“I wanted to write a story that came from the inside. A story that explored the inner state, the mental life of an Asian American character- not Asian, not American, specifically an Asian American character.”
Take what you
Try to build
–Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu
Interior Chinatown spotlights the lack of subjectivity given to Asian characters in our media and its reinforcement of Asians as perpetual foreigners. The book is written in a screenplay format, blurring the lines between the roles Asians play on-screen and the Asian experience in reality. A story that brings Background Oriental Male aka Willis Wu into focus.
As Willis works his way through the system with dreams of being cast as Kung Fu Guy (the best for someone like him but still generally categorized as a secondary role), he realizes with each role he never gets a story. Asians on-screen are reduced to props, seldom given opportunities to tell stories that recognize their humanity. “There is still a deep-seated psychological sense of Asians being other, not being assimilable into America. It partially comes from tv and film that shows us such a distorted view of America. When you see an Asian, I mean you see us at the grocery store, you work with some, but you never see us in stories that tell us who we are,” says Charles.
Charles acknowledges, “Kung Fu Guy is super physical and kinetic but not someone whose psychology you care about. I wanted to write a story that came from the inside. A story that explored the inner state, the mental life of an Asian American character- not Asian, not American, specifically an Asian American character.” The roles Willis plays in the show Black and White as Background Oriental Male, Generic Asian Man, and Special Guest Star influence the insignificance he experiences as a son, husband, and father in the country of black and white. Deeply affected by the marginalization he experiences from the media and society, Willis Wu shares his deepest struggles, memories, and desires in a story rarely told.
Charles wanted to, “write about representation and marginalization in a much more direct way. Why do I not feel fully-fledged as an American even though I am an American citizen? I was raised here. I was born here. I haven’t even been out of the country very much. What is it about my consciousness, my upbringing, or my psychology that is causing me to feel a bit of a second-class citizen?” Institutionalized racism from not only our media but also our government has damaged the psyche of Asian Americans. While researching Interior Chinatown, Charles “found roots in the legal history of how Asians were classified by the government that set the tone for Asians being outsiders in this country from the beginning, even though we have been here for 200 years.” Asian American history is framed by racism on personal and institutional levels, laws created by our government to exclude us and violate our civil liberties. This book roars affirmation of discrimination throughout our history, abolishing the oppression of Asian Americans as second-class.
Interior Chinatown is an invaluable piece of Asian American literature because it remembers our history, recognizes our humanity, and inspires you to have the conviction to create a better future. A future where you can tell your own story instead of playing a role given to you. For Charles, “at the end, it’s not as if Willis has learned a hard lesson or an easy lesson. If he’s accepted something, it’s accepting that these roles exist but none of them define him. To some extent, he does have to play them but he is who he is as an individual. That is what he’s accepted.”
Charles believes, “art bends towards inclusion, part of it is already happening in Hollywood. The younger generation of executives or people who have grown up differently are now in places where they have levers of power. I think from my experience, there are people who genuinely want to hear your story. There are some really talented Asian American performers. I am hopeful. Now that I’m starting to work on my own projects in t.v. they are starting to look at me for my point of view. I am the storyteller.”
This book is a must-read. Interior Chinatown is available everywhere books are sold.