SXSW Online Keynote Speaker Charles Yu on Insecurity, Fatherhood, and Representation
The Interior Chinatown author reflects on how Asian American lives are characterized in popular entertainment
Charles Yu is comfortable living with "a lot of self-doubt." Before he was the recipient of the 2020 National Book Award for his novel Interior Chinatown and a writer for acclaimed television shows, Yu worked as an in-house lawyer for a technology company. "I always thought, 'They're going to figure me out. They're going to fire me.' I had ultimate imposter syndrome."
And yet, Yu's familiarity with uncertainty allows him to render his fictional characters – like the central figure of Interior Chinatown, Willis Wu – as replete with strengths and shortcomings that make them seem fully dimensional and incontrovertibly human. Interior Chinatown reads as if Yu approached Willis Wu – described as an overlooked, ambiguously "Asian" actor working on a Law & Order-style television show – handed him a camera, and turned his pictures into a novel. By giving subjectivity to a character often treated as a prop or shown in confining, stereotypical roles in food delivery or martial arts, Yu repositions the lens through which we see an American story, inviting his readers to explore Asian American consciousness in all of its idiosyncrasies.
Yu feels that "there is a certain quality of experience that Asian Americans have in common." Even though the broad term "Asian Americans" blankets individuals with ancestral origins in over two dozen countries, Yu observes that in the United States, "in terms of having a place in this social hierarchy or place in people's cultural imagination – especially on TV and in movies – there is a kind of commonality." Yu subverts this flattening by infusing Interior Chinatown with moments in which the Asian American characters construct their identities based on their own lived experiences, rather than seeing themselves in comparison to other marginalized groups or the narrow tropes imposed on them by a dominant white culture. To Yu, it was important to acknowledge this distinction, which struck a chord with his growing audience. "I've had readers, Asian American readers specifically, reach out and say, 'This describes something that I haven't really talked about with people a lot, that I haven't articulated because it felt private to me, or I didn't know if anyone else would be able to identify necessarily.'"
During the seven years it took to create Interior Chinatown, Yu and his wife were raising their young daughter and son. Before becoming a parent, Yu expressed a reluctant acceptance of the norm in which Asian characters functioned as supporting acts to Black or white leads, but having children changed what he began to expect from American culture, both on- and offscreen. "I had resolved whatever feelings, or I thought I had resolved whatever feelings I had about who I am, where my place is, and how accepted or not accepted I would be, and those answers get uncomfortable when you have to explain them to a 5-year-old."
Reconsidering the impacts of racialization and representation on everyday life motivated Yu to fashion better models for his children – and his readers – which he says he will continue to produce as he works with Hulu on the TV adaptation of Interior Chinatown. But in the meantime, Yu, like many of us, is enjoying eating lunch with his kids between their Zoom classes and taking more walks with his wife and dog through their neighborhood in Irvine, Calif. And in these mundane rituals – parenting his children, meandering the suburbs, watching television – lies the fodder for Yu's work; it's the landscape Yu inhabits to describe something essential about contemporary American life. As Yu puts it, "Oh, yeah, that's right. This is what it's about."
Charles Yu in Conversation With Lisa Ling
Friday, March 19, 1pm, Channel 1