It’s lucid and hilarious and hopeful and grim; in the same absurd style of Paul Beatty, Elaine Hseih Chou’s intellectually sexy book hits all the hot topic arguments of Asian American discourse and higher education identity politics. She lays out the ideological stakes — the personhood of Asian women as people, not objects — and the threat posed by pervasive and internalized racism.
“Disorientation” follows 29-year-old Ingrid Yang as she slogs to finish a doctoral dissertation on a seminal Asian American poet that bores her but whom she has already devoted too much time and effort to researching. She has a white fiancé who both cannot speak Japanese and is a Japanese translator, and is surrounded by racism on all fronts. In her fictional higher education institution, she has an obnoxious, white thesis advisor Michael and a Korean best friend Eunice; she lives in a constant state of insecurity and anxiety, feeling less than her more productive and prolific counterpart in the Post-Colonial Studies program, Vivian Vo. Vivian is a South East Asian PhD candidate who is all the things that Ingrid is not; she’s younger, focused and passionate about her work; she’s an activist and aware of her place in racial politics whereas Ingrid feigns ignorance.
I pause before describing this novel to a friend, unsure about where to start. The novel has a fantastic twist — absurd, relevant and so incredibly smart. But it also captures how hard it is to navigate race and to locate your place within the U.S.’s fraught and raucous discourse. Through Ingrid, Chou stresses how thinking about race is an arduous process.
Ingrid finds herself in multiple different situations across the political spectrum. Without really articulating it, Ingrid is notably apolitical — she is afraid of saying the words “white” and “gay,” operating on some branch of the color-blind agenda where she refuses to identify the impact of racism on her life. In a heartbreaking moment, she acknowledges that most of her close childhood friends referred to her in racialized terms. Even while she tried to ignore race, her friends were always conscious and belittling her otherness, her Asianess. In adulthood, Ingrid struggles to determine how “genuine” those relationships were.
However, when she finds herself within an activist space, she is made privy to a different way of talking about race that is unapologetically straightforward (contrary to her polite politics) but also filled with high-minded and alien vocabulary. She is confounded by terms like “anti-capitalist” and “embodying colonialism.” These words and phrases don’t mean anything to Ingrid. They are dialogue from a language that she hasn’t been taught to speak. Midway through the novel, Ingrid tries to converse with Vivian in activist-speak, using the foreign terms and parroting Vivian. Though she doesn’t recognize it at the time, Ingrid is practicing how to think about and confront the microaggressions she experiences daily.
No one generates complex treatises on their society right out of the womb. And doing sociological, class-bases analysis is not something organic; rather, intersectional analysis is a craft that requires training and mentorship.
Yes, we all experience race in some form or another, but how we imagine ourselves within a larger national and global tapestry is different. It takes training to connect your experiences with stereotypes on television, it takes training to problematize and recognize stereotypes in the media and to consider them beyond reactionary indignance. I love that Chou takes the time to demonstrate how thinking about race and about how to locate yourself in that discussion is a process.
“Disorientation” is innovative storytelling packaged in a pleasing pink cover. She covers the absurdity of microaggressions, internalized racism and the white supremacy embedded at the heart of academia — no matter how we try, we cannot remove whiteness from institutions and power structures. I would not be surprised to see Chou longlisted for the 2022 Booker Prize.
Daily Arts Writer Elizabeth Yoon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.