A Conversation with Elaine Hsieh Chou

Elaine Hsieh Chou is a Taiwanese American writer from California. A 2017 Rona Jaffe Graduate Fellow at NYU and a 2021 NYFA/NYSCA Fellow, her short fiction appears in Black Warrior Review, Guernica, Tin House Online, The Adroit Journal and Ploughshares. Her debut novel DISORIENTATION is out now from Penguin Press.


Elaine Hsieh Chou’s debut Disorientation is a whip-smart campus satire about race and gender that had me cackling. Her raucous roman à clef tackles award-winning Orientalist cultural touchstones and authorities—from the fictional late canonical poet Xiao-Wen Chou’s verse, to his landmark play Chinatown Blues, to Stephen Greene’s sexy translation of Pink Salon—with great panache and alarming accuracy. In the feverish, tilt-a-whirl Disorientation universe, no one, including protagonist Ingrid Yang, is spared.

Knee-deep in the poetry of Xiao-Wen Chou, PhD student Ingrid Yang has little to show for her final year aside from fifty scrambled pages on enjambment and a raging addiction to antacids. With her advisor Michael Bartholomew closing in on her, she uncovers a promising lead in the Chou archives left by one Reltaw Ekul Nosbig. The clue leads her to unravel a campus conspiracy that leads to espionage, book burnings, and protests. 

As a person who’s kept one foot in academia and the other in book publishing, I found Chou’s characters both wincingly familiar and hilarious. Here is a writer whose rage and acerbic wit is both a joy and a relief. Sometimes surreal, always sharp, and wonderfully capacious, Disorientation is the whodunnit we need right now.

Esther Kim: Back in 2015, news broke that Yi-Fen Chou, whose poem was selected for the prestigious anthology Best American Poetry, was not a Chinese poet, but a white man from the Midwest named Michael Derrick Hudson. He had little success submitting poems under his real name and borrowed the pen name, evidently from an old secondary school classmate. When he was found out, the American literary scene was in an uproar. I remember that the Asian American Writers’ Workshop (AAWW) even created a tongue-in-cheek white name generator for POC poets. Your novel expands on the scandal and asks, what if such a poet upped the game and racially passed for Asian? What drew you to writing a novel, rather than, say, an op-ed, about it? 

Elaine Hsieh Chou: I was planning to write a novel about a Taiwanese American professor—her name was still Ingrid Yang—in her fifties. And I knew it would be about her complicated relationship with white men. The fact that she’s been attracted to them, but she starts to feel repulsed by this attraction.

That was the heart of the novel, and then I heard about the Michael Derrick Hudson incident and, like so many Asian Americans, was bowled over by the white audacity of swooping in and claiming this Chinese name. My last name. I felt even angrier that it was specifically my name! I had a hard relationship with my last name growing up, and it’s really sad when I think about it now, but as a kid, I hated it. My friends would make fun of me for it. There was a restaurant by my elementary school called Mr. Chow’s Chinese fast food, and it was spelled C-H-O-W, not C-H-O-U, but you know, they didn’t care. 

It was tongue-in-cheek, not very subtle, that I used that last name for the famous poet in the novel, Xiao-Wen Chou. I was so impacted by what had happened, I just had to write about it. And since Ingrid was a professor and was, in that version, struggling to write a book to get tenured, it made sense that she would be researching this poet. 

EK: Disorientation is a novel that’s stuffed with different forms and documents. There are the scholarly journal articles, scraps of poetry, screaming headlines, emails, and campus fliers. The dialogue feels hilariously webtoon/fanfic at moments and then there’s *spoiler alert* a steamy bodice ripper hidden in someone’s “Taxes” folder. What did you read as inspiration for Disorientation 

EHC: Some time ago, I had read Oreo by Fran Ross. It was published in 1974, and it’s like nothing I’ve ever read. It’s a satire about a Black and Jewish woman who goes on an odyssey through New York to find her dad. Right on the third page or so, there’s a graph of the different levels of Blackness a person can be. She gives the range and a cheeky little explanation. There’s also a moment when there’s a giant menu inside the book, and it’s written in fancy menu font. Her mother in the book is a mathematician, so the main character thinks things through using math equations. The book is full of found objects. It was so bold and visionary; it really inspired me. I realized I didn’t need to be afraid of trying out these forms. 

EK: So many parts of the novel rang true to life. I laughed at the bit when the white male academics in East Asian Studies get ultracompetitive with Ingrid when she shares how her grandma survived the Japanese bombs by eating raw cabbage in the mountains. It’s just so absurd!

EHC: Yeah, I definitely met this type because I lived in Taiwan for a year after graduating from college, and I was teaching ESL at a cram school, so you can imagine the sort of people I was around. It only dawned on me recently that I was the only non-white, non-male teacher. I was surrounded by these white guys who all had either a Taiwanese wife or were exclusively dating Taiwanese women, and a lot of them considered themselves experts on Taiwan and would oddly enjoy lording it over you. 

What I find really interesting is the question, but what are the stakes for you? What will change in your life, and don’t you dare bring up your Asian wife or half-Asian kids, because I’m talking about you. We are literally fighting for our lives and the lives of our family, our friends. But what will change in your life if we are perceived as more human?

The only place where white people become trapped in a corner is the fact that they can study my language and my people for as many years as they want, but it is not in their body. I carry the history and the trauma of my grandma surviving Japanese bombs. And I think they get insecure and very defensive if you bring that up because they don’t want to believe that it lives in the body. They want to believe they have as much a right, if not more of a right, to your culture or history than you. 

And the sad thing is, this has actually informed how we understand history, because I just learned that in journalism, it’s widely accepted, even to this day, that to be an objective reporter you shouldn’t have any connection to your subject. So for example, let’s say there was an Asian massacre. The journalist assigned to the story would specifically not be Asian because of this belief that Asians couldn’t be objective but a white reporter could. I find that absurd because being white is its own perspective, it’s a specific view of the world. It’s not universal, and it’s not objective.

EK: Stephen’s character, an award-winning translator who isn’t able to speak Japanese, is strikingly similar to a real-life award-winning translator who has a questionable grasp of the East Asian language that she translates. Could you speak more on how Stephen’s character parodies translators?

EHC: I’m so glad that you brought this up because people have talked about the Michael Derrick Hudson scandal, but no one has picked up on how Stephen’s translation career was inspired by the translator of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian. This translator made egregious mistakes like mistranslating “arm” and “foot.” But when she still received so much acclaim, recognition, and profits from translating a language she literally could not speak, and has zero connection to, it just felt like being erased again. Why are our stories about our lives always given away? 

It reminds me of how an Oscar-making role of a Chinese character was given to a white woman instead of Anna May Wong. And someone told her, well it’s not remarkable if you play a Chinese character because you’re already Chinese. But it’s remarkable if a white woman in yellowface does it precisely because she’s not Chinese.  

EK: This phenomenon seems to happen not just with translated books.

EHC: Take [Adam Johnson’s] The Orphan Master’s Son. The whole literary world was throwing accolades at it. It won a Pulitzer! People were saying, “Wow, this is the first book that’s pulling back the veil from this ‘mysterious and inscrutable’ country.” It was so exhausting that everyone was giving white writers platforms to write about Asia, to form our ideas about Asia. 

Something I was angry about and wanted to poke fun at in the novel was: I’m just so tired of them controlling the narrative. Obviously, things are changing, and they’re better than fifty or a hundred years ago. But the most famous Broadway Asian American musical is still Miss Saigon, which is such a deeply problematic story based on an almost 200-year-old story, Madame Butterfly, that is so persistent. It just won’t die. This is what’s feeding white people’s vision of Asia. It’s what they need to be true, which is that Asia is to be conquered. And often through its women, that’s something Edward Said says is the last step in white colonialism. If you conquer the women, you’ve now conquered that country. 

It upholds the ideology they need to uphold. Asia is weak. The West is strong. Asia is submissive. The West is powerful. And in so many of these stories, Asian men are completely erased. They just don’t exist. How very convenient that the West keeps getting to push and push and push these narratives that won’t die where they get to erase and emasculate Asian men. And Asian women become fetishized in violent ways, and it directly affects how we live and are treated in the world. And we’re seeing evidence for that. It’s always been there, but now it’s really there. 

I was reading that incredible Vanity Fair article by May Jeong that pieced together the tragic events of March 16, 2021. It’s a really powerful article because it traces not just the events of the Atlanta spa shooting but how everything is borne out of this deep-rooted systemic violence and inequality. And she talks about how North and South Korea was divided by a white man who opened up a National Geographic magazine and folded it in half. I did not know this. I was shocked. I thought I was hallucinating. It severed people who were then prevented from ever seeing their family for years. And it made me so angry thinking about whenever we need proof of how our lives have been directly impacted by white supremacy, look no further. 

EK: Without giving away too many spoilers to readers about the ending, Ingrid’s advisor and chair of East Asian studies department Michael Bartholomew is not good. Despite several scandals, he consolidates even more power beyond the university. When you were in the writing process, were there alternate endings you considered for Michael, or was he always going to remain in power by the end?  

EHC: So I thought about writing the ending we deserve or the realist ending. I thought of Jordan Peele’s film Get Out, where the realist ending, and the original one Peele wrote, was a white cop pulls up and automatically believes Rose, the white girlfriend, is the victim and shoots Chris. But when they screen-tested it, the audience reaction was really negative. So instead, Peele wrote the ending we deserve. Chris’s Black friend is the one who pulls up, and it’s truly one of the most cathartic moments in cinema. 

I debated over this for a long time: do I write the realist ending or the ending we deserve? In the end, I couldn’t write an ending where Bartholomew is held accountable. I couldn’t even believe it myself. My hands wouldn’t let me type out an ending where he was caught and locked up because there was overwhelming proof that in no fictional or real universe would Bartholomew actually face consequences.

But that still hurt, so I wrote the epilogue. The epilogue is Ingrid’s sort-of happy ending. I really wanted to reposition the idea of moving back home with her parents and working at a minimum wage job as something that isn’t necessarily bad. It’s not failure. It’s not regression. Someone told me that Ingrid living with her parents was the first time they stopped feeling incredibly stressed out for her. That made me so happy. I created this opening for Ingrid, so she is a lot more at peace with herself and freer. 


Esther Kim

Esther Kim is a freelance writer and the former Digital Communications Manager of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. She is recipient of the Diverse Voices Fellowship for the Food and Environmental Writing Workshop at Sterling College and has contributed to The Guardian, Infatuation, and Willowherb Review, among many others. She is currently at work on a book about her late grandfather’s camera repair shop in the Bronx. She lives on Long Island, New York.

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