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Sunday, July 3, 2022

In conversation with Elaine Hsieh Chou

Sonya Ribner speaks with the Taiwanese American academic and author about her new novel.

Disorientation – a state of mind or a play on words? It seems like both when 29-year-old PhD student Ingrid Yang’s academic and personal life are upended by her discovery that the Chinese American author, Xiao-Wen Chou, whose work is the subject of her dissertation and eight years of scholarship, is, in fact, the fabrication of a white man, John Smith. 

Over the course of Elaine Hsieh Chou’s stunning debut novel, Disorientation, the fabric of Ingrid’s life frays as the director of the East Asian Studies department and her dissertation supervisor, Michael Bartholomew, launches a defense campaign of Smith in the name of ‘free speech’, which is a thinly veiled call to arms for white supremacists. At the same time, Ingrid’s fiancée, Stephen, dismisses her concerns regarding his objectification and exotification of Asian women (both in his translation work and through his physical actions) as an overreaction. Ingrid, whose greatest excitement up to her discovery is a night of take-in with Stephen, finds herself sparking a – literally – heated debate (book burnings and student protests shake the university scene) when she questions who controls the narratives of our stories. Ingrid also develops a friendship with her former sworn enemy, the effortlessly cool and brilliant activist Vivian Vo, and engages in espionage with her friend Eunice Kim, all to expose the truth. 

Sayre’s Law postulates that academic disputes are bitter because the stakes are so low. Yet, in Disorientation, Elaine Hsieh Chou brings to the fore the complexity of issues gripping college campuses, with a pen as incisive as it is poignant. I spoke to Elaine Hsieh Chou about her recent book, her journey as an activist and her approach to write a satirical novel.

SR: In Paris you helped organized protests and rallies. How did your activism shape your approach to Disorientation?

Elaine Hsieh Chou: Before moving to Paris in 2014, I had never had any experience organizing or protesting. It was an entirely new world to me. Once I entered, I felt at a loss. Most people had already been doing this work and knew the language. In the novel, Vivian is the star activist of Barnes, and Ingrid tries to infiltrate [the POC caucus]. It was able to poke fun at my own [initial] experiences through Ingrid’s point of view; she navigates a space where she is both terrified that she might say the wrong thing and honored to be entrusted with the fight for people’s lives. Once I became familiar with organizing and read the literature and planned protests, there were moments where I also became more like Vivian, wanting to lecture other Asian Americans who I felt had to unpack their unconscious biases and examine their anti-Blackness.

In Disorientation, we see the paradox of Asian students being recruited for research in the East Asian Department in the name of inclusivity. For Ingrid, “writing her dissertation on Xiao-Wen Chou was like waking up in a doorless, windowless room without knowing how she’d gotten inside.” Does something as deceptively simple as selecting a dissertation topic convey where language and civilization studies are going wrong at academic institutions?

It comes down to feeling pigeonholed – the expectation that Asian American literature should look a certain way or address only a few tried and true topics because they sell is very real in both academia and the fiction world. Most East Asian departments in the US have been run and dominated by white professors and scholars. When you look at an English department, you don’t traditionally see as many POC running or dominating those departments. When I worked on Modernist literature for my PhD, the field was dominated by white scholars and professors. I felt like the odd one out. In undergrad, I remember classmates constantly being surprised that I was studying English – it was like they were questioning if I should be an expert in this language and literature because I’m Asian. Those feelings were percolating during the moment that Ingrid is coerced into writing her dissertation on a topic that she doesn’t want to study. 

Stephen takes liberties with the Japanese texts he translates. To what extent is language the conveyance of culture, and how does this impact who should be translating texts?

None of us are conduits of pure, unbiased information. We all come with specific perspectives and baggage and history. So, when a white translator approaches a language in which they have no stakes and which they were not raised speaking, they approach it from the outside-in. When we talk about wanting to control our narratives, it is not just writing the story, but how we present the actual culture from our native countries. There is a new wave of translation that views [the text] as a sort of historical reparations before it was very normal that your personal identity had nothing to do with the text you were translating. For example, Murakami’s stories were distorted by white translators who translated the Japanese into English according to what they believed white American audiences would find most titillating about Japanese culture. Those parts were emphasized, while other sections were left out. When I learned this, I thought that explains so much! These translators have immense power because they are responsible for how Japan is seen by Americans.

In the novel, Michael raises Roland Barthes’s argument on The Death of the Author as justification for the irrelevancy of whether Xiao-Wen Chou is Chinese American or a white man. Is reading a book without considering the context of its author shortsighted? 

I think that was something Barthes could get away with in the 60s. I find Deconstructionist readings to be directly antagonistic toward Postcolonial Studies. The latter say that there is no escaping the past because, literally, the past shaped the conditions we live in now and the people we are. Postcolonialism does not allow you to cut the threads of any cultural product, whereas Deconstruction and the New Criticism acted as if there was a purity or universalism to writing. Propagating that idea would relieve a lot of guilt and prevent people from recognizing that a text is informed by history or trauma or colonialism. [Critics like Barthes] erased all of that to argue, let’s just look at the sentences and grammar. However, the writing of those sentences and grammar does not exist in a vacuum. Barthes’s theories are convenient for the argument Michael makes because they are based on the idea that we do not live in a society informed by history. 

Disorientation seems the gradual unspooling of Ingrid Yang. She’s a high-strung woman at the beginning and, by the end, she’s attacking her supervisor on the floor of her Dissertation Defense. During her birthday party, Ingrid entertains the idea of throwing a tantrum – breaking something, slamming the door – but she keeps her urge to tear her world apart inside. Is making a physical or emotional mess a privilege?

It is absolutely a privilege to be able to make a scene. Marginalized people learn certain tactics of survival to move through the world, and I think one of them is holding rage in. Because there are repercussions if you show that rage: you could lose your job or be arrested. Some minorities even fear for their lives if they show that rage. For Ingrid, who suffers many microaggressions, not being able to express her rage takes the form of an internal deadening of the self. Ingrid, who has been so walked on her entire life, has internalized that she has to bear things – which is, of course, very problematic; when you bear something, you are not asking for accountability. Only when you speak up and demand recognition can any sort of accountability happen. 

At one point, Ingrid asks Stephen, “How do you know it’s really your choice to like something and not, I don’t know, someone telling you to like it?” When in the novel would you say Ingrid thinks and acts for herself? 

Ingrid contorts herself to do what she thinks Stephen wants or what he explicitly tells her to do. Then, when she’s around Vivian and the POC caucus, she contorts herself again in a different way. I think we first glimpse Ingrid’s body rebelling and saying no to Stephen in the scene after they come back from the County Fair and Stephen tries to massage her. Ingrid can’t articulate what she is thinking so her body responds first and says, Get off me! Do not touch me! She literally propels him across their bed. Then, of course, at the dissertation defense, Ingrid’s thoughts finally mirror the rage that she has been feeling.  

In the chapter “Hollywood,” Ingrid’s struggle to assimilate (despite being born and raised in America) deprives her of meaningful connections with both her immigrant parents and friends at school. This scene is juxtaposed with Ingrid’s discovery that Chou is John Smith. What relationship, if any, is there between her acts of performance and Smith’s?

It is all about power. What we call intracommunity violence is very different from violence that comes from outside of your community done by your oppressor. In a white supremacist society, a white man’s power is so skewed. The harm Smith does is irreparable. When the violence is lateral – for example, within the Taiwanese American community – it is very different because neither of you can truly oppress the other, but there is a lot of bringing in or shutting out. Within the Asian community, you’ll have conservatives like Timothy Liu, and then you’ll have radical activists like Vivian Vo. I think what you have is a lot of pain over why are we not seeing eye-to-eye? Do I disavow you completely? Do I take away your “Asian card” because you’re not representative of our community? I think the more honest thing is to consider that because someone exists, they are representative of the community, so why do they exist? What conditions have led them to exist? How do you bring someone in like Timothy who is actively hurting your community? At the end, Ingrid comes to see some of her past self in Timothy. It’s very easy to dismiss Timothy as despicable, but when Ingrid looks at him, she recognizes so much of his self-contorting in her past self when she was trying to fit in too. Is empathy the answer? Is open dialogue the answer? Or does it work best to set boundaries and cut people off? I don’t have the answers.

You note that in earlier drafts of the novel, the protagonist had two children and the narrative was first-person. Could you take me through the judgment calls that resulted in the current form of Disorientation we have now?   

A lot of failure. It’s hard to understand how you feel about something when you’re in the thick of it. In the first version, Ingrid is 49 and married to a congressman with two college-age children. I thought that was the novel I set out to write, that it was the final version. When I was writing it, I didn’t give myself a lot of room to question it because I had meticulously over-planned it. After finishing that draft, I was like, oh, I really hate this. For a while, I thought I had failed. I was like, well, I tried to write a novel and clearly, I don’t know how. But a few months after that, I got the idea to save Ingrid’s storyline and focus on her. I rewrote the story in the first person. I think that was necessary for me to get inside her head and simplify the novel’s main concerns. But similarly, when I finished that draft, something was missing. A lot of the problem was that Ingrid is quite clueless and, in the first person, we don’t have distance from her. I had to be able to show that Ingrid had things to learn. Again, I was disappointed, oh no, I have failed once more, and I just wrote 70,000 words! But it was necessary to write that draft before returning to the third person and finding the specific voice and narration that worked. 

Disorientation deals with difficult questions of identity and unearths some of the most twisted human compulsions. Yet, there are laugh-out-loud moments. What role does humor play in the novel?

I didn’t set out to write anything satirical or humorous, but I think it emerged as a coping mechanism for me to discuss situations and create characters that would otherwise be very triggering for me to spend a lot of time with – like Michael or Stephen. With humor, I could distance myself from those emotions and feel like I had more control and power. Writing is always hard, but it allows me to look forward to the process and think how can I make myself laugh rather than how can I get this published or how can I make it good? When you’re reading about dark [subject matters], humor makes it easier to swallow. On the other hand, when describing certain incidents and people, humor can highlight their darkness. 

When we meet Ingrid, she has incredibly low self-worth. As facts come to light that undermine her reality, we see her undergo painful dissociation rather than grapple with her desire for a different life. By the end of the novel, does Ingrid get what she wants?

I think so. What she wanted was freedom to no longer be trapped under the thumb of men like Michael or Stephen. She had these white men controlling her moves and an internalized sense of this is what I should be doing. Ingrid is forced into this box, and by the novel’s end, she’s out of the box. It doesn’t mean she knows what to do next. After being in the box for so long, Ingrid just wants to walk around, hang out with her parents, work at a minimum wage job where she doesn’t have to worry about being a brilliant researcher. A lot of pressure is taken off her shoulders by just doing her job. I wanted her to have the freedom to not know what she is doing next. And, of course, she’s planning her trip to South Korea and Taiwan with Eunice, which I love for her. 

In a recent essay in The Cut, you note horrific acts committed by white men against Asian women and a perverted worldview that many hold. You wrote down and kept track of their crimes “obliviated from society” to clarify your own reality. While Disorientation is a work of fiction, does it perhaps provide a more “real” portrayal of life than some may see in the real world?

The other day, a reader from the Bay Area wrote to me on Twitter, saying, “this is the most realistic thing I have read (possibly ever).” I felt so affirmed because the novel is billed as a satire – the word absurdist is used a lot in descriptions – but I made certain that the most outrageous events in the novel happened in real life. Even things I didn’t add to the endnotes like “The Sanctuary,” a safe space for white students, actually existed at a university in Michigan. Marginalized people are gaslit all the time – you’re inventing or exaggerating your pain, stop being so sensitive, stop being a victim – all these narratives try to get us to think our reality is imagined. It was important to me to show that the violence that Ingrid endures is all real and has historical precedent. Stephen and Michael treat her like an infantile, small East Asian woman based on centuries-old ideas of Asian women from Madame Chrysanthemum (turned into Madame Butterfly) to Mean Girls. It felt very affirming to have this reader say the story rang true to them because everything in the novel happened to me, or to my friends, or in the real world.

Which authors excite you right now?

My friend, Sabrina Imbler, has written an essay collection that I feel transforms the genre; they write about their life through sea creatures in How Far the Light Reaches from Little Brown coming out in December this year. I can’t wait for everyone to read it. Another friend, Ryan Lee Wong, who was my conversation partner for a virtual event, has written a novel, Which Side Are You On, that comes out from Catapult this October. It is about the Black and Asian community, and the difficulties that they have had to go through together. When Peter Liang, an Asian police officer, killed Akai Gurley, a Black man, in 2016, it sparked a lot of difficult conversations. I’m really excited for [Ryan’s] book to be out soon.

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