A secret that threatens to unravel a university. Waffle dogs and drug hallucinations. A crash course in protests and reckoning with identity and institutions. Disorientation by Elaine Hsieh Chou, out March 22, is already one of my favorite books of the year. Ingrid, a 29-year-old Taiwanese PhD student, makes an explosive discovery while researching the late canonical poet Xiao-Wen Chou.
I had the absolute pleasure of talking with Elaine about her debut novel, writing process, and how she incorporated discussions of Asian American history and gender into her work. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Light spoilers for Disorientation follow.
Nicole Zhu: In your bio, you say that you're a “PhD dropout, former bookseller and background actor.” Can you tell me a little bit about your path into writing?
Elaine Hsieh Chou: I took creative writing classes when I was an undergrad at UC Irvine where I was studying English Lit. It was an elective and I loved it, but the idea of making it a career didn't even cross my mind. It just seemed so far-fetched. My big goal was to be an English Lit professor.
But then I had just finished college and didn’t want to start a PhD right away, so I decided to go abroad. I first lived in Taiwan where I was teaching ESL, with my six other white male colleagues of course. Then I moved to France and I was also teaching English there.
At that point, I really loved France. This would change. I jumped to the second year of my master's so I could qualify to apply to PhDs. Then I did two and a half years at the University of Paris 3. I was deep in it—I was doing conferences, I was writing abstracts all the time, I was living in this basement library.
A few things happened where I was like, I cannot do this. I cannot live in France anymore and I cannot be in academia anymore. One of the things that happened was the November 2015 terrorist attacks. I remember that night. It was just sheer terror because you didn't know if there were more bombs planted and so everyone was waiting, not knowing when it was going to end. Someone at my university died. The cafe that was attacked, I had gone to just a few months before. It was a Cambodian restaurant. So it was my first real face to face with mortality where I was like, “Okay, if I were to die tomorrow, what would I wish I did with my life? What do I wish I tried?” And then I thought back to creative writing.
I applied for a job at Shakespeare & Co, the English bookstore and amazingly got it. I was very grateful—I had not had any bookselling experience before. I thought applying for an MFA would be a nice way for me to move back to the US after seven years and would also give me some structure. So I applied to MFA programs and it was when I got to NYU that I really was like, “Okay, I've got two years to figure this thing out.” NYU gave me a stipend so I could just focus on writing.
When I finished, I was just doing the hustle. I was cat-sitting, I tried babysitting again. I had a friend, another writer, who suggested background acting as a gig and as a way to make money. So I was doing that for a while, and I still try to do it when I have time.
NZ: Disorientation really reminded me of the Michael Derrick Hudson / Yi-Fen Chou scandal and Jenny Zhang's essay about it. What was your inspiration for the novel?
EHC: Well, you hit the nail on the head. I don't know if I was very subtle. We were all pissed, right? But I felt it especially because it was my last name. I sadly really hated my last name growing up because my friends would make fun of me for it. I thought my first name was “normal,” AKA white. I was just like, why do I have this horrible last name that gives a chance for people to mock it? If only I was a Smith or something right? Poor child Elaine.
It obviously made me so mad that he thought our identities were something you could just try on when he thought it would benefit him. And of course in his real life, he would just continue to be a white man and enjoy all those privileges. So that got me thinking because I knew I was writing a novel set at a university and I knew from the beginning a lot of it would be around Ingrid's complicated relationships with white men. I read about this news and Jenny Zhang's article put into words everything I was feeling and more. I started to think about, what if in a book, something similar happened, but to greater extremes?
NZ: Your website describes the book as a “Taiwanese American woman's coming of consciousness.” I really love how that's phrased. It's not coming of age, but “of consciousness.” Can you talk a bit more about what that means to you?
EHC: I'm obviously not Ingrid. She's a fictional character. That said, I think I was interested in writing this character who would be forced to reckon with a lot of her status quo beliefs, because that was something that I went through—obviously, in a different context.
When I moved to Paris, that was exactly when Ferguson was happening and Michael Brown was murdered. Many Americans, and I think especially Black Americans, have known for a very long time what systemic racism and institutionalized racism is. What happened to Michael Brown really showed the corruption of the American ideal we had.
It wasn't until I was living in Paris that I met these other activists. We put on this protest for both Michael Brown and Eric Garner to try and bring attention to France so that people would know what was happening—and also make the connection that the same thing was happening in France. It was a new world for me. I just felt like I had so much catching up to do.
I think for a lot of Asian Americans, it was a moment where we were learning a lot of things. Of course, then this came to an even greater height when Peter Liang killed Akai Gurley. I wasn't writing back in 2014 but all this was sort of building up and really impacted me. And I think that naturally fell into the novel with Ingrid. I wanted to show she does have to question these really hard things, but she's still her nervous, awkward self.
NZ: There is a marked change in her. But these things don't happen overnight. It's still rooted in what an individual person's journey of change would feel like.
EHC: That's amazing to hear. I really wanted that. It was so weird because I was like, "Can this be done? Can I write something that feels sort of satirical and a little distant in that way?" Also it was so high stakes. I'm writing for us. I'm writing for our lives. So there was no way I couldn't make it earnest. How do I write an earnest satire?
NZ: Disorientation has dark academia energy, but is also a satire and a mystery. How do you think about humor and satire as literary devices?
EHC: I think on the writer’s end, you can make something that would be really painful less painful. I think that's what happened with me because I didn't intend to write a satire actually. When I was planning the novel in my head, this was going to be somber. When I started writing it, it was a third person snarky voice. They sounded too opinionated. I realized I had so much anger and the only productive way that anger could come out was through satire. I think if I tried to write it straight, it would have been way too painful for me and I probably wouldn't have wanted to face the page.
Not that I didn't have those days, and not that writing isn't constantly hard, but I think it really helped in tackling these subjects. I would write thinking, how do I make myself laugh? That made it much more enjoyable. I tried not to think about the final product as a product per se. It was just me alone in my room thinking, how do I make myself laugh?
On the other side, as a literary device for readers, I think similarly it can be a point of access. Paul Beatty's The Sellout made a big impact on me. I felt like I hadn't really read anything like it before. It was so clearly written for his audience, with no regard for whether other people would get it. I really tried to embody that. I think humor is a great contrast too because sometimes we have this really dark moment and it throws it into sharp relief just how messed up a situation is.
NZ: I really love the sheer amount and diversity of Asian/Asian American characters in this book: Ingrid, her best friend Eunice and her brother, her nemesis Vivan, Cixi, Azumi, even Timothy and Margaret the archive librarian. Can you talk more about how you built out this campus of characters?
EHC: On the one hand, it felt very natural and easy because I have so many Asian friends in my life. I feel like if you're actually Asian, it's very natural that we come in every single type of ideology, for example. It felt right to celebrate all the different types of what we are.
It was important to me to put not just sort of the middle range, like Ingrid and to an extent Eunice, but also a really badass activist like Vivian. I put someone like Timothy because I think it's just very real. Timothies are winning elections in Orange County, for example. One unfortunately has a very similar name to me.
NZ: Oh my God, no. The curse of Chou.
EHC: Right. We all know, but they're there, and we can't disavow them. We have to reckon with what of our history and our thinking or collective action gave rise to this, right? And obviously, white supremacy is at work. It felt very natural to me that in the four years I was writing it, I was seeing people like that, and in my own family there are conservatives.
NZ: You grapple with some really challenging topics like radicalization and MRAsians, yellow fever, etc. How did you set about weaving these into the narrative? Was there anything that came up while writing Disorientation that changed your thinking about any of these issues?
EHC: To answer it fully, let me backtrack to the first version of the novel. I unfortunately wrote three versions. I don't recommend this. In the first version, Ingrid is 49, she's married to a white congressman, and they have two children. And so with the son Leo, I was trying to navigate writing a character who is both Asian and white. And two, I was just Googling.
I found the Reddit forum r/hapas. And that name is obviously problematic, appropriated from Hawaiian history and language. But I fell into this rabbit hole. It was dark. Most of the forum were men with a white father and an Asian mother and they had a lot of hatred towards that coupling. The main ideology that almost all of them seemed to share was that these couplings create children with mental health issues.
NZ: They create an Elliot Rodger, that's what they always say.
EHC: Exactly. He's used as the pinnacle. As I started to go into the wormhole, they would link to this other forum that became the forum for MRAsians. I think that was where it blew up. So all of this fascinated me and I had witnessed it firsthand—I have two younger brothers and with other Asian men in my life. I really wanted to access this character's mindset of how he also had a lot of anger. I wanted to show that their anger is legitimate.
What breaks my heart is that instead of this anger being directed towards white supremacy as actually creating the terrible myths that continue to dominate our world and then affect our lives, they turned it on Asian women to a terrifying extent. There are so many recorded incidents now of Asian women being doxxed and their mental health being broken down. It’s heartbreaking, because it's not the answer. Being fetishized is not somehow a good thing.
NZ: It's a type of violence as well.
EHC: Exactly. It absolutely is a type of violence.
I think in this version of the novel, it gets taken down. It's really in that tense conversation Eunice, Ingrid, and Alex have together. But I did want to show Alex getting caught up in that. I was seeing horrible things on the forum where something awful would happen to an Asian woman and you would see comments like “she deserved it.” I did want to show that that is real and how frankly Alex at that point is like, “okay, maybe I should not be where toxic murders are celebrated.” It's such a thorny, tricky topic that it could be for a whole novel on its own honestly. I wanted to touch on it at the bare minimum, but in many ways there's so much more I could say.
NZ: There’s this incredible passage with the open forum around the production of Xiao-Wen Chou’s play, Chinatown Blues, that reads like a Twitter feed. Vivian and other folks use this political language that’s common now on social media, like “dismantle the system,” while Ingrid is self-conscious and confused about her lack of understanding. Why was it important to you to depict these types of conversations, but also this gap in language that we use to discuss these topics?
EHC: I’m so glad you picked up on that because part of it was that I was fascinated by these new conversations we were having. When I was on Facebook, I used to debate with strangers in these groups. They were all Asian, but coming at it from all different perspectives. It was fascinating to see us all in the same community trying to talk to each other, but there would be such a divide, and there'd often be some shaming if you weren't caught up. On Twitter, we can see this all the time. I was interested in this sort of new phenomenon of how you can signal your politics with even something as small as—or maybe as big as—your language.
This was even a question when we were doing copy edits for the novel. A copy editor was like, “Why is Black and Brown capitalized here? Why does this character use capitalized ‘Black’ and why does Ingrid say ‘African American’?” They were trying to make me choose one. But each character uses a different one because it does signal their personal approach and maybe even where they're at with their reading or understanding.
NZ: There are some fascinating Notes about the history of yellowface and the Third World Liberation Front. What was your approach to research for this book?
EHC: I was a pretty lazy researcher. I would copy and paste articles or links that fascinated me or that I was thinking about. At a certain point, I realized I needed a Notes section. If something is satire, people can automatically just write it off as absurdist. Like this could never happen, we would never be that bad. But I was learning these things where I was like, you've been that bad. I have the receipts. Don't even try to argue that this could never happen because it did. So that became important to me.
A lot of it was not conscious research. I was in a virtual book club where we were reading I Hotel by Karen Tei Yamashita. She had done so much research on the Asian American activist movement, especially in the Bay Area in the 60s and 70s. To me, this was all new information. I felt angry I had been denied it growing up in history classes.
I won't say too much, but with the magician, the novel was basically written and I was working at a bookstore in Brooklyn. A customer comes in, says, “Do you have this book?” I look it up and say we have to order it. I started reading the summary. I was like, Wait, is this real? Then he told me and my mind was blown. So the funny thing about the Notes is so much of it was just four years of living and learning and absorbing.
NZ: What are you reading that you can’t stop thinking about?
EHC: I love this illustrated article "Meet Peat, the Unsung Hero of Carbon Capture" by my friend Sabrina Imbler, and I'm so excited for everyone to read Ryan Lee Wong's forthcoming novel, Which Side Are You On?
NZ: What are three things that are bringing you joy right now?
EHC: Well, obviously my cat, Hamlet, because he's my best friend. I didn't name him. I adopted him from my friend. He brings me so much comfort and joy and laughter. He’s a very clingy cat but you know, then we just cling to each other.
Is it cheesy to say, my friends? Right now I’m gearing up to the pub date, so it is a hectic, stressful time to say the least. A lot of emotions. So I think having my friends here for me has been so important to help me get through this. I just didn't know what it felt like to be an author, to be a public figure. A lot of authors are afraid of sounding ungrateful but I feel like it is important to talk about how hard it is.
These vlogs on YouTube that are so soothing and comforting. I don't know why so many of them are in Korea because I've actually searched for them in a different country, but I'll tell you my two favorite ones: planD and ondo. These vlogs are very interesting because they never show their faces. You just see their hands cooking and then they take you to cute cafes. When you're stressed, these very simple little pleasures—seeing them enjoy a little cake in a cafe and playing with their cat—are very soothing.
To celebrate her book launch, I’m announcing a giveaway for two signed copies (generously provided by Elaine) for newsletter subscribers!
You can find Elaine at her author website and on Twitter. Preorder Disorientation anywhere books are available, but if you’d like to show some love to an AAPI owned independent bookstore, check out Yu & Me Books!
- Applications for Ragdale Residencies are open until May 15. I found Elisa Gabbert’s overview of writing residencies helpful.
- Yanyi, who just published his second book Dream of the Divided Field, on why he writes: “My writing is the physical manifestation of the self that I have—as in having—to defend. It is my self-possession. Not because the self is property but because the self is the spring with which I leap into my life.”
- A beautiful interactive series of photos and videos of how a book is made—from Word document to bound hardback.
- “How Do I Write Amid Erasure?” by Cinelle Barnes
- Check out chill subs, a searchable collection of lit mags and submission opportunities, built by Karina Kupp. I especially love that you can filter by “Vibe.”
Recent reads & other media
In addition to Disorientation, I’ve been reading an advance copy of Permission to Come Home: Reclaiming Mental Health as Asian Americans by Jenny T. Wang (founder of @asiansformentalhealth). I’ve been in therapy on and off since 2015 and have written about how my experiences with it have lacked cultural specificity. Wang’s book, which is written with a focus on children of immigrants, addresses so many topics with a deep, compassionate understanding of the cultural narratives and historical experiences that may impact the mental health of Asian Americans.
E and I watched The Batman and Turning Red. I really loved how the characters of Turning Red, as Alison Willmore writes, “feel neither typecast nor actively at war with type.” Plus, I’m always here for depictions of teen girls obsessed with fandom and the fun, weird ways their nascent sexuality takes form (see also: Tina’s erotic friend fiction in Bob’s Burgers, another movie I’m excited for).
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~ meme myself and i ~
Hella studious. Wanting to live in the landscape map that was in all of our textbooks. The Riddler is a modern realistic take on Batman villains. Titles we’ve written for papers at our small liberal arts college. When you’re making facial expressions on Zoom so they know I’m listening. Why is Google Docs like this??