Asian American novel flies high




The Manila Times

Front Page

INTERIOR Chinatown is the second novel of Charles Yu, and it won the prestigious National Book Award in the US at an appropriate time. Yu is the award-winning author of three books, and has written for HBO and other platforms. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker and The New York Times, and his work on HBO’s Westworld received a nomination from the Writers Guild of America. This meta-fictive novel came out just when Asians were bearing the brunt not just of racist slurs but actual, physical attacks occasioned by the color of their skin. How to bear such pain borne through the centuries? By writing a novel that is fun, fast and furious; in the form of a brisk screenplay that nevertheless has moments of melancholy and whimsy. Interior Chinatown is part screenplay, part novel, part fiction and part historical reality. Cleverly structured as a screenplay for a procedural cop show on TV, the novel follows Willis Wu, who plays the generic Asian man. He lives above the Golden Palace Restaurant, where the TV show called “Chinatown” is filmed. He has done other roles: disgraced son, delivery guy, silent henchman and striving immigrant. All these are stereotypes, and in these roles, the men have no speaking lines. Thus, our hero wants to have a speaking role. The peak he wants to reach is to become a kung fu guy, somewhat like a Bruce Lee for the new century. His father, Sifu, also used to be a kung fu guy. The father now lives in a singleroom occupancy housing project inhabited by many Asian bit-part actors. Sifu has played a number of roles, such as “no one in Chinatown [was] able to separate the past from the present, always seeing in him … all of his former incarnations, the characters he’d played … long after the parts had ended.” He is the quintessential Asian, and he is “famously inscrutable.” Willis’ visits to his father are hauntingly well-written. “The trick was learning what not to say. To enter the theater of his dotage quietly, sit there in the dark and not ask him any question, however simple, that might cause momentary confusion…” Willis’ aspiration, once he breaks out of his role as generic Asian man, is just to become real: “You are not kung fu guy. You are Willis Wu, dad. Maybe husband. Your dad skills are B, B- plus on a good day. But you’ve been practicing...Try to build a life...Life at the margins, made from bit pieces.” Yu’s cameo about the father and “Asian relationships” is spot on. “[My father] is a man who would never have uttered that word to his son, sorry, and in English, no less. Not because he thought himself infallible, but because of his belief that a family should never have to say sorry, or please, or thank you, for that matter, these things being redundant, being contradictory to the parent-son relationship, needing to remain unstated always, these things being the invisible fabric of what a family is.” His mother, on the other hand, is also an actress in bit roles reserved for Asian women. She is now too old to play the role of the Asian seductress and is now relegated to the role of the generic old Asian woman. The weekly show “Chinatown” stars a well-built black cop (Turner) and his sexy, white female partner (Green). Sexual tension simmers beneath the surface. And there is always a murder in “Chinatown.” Willis has found a gig as the Asian man in the background who makes a weird face and has a strange accent. The arc of his dreams begins to form before his eyes. Would that day arrive when he could demonstrate his kung fu skills to finally catapult him to fame? Willis’ older brother was a National Merit scholar and got 1,570 on the SAT. He becomes a lawyer and is the template of the “successful Asian son.” But Willis wants to be a star. He gets his break when the homicide detectives investigate the disappearance of older brother. In the one-hour episode, Willis leads them to an illegal gambling den, and he does manage to stun them all with his expertise in kung fu. But the scene calls for him to die, which means he would have to wait for another 45 days before he can land a role in another cop show. Here, the novelist gives us a glimpse of the interior Chinatown — the hidden history of the Chinese in America, the centuries of prejudice and racism. These include the Exclusion Acts, which banned the permanent immigration of the Chinese; white women lost their citizenship if they married Chinese immigrants; voting rights were denied to Chinese-Americans; the right to stand as witnesses in courts were also denied to the Chinese Americans. We also meet Willis’ family. And one fine day, Willis falls in love with a mixed-race woman named Karen, and some of the novel’s finest writing details the romance that blossoms between the two, as well as the family they begin to form though their bittersweet relationship. The novelist balances the scathing social commentary and the savage satire with the scenes of love and family that Willis and Karen try to form, amid the storm and stress of mixed-race marriages. The novel turns Kafkaesque when Willis is later tried in court for his own disappearance in his role in the TV show. He is defended by older brother who argues in court that the Chinese Americans are still considered permanent foreigners, even if they’ve lived in the United States for many generations. One subtext in the novel is how the “other” Americans feel they are in the same boat as the maligned Asian Americans. Turner, the black cop, feels this way. “Sometimes, there’s also a Floating Latina. They put her on marketing materials in select demographically selected neighborhoods.” Charles Yu has crafted a novel original in form and lacerating in content. As Turner said: “Family drama, probably (pause for effect; chimes in the distance; vaguely Oriental). Some kind of family drama.”