“Enlightened or Disturbed”: A Conversation with Elaine Hsieh Chou
By Ruth Minah BuchwaldAugust 18, 2022
Disorientation by Elaine Hsieh Chou
Asian woman then meets white advisor who pressures her to join the East Asian studies department. And then the PhD program. And then his newly formed conservative cult.
So begins Elaine Hsieh Chou’s Disorientation, which follows Ingrid Yang, a 29-year-old PhD student devoting her academic life to the poetry of Xiao-Wen Chou. Chou is the “super” Chinese American poet who is the pride of Barnes University, a small and prestigious liberal arts school in Massachusetts. Ingrid drudges on at the Barnes library in the Chou archives, and spends her time drinking boba and watching K-dramas with her best friend and ABG (Asian Baby Girl) Eunice Kim; hating on the queen of the postcolonial studies department, Vivian Vo, from afar; and avoiding her white, non–Japanese-speaking, Japanese translator fiancé Stephen. But when she discovers an unsettling truth about Chou’s identity, the Barnes campus erupts in chaos in this unexpectedly political debut.
RUTH MINAH BUCHWALD: I loved Disorientation. When I started reading it, I wasn’t expecting so many twists and turns! Did you know going in that it would be that way, or did you end up surprising yourself?
ELAINE HSIEH CHOU: I knew there would be the mystery element of Xiao-Wen Chou’s identity, and I knew discovering that would be fun and horrifying at the same time for Ingrid. In the first version, her breakdown and discovery of his real identity happens in a single chapter. There was less of a mystery element there. And then in this version, it just made more sense that it would take her longer to find out something so shocking that this person kept it a secret for over 30 years. And this version, it was more fun to write. I planted different red herrings for the readers so that they would think, “Oh, this is what he’s hiding!”
I also love how it’s not just Ingrid but all these characters finding themselves in different corners of the internet, from forums villainizing WMAF (White Male Asian Female) relationships to private investigators trying to uncover people’s identities. They end up being either enlightened or disturbed by their discoveries. Can you speak about falling down the rabbit hole of online spaces?
Writing the book involved me going down a lot of online rabbit holes. I wrote the book between 2016 and 2020, so there was a lot of online discourse. It was in online spaces where we were seeing some really ugly thoughts that you would not find in the mainstream media. I did not want to give credence to something so dark, like a 4Chan forum, but I was fascinated by these forums that Ingrid wanders into, and these creepy threads she finds.
It’s pretty brief in the book, but she finds these WMAF posts and is freaked out by these mail-order-bride websites and ads. Alex [Ingrid’s Korean American best friend’s brother] wanders into men’s rights activist groups created by Asian men. He has a lot of legitimate pain that he’s felt, but instead of finding a healthy way to express this pain and really look at the structural forces that created it, he blames Asian women and maintains these harmful ideas about patriarchy and wanting the power that white men have. Now, these spaces are not even underground anymore, so Alex stumbles onto them and he feels like his anger is legitimized in some way. Later on, he realizes, “Oh, okay, if this is a space that celebrates when Asian women are raped and murdered by white men, then I can’t be in the space.”
And then there’s Timothy Liu [a disciple of Ingrid’s thesis advisor’s cult], who’s a hardcore conservative. His online spaces are more mainstream — of shutting down the model minority myth and “pulling yourself up by the bootstraps” myth, and all these myths about the American dream. So, because all of these arguments were happening around me and affecting me, it felt natural that they would appear in the book. I wanted the book to be about what changed in our community and our thinking in those years.
You’ve spoken and written about how white people gaslight. This is primarily through the three white men who are ruining Ingrid’s life: her fiancé, textbook-weeaboo Japanese translator Stephen; her thesis advisor Michael; and one mysterious John Smith. As frustrating and horrifying as these men are, was it equally as fun for you to get under their skin and have the power to drive at them?
For Michael and Stephen, there was definitely great pleasure in making them ridiculous. And by ridiculous, I mean true to life, because I think these types of men walk among us. I did get a lot of pleasure out of being able to describe them not in the way they would describe themselves, which is, you know, good guys who are just really interested in other cultures and preferences for women based on race. However they describe themselves, that’s already given so much validation in society. I had this chance to do it for myself to see how I would describe them from the way I saw them. What was hard was realizing that the worst versions of themselves are when they’re the most convincing. How would they really defend Michael’s whole freedom-of-speech thing or Stephen’s racial fetish? How would they defend these choices? I realized that I had to try to make them convincing at least to themselves and other men. That was hard.
John Smith was honestly the hardest one because what he does is so reprehensible. There’s absolutely no excuse. But then I realized that that wasn’t interesting, right? There wasn’t really a story there. In early versions, he was more like Rachel Dolezal — he defends to his grave that he is a transracial Chinese man. But then I thought again that I wanted it to be about him having to grapple with the ethics of it, so he ends up being a troll, a con artist. At the end of the day, what does he fully believe? What does he actually want? I wanted to make him hard to pin down because when we look at the rise of the con artists, like Anna Delvey, the Grey’s Anatomy writer Elisabeth Finch, and the Tinder Swindler, what you find with all of them is that they are very hard to neatly summarize, and the choices they make seem so informed by something about them personally in their lives, or their previous lives. With John Smith, Ingrid gives him so much credit for the majority of the book — that was really hard for me because what he does is repulsive, but she ends up forming this weird friendship with him and I really had to trust in the reader to please hang on with me. She will have her say! She will see him for who he is! But it takes so long. I wanted to show how devious he really is that he can pull in Ingrid, the person who has been the most traumatized. He is so powerful in his deception that he can bring her into a circle of trust.
Someone else I was surprised to be deceived by was Vivian, who drives a wedge in the friendship between Ingrid and Eunice, an ABG (Asian Baby Girl) from SoCal. The latter two are quite literally “boba liberals.” But when Ingrid starts attending the POC caucus meetings led by Vivian, this really turns Eunice off and makes her feel outcast. Please speak more about this trifecta of Asian American women with different beliefs and geographical backgrounds.
Part of it was that in my life, Asian women come with so many different belief systems. Things have shifted so much from when I was in elementary school to when I was in high school to when I was in college to now. How we talk about Asian American identity is so broad, like what does that even mean? It’s shifted so much that there is this feeling of having lived different lives. At certain points throughout my life, I’ve been an Ingrid, Eunice, or Vivian type. What’s really amazing is when I meet other Asian American readers, they’ll often be like, “I’m such an Ingrid, or a cross between Ingrid and Vivian, or I was a Eunice in college and now I’m a Vivian.” That’s so amazing and real because it’s speaking to the changes we’ve had to grapple with. It felt so natural to me to write characters that are real to my friends. I just hadn’t seen how we are politicized and how we think of our identity. I wanted to see what it looks like to put the specificity of one’s politics within the Asian American community in a book.
I remember a writing teacher telling me that when you reference too many current, specific things, it’s not good, because your book doesn’t feel “universal” and it won’t necessarily age well. My project is against that.
Yeah, also, that’s just so not true. All the books we read in middle school and high school are such dated tales by dead white men that we’re supposed to apply to our time.
I feel like this lends itself to the wonderful emergence of the campus novel written by people of color at predominantly white institutions (PWIs). I’m reading Elif Batuman’s Either/Or right now, and there are the great novels of Susan Choi, Brandon Taylor, and R. O. Kwon. Why did you set Disorientation at Barnes?
It’s funny because I think the way the campus functions in this version is so different from how I originally had it without Xiao-Wen Chou. There was just Ingrid, a professor in her fifties who was married to a white man, and two of her students get caught up in this big sexual assault case. In this version, she had to reckon with her past and her desires — it was going to be a very dark book, as you can imagine. So, that’s how the university got introduced.
When I was furiously outlining that version and afraid to write anything down, that was when I read about the Michael Derrick Hudson case — he used the name “Yi-Fen Chou” to get a poem published that was rejected dozens of times with his real name, and I was like, “Oh, I have to write about this.” It moved me to my core. It galvanized a lot of us and forced us to really think about the larger implications of why this was allowed to continue. To sort of braid it into this storyline and make sense that Ingrid would be researching this poet as a professor. The campus idea just stuck as I kept working on different versions of the novel. It made sense that a university is where you can really experiment and protest in spaces like the POC caucus, where people have the luxury and space to work through their ideas and identities in a room and throw them all at each other. The campus ended up being a vehicle for this story’s message because maybe in some ways this could have happened outside of the campus, but a campus is so rife with unsanctioned ideology among students who are organizing on their own. Also the sanctioned ideology which appears on the campus diversity, equity, and inclusion mission statement. You have those two in conflict all the time.
I never attended a school like Barnes University. My undergrad experience was at a giant public university in Southern California, so very different from Barnes. Because Asian American studies was formed at UC Berkeley in the ’60s, it felt like it would have been harder for someone like John Smith to get away with what he did and have that institutional support on the West Coast. It felt like this would happen in a space where they really purposely try to erase Asian American activism and Asian American studies by having Asian or East Asian Studies, so it would remain this foreign, othered area that they wouldn’t feel implicated in. It made sense that this would happen on the East Coast and in one of those nepotistic bubbles. Since I didn’t have any firsthand experience with that, I appreciate when people say that it felt like a real East Coast liberal arts college!
I took a class with you called “Harnessing Anger for People of Color,” which I signed up for since I felt so validated by the rage of the women in this book. You also have those great pieces in The Cut and Vanity Fair responding to the violence enacted on Asian women. Can you speak more to the role of rage in your work?
I think it speaks to why a lot of writers from marginalized backgrounds feel an impulse to write — that we are not always validated in literary spaces, which traditionally have been so focused on aesthetics and language and literally try to depoliticize writing spaces. It would almost be embarrassing if a writer were to say, “Yeah, I am motivated by rage or revenge!” Revenge is really just accountability when you are marginalized. Accountability and justice. I think things are changing now, but I’m glad that you ask this and I hope that we’re talking about it more because we need to legitimize writing as a vehicle for trying to hold people or systems accountable. Writing is a space where, outside of censorship, no one can stop us from creating the worlds and the characters we want to create, so I think there is this freedom to when a writer is alone in a room with the blank page, where they can explore rage in a healthy way, right? Because you feel safe — you’re not forced to actually see your aggressor again. You’re in this space where you have the power to control the narrative. It can be really healing and cathartic to create endings that we just didn’t get in real life, that maybe we will never get. And fiction can be the only space where we have this vicarious justice, and a vicarious catharsis.
Another thing I don’t really see talked about in writing spaces is that writing and craft decisions can be based on the writer’s healing. I think for writers that feel motivated by rage and what we might call ugly feelings, maybe their craft decisions have to do with themselves, and what they need — not as necessarily a writer, but just as a person. We just don’t talk about that enough: that a writer writing is often a form of therapy, so I’d love to see that discussed as something that is legitimate. If we don’t address that, it makes spaces like writing workshops very fraught because people think, “Oh, I’m just talking. I’m just giving my two cents about craft.”
Fiction is a way for me to heal, and if we don’t account for that, then those spaces can become so toxic because we’re not taking into account how writing for some people can’t be divorced into this vacuum of aesthetics, where the real world is just not implicated somehow. So yeah, rage is so important. There is something very specific about Asian American and Asian women’s rage, in that it’s seen as so unacceptable that it’s policed because the display of rage is working against 200 years of propaganda that says we’re not able to feel rage and we’re not entitled to feel rage.
I was just reading this great article by Roslyn Talusan, who wrote about Constance Wu and how her expressing anger and frustration was seen as unacceptable because she is an Asian woman who is supposed to be polite and grateful. Seeing someone like her express what is a very human emotion, that is what was unacceptable to people. It wasn’t what she said; it was the fact that she dared have those emotions in the first place. The world quickly tried to put her back in her place, and all of this has come out again because she just wrote about how she almost lost her life because of this. Reading Roslyn’s article made things click into place for me. There is something inherently political in an Asian woman’s rage. And that’s just the way it is. And we don’t talk about our rage without realizing it is always in resistance, purely by virtue of the world that we live in that made it political, that made it something that is so repressed and so tamped down, whenever we express our anger. Roslyn has been ceaselessly targeted online for so many years now, and she’s been really supportive and helpful to me going through being harassed online. I would have my streams of argument, my logical pure hard data to sort of defend myself. And Roslyn would say, “You could be saying anything — it doesn’t matter. You could be talking about math, numbers, I don’t know, rocks. The point is that you’re talking. The point is that you have some sort of visibility now — the illusion of ‘power’ that’s upsetting to people. That you have opened your mouth.” I find this funny because in my real life I am very powerless.
I’m really glad you brought this up, because I hope that talking about mental health, harm, and exclusion in the Asian American community — like what happened with Constance — this is an important wake-up call, and I hope people realize that you can be Asian American and still be threatened by an Asian woman’s anger. We’ve seen so much proof that internalized misogyny is so real. Some of the people fighting the hardest against abortion rights are women — we just see so much evidence that it’s not because you are of a certain identity that you don’t subscribe to harmful ideas. This is a moment for us to really reflect on ourselves.
In conjunction with this justified rage is also love, and in this issue of The LARB Quarterly, called “Do You Love Me,” you have a funny and heartbreaking piece called “The 100% Silicone Vibrating Ass & Pussy Speaks.” Can you speak about the roles of love and lust in your fiction?
The one peak romantic relationship in Disorientation is between Ingrid and Stephen, but it’s so clear that there is no love there. Or if there is, it’s extremely toxic and abusive love. Ingrid is literally trapped and Stephen is the master manipulator keeping her trapped. So it’s funny that in the main romantic relationship, there is no love.
I think where true love manifests is in Ingrid’s friendship with Eunice and her relationship with her parents. Those are the pure moments where we can see what healthy love looks like. And those crept up on me. For whatever reason in literary fiction or even what we call “MFA writing,” if that’s a thing, there’s this hesitancy or even repulsion to talk about any sort of innocent love. As if it’s too earnest. As if when we write about love, it must always be a sort of corrupt version of it. It’s interesting that I didn’t even intentionally set out to show what love between two Asian woman friends looks like, or this hard-to-access love between Ingrid and her parents that’s there but so unspoken — these just emerged on the page.
I think that lust in my writing has always been warped. It’s clear that if you read different things I’ve written, there’s this question of how is lust affected when race enters the bedroom? And how can you extract it from lust? We see this in both directions, between Ingrid’s history of only dating white men and Stephen’s history of purposefully seeking out Asian women.
I had a friend tell me one time that writers tend to have one or two obsessions that they write about for their entire lives, and I thought that was interesting because I think I know what one of mine is! In a way, I wonder if I’m trying to write it out of myself so that I can be free from it. I don’t even feel very interested in writing about lust on that pure raceless plane, if that exists — I don’t know if it can; maybe it exists between two white people in love. Otherwise, even when it’s two Asian people, that is somehow in the room, too. What’s fascinating to me is the tricky murky space of where our lust collides with our identities and our politics. Like anything that is intersectional, it is just so hard to untangle all of it, and that’s what Ingrid struggles to do with this pattern of only dating white men. How does that get tangled up with what she has perceived as not only beautiful in America, which is barely the tip of the surface, but also what is good? And this idea of goodness that is just propagated through white supremacy.
Ruth Minah Buchwald was born in Seoul and raised in northern New Jersey. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Electric Literature, The Margins, CRAFT, Autostraddle, and more. She received a BA in critical and visual studies from Pratt Institute and now lives in Brooklyn. Find her online @ruthbuchwald.
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