Book review: Disorientation takes a satirical look at race and belonging

Taiwanese-American writer Elaine Hsieh Chou's irreverent debut has a hook that seems outrageous on the surface, but is based on real events. PHOTOS: CINDY TRINH, PENGUIN PRESS

Disorientation

By Elaine Hsieh Chou
Fiction/Penguin Publishing Group/Paperback/416 pages/$30.98/Buy here/Borrow here

3 out of 5

Taiwanese-American writer Elaine Hsieh Chou takes on uncomfortable subjects such as racial stereotypes, cultural appropriation and yellowface (the act of putting on make-up so as to pass off as an East Asian by someone of a different skin colour) in Disorientation.

Her irreverent debut has a hook that seems outrageous on the surface, but is based on real events.

The protagonist, Ingrid Yang, is a 29-year-old doctorate candidate - one of a handful of Asians in the East Asian Studies department at a mid-tier Massachusetts university - who is haplessly floundering on her dissertation.

Eight years into her PhD, Yang has not managed to put together a semblance of a proper thesis on the fictitious canonical Chinese-American poet Xiao-Wen Chou, the crown jewel of the school who is idolised for his writings on the Orient, including about yin-yang energies and teacups.

Yet, Chou is not who he says he is.

In real life, in 2015, a submission by one Yi-Fen Chou was published in an American anthology of poems.

But the author turned out to be a middle-aged white man who was frustrated by repeated rejections by different publishers.

He then sought to romanticise his identity by submitting his work under the Chinese pseudonym, with his work eventually being accepted. This sparked debates about tokenism and a tendency of the majority to romanticise the "other".

In Disorientation, Yang ventures down the rabbit hole when she realises that there is more than meets the eye to the legendary Xiao-Wen Chou after she receives a mysterious note.

That Disorientation is set on a university campus makes it fertile ground for zany comedy and wildly exaggerated stereotypes.

There is the Korean-American friend who is typecast to look as well put together as a K-pop idol and the Vietnamese-American rival who is a competitive perfectionist seeking to one-up her schoolmates.

A Japanese character who later comes into the picture is, meanwhile, portrayed as a "super kawaii (cute)" woman who dresses like an anime character.

Chou, perhaps in a deliberate attempt at absurdist satire, simplifies complex racial issues into binary "us-or-them" terms while mocking the blind idolisation of white people, the romanticism of the East and majority privilege.

The narrative, however, sputters in large part because of Yang's apparent naivety and tendencies to bemoan the world around her and live in her own head.

She comes across as unbelievably juvenile in her world view - definitely unbecoming of a 29-year-old doctorate student - while her struggles with junk food and drugs also make her an unlikely and somewhat unlikeable heroine.

Flaws aside, Disorientation is an audacious novel about cultural assimilation and identity, though some may even find this absurdist satire offensive given how sensitive an issue race is.

If you like this, read: Korean Teachers by Seo Su-jin, translated by Elizabeth Buehler (Harriett Press, 2022, $30.92, buy here). Set in a Korean language school over the course of a school year, Korean Teachers follows four teachers who struggle with the social and ethical challenges that come with their job. The debut novel won the prestigious Hankyoreh Literature Award in South Korea.

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