In his third novel, Interior Chinatown, the writer explains why he’s done being “Generic Asian Man”
Reading Mr Charles Yu’s books does something to you, to the location where “you” sit within your own brain. When you are reading one of them, whether it’s Third Class Superhero (which prompted the National Book Foundation to name him one of its “5 Under 35” to watch), How To Live Safely In A Science Fictional Universe or his collection of short stories, Sorry Please Thank You, you may start to notice the same snags in reality that catch Mr Yu. You may obsess over the same behaviours around which he likes to tarry, to consider, to turn inside out and study from various angles – until he catches a reflection of himself studying it and then begins to study himself studying it. In this mode, you may begin to adopt Mr Yu’s almost post-modernist point of view, take on his pattern of observation of life, of yourself observing life.
In Mr Yu’s latest novel, Interior Chinatown, Willis Wu is an actor who inhabits the role of Generic Asian Man, the only role society has allowed him. Early on in the book there is an incredible riff on the strata of Asian-American men in cinema, from Chinese Restaurant Waiter (of whom there are many), all the way up to Kung Fu Guy (of whom there are three – Messrs Jackie Chan, Jet Li and Bruce Lee). Even though his protagonist is not named Charles Yu, as he was in How To Live Safely In A Science Fictional Universe, Willis Wu is interested in many of the same things that dog Mr Yu. In Interior Chinatown, identity becomes the main material of the novel – a novel that, for all of its layers of metaphor and wonder, is set in the familiar here and now of present-day Los Angeles (in as far as anything is real and present in Los Angeles).
In a way, as the world has become more and more disorientating, bizarre and seemingly otherworldly (dead seas, space tourism, apocalypse… eventually), Mr Yu’s fiction has counter-steered towards a more recognisable, everyday plane. We spoke to the Taiwanese-American novelist, Writers Guild-nominated TV writer, father, husband and dogwalker about the everyday bits of life that give flight to his fantasies, his fiction and his sense of himself.
The premise of Interior Chinatown, a story about Generic Asian Man, is primarily a social observation. How did that come about?
How these things usually go for me is, it seems like I’m going nowhere, I’m stuck in a cycle. And then all at once the first line came to me: “Ever since you were a kid you wanted to be Kung Fu Guy”. I’m not Kung Fu Guy and I was like, there’s a story there. That feels like a ball that’s sitting at the top of a hill. It’s got some potential energy in there. Of course, it didn’t write itself. There were plenty of roadblocks along the way. You go, oh yeah. I have to write a whole book of this.
Do you then reverse engineer the decisions of the plot to get over those roadblocks? You want to make a political/sociological statement and so you throw these particular rocks at your character.
I had been trying to write this book for years – four to five years. I had written this novel, or at least big chunks of it, twice and had effectively thrown most of it away twice. I’d been trying to write a story about being an immigrant, being a child of immigrants. And the story of my parents’ generation, coming from Taiwan. My dad has been in America more than 50 years now, so two-thirds of his life has been spent here. Same with my mom. And I really wanted to tell the story of what it was like for them as Americans, this kind of three-act structure, in which, near the end of their lives, things have really changed. It was probably also no coincidence that the book crystallised in 2017, after the election when I started to see things very differently. And I think in some ways, they have as well – themselves as Americans, the lives they’d spent here as Americans and whether or not they’ve ever fully felt like real Americans. But when that line came out, it carried with it the character. And all of a sudden, it felt like I was inside and I could write about it all through Willis, through his experiences.
Do you ever crave an escape from context, from pop culture, from the identity that culture encases us in? Or am I showing my serious white-male privilege?
I love that question. I do crave it. This book is obviously me doing some thinking and writing, and asking some questions about these roles. When you say “encased”, I think that’s a good word for it. Feeling kind of trapped in the matrix of it. Not only am I playing a role that feels sort of internally imposed by myself, but externally imposed by other people. It seems other people are always playing the roles, too. I love the moments in everyday life when it feels like we do slip out of those roles. Even just momentarily, when you can have a real honest moment with someone. It could be at the grocery store. It could be in an elevator. It could be anywhere. Maybe I wouldn’t want any more of that than I actually have. Maybe it’s one of those things where, if all of a sudden nobody was playing any roles, we’d be in this kind of completely anarchic situation. But I think at least being conscious of roles is a big part of this book.
Not only am I playing a role, it seems other people are always playing roles, too. I love the moments in everyday life when we slip out of those roles
You used to be a lawyer, but have since worked in television, on Westworld, Legion and Lodge 49, among other things. I’ve heard that in writers’ rooms there are often defined roles – the joke guy, the story guy, the character guy (I realise I’ve made them all men). Has that been your experience?
Yeah. Whoever told you that was right on. I think that’s one of the invisible structures of a writers’ room that took me a little while to understand. I’ve been in maybe half a dozen rooms at this point. So, it’s not a huge sample size, but it’s also a pretty varied experience and it is very real. On Westworld specifically, that was my first job in TV, so I was not the person who was going to bring TV experience. I don’t know what I was supposed to bring. What I ended up bringing was that I had read books about cognitive science and philosophy of consciousness. I’m not an expert on any of that. I’m not even an amateur on any of that. But I am both kind of dumb enough and smart enough to talk about it for about 30 seconds and sound like I sort of have an interesting idea once in a while. And I think that is the function in a writers’ room, where people know how to make a really good scene or a really good episode of TV. Sometimes you want the raw material of something to just kind of shape. And a novelist, or a fiction writer, sometimes has that.
You wrote a great story, “Fable”, that comes out of this idea, which I think is used in therapy, of describing one’s life as a fairytale. Have you ever done that yourself?
Gosh. I’m the worst at this. I feel like I’m living outside of the story, as if I’m in The Truman Show version of my own life. For instance, with my kids, we’re having fun and one of them says something interesting or poignant or not poignant. They’re just saying it, but I make it poignant because I’m sort of narrating in my head how poignant this is. I think I live in my own blind spot. I think that’s by definition what people do. Your blind spot is the part of you that other people see better than you do. I’m particularly anxious about whether or not I’m coming off the way I think I’m coming off. It has crystallised in a few moments in my life, where suddenly I’ve realised that I wasn’t the person I thought I was to the people around me.
How were you made aware that there was a rift between the way you were presenting and what you thought you were doing?
Here’s one example, at work, when I was a very new baby lawyer. I was working with a partner who was a kind of mentor figure, I guess. A classic, white-collar, white-shoe lawyer, who took me under his wing. One day he referred to me casually as “quiet Asian guy”. I was struck by that. It didn’t really feel like an insult, but it pierced me. Pierced the bubble, or whatever the thing that’s pierced is. It pierced that and it’s like, oh, that’s how I’m presenting.
What do your kids have to say about roles that are projected onto them or that they see themselves inhabiting?
My daughter’s 12 and my son is 10. It’s always interesting to hear their perspective. To me, they feel much more politically conscious than I was at that age. But, yes, they get it at school. They get it from other kids and they get it, I think, through osmosis. A lot of the same things that I faced, they will be facing – what is my identity in this country?
Interior Chinatown (Pantheon Books) by Mr Charles Yu is out now