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Elaine Hsieh Chou channels her 'unspoken rage' in debut novel 'Disorientation'

“Not having a reflection back of your experiences is a form of gaslighting because you’re like, ‘Well, I guess all these things I feel are invented,’” Chou said.
Elaine Hsieh Chou
Elaine Hsieh Chou.Cindy Trinh / Random House

Growing up, Elaine Hsieh Chou’s only exposure to Asian American literature was reading “The Joy Luck Club” in her California high school. She said she remembers her classmates looking expectantly at her to confirm its depictions of Asian Americans, despite Chou being of a different generation than any of the characters in the 1989 novel.

“I just totally shut off Asian American literature after that,” Chou, 35, told NBC Asian America. “I didn’t feel seen at all. I felt even more erased because now I feel there’s something wrong with me.”

So when the Taiwanese American author wrote her debut novel, “Disorientation,” published last month, it was out of a need to write more for herself than for any other audience. Though the book is packed with insights on the subtleties of racism, Chou said she never intended for it to serve as a seminar for readers who are unfamiliar with the Asian American experience.

“If you write a book as if you’re trying to prove your humanity to people, or like, ‘Look, I’ve suffered, too,’ I just feel like that’s bad art,” she said. Instead, Chou channeled her anger and sadness to create a cathartic work of satire.

"Disorientation" by Elaine Hsieh Chou.
"Disorientation" by Elaine Hsieh Chou.Penguin Random House

The novel follows Ingrid Yang, an eighth-year doctoral student at the fictional Barnes University struggling to write her dissertation on the late Chinese poet Xiao-Wen Chou.

When Ingrid discovers a mysterious note left in the poet’s archives, she’s convinced she’s finally found a path forward. But as the ensuing adventure unravels the truth about him, Ingrid begins to question everything: her white fiancé with a “preference” for Asian women, an East Asian studies department dominated by white men and her own internalized racism.

Chou said she tears up when Asian American women write to her to say how “seen” they felt after recognizing their own thoughts and experiences in Ingrid’s narration. This was all she had ever wanted to feel, she said.

“Not having a reflection back of your experiences is a form of gaslighting because you’re like, ‘Well, I guess all these things I feel are invented,’” she said. “And I guess I’m sensitive and overreacting and hysterical because nobody else will tell me what I feel is real.’”

The two most prominent white male figures in Ingrid’s life seem benign at first: Stephen, a doting partner, and Michael, a thoughtful doctoral adviser. But their obsession with East Asia, a field in which they’ve won accolades and respect, ultimately reveals darker truths about how they appropriate Asianness — whether through fetishization or outright yellowface — for their benefit.

“I wanted to write these characters where they weren’t the ones in power, getting to distort the truth about us. I was like, ‘Well, now I’m going to write about you for what you are,’” Chou said. “I couldn’t stop them in real life. I have no power over how they’re recognized and awarded, but in fiction, this was my chance.”

White men’s fetishization of Asian women plays a central role in Ingrid’s character arc as she, as an Asian woman, begins to open her eyes to the dynamics of her own relationship with a white man. Must she always feel in competition with an endless stream of Asian women Stephen is bound to cross paths with? Most disturbing to Ingrid, however, is the question of how she can ever be certain her fiancé loves her for who she is.

The way Michael, who heads Barnes’ East Asian studies department, speaks of his wife during a drunken episode also betrays how easily his love for her as an object of desire — much like his Baoding balls, zen fountain and koi fish calendar — can turn into hate when she fails to live up to his imagined portrait of what an Asian woman should be.

Stephen’s and Michael’s perceptions of Asian women parallel the experiences Chou documented in her viral essay in The Cut, in which she recalled overhearing two white men on a train in Taipei “describing Asian women like sex robots.”

Chou said it had taken her nearly a decade, from the time she first heard of “yellow fever” and began noticing the phenomenon on her majority-Asian college campus, to realize the dehumanizing nature of being fetishized.

“I feel like it didn’t really enter the critical realm for me until much, much later,” Chou said. “And then I still had to keep reading and unlearning and unpacking, and probably will for the rest of my life.”

But the Ferguson, Missouri, protests following the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in 2014 galvanized her to action, she said. It was her introduction to social advocacy, and the more she exposed herself to fellow activists, the more she began to identify with their work.

“They were so knowledgeable about these issues that I had felt blind to before. That really opened my eyes, and it honestly changed my life,” Chou said. “I wanted to write about that social awakening.”

Although she did not write “Disorientation” for a white audience, Chou said the increased visibility that Asian Americans have gained in recent years — whether through speaking out against perpetual violence or gaining more representation in media and entertainment — places immense pressure on creators like her.

“White people get to make bad art all the time, and then they’re just allowed to do it again,” Chou said. “I think there is a lot of pressure on [Asian Americans], like you have this one shot and you speak for every single one of us, so don’t miss it.”

For Chou, conveying her emotions through satire was a way to cope with living in a world that had never let her forget her Asian identity. She said it allowed her to confront topics that would have otherwise hit too close to home — because at least she could enjoy Ingrid’s snarky narration of all the “horrible characters” in her life.

“I was like, ‘Wow, I guess I have a lot of unresolved rage, and it’s just coming out,’” Chou said. “The only way I could face a page and not have it be like a therapy session was to make myself laugh.”