"I am excited to hear Austinites' take on this year's Mayor's Book Club Selection, Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu. This National Book Award-winning novel pokes fun at Hollywood stereotypes while exploring timely and timeless themes of race, immigration, assimilation, and family history. This book invites us to empathically consider the broad range of Asian American experiences, which are all too often ignored or cast aside. I encourage all Austin readers to join us in reading this highly inventive novel and look forward to the important conversations it will inspire."
—Mayor Steve Adler
“Meticulously crafted. . . . Yu tells us about ourselves with his haunting depictions of the immigrant experience, familial relationships, and the abiding desire to break from the pressures of conformity and live an authentic life.”—Los Angeles Review of Books
About the Book
Willis Wu doesn’t perceive himself as the protagonist in his own life: he’s merely Generic Asian Man. Sometimes he gets to be Background Oriental Making a Weird Face or even Disgraced Son, but always he is relegated to a prop. Yet every day, he leaves his tiny room in a Chinatown SRO and enters the Golden Palace restaurant, where Black and White, a procedural cop show, is in perpetual production. He’s a bit player here, too, but he dreams of being Kung Fu Guy—the most respected role that anyone who looks like him can attain. Or is it?
After stumbling into the spotlight, Willis finds himself launched into a wider world than he’s ever known, discovering not only the secret history of Chinatown, but the buried legacy of his own family. Infinitely inventive and deeply personal, exploring the themes of pop culture, assimilation, and immigration—Interior Chinatown is Charles Yu’s most moving, daring, and masterful novel yet. (Vintage Books)
About the Author
CHARLES YU is the author of four books, including his latest, Interior Chinatown, which won the National Book Award for Fiction and was longlisted for the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction. He has been nominated for two Writers Guild of America awards for his work on the HBO series Westworld, and has also written for shows on FX, AMC, Facebook Watch, and Adult Swim. His fiction and non-fiction have appeared in a number of publications including The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, Wired, Time and Ploughshares. You can find him on Twitter @charles_yu.
Watch Charles Yu in conversation with Austin Asian American Film Festival Executive Director Hanna Huang as a part of the Mayor's Book Club.
Q+A with Charles Yu
In addition to novels and short stories, you've also written for TV shows. How did your experience in that industry come into play while writing Interior Chinatown, with regard to both the screenplay structure and the faux-production setting?
I was spending my days in the writers' room for various shows, thinking about scripts and their structure all day. At night, I'd try to make progress on my novel, and I guess the script regions of my brain were still working and they said, "Hey man, I see you're having some trouble with that novel you're writing. Why don't you try to use me?" I guess one part of my brain convinced the other part to give it a shot. It might seem counterintuitive, but having the screenplay/teleplay form freed me up. Regarding the production setting--that was a little trickier. I imagined the world of the book as both like a set for a TV show but also a reality in which the characters actually live their lives. How can it be both? It took some work (and help from my first readers, my editors and book agent) to sort out what this place was.
How did you choose to center the story around the character of Willis, or "Generic Asian Man"? What does his perspective show or offer that another character's might not have?
He was my way into the story. I tried to write the book in a few different ways to no avail--there was something about the voice and tone that wasn't working. Then one day, Willis's voice just popped into my head, and for the first time I felt like that was a voice I was interested in. He's the guy in the background of a scene, with no lines. No one pays attention to him. His whole life, it's never been about him, and what he dreams about is having some small part of the action. So when he gets his chance, he really wants to make the most of it, but he's not sure how and he also doesn't know if he can actually be a protagonist.
The book pokes fun at stereotypes, but it also engages seriously with the racism faced by Asian Americans in the United States throughout history, particularly in the courtroom scene at the end. How do you strike a balance between humor and sincerity to write a book that is both entertaining and meaningful?
I try not to take myself too seriously. Whenever I do that, I start to bore myself pretty quickly. I also don't think of myself as funny. The more sure I am of something witty or clever, the more it usually ends up being corny (my family can attest to my dad jokes). So I guess the balance is somewhere in between those to things, trying to make sure I'm aiming for writing that is true and sincere and then seeing where that goes.
APL librarians recommend other titles by Asian and Asian American authors to explore.
Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong
As the daughter of Korean immigrants, Cathy Park Hong grew up steeped in shame, suspicion, and melancholy. She would later understand that these “minor feelings” occur when American optimism contradicts your own reality—when you believe the lies you’re told about your own racial identity. Hong uses her own story as a portal into a deeper examination of racial consciousness in America today.
Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner
The author reflects on her experiences of growing up Korean-American, becoming a professional musician and caring for her terminally ill mother.
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
A sweeping saga following a Korean family in exile from its homeland that immigrates to Japan.
Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata
In this novel of making your own way despite society’s expectations, a Japanese woman, who has been working at a convenience store for 18 years, finds friendship with her new coworker.
My Year Abroad by Chang-rae Lee
A young American’s life is transformed when a Chinese-American businessman suddenly takes him under his wing on a global adventure.
Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo
When Lily realizes she has feelings for a girl in her math class, it threatens Lily's oldest friendships and even her father's citizenship status and eventually, Lily must decide if owning her truth is worth everything she has ever known.
The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee
1890, Atlanta. By day, seventeen-year-old Jo Kuan works as a lady's maid for the cruel Caroline Payne, the daughter of one of the wealthiest men in Atlanta. But by night, Jo moonlights as the pseudonymous author of a newspaper advice column for 'the genteel Southern lady.
American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang
Alternates three interrelated stories about the problems of young Chinese Americans trying to participate in the popular culture.
Stargazing by Jen Wang
Moon is everything Christine isn't. She's confident, impulsive, artistic . . . and though they both grew up in the same Chinese-American suburb, Moon is somehow unlike anyone Christine has ever known. When Moon's family moves in next door to Christine's, Moon goes from unlikely friend to best friend--maybe even the perfect friend.
Front Desk by Kelly Yang
Recent immigrants from China and desperate for work and money, ten-year-old Mia Tang's parents take a job managing a rundown motel in Southern California, even though the owner, Mr. Yao is a nasty skinflint who exploits them; while her mother (who was an engineer in China) does the cleaning, Mia works the front desk and tries to cope with demanding customers and other recent immigrants.
Gai See: What You can See in Chinatown by Roseanne Thong
In illustrations and rhyming text, depicts the vivid sights, sounds, and smells of a Saturday morning outdoor market in Chinatown.
Apple Pie 4th of July by Janet Wong
A Chinese American child fears that the food her parents are preparing to sell on the Fourth of July will not be eaten.
About the Mayor's Book Club
The Mayor's Book Club is an annual citywide reading campaign to encourage a community experience through reading, discussion, and exploration of shared books. The Mayor's Book Club is presented by the Library Foundation in partnership with the City of Austin Mayor's Office and the Austin Public Library.
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