Ingrid is in the eighth year of her PhD on canonical Chinese-American poet Xiao-Wen Chou. As a Taiwanese-American student, she’s uncomfortably aware that her white advisor, Michael, directed her towards this topic because of the need for more Asian representation in the East Asian Studies department, even though she really wanted to study modernism (‘Did some people actually believe a poem about a red wheelbarrow was about a red wheelbarrow when it was obviously about existential dread?’) She’s happily engaged to white boyfriend Stephen, a Japanese to English translator with no knowledge of spoken Japanese, who is reassuringly boring (‘One got the feeling if he were caught in a fire, he would remain calmly smiling even as the flames consumed his flesh’.) Her Korean-American best friend and department ally Eunice shares her hatred of fellow grad student Vivian Vo, an Asian lesbian activist who writes papers called things like ‘Still Thirsty: Why Boba Liberalism Will Not Save Us’. However, the calm order of Ingrid’s existence is upended when she makes an unexpected discovery about Xiao-Wen Chou, which may change the course of her life (and her dissertation).
Disorientation, Elaine Hsieh Chou’s debut, is the second novel on Asian-American representation in the arts that I’ve read this month (the other is Rebecca Kuang’s Yellowface, which I’ve not reviewed yet because it isn’t out until next year). And it’s by far the more successful of the two, largely because Chou is unafraid to reach real satirical heights, whereas Yellowface promised satire but actually stayed within realistic bounds. The first half of Disorientation, as Ingrid persists in existing in her own bubble despite all evidence to the contrary, is a triumph, pivoting around an incredible scene when she ‘infiltrates’ the POC Caucus on campus to spy on their activities and witnesses a debate about the casting of a white actress in Xiao-Wen Chou’s play Chinatown Blues:
“Are they going to make her eyes slanty – “
” – ‘slanty’ is a derogatory term – “
” – literally a shape, so does that mean I’m not allowed to say ‘square’ or ‘circular’ either – “
” – can’t believe we’re still discussing if this is okay – “
” – not the 1950s anymore – “
” – you know what else was popular in the 1950s? Book burnings –”
“Well, speaking as a Chinese American man – “
“Well, speaking as a Chinese American woman – “
“Well, speaking as a queer disabled Chinese first-generation child of immigrants – “
At its best, Chou’s satire reminded me of other blisteringly smart works like Paul Beatty’s The Sellout and Torrey Peters’s Detransition, Baby, exploring structural marginalisation while also thinking about how oppressed communities can turn on each other. It also brilliantly captures the hothouse atmosphere of academia, where the next chapter of your thesis can be more important than your love life, mental health or friendships.
Disorientation, for me, struggled a little in its final chapters, where Chou’s desire to write a realistic character arc for Ingrid seemed in tension with Ingrid’s deliberately exaggerated ignorance at the start of the novel. Some aspects of the novel’s conclusion are absolutely satisfying – for example, how we reassess Eunice, who originally seemed like an even more ditzy version of Ingrid – but the tone becomes a bit jarring, as a book that was soaring to surreal heights is brought abruptly down to earth. Chou ultimately spells out her messages a bit too clearly (though not nearly as obviously as Kuang’s Yellowface, which becomes didactic near the end). Nevertheless, this is a novel that thinks about so much, and leaves the reader with so much to think about. It was one of my most anticipated reads of 2022, and I certainly wasn’t disappointed.
I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK TOMORROW, 21st July. Pre-order it here.