Book Club: Charles Yu and his ‘Interior Chinatown’
Good morning, and welcome to the L.A. Times Book Club newsletter.
Our May book club pick is “Interior Chinatown,” Charles Yu’s 2020 National Book Award-winning novel, which digs into pop culture, Hollywood and Asian stereotypes.
Yu joins us May 27 for a conversation with Times film critic Justin Chang. The National Book Award Foundation described Yu’s “Interior Chinatown” as “a bright, bold gut punch of a novel.”
The story is set in a fictional Chinatown SRO where protagonist Willis Wu lives with his family and neighbors, all of them working at Golden Palace, a Chinese restaurant and television set on the ground floor. Yu says his Chinatown is based less on any geographical place than on a state of being.
“It exists in a mental space, a kind of collective imagination for Asian Americans who grew up in my generation, feeling like you don’t exist fully inside of America,” he tells author Steph Cha in a Times interview. “The closest analogy I could come to is something like a cartoon, where the rules of physics or logic don’t always apply and you can walk from one room to another plane of existence, like sort of a Coyote and Roadrunner or Bugs Bunny thing.”
Released in paperback in November, “Interior Chinatown” is formatted like a screenplay and narrated almost entirely in the second person. “Ever since you were a boy, you’ve dreamt of being Kung Fu Guy,” it begins. “You are not Kung Fu Guy. You are currently Background Oriental Male, but you’ve been practicing.”
The novel is the fourth book for Yu, who juggles writing fiction with writing for television. His credits include the HBO series “Westworld.”
“I keep piles of books by me whenever I’m working,” he wrote in this Quarantine Diary during the pandemic’s early days. “When I get stuck or just need a break, it’s sometimes helpful to dip into someone else’s mind and/or universe. It’s part support group, part writers’ room, having them within reach.”
What questions do you have for Yu and Chang? Share them in advance in an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Future Los Angeles? Yu is among an impressive lineup of 14 writers who contributed the surreal landscapes of “Speculative Los Angeles,” a recent anthology that reimagines the city through its distinctive neighborhoods. Edited by novelist and former Times reporter Denise Hamilton, the collection includes stories set in West Torrance (Yu), Echo Park (Lynell George), Culver City (Ben H. Winters), Studio City (Francesca Lia Block), Angeles National Forest (Luis J. Rodriguez) and the Miracle Mile (Aimee Bender).
“The result,” says reviewer Zan Romanoff, “is a swath of tales that are both wildly imaginative and emotionally grounded, speculations that not only imagine our possible futures but illuminate the collective anxieties of our unsettled and unsettling present.”
RIP Al Young and Gerald Haslam: We recently lost two iconic California voices. Al Young, the state’s former poet laureate, “was a 9-to-5 poet. He wrote like other people went to work,” recalls Ishmael Reed in the San Francisco Chronicle. “He was obsessed and driven and was one of the best craftspersons in the United States.” Young also was a novelist, lecturer and jazz musician.
Author and historian Gerald Haslam memorably chronicled life in rural California, what he always called “The Other California,” in 21 fiction and nonfiction books. “Oftentimes we feel like the rest of the state and rest of the country doesn’t really understand us,” says Mike Russo, owner of Russo’s Books in Bakersfield. “But Gerry understood us. Gerry was us. ... He lifted the lid on the Valley and let people see we’re part of California too.”
Befriending fear: A bestselling L.A. novelist was struggling to depict a female adventurer. So she became one. Margaret Wappler talks with author Maggie Shipstead about the stories behind “Great Circle.”
Theroux news: Travel writer Paul Theroux’s novel “Mosquito Coast” returns as a new Apple TV series this weekend — with his nephew as the star. “Justin Theroux (‘The Leftovers’) takes the lead in what seems intended as a multiseason variation ... of Paul Theroux’s 1981 novel about a paranoid Yankee crank who hauls his family to the jungles of Honduras to escape everything that bothers him about America, which is just about everything,” writes TV critic Robert Lloyd. The series is the latest adventure for the prolific author, who turned 80 in April, shared his papers with the Huntington Library and published a surf novel, “Under the Wave at Waimea.”
Beyond “Black Panther”: Jevon Phillips talks with five Black comic book creators with five ways of seeing this inclusive superhero moment.
Border book drive: An “avalanche” of books is greeting migrant children arriving for temporary housing at the Long Beach Convention Center. The city has set up 12 drop-off sites at libraries and businesses across Long Beach to collect the donations. “It keeps coming and coming and coming,” Convention & Visitors Bureau President Steve Goodling tells the Long Beach Post. “The community has been very responsive.”
Ask a reporter: If you’re a parent, or just wondering about the state of schools in L.A. as campuses reopen, check out this eye-opening discussion with columnist Sandy Banks and education reporters Paloma Esquivel, Howard Blume and Sonja Sharp. Watch now.
Last word: “I’ve had my story told so many times by others. But this is our story told 100% our way. Claim your narrative — it makes you feel powerful.” That’s Sonoratown restaurant owner Jennifer Feltham talking about writing her book during the pandemic.
April book club
The evening’s highlights included Obama responding to questions from two local high school students. Tariq Stone, an aspiring filmmaker who attends Inglewood High, asked: “Right now we’re in a period of being extremely divided and we are finally starting to see the first signs of hope. President Obama, what do you think is our most important next step in overcoming our differences as a nation?”
Grace Lee, editor of the student newspaper at Buena Park High, said “A Promised Land” made her think about legacies and what we leave behind. She asked: “President Obama, what is the one thing you’d like to be remembered for?”
Watch Obama’s responses and the entire book club discussion here.
Love a good book?
Get the latest news, events and more from the Los Angeles Times Book Club, and help us get L.A. reading and talking.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.