Label Me This: Review of “Interior Chinatown”

Label Me This: Interior Chinatown tackles stereotypes, racial typecasting, & what it means to be American

Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu
Pantheon Books, January 2020 | $25.95 | 4 stars
Review by Kelsey May

Compelling, bold, and cleverly written, Charles Yu’s Interior Chinatown reads as a novelized television show script. The plot? Willis Wu’s life as an actor being offered parts as “Generic Asian Man” in the same old Golden Palace restaurant. His dream of becoming Hollywood’s go-to “Kung Fu Guy.” His life in the Chinatown SRO. His complicated relationships with his parents and neighbors and the dreams his parents had before they found out what America really had in store for folks who looked like them:

“[His mother had] once dreamed of being more. When she first started out, as Young Asian Woman. She imagined a life for herself, full of romance, glamour. One of the few American stories that had made its way to the silver screen of Taipei in the ‘50s, an afternoon at the cinema with her father and nine sisters and brothers, sharing one Coke. Being the eighth of ten, she might get one good sip before it got taken back by siblings further up the chain, but that one sip was enough to savor, sitting up on her heels to get a better view, holding her father’s hand, and watching the perfect faces, Grace Kelly, Kim Novak, Natalie Wood, their luminous whiteness shimmering in the cool, darkened theater.”

Then he falls in love with Karen, another actress on set, and things start to change. They both have dreams of stardom, but hers are more attainable. Her ambiguous ethnicity makes her more castable, and she rises through the ranks quicker than Willis. When she gets pregnant, Willis must make some tough decisions: what kind of life does he want to give his child? Is a room in the Chinatown SRO gonna cut it? What’s more important: his dream career as Kung Fu Guy or his family?

Interior Chinatown is action-packed, dialogue-heavy, and above all, honest about how Asian Americans are treated as other and how, all too often, Asian Americans (in showbiz and elsewhere) internalize this otherness and toe the line between reinforcing the stereotype or rejecting the outdated, racially-problematic “one-size-fits-all” identities. Interior Chinatown stands out for its unique genre-bending style and stuck with me long after reading for its cultural relevance, set of characters, and satisfying, powerful ending. (Yu literally puts racism and the American Dream on trial. Brilliant!) Four stars and a wholehearted recommendation to voracious and curious readers and progressive thinkers everywhere.

Interior Chinatown (Pantheon Books) is available for $26 in hardcover from your local independent bookstore or from your local library for free.

Thank you to the publishers at Pantheon for the review copy!

P.S. My grandma made that coaster in the photo. <3


Couldn’t put it down: “Nirvana is Here”

I requested a review copy of Nirvana is Here by Aaron Hamburger (Three Rooms Press, 2019) and was thrilled when it arrived in my mailbox. The cover art is brilliant and loudly colorful, and it is among the first queer novels I’ve read. Warning: there will be spoilers in this review. If you don’t want any plot details, just know that I highly recommend this book to all who enjoy realistic fiction, Bildungsroman stories, and honest portrayals of queer relationships and romantic decisions.

Nirvana is Here is set in “the segregated suburbs of Detroit during the 1990s”, during the years when Nirvana achieved fame and rocked the country. The story is formatted in a now / then unveiling, where you get one chapter of current events followed by a much longer section detailing chronological events in Ari Silverman’s childhood and teen years. Within the first fifty pages, we learn that Ari was sexually assaulted repeatedly by a classmate and neighbor, and this early trauma shaped his subsequent school-age years. Hamburger fantastically presents the emotional and mental consequences of such a betrayal and depicts the failure of Ari’s religious community to take the assaults seriously, as is the case in so many real-world religious communities. The other significant story arc follows Ari in his attempts to become closer to his high school crush and eventual best friend, a heartwarming and bittersweet relationship that readers of all sexual identities can relate to.

Most moving is the growth of Ari and the clean weaving of his past horrors into an informative and mature handling of the awkward situation he finds himself in as an adult: his ex-husband, a professor at the university they both work at, is accused of sexual misconduct by a student, and Ari is on the decision board. Both timely and refreshing in its complexity, Nirvana is Here gets to the heart of matters and revels in the glory of accepting one’s against-the-grain identity.

Nirvana is Here is available from Three Rooms Press or your local bookseller for $16 or your local library for free! Despite occasional typos and missing words, I wholeheartedly recommend this book. Thank you again to Three Rooms Press for the review copy. Well done, Aaron Hamburger.

The quoted section in this article refers to the Nirvana is Here press release.