When the FBI reported in August that hate crimes in the United States against people of Asian descent were 70% higher in 2020 than in 2019, it indicated to author Charles Yu something more deep-seated than reaction to the coronavirus pandemic.
“It feels like Covid is the thing that gives a reason, or permission, for people who may already have latent feelings to voice those things,” Yu said in an interview ahead of his Oct. 5 appearance at Connecticut College’s One Book One Region program, held at The Garde Arts Center in New London. “I feel like it isn’t the sole cause, at all, but it does agitate something that’s underneath—which is xenophobia.”
Yu’s Interior Chinatown was the 2021 selection for One Book One Region, in which first-year Conn students do a shared summer reading with faculty, staff, advisers and community members. His fourth book is an allegorical novel highlighting the marginalization of Asians in American culture that is told through Willis Wu, who perceives himself as a “Generic Asian” man. It was the 2020 winner of the National Book Award for Fiction.
While taking on a heavy subject, Yu uses a light touch in Interior Chinatown. As Conn President Katherine Bergeron put it at the event: “The author is having a lot of fun, to be sure, but the book is also dead-serious about implicating you—meaning you, me, all of us—in the … racism that has kept (Willis) in the background.”
Yu, who has also written for television, including on the HBO series Westworld, said that “often when I’m trying really hard to write something serious or weighty, it doesn’t work, it’s boring. So, it’s usually when I take a little bit off of the gas and have a little more fun that I end up doing something that I find more interesting.
“I have had this communicated to me, both from Asian-American and non-Asian-American readers, that this story is being told about someone who maybe they wouldn’t have thought of as the protagonist of a story, and so that makes them feel less alone,” Yu said. “That’s really it. To me, that’s what fiction does.”
Yu answered questions at the event from Ayako Takamori, assistant professor of East Asian Languages and Cultures at Conn. She told Yu that it was as if he anticipated that Interior Chinatown “was the book we would need for 2020 and 2021.”
Yu, who is 45 and a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley and Columbia Law School, said he is optimistic that there will be less marginalization in the future.
“All the undergrads, they’re of this generation that is so much more aware, so much more tolerant, so much more understanding of other people’s points of view; they really embrace them and celebrate them,” he said. “Please keep doing that.”
Dean of the College Erika Smith thanked the One Book One Region partners: Connecticut College’s Office of the President; CT Humanities; Walmart of Waterford; Frank Loomis Palmer Fund, Bank of America, N.A., Trustee; Eversource; the Libraries of Eastern CT; and Bank Square Books.