The PEN Pod: Letting Go of Our Illusions with Charles Yu
Today on The PEN Pod, we spoke with Charles Yu, author of four books, including the novel How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, which was a New York Times Notable Book and named one of the best books of the year by TIME Magazine. He received the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 Award, and was nominated for two Writers Guild of America awards for his work on the HBO series, Westworld. He has also written for upcoming shows on AMC and HBO. His latest book, Interior Chinatown, was released earlier this year. We spoke with Charles about writing about stereotypes and TV tropes in his new novel, how to revisit what we consider “real” in the time of the pandemic, and the power—and pitfalls—of our imaginations.
Let’s talk about your book, Interior Chinatown. There’s a lot of playing with stereotypes, particularly with Asian Americans. What prompted you to explore this in a novel form?
I was looking for a way to write about the immigrant experience in a personal way, but a way that hopefully felt accessible to readers that didn’t necessarily have my specific experience, which is that I’m the child of Taiwanese immigrants and had always wanted to tell a story about what it was like for them to become Americans—and also, now that I’m a dad—and to raise kids that are, depending on how you count it, second or third generation of Americans. A couple of years ago, I started working as a television writer, and I think this framework took a while to crystallize in my head. But once I settled on it, it felt like a good way into a story and a voice that started to interest me.
Right now, we’re also contending with a lot of vitriol against Asians and Asian Americans—in particular linked to the coronavirus. Do you think people are going to read your book slightly differently right now than they would have, say, a month ago?
It’s a good question. One, I hope they read it. And I think they might. I think sadly, in a lot of ways, it has more relevance than it did maybe just a few months ago. I remember wrestling a bit internally with the question, and even seeing a couple of random commenters on various things I had out there—either a book or an essay I wrote for TIME—where people were saying, “Is the lack of Asian American representation in TV and film really such a problem?” And my book and other things that I’ve written have been attempts to articulate why it is.
But I think, as you point out, this moment and what I think will be the aftermath of it for a long time, is to actually make very real what has felt real for a long time, for me and other Asian Americans: the idea that this is a “Chinese virus,” or that Chinese Americans may suffer, or more broadly, the idea that—and this ties almost exactly to one of the main ideas of the book—nobody really even cares. Chinese, Taiwanese, Korean, Japanese—they’re all sort of melted together into the broad label of “Asian” at the moment, by certain people—people who are having feelings of resentment, racism, or xenophobia as a result of the very real suffering that’s going on, or that are using the suffering as a pretext for discriminatory attitudes.
“This moment and what I think will be the aftermath of it for a long time, is to actually make very real what has felt real for a long time, for me and other Asian Americans: the idea that this is a “Chinese virus,” or that Chinese Americans may suffer, or more broadly, the idea that—and this ties almost exactly to one of the main ideas of the book—nobody really even cares.”
You wrote, for The Atlantic, a piece about what it means to call this pandemic “unreal.” So how real are these circumstances, and how much is the pandemic smashing our ideas of what is real or normal?
I’ve had some really interesting and vigorous responses to the piece, which is exciting, in the sense that one of the things we have going on right now is that at least we get to talk to each other on Twitter, Zoom, or like this. It’s nice to have a conversation with people, and the idea that I was sort of trying to get out there is that I am a very privileged person. You could list all of my privileges, but I think they all add up to the fact that I’ve lived life in a bubble. I have this sense of security that life has ups and downs, of course, but that there is a kind of normal, a default state where things stay relatively stable.
What I was trying to explore in that piece is the idea that it doesn’t have to be. There’s no requirement that things conform to our sense of a story that makes some kind of sense, the way Hollywood stories often “make sense,” or my intuition about, “Oh, yeah, this is unreal, but it’ll go back to something that feels acceptable to me in some timeframe that feels reasonable.” None of that has to be true. Of course, we’’e hoping that we can do things that will mitigate this, but letting go of the idea that this catastrophe, as it’s continuing to unfold and play out, is somehow a narrative that stars us in it—those are some of the ideas that I was trying to get out, and letting go of all of those illusions and realizing, “No, this is real.” The reality is that, one, humanity has faced pandemics before. And two, this doesn’t have to get solved in six months or three months or eighteen months, even if it did. There’s no neat and tidy way that this has to resolve itself for us as humans.
I imagine you were reckoning with these ideas—like what is or isn’t real, and what it means to insert ourselves into a narrative—well before this pandemic broke out.
I was. It is an interesting time because even in that book, what I was exploring, in a very different context, is the idea of an Asian American protagonist, Willis Wu, who’s Taiwanese American. His job is to be Generic Asian Man #3. And he exists in this simplified stereotypical world called “Black and White,” which is like a cop procedural show, and it’s called that because it has one black cop and one white cop, and the idea is that Willis never gets to be the protagonist of this show. He’s never the hero, he doesn’t even have much to do, and he sort of exists at the margins. And through Willis’s eyes, we get to investigate and play around with some of the tropes of television—the idea that things do resolve themselves in an episodic format. The book already tries to subvert some of those ideas, but now on a much larger and more calamitous scale, we’re seeing a very different way in which people are trying to make sense of it.
“Imagination, as much as it can delude us, will also be one of the necessary tools that gets us out of it, and I mean that in a moral, governmental, and social sense. We have to find ways to collaborate and cooperate with each other.”
A lot of the things that we go to are ingrained in us, by stories that we’re told and by stories themselves. The idea of telling a story about this is hard to do because we’re trying to make sense of something that may resist any attempts to make sense. At its base level, the virus just wants to make more of itself. We can make meaning out of what we do as humans; we can use our imaginations. I write this in The Atlantic piece as well—imagination, as much as it can delude us, will also be one of the necessary tools that gets us out of it, and I mean that in a moral, governmental, and social sense. We have to find ways to collaborate and cooperate with each other. Our scientists and technology leaders have to figure out ways to use all of the advancements we’ve had. So, imagination is a powerful tool to help us to the next chapter, but letting go of some of the ideas that we’ve had—or at least I’ve had, speaking again from my position of privilege, that I thought I understood how things generally play out, and this is just something that doesn’t match anything that I’ve experienced in my four-plus decades of life on Earth. And yet it’s something that happens every so often. It happened just a few years ago with SARS and MERS, and there have been other pandemics, just not on this scale, in very recent history.
As someone whose writing deals with dystopia and science fiction, how do you think that this is going to inform writing and literature moving forward, in those disciplines or beyond?
That’s a good question. I think it will deeply inform stories for a while. It’s a tough analogy to make, but something like 9/11—a huge catastrophic event—seeps into the consciousness of artists, writers, anyone who’s making things, whether they’re fictional or not. It can have such a deep effect on the psyche of people. I think that it can come out quickly, but it also can permeate in ways that are slower that take more time to evolve. I’m very curious what kinds of art we’ll see out of this. Do you have any sense of what we might see?
Your guess is as good as mine, probably. But are you reading anything right now that gives you some of that context, or gives you a sense of coping or distraction?
I’m reading a novel that I’ve read before, by Gabe Hudson. He’s got a great short story collection called Dear Mr. President, and he’s got this novel called Gork, the Teenage Dragon, which is about a teenage dragon. I think I wanted something that felt both broad in scope and a little bit like an escape, but it’s also a coming-of-age story, and there are lots of questions of morality and social responsibility in the book. That’s one way that my unconscious was, I think, reaching for something that felt like, “How do I think about this without necessarily always just thinking about it, because I get enough from the news?” Another book that I think is really interesting in this context that I had picked up independently of any of this, but bubbled up for probably more obvious reasons, is this book called How to Invent Everything by Ryan North. It feels like what if we had to restart civilization again? It’s a whimsical but also really well-thought-out book about: What if you were stuck in the past and had to reinvent everything that civilization has come up with in the last ten thousand years?
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