When Your PhD Involves A Race Scandal and Several Asian Fetishes

Elaine Hsieh Chou's novel "Disorientation" is a whirlwind romp that combines academic satire with a whodunnit mystery thriller

Crop of Disorientation

Who would’ve thought academia involved house break-ins and over-the-counter drug hallucinations? In Elaine Hsieh Chou’s debut novel, Ingrid Yang is struggling to finish her doctoral dissertation on Xiao-Wen Chou, a famed Chinese American poet—or so she thinks. Disorientation takes us on a whirlwind romp that combines academic satire with a who-dunnit mystery thriller. Chou extensively explores the consequences of yellowface in today’s universities, both for the perpetrators and those fooled by the deception. Ingrid’s archival research turns into a frantic search to discover the “real” identity of this poet, sparking chaos throughout the university. Meanwhile, these events shed new, uncomfortable light on her relationship with her white fiance, Stephen, and her own sense of identity. 

Disorientation by Elaine Hsieh Chou

I must include a disclaimer here: as an East Asian, female PhD student studying Asian American literature (in other words, very similar to Ingrid), I have zero distance from Ingrid’s world. Perhaps that’s why I read this book in one delirious sitting, simultaneously validated and disturbed. As I got into Ingrid’s headspace, I kept on thinking about my own minor feelings, as defined by Cathy Park Hong: emotions like shame, melancholy, and paranoia that result from being a marginalized identity, feelings that are constantly invalidated by white society. Ingrid’s memorable narration expresses the pain of these minor feelings and micro-/macro-aggressions, but is also threaded through with side-splitting humor. Chou doesn’t just skewer the ivory (or, more accurately, pasty-white) tower of academia; she tackles Ingrid’s perspective and “woke” student culture with an equally critical eye. 

I was thrilled to connect with Chou over Zoom, where we talked about being gaslighted by systems of power, satire as control, and the ubiquitousness of Asian fetishes. 

Jaeyeon Yoo: Was there any particular inspiration for Disorientation?

Elaine Hsieh Chou: When I first conceived of the novel, it was going to be a very serious novel set on campus, revolving around a sexual assault case. I was really struck by what happened at Columbia, with the student who carried around a mattress. Then, shortly after I started trying to plan out that version of the novel—do you remember Michael Derrick Hudson? You know, the one who published the bad poem [by pretending to be Chinese American]. That came out and I was so bowled over by what happened. I love Jenny Zhang’s essay on it. I was so disturbed, but I thought it was also hilarious that this man really thought, “Oh, I can benefit from pretending to be Asian.” The yellowface aspect then came in, and it changed the novel. When I started writing, put pen to paper, [I realized,] I think I’m so angry that what’s coming out sounds really snarky. Suddenly, I was writing satire—although my original plan was a very serious, not funny novel. 

JY: Can you talk more about the role of humor in Disorientation, and what you found through the satire form?

I thought it was also hilarious that this man really thought, ‘Oh, I can benefit from pretending to be Asian.’

EHC: Maybe part of it was what I was reading at that time. I had fallen in love with Paul Beatty’s The Sellout. I was so obsessed with it and I had never read anything like it before. I was like, “Oh shit, people are writing literature that doesn’t even really acknowledge white people. That is so cool.” [Then] there is the element of control, because when I write satire, we’re in power. We’re the ones that get to wield the pen. When you’re powerless in real life, it’s this outlet. I don’t have power, outside in the street. Satire is a way to [create] some semblance of control. Also, sometimes it’s just too painful to write head-on. This is a whole other question, but when we write really intense stuff—do we want to read it ourselves? I think this novel would have been too difficult to write if I wrote it “straight” without satire, if it was just straight drama. I needed the humor to mitigate my rage.

JY: You’ve mentioned Paul Beatty; I also saw that you cited your historical facts at the back of the book. What resources and/or other authors helped inform this book? 

EHC: My research process was very informal; I wasn’t planning on putting the notes in the back. But when I started thinking about the novel in 2015, then writing it in 2016, and all the way until the whole publishing process last year—there were so many things I was reading in the news.

Being in the world, hearing these stories, gathering all this information, and then writing it down—because I would read things that were insane, things I couldn’t make up. A lot of times, if you put something satirical in fiction, people will say, “That’s so unbelievable!” I should say, not even satirical—something that jars against what white people assume is “normal,” or in the range of their believability. So, I think [the notes and citations] were for me to safeguard myself, to prove I’m not making this shit up. This is how fucked-up America actually is. You know the magician William Robinson, that magician I mention? I found out about him purely by accident. I had almost finished the book and was working at a bookstore. Someone came in and asked for this book on William Robinson; they started talking to me about it, and I was like, “You’re kidding. This is real?” There was also Jessica Krug, the academic who pretended to be Black. All these things kept happening that I had sort of imagined in the novel, but real life kept trumping. 

JY: To jump off that word choice—trump—you said you wrote a lot of the novel in 2016. Watching the figure of Professor Michael Bartholomew develop, I really saw a lot of Trump’s ascendancy playing out. How did Trump and America’s very obvious unraveling shape this book?

EHC: I’m glad you mentioned that, because I think Michael’s arc was definitely influenced by Trump and of seeing America become more and more illogical, unreasonable. It was like seeing your country gaslight you; where you’re like, “No, I know that one plus one equals two, don’t tell me it doesn’t.” But then on the news everyday, and from the President’s mouth, it’s “no, no, one plus one is five. You’re wrong. Shut up.” We had four years of that, lived through four years of questioning, “Am I insane?” When you think about it, it’s so damaging. I was actually living in France until I moved to New York for my MFA, so I was watching the election from afar. That distance makes it seem even more like a circus show; you feel so powerless and so far away from “my country,” whatever that means. It was a lot of anxiety and fear, and I think it came out in the book.

JY: I was fascinated by this through-line of performativity in Disorientation; not just the main yellowface debacle, but even in smaller instances like [an author] pretending to write “autofiction” and Ingrid reflecting on her childhood as a 24/7 assimilation performance. I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on the performance of identity. 

People are often unperceivable, and we just understand them through our specific lens.

EHC: Thank you for pulling those threads together. I didn’t consciously plan until much later, when I’d finished making revisions. Stepping back, I had the distance to realize, “Why does everyone turn out to be someone [else]? That’s interesting.” It’s always interesting to explore this idea that people aren’t who you think they are. People are often unperceivable, and we just understand them through our specific lens. Going back to around 2015, we had this surge of these conversations that were about who you can be, who has the right to “you.” Another figure that fascinated me [in addition to Michael Derrick Hudson] was Rachel Dolezal, who no longer goes by that name. She has never, to this day, admitted her farce in any interview. All around the country, we were just starting to have these conversations about identity. Cultural appropriation seemed like a new term that we were thinking about, which really obsessed me and permeated the writing in a lot of ways. 

JY: Your point here about new terminology makes me think about Ingrid; she needs to not only reflect, but also learn a new way of speaking in order to understand herself. Do you have thoughts on the link between identity and language?

EHC: For me, when I look at the writing of Angela Davis, Audre Lorde—they knew a long time ago: dismantling the master’s house, you know? They knew. But all I can speak to is for me, and only for me; I was not reading Audre Lorde or Angela Davis. I didn’t know about their books or what was in them until 2014. In my circle, people started having these conversations because of the murders of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. I was in Paris with other American friends, and we were all outraged at what was happening. I was helping organize protests, becoming a part of that world, and meeting different activists. I had to learn. I had to catch up. I think the reason [political language] ended up being such a big part of the book is that it was so fascinating, around 2014 up until now, how we are collectively talking about race and identity and gender. It felt like a shift, and that we did have a lot of new words. I do want to acknowledge that the Black, queer community have been saying these messages for a while, since the ’60s and before. But yeah, America went through—is still going through—a lot of shit, and we had to find that language. 

JY: From what you’ve said, this has always been a campus novel from the beginning. I was curious: why the campus novel? Why an elite, higher education setting?

EHC: I guess part of it was that [academia] was comfortable for me at that point; it was a world I kind of knew. I did two and a half years of a PhD, then I quit the program around the time I started writing. The truth is, I don’t know American academia; my PhD was in France, even though it was on English literature. But there was still the comfort of writing about that world—of leaving it and maybe [this being] a way for me to reclaim what I went through. I wonder if you also feel this, since you’re going through it right now—sometimes academia feels like a microcosm. It’s this sometimes absurd distillation of what is happening in the real world. I feel like in the past few years, we have seen these news stories that are examples of that; there’s a university that created a safe space for white people! It’s like the sanctuary in the novel, which I think comes off as insane. So academia tends to just show us these things that are happening in larger society, often in a very concentrated, ridiculous way.

JY: I really relate to that. I’ve started keeping notes because it’s like, no one would believe me that this still happens. 

EHC: Yeah, exactly. We have to keep notes because people are constantly telling us either something isn’t believable, or we’re overreacting, or it was a one time thing, and so on. We need to keep notes, simply to prove my lived reality is not fake. Don’t tell me it’s not real. 

JY: Were you studying similar topics to Ingrid at all, in your PhD program? 

EHC: No, not at all. I was doing modernist lit from 1910-1930s American and British women writers. And they were all white. People like Gertrude Stein, Djuna Barnes—who I still really love a lot. Part of when I started disassociating from academia is when I had these moments, “Why am I researching all these dead white women?” I remember reading a racist slur in one of Virgina Woolf’s diary entries, and feeling shocked. But then it was a moment of wait: why do I feel shocked? No matter how much we think she reached beyond her time and, yes, she’s an incredible writer, she was still a white woman. She wore brownface, there’s a photo of her in it, and she is a product of that time. There was this emotional logic of how Virginia Woolf and these other white women would treat me, if I were alive in that same time period. And here I was, literally losing my youth in a basement while reading their diaries! Archival research is basically digging through people’s trash, reading intimate love letters and things like that. It is an act of love, to devote yourself that way. I started feeling, “Is there love coming back?! They’re all dead, they’ve been dead for so long, and I don’t even know what they would call me if they saw me!” That was definitely a moment where I pulled back and asked myself, “What am I doing?”

JY: Speaking of university structures, I was struck by how you addressed the idea of “pigeonholing” in academia, where people of marginalized identities are sometimes expected to research those very identities/communities and then educate the dominant culture (i.e. cis white men). It’s a double bind—for example, people often expect me to study Korean or postcolonial literature, but then also dismiss me for “only” limiting myself to my identity. I wondered, is this similarly applicable within the world of fiction-writing? 

EHC: This is a conversation we’ve been having for a while. In my MFA program, this came up a lot. Well, here’s a story. I don’t have answers, I only have my own weird little things that happened to me. 

Part of when I started disassociating from academia is when I had these moments, ‘Why am I researching all these dead white women?’

When I was in undergrad, that’s when I took my first creative writing classes. I ended up loving it a lot. What’s funny now is that I wrote several short stories in these different classes and, without fail, all my characters were white. This was the early-mid 2000s, and I don’t think it was seen as odd. Today, maybe, I might get a little more side-eye for that. At the same time, today there’s this idea that we shouldn’t be expected or pigeonholed into writing anything. We can write whatever we want. But in this one class, I wrote this story about these two white boys in North Dakota, who work on this wheat farm. I’m convinced I was writing shit like that because we were constantly reading Raymond Carver. So I would write these poor white characters because I guess I thought that was great literature, and I needed to do that? I wrote this story, and the professor loved it. She fucking loved it. I remember after class, this white boy came up to me and was like, “How did you think of that?” And in my memory, I keep trying to figure out, am I adding the emphasis on “you”? I remember feeling a little defensive, [of thinking] why not? I do find it funny that this white student bristled, as if he was like, “this is my territory, I write about the wheat farm!” Honestly, though, I think I did have things I needed to work through—for me, specifically, about why I had literally zero Asian characters. 

JY: I’d love to hear more about Stephen’s character and what that relationship means for the novel. The whole gaslighting white boyfriend was so painfully accurate for me—I mean, I’ve been with a Stephen. So many of us have all been there, at one point or another. 

EHC: That was a huge motivation to write about this relationship between a fetishizing white man and an Asian woman. It’s something that has affected me and also a ton of my Asian friends, of all genders and orientations. It seems such a big part of our experience. But I guess I hadn’t read something that delved super deeply into it, where it was really one of the central storylines. So I wanted to see it [in literature] and also I probably needed to work through it by writing about it. [The writing process] was so cringy. I just wanted to hurt Steven, even though he comes off in the end as pretty awful and irredeemable and everything. But it was really difficult to reel it in at times. At the end of the day, he does stand for a type of man. And in that way, I kept questioning, “why do I have to humanize him?” Because in my head, he does stand for this archetype that a lot of us know. He’s literally next-door ubiquitous. He’s your neighbor. He’s your boss. He’s your everywhere. I did want to make [Ingrid’s breakup with Stephen] hard because I think in truth, it is hard. The harder question to ask is if they actually did love each other. Ingrid just can’t get over not knowing for certain, even if he says he does love her—the doubt is there. I think that is a hard question that lots of people have to grapple with. Or maybe it’s too hard to grapple with, so we just don’t.

JY: Is there something you hope readers come away with? 

EHC: I think lots of novels have explored this, but I really wanted to show an Ingrid-specific experience of being in a “harmless,” small East Asian body and how people treat her. People assume she’s docile, that she can be walked over. What it feels like to be in that body and mind. That’s something I wanted to see back, for myself.

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