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Author Charles Yu on using satire to point out Asian American stereotypes


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Judy Woodruff: The February pick for our "PBS NewsHour"/New York Times book club Now Read This is "Interior Chinatown," winner of the 2020 National Book Award. It's a funny and biting satire of stereotypes of Asian Americans in popular culture.

It is author Charles Yu's story of an actor aspiring to be the hero Kung Fu Guy, but stuck forever playing a minor role.

Jeffrey Brown spoke with Yu for our ongoing arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: So, you wanted to tell the story of a guy we have all seen in the background of TV cop shows, right? You gave him a title, Generic Asian Guy.

Charles Yu: Specifically, it's a TV show that's like "Law & Order" or any one of these other police procedurals.

And so, within that world, Willis is a background Asian. He doesn't get to talk. He is usually seen either delivering food or possibly doing martial arts. And I wanted to tell the story from the perspective of someone who normally we don't get to learn anything about.

Jeffrey Brown: It's very playful. It's entertaining.

But you're also raising important questions here about how -- the stereotypes of Asian-Americans in popular culture.

Charles Yu: Growing up in the '80s and '90s, I never saw Asians on TV. And if I did, they were usually doing martial arts or working at a restaurant.

And I wanted to think about, what does that kind of invisibility do to your consciousness, If you grow up never seeing a version of yourself, and what does it do to the consciousness of other people who are in the audience to never see a certain kind of person television? How does that distort reality?

Jeffrey Brown: And how does it distort reality? What did you experience? What did you see others experience?

Charles Yu: It creates this alternate version of reality.

Like, seeing that over and over again, I think, can't help but enforce this idea, reinforce this idea that these Asians are not part of the main story of America. In fact, they aren't really Americans, because, when we see them, they're often cast as foreigners.

And I think, as much as you could say pop culture, well, how much does that really influence, I think it has a huge influence, on a sort of subconscious level, of how we perceive certain groups.

Jeffrey Brown: And how much has that changed? Or is it changing?

Charles Yu: It's both an increase in the quantity and in the variety of kinds of points of view, right?

And some of that is driven just by the sheer kind of demand for content. There's, I don't know, 600 scripted shows on TV, something like that. And I think that's really exciting that, through this sort of explosion in streaming and other shows, we have the opportunity to dip into all of these different worlds and consciousnesses.

Jeffrey Brown: You wrote this before the pandemic, but I read it during the pandemic, and I couldn't help about the even recent cases of Asian Americans being attacked in some instances because the virus began in China.

Charles Yu: It's horrifying what's happening. And yet, at the same time, I think it's not shocking.

It's, for me, just a reflection of the fact that, to some extent, Asian-Americans still aren't seen as fully American for some segment of the population. And that's both troubling, but also, I hope, opportunity for this conversation to keep happening.

Jeffrey Brown: Finally, I don't want to make this novel sound like it's a sociopolitical tract, because it's extremely funny and entertaining.

I know you write for television, as well as for novels. Did that come in handy?

Charles Yu: Yes. It was -- the fun. It's like having a sort of other toolbox that I can try to use. Sometimes, I sort of get carried away and I'm just having too much fun.

But I -- if I'm having fun with the writing, then, hopefully, that's fun for the reader. And, yes, there's, I hope, weighty stuff in the book. But I also hope that it's also a story that people can identify, which is about a background guy who wants to be the star of the show, who wants to have his own story.

And that, to me, is a kind of universal story in the end.

Jeffrey Brown: All right. The novel is "Interior Chinatown."

Charles Yu, thank you very much.

Charles Yu: Thank you so much, Jeff.

Judy Woodruff: And thank you, Jeff and Charles Yu.

And our March book club selection is Jessica Bruder's "Nomadland," which chronicles the lives of older Americans who have taken to the road. We hope you will read along.

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