“Our Lives Are at Stake”: Elaine Hsieh Chou on the Necessity of Asian American Writers

“Somehow, we are so present, and yet not even there. That surreal juxtaposition really pissed me off and fascinated me.”

A Native American anthropologist. Two rising stars in African diasporic history—one Chicana, one Black. A chapter president in the NAACP. In the past few years, we’ve seen a troupe of academics and activists unmasked as bad-faith actors. Using props like hair dye, Twitter sock puppets, and manufactured ancestors, these white pretenders have pulled off long-running masquerades as people of color.

This sort of racefakery takes center stage in debut author Elaine Hsieh Chou’s satirical novel, Disorientation. Chou—a former PhD student who left her program to pursue fiction writing—draws on the Rachel Dolezals of recent memory, remixing them with older forms of racial fraud. Her inspirations include Hollywood’s long history of yellowface and the farcical case of Michael Derrick Hudson, the white poet who snagged a Best American Poetry appearance under the misleading pen name of Yi-Fen Chou.

Disorientation opens with its protagonist, Ingrid Yang, trudging her way through a dissertation on Xiao-Wen Chou, a poet whose formally staid, phoenix-heavy oeuvre earned him a reputation as the “Chinese Robert Frost.” But then Xiao-Wen turns out to be a fraud, carried off by decades of yellow stage makeup and eyelid tape. With this discovery, Ingrid’s work is suddenly thrown off course. Now, just add in the smothering expectations of the white men in her life: her advisor, Michael—a stereotypical, old-fashioned Orientalist—and her Japanese-translator fiancé, Stephen. It’s clear that the last year of Ingrid’s PhD has gone from slog to fiasco.

In May, Chou and I chatted over Zoom about yellowface, the impossibility of objectivity, and national defense as the shared sustainer of literary fiction and area studies in the US.

Lucia Tang (LT): One reason I was excited to chat with you is because I am such a big fan of Disorientation. I basically am the protagonist, Ingrid! I spent eight years in a Chinese PhD program before dropping out.


Elaine Hsieh Chou (EHC): Oh my God, were you surrounded by Michaels?


LT: Before I read the novel, if someone had described the characters to me, I would have maybe said that I was myself a Michael in training—a sort of budding traditional Chinese philologist.  Or even a Stephen, interested in a culture that isn’t truly “mine.” I grew up in Texas; a white Dutchman taught me classical Chinese; I gallivanted around Asia on the dime of various majority-white academic institutions. So, it felt to me, as a student, like I was almost engaged in a project of self-fetishism.


EHC: That is so interesting. My friends and I were recently talking about that in the context of people who are mixed but white passing. In an effort to try to prove their Asianness, they sometimes go overboard and reduce their culture down to Hello Kitty or other surface signifiers. And then suddenly they realize, Wait, this feels fetishizing.


LT: In the book there are so many characters who are canny about that sort of performing to the white men. Also, I read on Twitter that the Stephen character, a translator, was drawn from a real story about the translation of The Vegetarian.


EHC: I’m glad someone asked about this because I was hesitant to talk about it. Deborah Smith is so adored in the literary community. She’s won all these prizes, right? I thought, I can’t call her out, but we need to talk about this. Because it speaks volumes that a white translator would feel entitled to a foreign language they cannot speak, mistranslate so much, and still win awards for it.

That’s why I wanted to explore this in Stephen’s character. He is not unique. I mean, white writers translating languages that are not theirs, imposing their own agenda and preconceptions on the text …


LT: It’s been a problem since the days of Ezra Pound! He “translated” premodern Chinese texts like The Analects with no knowledge of classical Chinese, by using other people’s translations and notes. Completely irresponsible.


EHC: I agree. Only in the past couple of years have I seen nonwhite translators bring up in public discussions how the identity of the translator is important. Before this moment, it was too taboo to talk about.


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LT: Definitely. There is a sense that there is no artistry in marginalized people translating works from languages that they have some cultural attachment to, that there’s no intellect behind that process of translation. Which is just so racist.


EHC: For me, I trust that translation more. This isn’t about peacocking your intellect, your knowledge of “the other.” There are stakes. There is commitment.


LT: That’s one of the things I thought was so well done—also icky, but in an effective way—about the Stephen character in Disorientation. You drew the link between his extractive translational practice and his fetishistic, extractive relationships with Asian women.


EHC: Right. He is a leech. He is devoid of any personality. He makes all these other people, all these other cultures, his personality. My friend who is currently studying for a PhD in Japanese studies told me, So many people have just decided that Japan is their entire personality. It’s very disturbing.


LT: On social media, there are a lot of people using anime or K-pop avatars. They even have Asian usernames. Then it turns out that they’re white. To me, even after encountering case after case, it is always startling. I instinctually perceive that person to be a fellow Asian American until I am disabused of that notion.

Speaking of which, I want to hear about the yellowface plot that you wove into Disorientation. What were you thinking when you crafted that?


EHC: I’m so excited to talk about this. What was going on in my head was partly all the real-life incidents that were occurring around me. There was the case of Michael Derrick Hudson, who pretended to be Yi-Fen Chou on paper. I got obsessed with this idea: What if someone took up this whole persona not just on the page, but in real life? But instead of outing himself, he became so famous, he felt that he had to keep it up? Around that same time, Rachel Dolezal was outed for publicly existing in blackface. During this time, I was also watching old clips from movies where white actors were in yellowface. So many actors have worn yellowface and won Oscars!


LT: We talk about it being a relic of the past, but Cloud Atlas—there was yellowface in that, and it wasn’t that long ago.


EHC: Exactly. I don’t know what they used—tape? Or glue?—but they did something to yank the actors’ eyes up, and it is awful and disturbing to look at. There’s also the problem of white actors stealing roles that should have been for us, that could have been career-breakout roles, that were instead given to Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, Emma Stone. And yellowface, to me, more generally, embodies this idea that I don’t matter. Pretending to be us, making a mockery of our existence, turning it into puppetry. It feels like an erasure of us as real people. And it has been done to such a high degree that we begin to wonder … do they see us as real? As equal?


LT: Right.


EHC: So much of American culture is based on making fun of our accents, making fun of our food. Somehow, we are so present, and yet not even there. That surreal juxtaposition really pissed me off and fascinated me. We are not even given the dignity of: We ignore you, we leave you alone. No, you are obsessed with us. You constantly mock us, pretend to be us, and at the same time, we don’t even exist to you—a phenomenon Jenny Zhang has written about.


LT: What your analysis of yellowface really reminds me of is the trope of the serial killer who kills his victim and then wears their face. It’s a hollowing out of Asian identity.


EHC: Oh yes, that is such a great example. Yellowface just feels symbolic of what it means to be Asian American.


LT: Academia is really such a perfect setting for a yellowface plot line. Right before the novel came out, there was story after story about academics engaging in racefakery.

EHC: Jessica Krug, Andrea Smith, Kelly Kean Sharp—the fact that there are so many, and probably more in hiding we don’t know about, speaks to an anxiety that it is not enough to go into a room and claim to be an expert on, say, Chinese studies. Instead, there’s a sense that I have to pretend to be Chinese.

In the book, when Ingrid is around her white colleagues, fellow PhD candidates, they get very defensive if she brings up her family. They realize that is the one thing they will never have, no matter how much they study. I’ve heard this happens with journalism, too. Say there is a war in China: the assigned reporter would specifically not be Chinese because the theory went that a reporter with ties to the subject couldn’t be objective. That’s heartbreaking to me.


LT: Yes.


EHC: We who have an actual connection and actual stakes are seen as somehow less trustworthy or reliable, when the opposite is true.


LT: That really resonates with me. There were definitely times when being engaged in the field of academic sinology made me feel, at an extreme, complicit in the fetishization of other Asian women. Because it’s a project of categorization, a project of making pronouncements about what a culture is. I want to be responsible. I want to be intellectually honest.


EHC: Yes, but see, that’s exactly what I mean by stakes. It means something to you because there are consequences. Your lived experience and the experiences, presumably, of people you love and care about are directly impacted by your work. Compare this to that horrible Harvard professor who wrote an academic article claiming “comfort women” in Korea aren’t real.


LT: Oh my God. This is within living memory. There are people—


EHC: Yes, they are still alive. He can sit at his little desk, merrily typing away damaging, harmful lies because guess what? He closes his computer, walks out into the world, and is his life different? No. But, for us, writing such harmful bullshit would never cross our minds because we’ll bear the consequences.

It’s not a fun thought experiment; our lives are at stake.

LT: Why set the story in an East Asian studies department and not, say, an English department?


EHC: I needed it to be a department where Orientalism and chinoiserie are allowed to run rampant. I imagined Ingrid was more likely to be confronted by grotesque appropriation in an East Asian studies department, specifically at a university where there is no Asian American studies department.

With Rachel Dolezal and Jessica Krug, what we saw in the end were a lot of dead giveaways about their true identities. All the stories came pouring out: I always felt uncomfortable around her, and she would say really strange things that didn’t make sense. It’s because it’s always a performance, you’re always reducing a culture that isn’t your own to a set of tropes or ideas or images. So, of course, you are going to be caught—not just through your physical appearance or the lies that you tell, but in what you actually believe about this culture.


LT: Yes, there is a sense throughout the book that the white people are constantly performing, but their performance doesn’t work unless they are able to coopt people like Ingrid into performing with them. They are using her as a scene partner or an extra or even a prop in their own performance of heroism and expertise.


EHC: Exactly, yes. They constantly need to have their goodness reflected back to them. To continue believing and propagating the lie that whiteness is something we should all aspire to.

LT: Let’s talk about your transition from being an academic and writing articles to writing fiction. What was your MFA program like?


EHC: An MFA workshop is a forum where we expose our true beliefs about the world. In those spaces, writing is often debated as if it’s apolitical, and people feel free to say the most offensive things under the guise of craft. As an example: I know someone who wrote a short story about a feisty, foul-mouthed Asian woman. And a white man in her workshop said, “This is completely unbelievable because I’ve never met an Asian woman like this in my life.”


LT: Oh my God.


EHC: No kidding. Asian women are quiet. This story doesn’t work because it doesn’t fit with my image of the world. It probably made him deeply uncomfortable, too, because he doesn’t want to see an Asian woman have power or agency.

Whether we are writing about mermaids or spaceships, at the end of the day, all of us are writing about human life. I find it very annoying that writing programs weirdly pride themselves on being colorblind or “above” politics. Instead, we should pride ourselves on grappling with how fiction impacts real life and lived experience.


LT: I’m by no means an expert in this, but I’ve read that the form of the workshop as it exists today is enmeshed in the history of defense in the United States.


EHC: Yes, the CIA founded the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.


LT: And that so closely parallels a lot of East Asian studies departments as incubators for intelligence operatives and national security personnel. Folks who had this agonistic, state-level relationship with East Asian countries.

EHC: Right. Wasn’t East Asian studies founded to combat a fear of communism? To “better understand” the enemy? God, it’s so depressing to think that so many of these departments were not created as a celebration of diversity, like they claimed.


LT: Also, in workshop, it’s assumed that taste and aesthetic standards are universal, right? But they’re not. They’re rooted in a white, Western literary tradition that has a very specific genealogy. Nothing about this is inevitable, this is not how you have to tell stories.


EHC: The traditional writing workshop is based on such a narrow definition of what constitutes great writing. Fortunately, a lot more teachers and writers these days are very vocal about how different forms of storytelling are just as valid—like, how non-Western forms of storytelling are discursive and …


LT: The complaint is that there’s no plot, or whatever.


EHC: Yes, there is no three-act structure. And it doesn’t lead up to a climactic juncture. All that is based around Eurocentric storytelling, dating back to the Ancient Greeks. When, actually, there are all kinds of storytelling. And we just privilege one kind over the rest. icon

Featured image: Elaine Hsieh Chou. Photograph courtesy of Elaine Hsieh Chou.