Interior Chinatown: Clever, inventive dissection of traps faced by Asian Americans

Book review: Charles Yu’s novel looks at how the US’s story excludes large swathes of people

Novelist Charles Yu won the 2020 US National Book Award for Fiction. File photograph: Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images

Novelist Charles Yu won the 2020 US National Book Award for Fiction. File photograph: Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images

Who knew that Donald Trump would have such an impact on American literature? Both of the last two winners of the US National Book Award for Fiction have quoted the president as the influence behind their books. Not in a good way, of course. They wrote out of a sense of urgency fuelled by the state of the nation.

The 2020 winner, Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu, looks at the way in which large swathes of people, in this case Asian Americans, have been excluded from the story of America for decades. It is set in a fictional Chinatown, and a Taiwanese American man named Willis Wu is our protagonist. His life is a performance: he and all his neighbours are extras in a procedural cop show, called Black and White, which is filmed in the restaurant where Willis works. Mostly Willis plays Generic Asian Man. Sometimes he gets to be Background Oriental Making a Weird Face. His dream is to be Kung Fu Guy – the pinnacle role, but also, as we soon learn, a glass ceiling: a symbol both of what is possible and all that is not.

The Irish Times
Please subscribe or sign in to continue reading.
The Irish Times

How can I keep reading?

You’ve reached an article that is only available to Irish Times subscribers.

Subscribe today and get the full picture for just €1 for the first month.

Subscribe No obligation, cancel any time.