Author explores Asian American stereotypes in pop culture with his audacious new book.
In Charles Yu’s second novel, Interior Chinatown, a restaurant employee named Willis Wu plays “Generic Asian Man Number Three/Delivery Guy” on a police procedural called Black and White. The twist, or sad truth, is that this reflects reality for Wu: Essentially all of his life consists of appearances on TV shows, to the extent that he is forced to portray the same clichéd minor character in fictional tales as he is in “real-life.”
Told as part novel, part script, Interior Chinatown is a sharply observed, darkly humorous evocation of the Asian American experience that blurs the line between performative acts and literal small-screen performances. Confused? Don’t worry, so was Yu when he was writing the novel, which is set in the Chinatown of an unnamed city. “I was like, ‘Well, what am I writing?’ ” says the author, 44. “My editor and agent were saying, ‘We get that there are levels of reality you’re playing with, but you have to be intentional about that and not accidental.’ There were times I was confused and had to work my way through that tunnel.”
Yu specializes in metatextual and thematically complex material. The lead character of his first novel, 2010’s How to Live in a Science Fictional Universe, is a time-machine repairman named Charles Yu, who attempts to escape the consequences of shooting a future version of himself. Yu, named a “5 Under 35” honoree by the National Book Foundation before How to Live’s publication, was working as a corporate lawyer at the time but later quit to write for a clutch of popular mind-bending TV shows, including Westworld and Legion. “It hurt my brain,” says Yu of working on the latter series. “For me, it was humbling to be in that writers’ room. It was really original minds.”
The son of Taiwanese immigrants (and older brother of Bob’s Burgers writer Kelvin Yu), Yu was inspired to write Interior Chinatown after the 2016 presidential election. “It was me feeling, ‘Wow, what is America?’” he says. “My parents have lived here 50 years. After that election, they started to feel, ‘Was I ever really American?’”
The author says the titular enclave featured in his new book is an amalgam of the areas found in Los Angeles and San Francisco. (Yu grew up in L.A. and went to college at U.C. Berkeley, where he studied biochemistry.) But he admits he had to read up on the subject of Chinatown. “It’s not a place I had strong ties to,” he says. “When my mom first read the title, she was like, ‘What do you know about Chinatown?’ Fair question, Mom! You’re going straight to the heart of my anxiety!”