Interview: Charles Yu

Author of Interior Chinatown, Winner of the National Book Award

by Brian Hioe

Photo credit: Book Cover

New Bloom/No Man is an Island editor Brian Hioe spoke to writer Charles Yu about his recent book, Interior Chinatown, which recently won the National Book Award. 


Brian Hioe:  First, could you introduce yourself for readers who might not know you?

Charles Yu:  My name is Charles Yu. I’ve written four books including my latest, which is Interior Chinatown.

BH:  Could you talk a bit about where the motivation to write Interior Chinatown came from, as well as the process? I’m interested that you describe the process as being an “independent production” in the book, for example, similar to how movies might be described.

CY:  I’ve been working in TV for about six years now. In that time, I’ve worked on some really big shows, I worked on Westworld, for example. When I get to come back to fiction, it feels like this is my domain, for better or worse. Every book, no matter how epic in scope, is still ultimately your own kingdom or fiefdom.

BH:  I see. Is that where the frame narrative for the book comes from? Because the book is written as a script in part, which is also how you frame representation of the American Dream. The main character works in moviemaking, through this sort of Hollywood system, in the course of the narrative. A script-like format frames the narrative.

CY:  I started working in TV in 2014, but it wasn’t until two or three years later that I stumbled upon this sort of framing device. But once I did, it felt like the right form for the substance. Ultimately, I think what I was trying to capture was something about my experience of having been born in America and raised here by Taiwanese parents and what that experience was like.

For me, a very useful device or metaphor was the idea of being a background player on a TV show, someone who doesn’t get to talk much and is a small part in a larger show. Once I stumbled across that idea, I couldn’t let go of it—until I finished the book.

BH:  The book does also touch on the jobs that are stereotypically available to Chinese or Taiwanese Americans. Doctor, lawyer, academic, etc. I’m curious how you decided on what you wanted to focus specifically on. Was that from your own experiences?

This appears at the end of the book. Big Brother appears, he’s now a lawyer and has gone to law school, though the book is more focused on filmmaking overall.

CY:  Yeah, there’s a bit of that. It does touch on the actual representation and the book is about media representations of Asian Americans, to some extent.

I think that growing up here in the 1980s and 1990s, it was very rare to see an Asian of any kind on screen. That ultimately distorts the pictures both for Asians in America, but also everyone else—that Asians are not really part of the fabric of the community. Invisibility does something on a subconscious level to all of us. I see what’s on-screen, it’s black, it’s white—so I think the media representations of Asians or the lack of it is important. In a larger sense, it’s also a metaphor.

Willis Wu, the main character, is a guy who plays a background role. I was hoping that this would speak to anyone who has felt that they’re at the margins of their community, on the side of the mainstream. That they don’t really belong. That’s a larger resonance that it can have.

I personally have worked in TV, but for many years I worked as a lawyer, actually. So I was trying to use some of my law school knowledge as well.

BH:  I’m curious, then, how you think the book is relevant to these contemporary debates around whitewashing. I’m also interested in how the specter of Asian American film comes up—there are references to martial arts films, to Chan is Missing. These things are drawn together. In this sense, the publication of the book strikes as very timely.

CY:  It’s strange. I could have never predicted it, but I think it did become more timely in 2020. when among many other things happening in the world, a news story in the US over the past year was COVID-19 being labeled the “China virus” or “Wuhan virus.” It created more overt discrimination against Asian Americans. There were reports that there was more violence and more incidents of harassment against Asian Americans. I think that brought this issue back to the forefront again.

The time I was writing it was before this year. But I had the issue on my mind, because, on the one hand, I do feel that in recent years, there has been a lot of progress for Asian Americans in entertainment media industries. On the other hand, there’s an anxiety I have that this may not last. That we’ve seen a cycle of this before.

I feel like I’ve seen every few years, this thing, where Asians kind of have a moment in America—is this the moment that there’s a breakthrough? Then it goes away. How do we change things? How do we make it stick?

BH:  In that sense, who do you think is your imagined audience, when you wrote this book? Who do you think you wrote it for? Other Asian Americans? Society writ large? Any specific target demographic?

CY:  I think when you’re writing a book—at least for me—you’re not aiming for a demographic so much. For me, maybe similar to lots of people, reading is a solitary act. You just hope you have that moment of connection where someone says, “Oh, I get that. And that resonates with me because of my experience.” Or you can even have the other experience of “Oh, I don’t know anything about that, but somehow that still resonates with me.”

So I think I’m writing for both of those groups. I’ve been lucky enough to have people who come to me or have approached me who have said that this really hit home for them. Some of them happen to be Taiwanese or Asian American, but some readers are saying that it hits homes for them and it does so in a totally different way, or that they never realized that this is what their Asian American friends feel like. I’ve had a spectrum of reactions from people and it’s been encouraging.

BH:  The climax of the book touches on contemporary race relations. This also strikes as a very salient question during the time of Black Lives Matter, such as regarding Asian incorporation of blackness, and also questions of oppression between the two groups. How would you reflect on these issues as they’re brought up in your book?

CY:  It is an attempt to be part of the conversation. Black Lives Matter for me, is a very long overdue and important conversation.

This book doesn’t entirely focus on it, except to point to a different angle. The scene that we’ve been looking at is that we’ve been told what race in America is—it’s a conversation about white people and black people.

We know what that looks like in the traditional way. But what I was really looking for was a way to remind or to introduce the idea that there’s way more to it. It’s not a two-person party here. Does it shed any light on the conversation at all? To look at it from this side camera angle of the guy who’s standing in the back—the background Asian guy?

BH:  I’m curious about the ending of the book. Maybe it’s not the best thing to ask the author, how they interpret their own book, in the end, the protagonist sees himself as just “dad”, he’s trying to get out of these various frames put upon him of being Kung Fu Guy or a background character. And he’s also had a child, of another generation born in America. Would you view it as a kind of validation of a multicultural paradigm? Or would you view it as something else?

CY:  As you say, I’m probably not the best judge of it, but I’ll give it a shot. [Laughs] I think validation is probably too definitive for me. For me, the book wasn’t trying to answer a question, it was trying to wrestle with questions I’ve had myself, as a person, as a son, as a dad, as a husband. And to pose a series of questions I hope resonate with other people.

I like the way you framed it. What does what Willis’ feeling at the end make us feel? I think a range of reactions is totally possible. But I would say this: At the end, he’s more comfortable having ambiguity in his roles. What he wanted was not to feel trapped by a very reductive label of generic Asian man, because he is all of these other things. He is a partner and a dad and a son and sometimes he does kung fu. He’s a lot of things and not just one thing.

If people take away something, I hope that’s one of the things they take away.

BH:  Is there anything you’d like to say in closing to readers, Taiwanese or otherwise?

CY:  I guess if you do pick up the book, I do hope it’s of some interest. And thanks to social media, let me know what you think! Maybe I’ll regret it, but just let me know what you think through terrible reviews on Amazon or GoodReads. [Laughs]

One of the reasons why I wrote the book was because I wanted to be part of a larger conversation. Or even to start some conversations. That’s been one of the very gratifying things.

There have been lots of people who have said, I don’t get this, or I don’t respond to it. I feel I have learned a lot from seeing how people react to it and by engaging in conversations. I hope that’s what people take away from it.