think in that way, Kung Fu Guy is a really important symbol, or at least it was when I was a kid. Like, OK, there’s one thing I can be that’s cool. That’s pretty much the only thing, but at least there’s something.”
As the novel begins, Willis is a background character on a corny police procedural called “Black and White,” with black male and white female leads. (“You really like that, don’t you?” the black actor asks Willis when his costar defends him in an argument. “Feels good to have WHITE on your side, don’t it? Have her approval.” Willis snaps back, “You calling me a model minority?”) He strives to advance within this system, even as he starts to understand that the system is a trap.
Yu is aware of a standard type of knee-jerk reaction to complaints about Asian American representation in media: “‘Is this really all you have to complain about, that there’s not enough of you on TV? Come on, give me a break. You’re all doing so well.’ One, not true, on a number of levels,” he said. And two, representation isn’t an isolated problem. “There are a lot of people who don’t have exposure to Asian Americans on an everyday basis, and so TV is the way they get exposure.”
The image they get is laughably warped. Asians are often erased, as in “The O.C.” a show about an alternate-universe Orange County in which everyone is white. Even when we’re present, our roles tend to be marginal — sidekick, doctor of the week. “Here’s where I think it matters,” Yu said. “You have this incredibly simplified version of race in America in everyone’s head that becomes a feedback loop, and then we try to have political debate, but the thing that’s filling our heads is this cartoonish picture of race.”
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Willis may not become the hero of “Black and White” but he is the hero of his own story; he even gets to be the romantic lead, a turn that at first confuses him, as it’s not a role he thought he could play. Yu wanted to explore the idea of “performing Asianness,” as well as the blurred line between life and performance in general. “We perform lots of stuff every day. I perform a bit when I’m with my parents, as the son, and with my wife, and now with my kids, as a dad. The totality of all the roles we play is basically what we are, and yet even if you add them all up, there’s something underneath that is not captured by any of the roles. There are still cracks between them.”
Cha is the author, most recently, of “Your House Will Pay.”