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“The question is: Who gets to be an American? What does an American look like?“~Willis Wu, Interior Chinatown⠀
Imagine if Spike Lee was Taiwanese-American and wrote novels in strange, semi-screenplay format. That’s the best way I can think of to describe this book and the way it shifts through unreliable realities while alternating between didacticism, sharp humor and comforting family vignettes.⠀
But then I remember that one of the themes explored here is defining Asian-American experiences by their own history, not as reductive comparisons to Black and White, and I want to take it all back. Despite that, while reading I kept thinking of Spike and Paul Beatty’s brilliant Black satire, The Sellout. There’s something in Yu’s low-key furious, high-key funny approach to the puzzle of Asian-American visibility that is very reminiscent of those two yet also not like them at all. ⠀
Willis Wu is an actor based in LA Chinatown. Despite a lifetime of working hard at being the best bit player possible on the hit TV drama Black and White, his dream of being Kung Fu Guy–the highest an Asian actor can go–seems like it will never be fulfilled. While the SRO that he, his aging actor parents and all the other Chinese actors live in crumbles into poverty around them and his most promising speaking role ends on a deadly note, Willis finds himself asking questions like, “What is all this really for? Why is Black so cool? Is White really on my side? Is Kung Fu guy all there is? Where has the mysterious, stereotype-defying Older Brother gone?” ⠀
This book is clever, funny and its statements about identity, race and assimilation hit quite hard. Yu is a skilled writer who’ll have you lost in nostalgia on one page and gasping for breath from laughter on the next. But the format, while creative, made it really hard to get into the book at first. It’s a well-written screenplay with chunks of surrealist novel strewn through it, and until the characters are established and the dialogue begins to flow, keeping track of everyone and everything is a stilted, confusing affair. I appreciate the creativity but it made for slow going at the start.
Still, I enjoyed this enormously and will definitely be looking up more of Yu’s books in the future. 4 stars and a leading role to Interior Chinatown.
(Thanks for reading, beautiful people. As always, I need to tell you that this blog is an affiliate of Bookshop and any clicks and purchases you make result in a commission being earned by yours truly. Also, not to belabor the point or anything, but this book, unlike the last few I’ve reviewed, is one you should really consider buying. It’s really good. No, really. Peace!)