'Interior Chinatown' by Charles Yu
'But at the same time, I'm guilty, too. Guilty of playing this role. Letting it define me.' —Review #158
Yesterday was Independent Bookstore Day, which is a sacred holiday here at Books on GIF. Donna and I took advantage of the nice weather to stroll around Fort Greene and visit The Center for Fiction and Greenlight Bookstore. Of course, we picked up a few books. We can’t help it! Any excuse to get more books and we’re like:
You’ll see those books in future newsletters. For today, I ordered Charles Yu’s National Book Award-winning novel through the BookShop.org storefront for Bel Canto Books of Long Beach, Calif. Bel Canto’s owner, Jhoanna, is an Instagram friend, and I was inspired to buy ‘Interior Chinatown’ after seeing her include it in a roundup of books by Asian authors she compiled in response to recent violence against Asian Americans. It is an essential book that speaks directly to our ongoing reckoning with racism.
Here’s the cover:
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‘Interior Chinatown’ embodies Shakespeare’s famous maxim that all the world’s a stage and that we’re merely the players. The book is literally structured like a screenplay, complete with setting descriptions and the characters identified as roles. Protagonist Willis Wu describes himself as ‘Generic Asian Man,’ and is a background character in American life and in the country’s great black-and-white racial drama. Willis lives in a Chinatown SRO among a community of stereotypical bit players, including restaurant workers and elderly Kung Fu masters. He dreams of becoming a ‘Kung Fu Guy,’ a more visible role that society has deemed acceptable for an Asian man to play. Willis’s perception and understanding of himself grows and changes as he navigates the loosely assembled plot points of what feels like a buddy-cop movie or a ‘Law & Order’ episode. I enjoyed Yu’s screenplay structure. It felt clever, creative and playful, and allowed him to skewer both the entertainment industry and America’s overall racial narrative where Blacks and whites are the central characters and every other group is relegated to mere extras. It blends humor and historical facts, and is a triumph of style and metaphor. As I read, I kept thinking:
But I have some gripes. Even though I liked the screenplay format, it was sometimes tough to follow. The story is written in the second person. My guess is that using ‘you’ to refer to Willis is meant to put the reader in his shoes. But it was one ambition too many for me; I found it distracting. And several interesting story threads felt squandered. Some things I would have liked to see more fleshed out: Willis’s relationship with his declining father and a murder at the SRO. I’m guessing the loose ends are meant to reinforce the overall metaphor about Asian Americans being relegated to society’s background roles, people who don’t get the benefit of fleshed-out stories in America’s racial script. Still, I found myself thinking:
Reading this book reminded me of an episode I recently watched of ‘The Price is Right’ from the 1980s. (There’s a channel on Pluto TV that streams nothing but the show’s episodes from that era. It’s wonderful, and I watch it all the time.) A woman was called to ‘come on down,’ and when she got to contestant’s row, Bob Barker asked her where she was from. I think she said she was from California, but then Bob asked her again: But where are you from originally? The woman paused and said that her family had immigrated from the Philippines. Bob seemed satisfied with that answer. It was as if because she didn’t look Black or white that she couldn’t just be an American from California. It had to be shown that she was somehow foreign, and then the show could go on. That’s the kind of thing—the false idea that Asian Americans are not fully and truly American—that ‘Interior Chinatown’ captures and exposes so well. The book pushes us to reckon with those thoughts and prejudices within ourselves, and in society writ large. It’s a good and important book, and a quick read. I recommend it.
How it begins:
INT. GOLDEN PALACE
Ever since you were a boy, you’ve dreamt of being Kung Fu Guy.
You are not Kung Fu Guy.
You are currently Background Oriental Male, but you’ve been practicing.
Maybe tomorrow will be the day.
‘Interior Chinatown’ by Charles Yu was published by Pantheon Books and by Vintage Books in 2020. 266 pages. $14.72 at Bookshop.org.
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Before you go:
ICYMI: Review #157 featured the debut of ‘3 From BoG’ and included ‘The Secret History of Wonder Woman’ by Jill Lepore, ‘Living’ by Henry Green and ‘The Shadow King’ by Maaza Mengiste. | Browse the Archive
Read this: ‘There Is No After’ by Molly Osberg in Jezebel is a powerful look at our collective grief over the pandemic and how we will likely live with that sorrow for the rest of our lives. It also offers a critique of media approaches to covering the so-called ‘return to normal’ amid the vaccine rollout. This sentence stuck with me:
Previously unimaginable atrocities and shattering disruptions in how people live have been distilled into articles about how to work from home without ruining your back or more effectively disinfect your kitchen.
Read this, too: I found this New York Times obituary of independent book publisher Giancarlo DiTrapano by chance on Twitter. I hadn’t known DiTrapano or heard of his avant-garde imprint, Tyrant Books, which he ran out of his Manhattan apartment. But after reading Alex Vadukul’s excellent piece, I felt a pang of sadness. The world had lost an independent and defiant spirit. I loved this paragraph:
“Tyrant stuff isn’t for everyone, but nothing should be for everyone,” he said in an interview with Entropy magazine in 2015. “Or at least nothing that’s worth anything. You know what’s for everyone? Water. Water is for everyone. And if you’re publishing something for everyone, well, you’re publishing water.”
Do this: Jonny Sun discusses ‘Goodbye, again,’ his new collection of ‘essays, reflections and illustrations,’ with Mary H.K. Choi at a virtual event hosted by Books Are Magic on Weds., April 28, at 7 p.m. Click here to RSVP. Note: According to the promotional materials, Sun’s book ‘features a recipe for scrambled eggs that might make you cry.’
Thanks for reading, and thanks especially to Donna for editing this newsletter!
Until next time,