Sure, Charles Yu won the National Book Award, in 2020, for Interior Chinatown. Some of us, though, trace our fandom much further back than that. His 2010 How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, for example, is an utterly fascinating exercise in sending characters (and readers, after them) down predictable paths, deploying known narrative conventions—only to double back, revealing the ways our own minds lead us into unwarranted assumptions. Yu is a master anatomizer of the self-deceptive infilling we all do every day to make our own worlds seem predictable or safe, when they’re anything but. Yu’s other work includes two books of short stories (Third Class Hero, published in 2006, and Sorry Please Thank You, published in 2012), as well as writing credits on several episodes of Westworld.
His principal interlocutor in this wonderful conversation (I was a wobbly third wheel) is his longtime friend Chris Fan, who is not only assistant professor at UC Irvine in English, Asian American studies, and East Asian studies, but also senior editor at Hyphen magazine, which he cofounded. You can hear a longer version of this conversation on Novel Dialogue, a podcast that has partnered with Public Books since spring 2022. Caryl Phillips, Ruth Ozeki, and Chang-rae Lee are recent guests.
Christopher T. Fan (CF): I asked you to choose a passage from one of your novels to kick things off. So, would you mind reading for us?
Charles Yu (CY): Sure. This is from How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe:
The earliest memory I have of my own dad is the two of us, sitting on my bed as he reads me a book we have checked out from the local library. I am three. I don’t remember what the story is, or even the title of the book. I don’t remember what he’s wearing, or if my room’s messy. What I do remember is the way I fit between his right arm and his body, and the way his neck and the underside of his chin look in the soft yellow light of my lamp, which has a cloth lamp shade, light blue, covered by an alternating pattern of robots and spaceships.
This is what I remember: (i) the little pocket of space he creates for me, (ii) how it is enough, (iii) the sound of his voice, (iv) the way those spaceships look, shot through from behind with light, so that every stitch in the fabric of the surface is a hole and a source, a point and an absence, a coordinate in the ship’s celestial navigation, (v) how the bed feels like a little spaceship itself.
People rent time machines.
They think they can change the past.
Then they get there and find out causality doesn’t work the way they thought it did. They get stuck, stuck in places they didn’t mean to go, in places they did mean to go, in places they shouldn’t have tried to go. They get into trouble. Logical, metaphysical, etc.
That’s where I come in. I go and get them out.
I tell people: I have a job and I have job security.
I have a job because I know how to fix the cooling module on the quantum decoherence engine of the TM-31. That’s the reason I have a job.
But the reason I have job security is that people have no idea how to make themselves happy. Even with a time machine. I have job security because what the customer wants, when you get right down to it, is to relive his very worst moment, over and over and over again. Willing to pay a lot of money to do it, too.
I’ll stop there. I’m really interested in these small moments—often between family members—that stand out in our lives. Moments that get frozen or preserved.
CF: That reminds me of one of your short stories from Third Class Superhero, “Realism,” about a mother-son relationship. One of the things the mom is constantly after is feeling “small feelings.” I always thought that phrase was really apt and crystallized an essential aspect of your work.
I wonder if you could talk about how science fiction helps you to get at these small moments.
CY: On a practical level, in terms of the writing, if I had tried to write without a science fiction lens, I don’t know that I would have ever gotten there at all! The lens makes it fun, and because I’m having fun, that takes the pressure off the direct emotional experience of father and son. With the lens, you can time travel. You can access what it’s like to be a kid in that moment. The otherworldly feelings. Your bed feels bigger, your dad seems huge.
When I remember moments like that from my own childhood, they do have this not-quite-real quality to them, divorced from space and time. It’s a reason why science fiction matters so much to me: I’m trying to dislocate our sense of the normal. I can’t get there unless I have science fiction as the way in.
John Plotz (JP): Are there writers from the past that you pull on? I ask because I’d love to hear you say more about that idea that science fiction gives you the armature, or the traction, for your kind of exploring.
CY: I have dim memories of taking a class on the modern novel at Berkeley with Professor Charles Altieri, and I was out of my depth. We read Henry James, we read Virginia Woolf and Faulkner. And, not for any class, but I also read Kurt Vonnegut for the first time while at Berkeley.
JP: I was gonna ask you about him, actually!
CY: Somewhere in there, I retroactively realized, Oh, I can access meaning like Vonnegut. It struck me that what I thought of as default (Well, that’s just how our minds work) had been discovered and, in a way, created by novelists.
CF: In a later chapter of How to Live Safely, there’s another father-son scene, where the father is trying to impart knowledge to the young protagonist. He’s opening a pack of graph paper, peeling off the cellophane—it’s very tactile. He says, “Choose a world, any world,” as he opens up this graph paper and presents it to his son. Can you say more about that sense of optimism? How graph paper leads to a world?
CY: In my dad’s office, he had these thick pads of graph paper with this very pleasing feel. They were pretty squishy because the paper was thick, and they had these very light green lines. It wasn’t perforation, it was like they were wax. You just tore a page off, and there was a sound that the pad would make as you tore off a nice sheet. I usually wouldn’t tear off the page I was working on, because you’d want the feeling of all the sheets underneath the top one. I was just playing with the idea.
No matter what else is going on, no matter if you’re an immigrant making your life in a foreign country, or if you’ve got all this work pressure and money pressure, or you’re trying to refinance the house because you’re maxed out on all your credit cards—whatever is going on in your life at that moment, you think, OK, we have math, we have a universe. I draw the X axis, I draw the Y. We’re in the Cartesian plane—here we are. To be able to go to that plane, anytime, just like that.
I remember looking, in my father’s study, at all the graduate math books he had, and I didn’t even understand what the titles meant. And those books were mixed with his other books—about self-actualization, how to make friends and influence people. It was all mixed together, swirled up for me with his office, this space where my sad and serious dad did his sad and serious thinking: here’s where I’m going to figure it out, get the promotion, make the nest egg, make good for our family.
CF: I wonder if you could talk about how you came to writing, why you wanted to be a writer? I understand you went to law school. You got your JD. You practiced law, but you were writing on the side.
CY: I wanted to write from undergrad on. I minored in creative writing at Berkeley, I was taking poetry workshops. But for various reasons—many of them related to parental pressures or my internalization of those pressures—I felt it wouldn’t be a good path to pursue in any serious way. So, once I graduated from undergrad, I didn’t think about writing again until after I had graduated from law school. I was starting work in a pressurized environment and also, finally, saying, Well, now I’m going to need some outlet. If I don’t carve out a little bit of space for myself, this could swallow me up. I could really forget what I’m doing and lose my way.
So, I started to jot down ideas. Eventually this resulted in getting my first collection of stories published as a book, which was really unexpected.
CF: It’s interesting to hear you talk about how you really became a writer of fiction when you were working as a lawyer. It resonates with the characters in your work who are always living double lives. Like the title to one of your short stories: “The Man Who Became Himself.”
Is that something that you felt as a lawyer? Did you feel like you were living a double life? When you were writing fiction, did you feel like you were becoming yourself in a salutary way? Or was it an escape from what you were doing during the day? Why was it during your time as a lawyer that you started writing?
CY: I was 25 when I started at the firm, and I had started to feel more self-conscious about my race. I had grown up in Southern California and gone to Berkeley—environments where there are a lot of people of Asian descent, so I didn’t give a lot of thought to it. But in New York it was quite different. In law school, there was a smaller population of Asian Americans, percentage wise. And then when I got to the firm, the population was even smaller. There were no Asian American partners that I knew of. I felt a little bit like, Well, do I belong here?
That self-consciousness got channeled into the fiction. A lot of my stories, at least at the beginning, were about work or about doing a weird job.
CF: Yes, and it seems like a lot of your characters are workers or versions of office workers. How much of that office life has stuck with you, even in Interior Chinatown? All the characters in that book are actors, but they’re working actors. Is Interior Chinatown an office novel?
CY: Yes, that’s a really perceptive way to look at it. In a weird way, it is an office novel—where the job is either being Asian, being someone’s idea of Asian, or being yourself, even with your family.
JP: One of the things I really love about your writing is that your characters are aware of being trapped in a genre. How much do you think about your writing as enabled by these constraints of genre? I mean, in the same way your characters are confined by their generic roles, but also enabled by them.
CY: Yes, enabled is a good word for it. I’m paralyzed by infinite degrees of freedom. When you start out with constraints, it can, paradoxically, be freeing. And the other thing—besides just the process—that using these constraints does for me is that you get to import all the furniture, all the armature, all the good stuff from tropes.
CF: I wanted to ask a question about Interior Chinatown. There’s a scene when the three main characters—Willis Wu and his parents, Dorothy and Ming-Chen—step out of their framework, out of the armature of stereotype. Up until this point, Dorothy and Ming-Chen are called Young Asian Woman and Asian Waiter. But in this scene, Ming-Chen whispers to Dorothy, “It’s just us now.” And from then on, they’re not referred to by those generic names. They’re referred to by their proper names, by their actual names. Someone says, “It’s just us now,” and it’s more than enough.
I was wondering, is there something about enoughness that has stuck with you through your work?
CY: I love that question. These characters are immigrants and they are coming from a place of struggle, be it economic struggle or the struggle to be accepted. At the beginning they have a very strong sense they can improve their station. But, somewhere along the way, that gets conflated with a desire to make money. That’s when whatever they achieve becomes never enough, because making money is not actually a goal that’s going to satisfy them.
JP: You guys are passing this concept of the enabling stereotype back and forth. It reminds me of the Du Bois notion of living behind the veil, or of possessing “second sight”—knowing that other people look at you and see some narrow role they put you into, like a racial type. That’s what they see you as, but you’re something else. But you also know that how they’re seeing you constructs you that way, at the same time. Du Bois’s point is that this awareness is actually a second sight: horrible, but powerful as well. Because you can see the gap between the role people assign to you versus the role you assign yourself, from inside.
CF: Yes, yes, absolutely. That work of double consciousness: it’s work! It’s exhausting. Interior Chinatown conveys a sense of the work of inhabiting a role—even a role that might be part of the expression of love. Like, taking on the role of a dad, or of a mother, or a husband. Doing the work to wrench yourself into a role that isn’t quite yourself but is yourself. To really put in the labor to become what the other person needs, or what you think the other person needs. Does that sound like part of what you’re trying to get at, Charlie?
CY: Yes, definitely. That’s underlying the psychology of the parents in my work. They never would have been completely happy in any version of reality, probably. Of course, they had moments or even periods of happiness—they just never would have felt like they had reached their end point. When is it going to be enough? Where do we find enough? I am speculating here, but I think maybe they also had and have a very different conception of a meaningful life—moment-to-moment happiness or even longer-term happiness aren’t necessarily prerequisites for fulfillment.