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Elaine Hsieh Chou’s debut novel, “Disorientation,” is a dual account of discovery. The story follows Ingrid Yang, a 29-year-old Taiwanese Ph.D. student who suddenly discovers that the renowned poet and subject of her dissertation, Xiao-Wen Chou, is actually a white man wearing yellowface. This premise is loosely based on a real-life 2015 controversy, when Michael Derrick Hudson published a poem in the ”Best American Poetry” anthology under a Chinese pseudonym. For Ingrid, this revelation is a rupture that unravels her relationships with her loved ones, her university, and most importantly, herself. 

Central to the novel is the use of satire. A common misconception about the genre is that the plot and predicament are farfetched and overdramatized, eliciting disbelief. But Chou’s use of satire subverts the boundary between the real and exaggerated by weaving together bits of the news, readings, and book excerpts derived from her own life. “My goal was to point to things that already exist,” she remarks. “Through satire, you create this opening for people to look more closely at what is already there that they may have ignored before.”

Readers of “Disorientation” may alternate between feeling amused, disgusted, and irritated throughout Ingrid’s scenes of anguish. As Ingrid wrestles with the truth of Xiao-Wen’s identity, the trajectory of her doctoral degree, and the disintegration of her long-term relationship, readers experience conflicting emotions that shrink the distance between their suspension in a fictional university campus and their own lived realities. Chou cautions, “If something’s written straight, they may not see how that event is important or relevant. But if it’s amped, you add this discrepancy between laughing at something and realizing it’s f—ed up.” 

Chou wrote the bulk of the novel in 2016, citing Donald Trump and his ascent to power as the inspiration behind Ingrid’s academic advisor, Michael Bartholomew, a charismatic and cult-worthy professor who becomes a manipulative, bigoted, and unreasonable leader. “I didn’t actively decide that I would find a plot point for these ideas,” Chou clarifies. “Living through these moments and talking with my friends, these experiences manifested themselves in my writing as a way to figure out what was happening around me and gain some control over it.” 

Writing her political and social qualms into the world of her novel using humor and satire made Chou’s writing practice a freeing one. She recalls, “Humor was a way to face the page by looking forward to writing, and wanting to sort of mitigate triggering experiences. It wasn’t as painful through satire, and I could mock people who could otherwise hurt me, even though they have power over me in the real world.” 

When Chou conceived of her Asian American characters, she “needed to allow them to be as messy as people are in real life.” As a result, anger is a vital emotion in her characters, and they often act out anger in the form of self-hatred, envy, and disgust. “If we approach writing Asian American representation as needing to be perfect, it’s not truthful,” Chou emphasizes. In the aftermath of their rage, the Asian American characters — Ingrid, Eunice, Vivian, and Alex — gain the confidence to articulate counter-narratives to the racial stereotypes they are subject to. The crux of Ingrid’s character arc rests on her exploration of what “coming into consciousness” means for an Asian American woman. As Ingrid learns the grammar and vocabulary to verbalize her place in academia, the more conscious she is about how race and gender play out in her day-to-day life. After organizing with marginalized groups after the murder of Michael Brown in 2014, Chou believes in developing “new language to help articulate things that could otherwise feel invented or imaginary or an overreaction.” 

This concept is exemplified by how Ingrid navigates her relationship with her white fiancé, Stephen. Learning about white supremacy, emotional abuse, and cultural appropriation prompts Ingrid to demand better treatment for herself in general, but especially from her partner — even though she does not initially identify Stephen’s behavior towards her as abuse. “Having the words isn’t just a way for us to communicate an idea; it validates the idea itself and makes it real,” Chou explains. 

When asked what motivated her to write “Disorientation,” Chou says she didn’t write it to “convince” an audience. She wrote it so she could regain control: “What has angered me is that so many of our lives — Asian American lives — are dictated by narratives that none of us created, yet our lives are dominated by them. When I turned to fiction, I could form the narrative.”

Cover credit: Penguin Press

Author

  • Carolyn E. Lau is a Chinese American born and raised in New York City. They are a graduate student at Columbia University studying Asian American studies and urban politics.

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