2020 National Book Award Winner

Indeed, many can relate to Charles Yu’s path to finding his own calling. Even during his younger years, Yu exhibited a knack for literature; he even minored in creative writing at the University of California, Berkeley. However, before pursuing his career as a full-time writer, he begun in the lowest wrung of the corporate ladder, working as an associate in a law firm. Slowly, he worked his way up the corporate ladder before finally shifting his energies towards something that he has been suppressing for years. This pivot proved to be crucial for Yu as he started finding success as a writer, both for print and for TV. For his work in TV, he was nominated twice for Writers Guild of America Awards for his work on the HBO series Westworld.

The same success was replicated in his career as a fiction writer. His short stories, published by prominent publications, received accolades from literary pundits. When he published his debut novel in 2010, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, he has already established his mettle as a writer. In 2020, a decade after his first novel, Yu made a long-awaited literary comeback with his second novel, Interior Chinatown. Interior Chinatown transports the readers to a fictional Chinatown somewhere in Southern California. However, it is not the story of a place but rather the story of an individual with a burning desire to climb the zenith of success.

Willis Wu was born to a pair of immigrant parents who fled their home country of Taiwan. Years later, Willis and his parents find themselves living in small one-room apartments in Chinatown, just above the Golden Palace restaurant. With his dream of hitting it big in the film industry, Willis has been taking on bit parts in various television series. Willis’ story commenced while he was taking part as a background actor on a procedural cop show called Black and White, a pastiche of Law and Order. For now, he is relegated to the role of being the “Generic Asian Man”. It was also a reference to his personal life. Despite the bleak background, Willis was brimming with hope, driven by his desire to fulfill his dream of playing the role of Kung Fu Guy, the pinnacle of Asian success in Hollywood. Will he be able to break the mold of the stereotype of being the Generic Asian Man, a role he was destined to play?

“But at the same time, I’m guilty, too. Guilty of playing this role. Letting it define me. Internalizing the role so completely that I’ve lost track of where reality starts and the performance begins. And letting that define how I see other people. I’m as guilty of it as anyone. Fetishizing Black people and their coolness. Romanticizing White women. Wishing I were a White man. Putting myself into this category.”

~ Charles Yu, Interior Chinatown

In coming up with his second novel, Charles Yu appealed to his roots and to his current occupation. His experience as a writer in several TV series gained him a wealth of knowledge into what ails Hollywood vis-à-vis Asian representation and portrayal. It cannot escape one’s notice how Asians are often portrayed in stereotypes – the class geeks who excel in mathematics, the tiger parents who think that a grade of B is equivalent to an F, or the popular trope where a kung-fu master beats his foe into submission with his unparalleled ability to inflict wound with a single hit. Whilst, there was an increasing awareness, Asian representation in Hollywood is still limited. It has also become the of scrutiny as the stereotypes became increasingly palpable. The increasing exploration of this subject provided the perfect mantle for Yu’s second novel.

To obtain a modicum of success in the film industry, one literally has to go through the needle. And for an Asian aspirant, the path is even more fraught. For Willis, he had to go through the process of climbing the ladder, with the sheer weight of his dream propelling him. Slowly but surely, his efforts paid off as he worked his his way up from non-speaking roles to speaking roles. From “Background Oriental Male” roles and the occasional “Delivery Guy” roles, he eventually rose to the rank of a Very Special Guest Star. As he made his journey towards the spotlight, he discovered several surprising discoveries about his family and the Chinatown he grew up in. The biggest of these realizations pertain to his dream of becoming the Kung Fu Guy. Jumping from one role he was resigned to playing to another, he started realizing that these roles were not aligned to the roles he wanted to play.

However, Interior Chinatown does not reduce itself into a mere exploration of the film industry and the inner machinations that make it work. For Yu, Hollywood was a microcosm upon which to explore seminal and timely themes. In novels exploring the immigrant experience, racism and discrimination are inherent subjects. What made it even more effective was the timing of the novel’s publication; it was a period when the violence perpetrated towards Asians and the anti-Asian sentiments started to escalate all over the world due to the worsening global COVID19 pandemic. The discrimination one of Willis’ parents moving into a Deep South town was thus described as: “The faculty are generally respectful, although for the most part, unmistakably distant. Some are even reasonably warm. A few. The people in town are the most varied. Many are polite, if silent. Most are wary, with an edge of slightly menacing disdain.”

In conjunction with the immigrant narrative, the quintessence of the American Dream was also tackled. However, in the desperate search for the American dream, most meet disdain, one of many adjectives that describes the immigrant experience. Most Asians, regardless of their provenance, were lumped together and are generally referred to as “Chinaman”. To most, Asians all look the same and Kung-Fu is the closest thing they can associate Asians to. Possessing an accent was also one point of segregation and a tool for discrimination: “No one wants to hire you. It’s your accent.” As Willis Wu have started to realize, he is nothing but the “Generic” Asian Man, that he is not going to be a protagonist even in his own life.

“But the old parts are always underneath. Layers upon layers, accumulating. Which was a problem. No on in Chinatown was able to separate the past from the present, always seeing in him (and in each other, in yourselves), all of his former incarnations, the characters he’s played in your minds long after the parts had ended.”

~ Charles Yu, Interior Chinatown

Finding one’s self waking up in a city not one’s own is already disorienting and one can easily lose one’s senses. One can’t help but yearn for home, for the familiar. However, home is where one is right now and despite the challenges, one must learn to immerse in one’s new environment. Assimilation, however, becomes doubly challenging when one is also sanctioned by several legal restrictions. To further underscore how Asian Americans have long been restricted, Yu mentioned a listing of anti-immigrant legislations. Some of these laws prohibited Asian American from owning land. Some laws also imposed stricter measures on the immigration of Asians to the United States. This virtually reduced the perpetual search for American Dream into a pipe dream.

The procedural show Willis was taking part of, “Black and White”, was also a projection of contemporary American society. The show featured a clichéd white woman and a clichéd black man who play the role of detectives. They play main roles that are allegories of contemporary America. With the reality projected in black and white, diversity becomes a mere construct. Wu and the Asian representation were reduced to afterthoughts, fading into the background. Yu’s astute observation exposes the cracks into the superficial exploration of diversity, whilst breaking down the blurred line between fiction and reality.

With its deep dive into identity and racism, the novel steers the conversation into what being an authentic American entails. In a mixture of wit and sarcasm, the narrative ruminated on what truly defines Americanism. Is it defined by the way one speaks? Or the way one looks? or perhaps the color of the skin or the shape of the eyes? In a world where globalization has become synonymous to existence, are the differences even important? At one point, Willis was asking the same question: “Why doesn’t this face register as American? Is it because we make the story too complicated? Because we haven’t figured out how yet. Whether it’s tragedy or a comedy or something in between. If we haven’t cracked the code of what it’s like to be in side this face, then how can we explain it to anyone else?”

The salient feature that made the novel stand out was its unorthodox structure. Yu wrote the narrative in a screenplay format, a derivative of his increasing involvement in Hollywood. He also appealed to his roots, using it as a great conversation starter. He also never shied away from highlighting the stereotypes that exists. Some might even find the blunt honestly behind the allegories a little discomfiting. Despite the sparse storylines, Yu managed to deliver a thought-provoking piece through his unconventional delivery of a seminal and timely subject. His descriptions were highly descriptive. However, the humor can, at times, come across as too much, negating the deeper moments hidden between the comical elements.

“You wish your face was more—more, something. You don’t know what. Maybe not more. Less. Less flat. Less delicate. More rugged. Your jawline more defined. This face that feels like a mask, that has never felt quite right on you. That reminds you, at odd times, and often after two to four drinks, that you’re Asian. You are Asian! Your brain forgets sometimes. But then your face reminds you.”

~ Charles Yu, Interior Chinatown

Adjudged the winner of the 2020 National Book Award for Fiction, Interior Chinatown does a lot to highlight the current conversation on Americanism, color, and racism. With the film industry as a microcosm, Yu did a commendable job of exploring seminal subjects in a subtle manner. Parts-immigrant narrative, and parts-social commentary, it is a timely narrative framed in a seemingly comical manner. The humor and the wit belied the dark realities the narrative underscored. Relying largely on satire and parody to underscore its message, the narrative pushes the readers to reevaluate their opinions, perspectives, ideas, beliefs, and thoughts on racism. This, in turn, broadens one’s horizon and in light of recent events, the novel’s message resonates even deeper.

Ratings

78%

Characters (30%) – 25%
Plot (30%) – 20%
Writing (25%) – 21%
Overall Impact (15%) – 12%

I didn’t plan on reading Charles Yu’s Interior Chinatown although I have encountered the book while browsing bookstores. I guess it didn’t appeal enough to me, at least at the start. Later in the year, my curiosity was piqued when it was announced the winner of the 2020 National Book Award for Fiction, making it the third year running that an author with Asian origin won the prestigious literary award. Sigrid Nunez won the 2018 edition and was succeeded by Susan Choi in 2019. As such, I resolved to read the novel before the year ends, which, thankfully, I managed to do. Okay, the first thing that really caught my attention was the novel’s structure, an interesting and innovative take on how to deliver a story. It was brimming with wit, sarcasm and insights although there wasn’t much of a plot to the story. Nevertheless, I enjoyed it and it ended on a hopeful note.

Book Specs

Author: Charles Yu
Publisher: Vintage Contemporaries
Publishing Date: November 2020
Number of Pages: 266
Genre: Literary Fiction

Synopsis

Willis Wu doesn’t perceive himself as the protagonist in his own life: he’s merely Generic Asian Man. Sometimes he gets to be Background Oriental Making a Weird Face or even Disgraced Son, but always he is relegated to a prop. Yet every day, he leaves his tiny room in a Chinatown SRO and enters the Golden Palace restaurant, where Black and White, a procedural cop show, is in perpetual production. He’s a bit player here, too, but he dreams of being Kung Fu Guy – the most respected role that anyone who looks like him can attain. Or is it?

After stumbling into the spotlight, Willis finds himself launched into a world wider than he’s ever known, discovering not only the secret history of Chinatown but also the buried legacy of his own family. Infinitely inventive and deeply personal, exploring themes of pop culture, assimilation, and immigration – Interior Chinatown is Charles Yu’s most moving, daring, and masterful novel yet.

About the Author

Charles Chowkai Yu was born on January 3, 1976 in Los Angeles, USA.

Yu graduated from the University of California, Berkeley. He majored and received a Bachelor of Arts in molecular and cellular biology. He also had a minor degree in creative writing. He received his Juris Doctor from the Columbia Law School. Before embarking on a career of writing, Yu took on several jobs, first as an associate at Sullivan & Cromwell, then as a corporate attorney for Bryan Cave. He also worked as the Director of Business Affairs at Digital Domain and as an associate general counsel at Belkin International. He then settled into a career as a full-time fiction and TV writer.

His literary career commenced during his university days when would write poetry and attend poetry workshops. His first major literary work, a short story titled Third Class Superhero (2004), received critical acclaim and was awarded the 2004 Sherwood Anderson Fiction Award. His short stories, essays, and nonfiction works would later on be published in major publications such as The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal, and Wired. In 2010, he published his first novel, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe. It was an immediate success, placing second in the 2011 John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Science Fiction Novel. It was also one of the most heralded work for 2010. A decade later, Yu published his second novel, Interior Chinatown. It surpassed the achievements of his debut novel as it was declared the winner of the 2020 National Book Award for Fiction.

Yu was also named as an honoree of “5 under 35” by National Book Foundation by Richard Powers. He was also nominated for two Writers Guild of America Awards for his work on the HBO series Westworld. He also wrote for shows on FX, AMC, and HBO.

He currently resides near Irvine, California with his wife, Michelle Jue, and their two children, Sophia and Dylan.