Growing up, I didn’t see a lot of Asian American folks represented in my textbooks or novels I read. TV shows weren’t much better — most South Asian characters were playing the role of the class valedictorian, Asian sidekick, future doctor or nail lady. When strung together and presented to me over the course of my life, I got a clear sense of what an Asian American person could be. Thankfully, I found mentors and role models in college who changed that narrative for me. Rupi Kaur made me believe that I could be a South Asian poet who talked about trauma and healing in tandem. Urooj Arshad, co-founder of the Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity, invited me to recognize the intersection of being queer and Muslim. Bela Malhotra (played by Indian actress Amrit Kaur) in “The Sex Life of College Girls” on HBO left me feeling like I could have pursued comedy writing instead of chemistry in college. These characters were windows and mirrors into the life I could build for myself as a Pakistani woman.
Being Asian was one thing, but being Asian American was another. In fact, I never even considered myself American until I was being interviewed for a job that I was really excited about. After mentioning that I was Pakistani, the interviewer said, “Why do you say you’re Pakistani if you were born in Seattle? Aren’t you American?” But the bias was in her question — why wouldn’t I be Pakistani and American at the same time? Or even more importantly, wasn’t it my choice to decide how I identified?
These questions and more are explored in the novel “Interior Chinatown,” by Charles Yu. It’s narrated from the perspective of Willis Wu, an actor who’s striving to become Kung Fu Guy. He’s often relegated to play Asian characters on the fringes of the shows and movies he’s in, most notably as Background Oriental Male or Delivery Guy. But he sees more for himself.
This interview with Charles Yu has been edited for clarity and length.
What was the catalyst for writing “Interior Chinatown,” and why did you choose to write it in the form of a screenplay?
“Interior Chinatown” was my fourth book, and it took seven years from start to finish. A few years into writing the book, I landed on the structure of a screenplay. It became the right format to talk about the immigrant experience (and specifically from the perspective of a marginalized person, a minor character in someone else’s story). The voice in my head ended up becoming the voice of the main character Willis Wu. It also enabled me to communicate on two channels — through Willis, who lives in the fictional world of the TV cop show “Black and White,” and the instances when Willis isn’t playing his part and lives his day-to-day life. The format of a screenplay enabled me to conceptually and visually differentiate the two.
Did you have an “aha moment” when you felt like this book was really coming together?
I’d been stuck for several years, looking for a way into this story, and for whatever reason, I started to think about lists of Asian stereotypes that Willis has been asked to play including Generic Asian Man, Delivery Guy and Striving Immigrant. It was a moment of discovery and crystallization — Willis was a background actor, and all the other features of the book were built around it. It took another two years to finish the book after that point, but at least from then on, I didn’t go backward.
In what ways is the story of Willis Wu autobiographical, and in what ways does it go beyond your own story and capture the experience of being an Asian American?
It started with the seed of autobiography because I drew on my own life as a husband, son and dad, and then it grew outward from there. I also knew that I wanted to write about the immigrant experience of my parents, who came to America from Taiwan. During that time, my kids were also growing up.
This book was also a place to put my feelings as someone who’s a second-generation American. I wanted to write a character with a specifically Asian American experience who has felt marginalized in certain ways, a character whose experience might resonate for other Asian Americans or children of immigrants. The fictionalized Chinatown became a place to put those ideas, and the literal backdrop of these stories. There’s a specificity to Willis and his family being Taiwanese, but there’s a broader commonality of how he and his family and community are perceived as Asian Americans.
There’s a part of this book that highlights the hate crimes and violence faced by Asian Americans. I initially thought this book was written in response to the Stop Asian American and Pacific Islander Hate rallies in response to the rise of hate crimes and attacks on Asian victims amid COVID-19, but quickly realized that you finished this book in 2019. How can this book support conversations about the reality of racism and hate crimes in this day and age?
The intersection of this book as fiction and what was happening in the world was upsetting but not entirely surprising. Xenophobia against immigrants has always existed, but it wasn’t always highlighted in the news. Sadly, you don’t need to pick your timing that well for it to be a relevant topic, but it did afford the opportunity for conversations I had never had in public and in private.
I imagine that this book could be a window into the Asian American experience for readers who may now realize that hate crimes against Asians still happen today. This can also be a hard conversation for Asian Americans to have — for many of my own family members who emigrated from Pakistan, I don’t think they had the tools to process their own trauma because they were so focused on surviving.
In the book, you also write about the experience of being Asian American isn’t black or white, but something with its own history. Why was it important to highlight that nuance?
This book tries to grapple with this, both explicitly and implicitly — the show “Black and White” is an attempt to flip the script on the traditional TV narrative, because the cops Sarah Green and Miles Turner, who would typically be the leads of a TV show called “Black and White,” are relegated to being side characters. When talking to Turner and Older Brother, it’s clear that Willis has to some extent internalized a binary structure of thinking about race. That way of thinking is not only reductive, but blocks progress forward in understanding the complexity of race.
How do you bring nuanced conversations of race into your work on an everyday basis?
In practice, it means always looking for my own blind spots, which by definition is the hardest thing to do. It’s about questioning assumptions and asking, “What am I not seeing?” I also focus on trying to recognize people as individuals while at the same time acknowledging systemic discrimination and forces.
The Asian American experience isn’t homogenous. If we don’t acknowledge the gamut of experiences of people of color, we risk perpetuating limiting and damaging narratives. We can unintentionally ignore the bulk of experience and take a tiny sliver of an experience that’s true for a small percentage of an entire community and portray it as true for all 20 million Asian Americans.
Do you think that the media (TV shows, books, podcasts, etc.) is doing a better job of showcasing diverse stories of Asian Americans among other races and identities?
I hope so. I think the explosion of streaming has enabled nuanced and more specific stories to be told. It breaks down this black and white thinking because there’s space for more now, rather than falling into reductive stereotypes or patterns. People get to see stories that are beyond a single narrative.
You’ve been accomplished in your career as an author and television writer, and you even won the 2020 National Book Award for fiction for this book. When have you felt that the book was landing for you?
I’ve had moments when someone emailed, messaged or tweeted me saying “This book spoke to my experience in a way that I hadn’t seen represented in the media.” That response was the reason why I wrote this book in the first place — I knew there was a story I needed to write that someone needed to hear.
What do you want people to remember or feel after reading this book?
I hope that readers feel something after seeing what Willis and his friends and family go through. I also hope that people see the characters as fully human. Even if they don’t have main character lives, they’re worthy of this story. More than anything, I write for that feeling.
Toward the end of the book, a question is posed: “Who gets to be an American? What does an American look like?” How do you want readers to think about the question?
I’d want readers to have an introspective moment. There are moments when I have to catch myself — I’ll see an Asian person, my first thought is, “I wonder where they immigrated from?” Instead, I want people — starting with myself — to catch themselves in their assumption and think, “That person could be American.” Those moments of reflection are what I want from myself and others.