Photo Credit - UTA
"Interior Chinatown" is an excellent example of satire. In fact, it is one of the best recent examples of the genre. It is both fun, yet poignant, deftly weaving in issues of race, identity and racism, while often eliciting a laugh from the reader. The book’s author, Charles Yu, comes from a screenwriter background, including projects for high profile cable channels such as HBO, FX and AMC. That screenwriting background comes through with this novel because it is written in a screenplay format, with characters that blur the line between real life (in the novel) and movie actors.
The novel’s young protagonist, Willis Wu, sees himself like the world, and certainly Hollywood, sees him- as “Generic Asian Man.” Most of his adult life is spent leaving the SRO housing complex/Chinese restaurant (Interior Chinatown) brimming with other aspiring Asian actors and restaurant workers, then going to the set of the “Black and White” procedural cop show. For it, he is just an extra “Generic Asian Man,” but he longs to be “Kung Fu Guy,” which is supposedly many steps up. Throughout Wu’s days on the set and career, such as it is, he longs for more personally and professionally but feels held back by ever persistent low self-esteem and societal stereotypes. Although these issues of identity, race and racism are center stage, Yu delivers it with an undeniable delightful sense of humor. But don’t let the entertainment aspect fool you. Yu successfully delivers biting commentary on Hollywood typecasting and societal stereotypes. Below is an example of the more biting, poignant type of dialogue found towards the novel’s end after Yu has climbed the “Asian Man” in Hollywood ladder and found success, but at a cost.
I spent most of my life trapped. Interior Chinatown. I made it out, to become Kung Fu Dad. But that was just another role. A better role than I’ve ever had, but still a role. I can’t just keep doing the same thing over and over again. My dad did that. And where did it get him? He was a true master, someone who had mastered his craft. And what did his life add up to? You never recognized him for what he could do. Who he was. You never allowed him a name. So what do we do?
Skewering Hollywood typecasts has never been so much fun since Robert Townsends’ “Hollywood Shuffle,” a 1987 American satirical comedy film about the racial stereotypes of African Americans in film and television. It is easy to understand why “Interior Chinatown” won the 2020 National Book Award. It is brilliant in its messaging, format and delivery, and destined to a screen adaptation in the near future.
Any time of year is a great time of year to learn about your culture and/or the other people's culture. But in February, the spotlight is on Black history and culture, so now is as good a time as any to take advantage of the readily available information that was once relegated to the backseat of American society. It's true that there was a time not long ago when Black people were rarely on television or in movies, nor were celebrated in other aspects of the arts. Likewise, literature by, for and about the African diaspora was practically nonexistent in comparison to their white counterparts. Black authors were not often given a platform among the major publishing houses, making historical and contemporary black stories few and far between.
Fortunately, in recent decades that has changed for the better, with a plethora of talented Black writers in the forefront of the literary industry. During Black History Month and throughout the year, be encouraged to reflect on more than 400 years of Black history, heritage and culture in literature. Be it regarding stories of the past, current accounts; fiction or nonfiction.
Below are a few carefully curated, recently release selections to get you started:
- Black Buck (fiction) by Mateo Askaripour
- Caste (nonfiction) by Isabel Wilkerson
- Caul Baby (fiction) by Morgan Jerkins
- Four Hundred Souls (nonfiction) edited by Ibram X Kendi and Keisha N. Blain
- Office of Historical Corrections (contemporary short stores & novella) by Danielle Evans
- The Prophets (fiction) - by Robert Jones, Jr.
- A Spy in the Struggle (fiction/mystery) by Aya de Leon