'Interior Chinatown' by Charles Yu, Review - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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'Interior Chinatown' by Charles Yu, Review

Alexander Wallace visits the Golden Palace restaurant.
There is novel writing, and then there is scriptwriting. The writing groups I’m in say that they are two very different mediums with very different skills needed and very different expectations for each of them. But sometimes, literature surprises you: have you ever heard of a novel written as a script?

I refer to Charles Yu’s 2020 novel Interior Chinatown. Yu has previously dabbled in science fiction with 2010’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe. He also worked on HBO’s Westworld series and has had work appear in many nonfiction outlets.

Interior Chinatown is, at its core, a discussion of the way American media depicts Chinese-Americans. This starts, but does not end, with the script format. It is a format that leaves some pages sparse, and overall makes the book seem shorter than its page count would suggest. This is not a drawback; it leads to some very clever narrative pacing that will surprise you.

The entire story is one immersed in metafiction; the world that the protagonist, Willis Wu, inhabits is a police procedural, and everyone knows this. They are all aware of the pressures on this show by the network, and the fact that it is watched by an audience. Willis Wu tires of simply having to be ‘background Asian man’ in this show; he longs to be ‘Kung Fu guy.’ Using this odd framing device, Yu explores where Chinese-Americans and Asian-Americans more broadly fit into America as a whole.

It’s a book that makes a big deal, justly so, about the pressures that Asian-Americans have to fit into a certain box; one memorable scene involves a character told that he needs to put on a foreign-sounding accent so that white Americans are not taken aback by a Chinese person speaking fluent English. There’s the ever-present dichotomy between ‘background Asian man’ and ‘Kung Fu guy,’ and how they are both fundamentally imposed by the white mainstream. Most bitingly, there is talk of how America’s racial woes are seen as conflict between black and white, and how that neglects the longstanding presence of those of other backgrounds.

It is an angry book, but not without pathos or humor. Willis Wu’s family is made heartbreakingly realistic, with its jokes but also its pressures. There is an undergirding of grim comedy here, the sort that comes from real adversity.

Interwoven with all of this is a fascinating dive into Chinese-American history; as a history buff, it was among my favorite parts of the book. It is infuriating and more than a little kafkaesque, particularly in regards to immigration law. It was enlightening.

Writing as a Filipino-American, there were parts of Interior Chinatown that resonated with me. We’re not the ‘main’ racial conflict in America, so we are misunderstood and ignored. Yu has gotten to the core of some of the particularities of being Asian-American, and I commend him for it.

Alexander Wallace is an alternate historian, reader, and writer who moderates the Alternate History Online group on Facebook and the Alternate Timelines Forum on Proboards. He writes regularly for the Sea Lion Press blog and for NeverWas magazine, and also appears regularly on the Alternate History Show with Ben Kearns. He is a member of several alternate history fora under the name 'SpanishSpy.'

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