Our April pick for Ballerina Book Club, hosted by American Ballet Theatre principal dancer Isabella Boylston, is Charles Yu’s “Interior Chinatown.” Written in a screenplay format, the darkly funny novel tells the story of Asian actor Willis Wu and his experience being typecast within Hollywood.
Willis dreams of emerging from the anonymous rollcall of background characters to be the central player — or more specifically: the “Kung Fu Guy,” rather than “Generic Asian Man Number Three/Delivery Guy.” The satirical book follows Willis on this journey, spoofing “Law & Order” and exploring stereotypes that plague the industry along the way.
In addition to writing “Interior Chinatown” (which picked up the 2020 National Book Award for fiction last November) and the 2010 novel “How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe,” Yu has also worked as a story editor and writer on the HBO series “Westworld.”
You can find our reading schedule below. Be sure to check the newsletter for discussion questions and special surprises. We will also continue our celebration of the Ballerina Book Club Classic pick “Giovanni’s Room” by James Baldwin.
A parting note: If you haven’t already, sign up for our weekly newsletter to get interviews, book picks and more delivered to your inbox. You can also find us on Goodreads, where we’ll be discussing the book and more.
~ Reading Schedule ~
April 1: Act I and II
April 8: Act III
April 15: Act IV and V
April 22: Act VI
April 29: Act VII
~ Discussion Questions ~
- Let’s start with the book’s structure, which is laid out in a script format.
On a personal level: What sort of reading experience does this create for you? Did you enjoy the font choice, structure and use of margins?
And story-wise: What does the structure do in terms of creating (or distorting, or blurring) reality for the characters? How does this shift as the book progresses?
- Beyond the structure of the book as it’s presented, the ongoing (and seemingly fluid) production of the cop drama TV show “Black and White” also shapes how the characters move through the book. What did you make of this?
- “Black and White,” Willis explains, operates from a template. Do you see this pattern of templatization replicated anywhere else in the book?
- Charles Yu writes for television. How do you think being in the writers’ room affected how he wrote this book?
- How does Yu use humor?
- Early on in the book, Willis lays out a clear progression of roles, from “Background Oriental Male,” to “Dead Asian Man,” and up to “Generic Asian Man Number One.” How is this chronology achieved, disrupted or complicated throughout the book?
- What does the role of “Kung Fu Guy” mean to Willis?
- And what does it mean for his mother to ask for him to “be more”?
- How does Willis explore the notion of playing a character in his real and acting lives? What masks are worn? What expectations do we place on others to conform to certain ideals in our heads?
- How do the labels of “Generic Asian,” “Asiatic Seductress” or “Asian Guy” box in or dehumanize the Asian community? How are these stereotypes internalized?
- In several moments, Willis describes how the lighting hits characters. Think about shows that you have watched. How does this work within scripted television? How does how we present people in arts and entertainment affect how we perceive them?
- The characters experience many deaths over the course of their life, with each setting them back in accumulated benefits and in the trajectory of their roles. What commentary does this provide?
- Over the course of the novel, we see how Willis’ father ages both “over years” and “overnight.” How does time, aging and family function in the book?
- Characters are surprised when others ask to hear their real story. How do you feel this relates to human interaction and how we see each other?
- How does language affect how the characters communicate across generations?
- The book speaks about immigration and assimilation. How does this play out within the individual characters’ plotlines? How does it affect how they relate to each other?
- While hanging out with Phoebe (his daughter), Willis says: “Watching her is like finding old letters, of things you knew 30 years ago and haven’t thought of since. How to feel, how to be yourself. Not how to perform or act. How to be.”
How does this fit in with other themes in the book? How does Willis change once he’s a father?
- What do you make of “Phoebe Land” and the echoing refrains of the children?
- While in court, the character Older Brother says, “Your Honor, we object to all of this. The whole thing. This mock trial. The entire justice system is rigged against my client.” What systems are in play here?
- What does it mean for Willis to be charged with “an internalized sense of inferiority”?
- Turner, one of the cops on “Black and White,” confronts Yu about his own notions of race; the other cop, Green, calls into question the invisibility of other groups of people, such as the elderly. What did you make of this discussion?
- The book weaves in historical facts about the treatment of Chinese immigrants in the United States. How did Yu work these into the story? How did it affect how you see the characters?
- What does it mean to be “American”? How is this notion explored within the book?
- In the end of the book, Willis grapples with the idea of how he’s internalized the role society has prescribed for him to the point that it’s hard to separate who he is from who society is telling him to be. How does this apply to your own life? What roles do you feel like you’re stepping into because it’s expected of you? Where do the societal pressures end, and where does the real you begin?
- Consider the quote from Philip Choy, included before the book’s final act: “Chinatown, like the phoenix, rose from the ashes with a new facade, dreamed up by an American-born Chinese man, built by white architects, looking like a stage-set China that does not exist.”
What is Chinatown in Willis’ world? What does it mean, in the book, to leave it?
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