In the world of Interior Chinatown, Asian Americans don’t get to play the dashing leads in TV shows. They don’t even get to be the everyman. Limited to one-dimensional roles like Egg Roll Cook, Young Dragon Lady, and Striving Immigrant, there’s no way to advance beyond the exoticism or “perpetual foreigner” status that comes with existing in the margins of America.
This is the predicament that narrator Willis Wu, a restaurant worker living in a dingy Chinatown SRO, finds himself in. On the crime procedural drama Black and White, in which two police officers—a black man and white woman—fight increasingly ludicrous crimes, Wu has worked his way up to the role of Generic Asian Man Number Three/Delivery Guy, but his ultimate goal of playing Kung Fu Guy, the pinnacle of Asian cinema, is just out of reach.
Written as a novel-in-a-screenplay, Charles Yu’s fourth book Interior Chinatown is both a biting satire of Hollywood stereotypes and a tender reflection on family, immigration, and what it means to be American.
I spoke to Yu, author of the 2010 novel How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe and writer for shows like Westworld and Legion, about the novel’s dizzying structure and how he came to write the story he was meant to tell.
What made you decide to write the story in the form of a screenplay?
I did go back and forth a little bit on that. Like, will it take people out of the story? “Oh, am I reading a screenplay now? What is this?” [But] it ultimately felt like a natural product of the character. When I hit on Willis, who plays Asian characters on this TV show, I felt like that captured something about what it felt like to grow up as a child of immigrants.
My parents [are] from Taiwan and sometimes I still feel now—as a middle aged dad, thinking about how my wife and I raise our kids—this feeling of being slightly at the margin. Not quite in the center of things, but having a view into the center of things. Watching the story go by and just wondering if you’re going to be part of the story. Once I thought about that framework, it seemed like I had to do part of it as a screenplay.
As you get deeper into the book, Willis’s internal monologue becomes more deeply intertwined with the Black and White crime drama, to the point where it’s hard to differentiate what he’s thinking from what’s actually happening. What is the significance of these two narratives merging?
That was probably the single hardest thing to write—figuring out how those levels work, the mixing between the show and Willis’s story. I had to really think about the interplay between the two storylines, because ultimately, that’s part of what’s going on with him. I think I drew upon my experience in the working world, [which can] seep into every other facet of your life. I felt that it was important that his story starts to get wrapped up with the story of the show, so that it becomes even harder for him to extricate himself from the structure of Black and White.
I’ve noticed in both Interior Chinatown and How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe that family has been a common theme in your stories, with large passages devoted to the lives of the main characters’ parents that end up recontextualizing your view of that relationship. So I was wondering, what do you find compelling about stories focused on families?
I think “compelling” is the right word. I feel literally compelled to write about family. The things that interest me are usually those moments between family members when you have the intimacy or the love but also the difficult times. In addition to Willis being this Generic Asian Man, he’s got all these other roles too, like son, and then he eventually becomes a partner and then a father.
Family is the most important role that we play. The emotional kernel of the family story is where it always starts and ends for me.
In writing about Asian American identity, are there any familiar tropes you wanted to avoid?
I actually wanted to go the other way, sort of. Sometimes I wanted to explore the trope: I could literally do the stereotypical version of something—Kung Fu Guy, for instance—but then get inside of that and poke at it. Anything I felt like I was trying to avoid, I would go toward that for a little while and see if it was interesting for the story.
Almost the whole book is me going out of my comfort zone, literally. This is my fourth book and I actually had somebody come up to me at a reading a few years ago and ask me if I felt like I was avoiding writing about race. The questioner—and I thought it was really perceptive—[asked], “you clearly are writing about people from Taiwan in this story, and yet you never say it. Do you think that there’s something blocking you from being able to write about that?”
And that stayed with me. I think the reason was I never felt like I had an authentic way in. I [would] start something about growing up Asian American, or having parents who immigrated here and what their lives were like, then I’d be bored of my own writing within a page. I just couldn’t figure out how to tell it until it was through this lens.
You mentioned this was your hardest book to write. Through the process of writing it, did you come away with a new understanding of your own Asian American identity and your family’s?
I think that was part of why it was so hard. In trying to figure out how to tell the story, I had to figure out some things for myself. In getting the story done, it felt like a double relief of like, “oh good, I’m finally done with the book” and also, “interesting, I never thought about this.”
But it wasn’t like there’s an “aha” or some big epiphany I had. It’s just more that I wanted to articulate certain things about what it feels like to be, depending how you define it, either a first-generation American or a second-generation Taiwanese American. And now I’m a father of two kids who are the next generation, and I still never feel totally comfortable in almost any environment.
Maybe it shows in how I talk. I’ll start a sentence, [then] I’ll literally interrupt my own sentence, because I have another shifting perspective immediately. I feel like that’s because I [have] had a lifetime of feeling like I was dancing around, trying to figure out where my place was. Telling the story really helped me put it all on paper—a lot of my anxieties, a lot of my insecurities, and also a lot of experiences that people of my parent’s generation [and] people of my generation have had.
I hope that comes across in the story of Willis, who is this kind of amalgam of feelings and thoughts that [me and others] have synthesized over the years about navigating these different worlds and being the Asian minor character in a black and white show.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
By Charles Yu
Published January 28, 2020