How Disorientation author Elaine Hsieh Chou wrote the funniest and most poignant novel of the year

When I was in undergrad, I was taking creative writing classes for the first time in my life, and I didn’t really know how to write beyond repeating what I read. Great literature was made up of people like Raymond Carver and Flannery O’Connor and many rural white writers, so I wrote this story about these two poor white boys who worked on a wheat farm in North Dakota. I remember my teacher absolutely adored it, and after class a white student came up to me and asked, “How did you write this?” I remember feeling a little prickly and defensive, like, why can not I write it? I think it’s different for every Asian writer, and I don’t think any of us should be expected to write about being Asian or about a certain type of character. But for me personally, I think I had to work on things before I could write Asian characters like I do now. I think it shows that there’s this weird “damn if you, damn if you don’t” attitude, because if you’re writing about your people and for your community, you can be like, “Oh, you are not universal.” And it’s like, well, what does that mean? But then, if you’re like me writing in college about rural farm boys, you get criticized: Oh, well, you hate yourself and do your people a disservice. I think it’s hard to navigate all of these expectations, but we want to be free to reach the point of just writing whatever we want.

Both in disorientation and in your recent viral To cut essay, I was struck by the role anger plays in your life. Can you talk a bit about that?

Absolutely. I was very angry writing this novel and the essay, just a lot of anger and sadness at the same time. I think anger can be effective. I think it’s okay to embrace our anger instead of having to calm it down or light up the gas, right? There are these little aphorisms in American culture, like “take the high road” or “turn the other cheek”, and many of these ideas can put pressure on POC and all kinds of minorities to minimize and swallow their pain. Our role in life is not just to put up with things. I was almost giddy, I think, to wield power over people like [Ingrid’s culturally-appropriative-turned-all-out-xenophobe PhD advisor] Michael and Stephen, because I felt men like them had power over me. It was really delicious and liberating to be able to turn the tables and say, “No, now you’re under my thumb.” Anger can be fed; I think it gets bad press, when in reality, doing anger justice is me blaming people. Because if you downplay anger, you’re like, “What you did to me is excusable.”

I was really struck by the trinity of Asian women at the center of the novel; Ingrid, her best friend Eunice, and their college rival Vivian. It seemed like Ingrid got so many different things out of her relationship with each of these women, and it got me wondering what role friendship with people who share some of your life experiences has played. in your own life.

Oh, those friendships have been so important, especially last week when the book and the essay came out. Being in the public eye can be terrifying and very isolating, and I’m so grateful to my friends, especially those who are Asian women or other women of color. These friendships in my life have taught me a lot. Something I wanted to explore with these three characters is that obviously we’re not a monolith, but when you step out of the blank stare a bit, you can finally look at the nuances between three women who may seem similar, but only on paper. While I was writing, I was also in these online groups where everyone was Asian, but there were so many different political beliefs and backgrounds and identities.

I’m so curious about the character of Timothy Liu, an Asian conservative who fits into far-right ideology on campus. What do you think of men like that these days?

At first, I approached Timothy’s character with a lot of anger, just like I did with his real-life counterparts, because I was like, “How can you be conservative when these policies are hurting your people?” We can’t find community as minorities if we really propagate ideas of white supremacy, like the notion of the “model minority” and the “you can do anything if you pull yourself by the bootstraps” mentality. It was painful to see Asian Americans saying very publicly, “Well, my family made it, I went to college, I’m fine.” This is all anti-black rhetoric.

Irene B. Bowles