Elaine Hsieh Chou’s nonsensical debut novel about a student’s dissertation on a fictional poet delves into the whirlwind of topical arguments about race and returns to the fight
By Kadish Morris/The Guardian
Recent years have seen a series of scandals surrounding white people posing as other races in order to gain alleged advantages.
Rachel Dolezal, then chapter president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, went viral in 2015 for claiming to be a black woman despite not having African ancestry. That same year, a white poet named Michael Derrick Hudson was submitting poems to literary journals under the name Yi-Fen Chou. Hudson admitted to using the pseudonym whenever one of his poems was rejected under his real name.
This type of incident is central to the concerns of Elaine Hsieh Chou’s first novel, Disorientation. Ingrid Yang, a twenty-nine-year-old Taiwanese-American doctoral student, began her thesis eight years ago on the fictional Xiao-Wen Chou, considered “the greatest Chinese-American poet”, who has archives dedicated to the Barnes University. Yang was persuaded into this line of research by her supervisor, Michael: “They will be looking for another Chouian researcher in a few years. They will want someone young and energetic,” he told her.
But writing about Chou’s enjambment (a literary device in which a sentence of poetry continues after the line break without a grammatical pause) gives Yang few words, who instead procrastinates by taking too many antacids, obsessed with her rival Vivian – the darling of the postcolonial department – and avoiding anything political, including the word “white.” Everything changes when Yang finds a note in one of Chou’s archive books. She then descends down a rabbit hole, alongside her best friend Eunice, and eventually discovers that the acclaimed poet is not only still alive, but is actually a white man named John Smith. who for decades pretended to be Chinese, through the use of black wigs, yellow makeup and eyelid tape.
Although the novel is an absurd take on how the literary world devours works that reduce the East Asian experience to rivers, spoons and tea, it also thoroughly inspects the power of blank stare, academic imperialism, peer rivalry and self-loathing. There are times when the book struggles to tackle all of the themes it brought up: affirmative action, fascism, identity politics, the sexualization of East Asian women, cultural appropriation, assimilation, and how universities preserve whiteness are all discussed but not in equal measure, and so at times the novel feels unbalanced.
Overly comedic scenes occasionally clash with poignant social commentary, but the novel’s lack of swerve from current events is commendable. He gets candid about the concept of model minorities, the rigidity of interracial dating, and how misogyny violently affects Asian women. We hear about how users of an online forum share the story of a Thai woman “cut to pieces” by an Englishman. “Everyone said she deserved it,” Eunice’s brother Alex told Yang, “that it wouldn’t have happened if she wasn’t chasing a white dick.”
Yang is in many ways an anti-hero. Even though she’s the one who unmasks Chou as a con man (which throws the campus into chaos), she lets someone else take the glory because she’s not photogenic or she’s not. is not a good speaker. Yet there’s something about the way Chou wrote about Yang’s imperfections — constantly scratching at her eczema, jealous of beautiful women, and perpetually unmotivated — that subtly and powerfully subverts the doll ideals that have long plagued women in Asia. from the east.
Sometimes the dialogue lacks surprise – a few of the character arcs are easy to predict – but with so much debate the book raises in the real world, it would be hard to write the perfect story. Disorientation is messy, but that’s often what emboldens it.
By Elaine Hsieh Chou
United States: Paperback
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