You’re here, supposedly, in a new land full of opportunity, but somehow have gotten trapped in a pretend version of the old country,” Willis Wu declares in Charles Yu’s National Book Award–winning novel, Interior Chinatown, which was published in 2020. It’s a deft encapsulation of how the book operates. What Yu is after is to tell a story that comments on itself even as it operates in three dimensions, a meta-narrative in the most vivid sense. Built around the figure of Willis, an actor on the television police drama Black and White, the novel is presented as a screenplay; hence its title, which echoes the convention of establishing location in a script.
This article appears in Issue 23 of Alta Journal.
It can be a heavy lift to write fiction using such a format. Screenplays, after all—much like the films that grow out of them—generally don’t allow for introspection. They are driven by external action rather than a sense of inner thought. Yet that works perfectly for what Yu has in mind, which is to destabilize us as readers by immersing us in a superficial realm defined by stereotype. For the most part, this has to do with the fate of Asian and Asian American actors in Hollywood, relegated to bit parts as long-since-clichéd cultural signifiers, what Yu characterizes as “Kung Fu Guy” or “Old Asian Man.” At the same time, the use of script as a structure reminds us of the artificiality of this, and every, novel, the necessary contrivance of all narratives.
Yu is funny and Yu is pointed, but Interior Chinatown is more than a send-up. Rather, it might be said to function similarly to Karen Tei Yamashita’s I Hotel, in which the more outlandish the situation, the more perversely naturalistic it seems. This works because, like Yamashita, Yu is intent on highlighting—not least through the casual racism his characters face—all the ways reality can be immoderate. “How much does it do to your psyche to say, I don’t see myself and other people don’t see me as somebody who could be in this kind of story or this kind of life?” he pondered in an interview after receiving his National Book Award. “You can’t be the main character; if you’re in the story at all it’s a very specific kind of role or really as background or furniture, and that kind of takes away your personhood.”
Identity, in other words, which relies (how could it not?) on the ways we are allowed to express it, our selves contingent on the lenses through which we are seen.
For Yu, it’s a central motivation—here as throughout his body of work. Fiction, for him, is a matter of inquiry and interrogation, less an attempt to reflect the surface of the world than it is an excavation of the contradictions underneath. When it comes to Interior Chinatown, that involves exploiting the outrageous to remind us that what are really outrageous are the stereotypes and tropes many people take for granted every day. If a novel can be a mirror, that’s what Yu has created here, reflecting a shadow history through humor, yes, but also through compassion and outrage.•