Elaine Hsieh Chou’s absurd debut novel about a student dissertation about a fictional poet delves into the maelstrom of current racial disputes and gets into a fight
By Kadish Morris / The Guardian
In recent years there have been a number of scandals involving whites pretending to be other races to gain perceived benefits.
Rachel Dolezal, then chair of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, went viral in 2015 for claiming to be a black woman despite not being of African descent. In the same year, a white poet named Michael Derrick Hudson was found to be submitting poetry to literary magazines under the name Yi-Fen Chou. Hudson admitted to using the pseudonym whenever a poem written by him under his real name was rejected.
This type of incident is a central concern in Elaine Hsieh Chou’s debut novel, Disorientation. 29-year-old Taiwanese-American graduate student Ingrid Yang has been working on her dissertation for eight years on the fictional Xiao-Wen Chou, who is considered “the greatest Chinese-American poet” and has his own archive at Barnes University. Yang was persuaded into this line of research by her supervisor, Michael: “They will be looking for another Chouian fellow in a few years. They’re going to want someone young and energetic,” he tells her.
But writing about chou’s enjambment (a literary device in which a sentence of poetry continues after the line break without a grammatical break) provides few words for Yang, who instead hesitates, taking too many antacids and becoming obsessed with her rival Vivian – the darling the post-colonial section – and avoid anything political, including the word “white”. Everything changes when Yang finds a note in one of the books in Chou’s archive. She then descends down a rabbit hole along with her best friend Eunice, eventually discovering that the acclaimed poet is not only still alive, but is actually a white man named John Smith, who for decades pretended to be Chinese – black wigs, yellow makeup -up and eyelid tape.
Though the novel is an absurdist take on the way the literary world devours works that reduce the East Asian experience to rivers, spoons and tea, it also closely examines the power of the white gaze, academic imperialism, peer rivalry and self-assertion. to hate. There are times when the book struggles to grapple with all of the issues it has brought to the surface: affirmative action, fascism, identity politics, the sexualization of East Asian women, cultural appropriation, assimilation, and the way universities preserving whiteness are all debated, but not to the same degree, and so the novel feels askew at times.
Over-the-top comedic scenes sometimes clash with the poignant social commentary, but the fact that the novel doesn’t shy away from topicality is commendable. It gets candid about the concept of model minorities, the stickiness of interracial dating, and the way misogyny severely affects Asian women. We hear of online forum users sharing a story about a Thai woman being ‘hacked up’ by an Englishman. “Everyone said she deserved it,” Eunice’s brother Alex tells Yang, “that it wouldn’t have happened if she hadn’t been chasing the white tail.”
Yang is an antihero in many ways. Although she’s the one who exposes Chou as an imposter (causing campus to be thrown into chaos), she’s ceding the glory to someone else because she’s neither photogenic nor a good speaker. Still, there is something about Chou’s way of writing Yang’s imperfections—constantly scratching her eczema, jealous of beautiful women, and perpetually unmotivated—that subtly and powerfully subverts the doll-like ideals that have long plagued East Asian women.
At times the dialogue lacks surprise – some of the characters’ arcs are easily predictable – but with so much of the debate the book throws up that takes place in the real world, it would be difficult to write the perfect story. Disorientation is messy, but that’s often what encourages it.
By Elaine Hsieh Chou
United States: Paperback
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