Reading Through the Awards: Interior Chinatown, by Charles Yu

January 21, 2021

In a continuation of our series of micro-reviews, assistant editor Brandon Williams brought together a group of ardent readers to give their quick-hit impressions of recent novels which have won major awards from the literary world. Charles Yu’s Interior Chinatown, recent winner of the National Book Award, is our next selection.

Quick Book Summary (from the official blurb): ” 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 wider world than he’s ever known, discovering not only the secret history of Chinatown, but the buried legacy of his own family. ”

Willis Wu dreams of the spotlight. However, as a Taiwanese-American—not like Hollywood cares to differentiate between Asians—there’s only one big role he can get. So he practices martial arts, perfects his fake accent, and, every day, shows up to play another random Asian guy in the background of the procedural cop show Black and White, hoping today will be the day he graduates from Background Oriental Male to coveted Kung Fu Guy.

The unique television script format of Interior Chinatown isn’t just a fun quirk—it helps reinforce how deeply the rules of Hollywood dictate everything in Willis’s life, both on and off set. Every person, based on their appearance, is typecast into a specific role, and in order to be a star, to be accepted, Willis can never stop performing. He tamps down every last piece of himself to ensure he’s only ever outwardly presenting what’s expected of Generic Asian Man. Only when he finally makes it does he realize it’s still the same—except now, he has the added burden of perpetuating the orientalist fantasy of Chinatown and the people who live there, further cementing their status as outsiders.

It’s one thing to parrot on about how little, how poor, how maddeningly inaccurate Asian and Asian-American representation has been in Hollywood. It’s another to experience its ramifications as one Asian-American man. Interior Chinatown’s script format, complete in Courier font, turns readers into actors preparing for the role of Willis Wu, giving a glimpse into how poor representation affects peoples’ lives and self-worth. There is value in Asian and Asian-American stories, told by us and in the way we want to tell it—just as Charles Yu has done. Because while dangling the “secret history of Chinatown” in the synopsis might be a way to entice other readers, Willis’s journey and the truth he discovers is, ultimately, meant for us.

June Sham

Charles Yu’s Interior Chinatown is a prime example of a novel that justifies its unique structure and presentation. In short, Interior Chinatown tells the story of Willis Wu, an Asian-American who lives his life in an ever-present realm of acting; he, his friends, his parents, and nearly everyone in the Chinatown SRO Apartments he lives in are all Asian-American actors in film. On a surface level, this influences Willis’s language. It enlivens the banter between him and his colleagues (as expected by those who work the same profession) and also enriches the descriptions he gives to Interior Chinatown’s world and inhabitants. After all, Willis is someone who can recognize an actor on set and notice how red and puffy their eyes are from having cried the night before, their father gone not even three days.

Yes, Willis’s world is very much steeped in all-things acting. It’s a thematic choice that, on a deeper level, not only allows Yu to transition from narrative to screenplay seamlessly, but also allows him to present worthwhile insight into the Asian-American experience. Because although Willis is personable and partly aware of Asian stereotypes, he doesn’t quite realize how much he pities himself and others based on how they’ve been type cast. To Willis, his father is mostly Old Asian Man—once Kung Fu Guy, but no longer so because the look in his eye is ‘gone.’ For a long while, Willis remains ignorant of his insecurities, disappointments, and self-loathing. It takes breaks in structure and format for Charles Yu to bridge the disparity between the novel’s distinct self awareness and Willis’s lack thereof. The result however, is to great effect. During the novel’s screenplay portions, whenever a character breaks script to talk to Willis one-on-one, even though a lot of it may be for comedic effect, insight consistently strikes Willis and he grows more comfortable with himself as an individual. During the longer narrative portions where we learn about Willis’s parents, we begin to see how insecurities and self-loathing can cross generations. I will admit it is a bit tragic. Although we get to understand how similar Willis is to his parents, there is this lingering difference between them. Whether it’s because of the war atrocities his parents experienced that he hadn’t or if it’s because he didn’t grow up in the homes they knew, it’s hard to tell. Personally, I think it’s hard to tell on purpose. Ambiguity like this has a way of hitting close to home.

Where the book loses some of its thematic punch for me was, ironically, the trial that takes place near the end. While Willis stands strong in his defense, the trial nonetheless became too much about type-casting when at this point, the novel had become about so much more. I felt Willis speaking for all the other actors undermined his message of how they’re greater than their stereotypes. He addresses many of them by a single stand-out quality of theirs which unfortunately rang a little too similar to the generic labels they’d all been working to escape. But overall, Charles’s Yu’s willingness to play with form, his apt dialog, and scene-work make his novel Interior Chinatown worth reading. The actors, actresses, and the various interiors and exteriors of Charles Yu’s Interior Chinatown provide an effective vehicle for a story that’s both self-aware and earnestly motivated to challenge our awareness of stereotypes and the subconscious attitudes we may have because of them.

Angelica Colot

In his novel, Interior Chinatown, Charles Yu intricately constructs the poignant narrative of Willis Wu, a young man aspiring to obtain the ultimate role of Kung Fu Master within the world of Black and White, literally a cop show, and figuratively, a metaphor for the Asian-American experience. I sincerely admire Yu’s use of second person and third person omniscient narrative. As a reader, at first, I was averse to the feeling of second person because it directly transformed me into a main character with a difficult life, but as I kept reading my mind settled into Willis’s role, Generic Asian Man, and I began to empathize with Willis. It was then I understood why Yu used second person. Such closeness to the character that we become them, forced to endure everything Willis endures and at the same time, understand what it feels like to be reduced and limited to an Asian stereotype within the world of Black and White.

Willis’s original goal is to obtain the role of Kung Fu Master and he’s willing to abandon his newly formed family to get it, but when he finally gets the role, he wonders why he ever wanted it in the first place. Because of Karen Lee and his daughter, Phoebe, Willis learns that there’s more to himself than becoming Kung Fu Master. He realizes that he was obsessing, idealizing, and romanticizing the role of Kung Fu Master, when in reality, it was simply another form of Generic Asian Man, dehumanized within the world of Black and White, just like all the other forms of Generic Asian Man before it. Along with recognizing these inequalities within the white-run entertainment industry, Willis admits in judicial court that he too is guilty of playing into the role of Generic Asian Man and for letting it define him. Willis only begins to gain control over his life when he learns that there’s more to him than Kung Fu Master, Generic Asian Man, or Kung Fu Dad. There’s this once in a lifetime role of Dad slipping from his grasp. So, he steals a cop car and races against time to get back to Phoebe and Karen.

Arrested and tried, it’s in this court room that Yu uses Willis to lay down a case and reveal the truths of the Asian-American experience, albeit abruptly, but humorously, with the help of Willis’s lawyer, Older Brother. Yu forces the readers to listen like a jury and, once presented with the facts and testimonies, come to our own conclusions. In one testimony, Older Brother reveals that Asian American oppression will always be second class in comparison to the Black and Indian experiences in America, despite the fact that Indians have Asiatic origins. In his own testimony, Willis takes accountability for allowing the role of Generic Asian Man to define how he sees other people, such as fetishizing blackness and romanticizing whiteness. Willis concludes that the Asian man has internalized oppression and built himself a self-defense mechanism, blocking real engagement, and as a result, damaging his sense of self and self-love. Willis then implores the Asian men in the room to look in themselves and search for more, to demand more than Generic Asian Man and to put that courage into action, quite literally. The court room erupts into a full-on fight between SWAT team and Generic Asian Men. It’s not exactly clear who’s been shot in the courtroom, maybe Willis has metaphorically by the system, but we do know that he’s been killed off his role as Kung Fu Master in the cop show. With that, Willis decides to stop dying in a world that doesn’t want him and start living, in a new story, as the role of Dad in his daughter, Phoebe’s life.

Casandra Lopez

Charles Yu’s second novel comes ten years after his debut, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe. In the intervening years, Yu has established himself in the world of television, working notably on shows like Westworld and Legion. Interior Chinatown is a reflection of that experience. Written entirely in screenplay format, it follows actor Willis Wu as he struggles to find success in an industry and world that have no roles for him.

The novel works perfectly as a satire and indictment of Hollywood’s stereotypes of Asian-Americans. Willis is stuck in the background of the police procedural Black and White, and dreams of working his way up from “Generic Asian Man” to “Kung Fu Guy,” the epitome of success for people like him. But the way up the ladder is filled with debasement, having to force a fake accent and constantly be othered, and even the top is a trap.

Yu blends the world of the show and reality so that one starts to wonder if there is a show at all. Does it matter? For the novel’s point, certainly not. Readers may decide differently. Personally, I found it distracting. I was drawn more to the masterful storytelling than the experiment with form, and some of the “scenes” pulled me from the emotional world he’d created. Particularly, the “backstories” of his immigrant parents.

Variety announced last year that Hulu will be adapting the novel into a series, and I will be interested to see how the show treads the line of fiction and reality.

Cassidy Colwell

Curated by Brandon Williams



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