In Elaine Hsieh Chou’s debut novel Disorientation is a Taiwanese American woman’s coming-of-consciousness ignites eye-opening revelations and chaos on a college campus in this outrageously hilarious and startlingly tender debut novel.
For readers of Paul Beatty’s The Sellout and Charles Yu’s Interior Chinatown, this uproarious and bighearted satire is a blistering send-up of privilege and power in America, and a profound reckoning of individual complicity and unspoken rage. In this electrifying debut novel from a provocative new voice, Elaine Hsieh Chou asks who gets to tell our stories—and how the story changes when we finally tell it ourselves.
We chatted with Elaine Hsieh Chou to find out more about Disorientation, why she dropped out her PhD program, and being an Asian American writer in today’s time.
1. Describe Disorientation for someone who has not heard of it in three sentences.
It’s a satirical campus novel that follows Ingrid Yang, a 29 year old PhD student researching a famous poet named Xiao-Wen Chou. When she uncovers a shocking secret about him, her whole life is turned upside down. My hope is that the story is entertaining and comical, but at the same time, I wanted to tackle issues close to my heart like fetishization and cultural theft.
2. Disorientation is both character and plot-driven. How did you approach writing the story—what was the seed of the idea?
I started with the idea of a Taiwanese American woman who has a complicated relationship to white men (she’s both attracted to them and repulsed by her attraction). Then, not long after I started envisioning her story, I found out about a white poet who pretended to be Chinese in order to publish one of his poems… I couldn’t stop thinking about it, the audacity and entitlement. I wanted to bring those two storylines together so it made sense that she was an academic who was researching him.
3. You mentioned that you are a PhD dropout. What made you leave?
A few reasons… One was that I had started to really question what I was dedicating my life to (I was researching dead white women writers from the 1920s-1930s) while the rest of the world was in turmoil. For example, I’d be at a conference where we were discussing Virginia Woolf’s use of semicolons, while a protest against police brutality was happening outside… Academia started to feel so divorced from reality. Another reason was a catastrophic graduate seminar where I gave a presentation on intersectionality and was met with such vitriol, it really kind of broke me.
4. Many characters in the novel have their own paths in coming to terms with their Asian-American identities. Is there a character you related to the most? Is there a character that was most fun to write?
I think I can relate to Ingrid, Eunice and Vivian in all different ways, but the most fun character to write was probably Eunice. She’s just such a delight to be around, and writing her brought much-needed levity and joy to the novel. I would love to be friends with Eunice! She didn’t exist in the first two versions of the novel and now I can’t imagine the book without her.
5. Representation in media and literature has been widely discussed in the past years. With the release of Disorientation, what do you hope to add to or clarify in the conversation around representation?
This is such a good and tricky question! I guess the worry is that “representation” is often mistaken as simply achieving a quota of numbers. While more Asian faces on screen, for example, is always a good thing, it wouldn’t be a good thing if they were all playing stereotypical one-dimensional roles, right? Or what if a story about Asian characters, ostensibly a good thing, upheld anti-Blackness? And who is behind the representation is another question. I think it’s pretty accepted nowadays that when people tell stories they have actual stakes in, the stories are by necessity humanizing instead of othering. At the same time, that brings up the debate of “not all skinfolk are kinfolk.” Asians and Asian Americans, like all people, exist across a vast political and moral spectrum. So is the goal to have as many varied, messy Asian characters as possible, including those who espouse right-wing views, without regard to “is this good for our people?” Or is the goal to only support art that is “good for our people,” and if so, who decides what is good?
6. Viet Thanh Nguyen talked about narrative scarcity for Asian Americans and the fight against stories that "distort and erase" Asian-Americans. Do you think that has improved?
I think, broadly speaking, things have improved. Every year, we have more TV shows, movies and books written by and for Asian Americans. At the same time, I don’t think our work is done… Every year, there are still anti-Asian narratives being told and celebrated (one was even nominated for an Oscar in 2022).There’s still a lot of white gatekeeping. It almost feels like we can take one step forward, but then in the blink of an eye, we’ve been yanked two steps backward. So I think even though the situation is clearly better than it was a hundred or fifty years ago, we still have so much to work on. We cannot get complacent now.
7. Are there any writers you feel really excited about at the moment?
I’m excited for Ryan Lee Wong’s Which Side Are You On that comes out from @catapult in October. The novel takes on Black and Asian relationships and I know it’s going to start some much-needed conversations. I am also eagerly anticipating Sabrina Imbler’s “How Far the Light Reaches,” out from @littlebrown in December, that’s a gorgeous essay collection unlike any other: weaving personal experiences through the lens of sea creatures.
8. In the novel, Ingrid uses her cravings—junk food, allergy pills—as a crutch for the turmoil that accompanied her dissertation writing crisis. Did you find yourself holding on to something to help you through writing this novel?
I am also very food motivated! Having a little treat waiting for me at the end of a writing session is always nice. Something else that really helped me is my dear cat, Hamlet… I tell people he’s my unofficial emotional support cat. He’s very affectionate and emotive. Having him by my side as I wrote the novel for four years helped me make it through.
9. What was the transition like writing short fiction to your full-length debut novel? Did Disorientation begin its life as a short story, or has it always existed in your mind as a book?
Disorientation began off the bat as a novel. I planned it as a multi-POV story, told through the perspectives of Ingrid (age 49 in this version), her white congressman husband and their two college-aged children, and that was the first version I wrote. I honestly had no idea what I was doing. I over-outlined that first version, probably in part because I felt so clueless. It’s funny, though, because short stories are also very tricky in their own way. I don’t think one form is necessarily “harder” than the other, but definitely starting a novel when I had only ever written short fiction was very daunting! You just sort of have to hold your breath and dive in.
10. There are writers who like to use their writing as a means of provocation. Is Disorientation meant to be a provocation?
You know what? Yes! When I first thought about this question, I wasn’t sure… The novel is more obviously about Ingrid’s journey and all the ways in which other Asian American women like her are fetishized, erased, belittled. But something that really lit a fire under me was writing against very long-held, established and respected narratives about Asia and Asian people written by white authors. Those narratives are dehumanizing, and infuriating, because they have a direct impact on how we are treated, but zero impact on how these white authors are treated. I have to admit it felt delicious to have power over those problematic narratives and Asia-obsessed people for once. I know they won’t be happy about how they’re portrayed. But despite what they might think, they have never been concerned about the well-being of me and my people, and their happiness is not my concern.
Stories go beyond the pages. Check out the blog on Fully Booked Online to discover more Author Spotlight features, book news, and recommendations.