Cover of book: Disorientation

Elaine Hsieh Chou

Lately there’s been a real dearth of Mickey Rooney types in yellowface. No Long Duk Dongs appearing to the crash of a gong. A paucity of journalists donning blackface for “investigative journalism” à la John Howard Griffin. Of course, for every Mr Yunioshi lost, there is a Lionel Shriver on stage in a sombrero, or a Michael Derrick Hudson employing a Chinese nom de plume as a “strategy” to publish his mediocre poetry.

With recent releases such as Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò’s Elite Capture (2022), the politics of identity have unarguably captured public attention. Even Francis Fukuyama tired of The End of History and published a book titled Identity (2018). At literary events, attendees make a beeline for the microphone to ask versions of the same question – I’m a white writer and I’d like to write a non-white character… – their grating entitlement meeting a fear of accidentally writing racial stereotype. Or, worse: facing the sheer terror of being called a racist. A question that’s rarely asked: what might it mean for a non-white writer to dive into racial stereotype, plummeting into the deep? What if one were to depict cliché in order to explode it, to aim for obliteration or some kind of understanding, to inhabit the Self as the Other? In Elaine Hsieh Chou’s debut novel Disorientation, she takes the campus novel into these depths, writing a page-turning, thrilling satire of American academia, tangled in literary mystery.

Graduate student Ingrid Yang is miserable. Struggling to write her dissertation on Xiao-Wen Chou, the “so-called Chinese Robert Frost” of American letters, she spends her time avoiding her charismatic PhD supervisor; sparring with her “nemesis” Vivian Vo, the outspoken “darling of Postcolonial Studies”; and finding comfort in her fiancé, Stephen, a Japanophile who is “not exceptional save for the fact he was exceptionally unexceptional”. Though Ingrid believes that “writing a dissertation was its own level in hell”, campus life is mostly uneventful, until she makes a startling research discovery in the archives.

Disorientation traces the complicated impact of this discovery on Ingrid’s relationships and her sense of self. The initially insipid Ingrid blossoms in a complex coming-to-consciousness as she discovers racial power dynamics and incommensurable concepts of identity. Chou skewers Sinophobes and Sinophiles alike with wit as sharp as a samurai sword mounted on a white guy’s bedroom wall. The writing is almost intolerably funny: intolerable only because the wellspring of Disorientation’s satire is our racist reality. As Ocean Vuong writes: “I know. It’s not fair that the word laughter is trapped inside slaughter.” Elaine Hsieh Chou is out for blood.

Picador, 416pp, $34.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 9, 2022 as "Disorientation, Elaine Hsieh Chou".

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