FOCUS Recap: 'Charles Yu in Conversation with Paul Nadal'

Monday, Feb 15, 2021

The Office of the Dean of Undergraduate Students, in conjunction with the Princeton Asian-American Students Association (AASA), was proud to host bestselling author Charles Yu in conversation with Professor Paul Nadal as part of the FOCUS Speaker Series. The discussion was streamed live on YouTube at 5:00 PM on Thursday, February 11th.

Charles Yu is a New York Times bestselling author. His work includes writing for several TV shows including HBO’s Westworld and his novel Interior Chinatown, which won the 2020 National Book Award. Undergraduate attendees were offered a free copy of Interior Chinatown. Paul Nadal is an Assistant Professor of English and American Studies at Princeton. He teaches courses on Asian-American literature and culture, and is especially interested in studying the literature of the Philippine diaspora.

Yu and Nadal were introduced by Mitchel Charles ’18, the ODUS program coordinator, and Jerry Jiao ’24, a member of AASA, before diving into an expansive conversation about the Asian-American experience in literature and in reality. 

The focal point for much of the conversation was, unsurprisingly, Interior Chinatown. The novel which, in the words of Nadal, is about “being Chinese in America, about finding one’s sense of self, about the difference between performing and being,” perfectly encapsulated the themes of the discussion. Interior Chinatown is not a typical novel. Written in the style of a screenplay (complete with typewriter font) it explores the lives of characters too often relegated to the background. 

The theme of the “background”, and those who usually inhabit it, came up early in the discussion. Nadal mentioned Interior Chinatown as an exploration of space and its use of space – like single room occupancy dwellings in the titular neighborhood – as a symbol. Yu replied that, for him, novels do exist as spaces, or as unique worlds to enter: the goal of the author is to make the reader feel as if they have “slipped into someone's consciousness.” He went on to discuss the barrier between the foreground – in the sense of the mainstream, the title roles often reserved for white characters and actors – and the limited, almost ornamental roles reserved for minorities like Asian-Americans. The goal of his novel, said Yu, was to ”take some space or characters that are generally relegated to the background, that are very flat and two dimensional stereotypes – which is the background Asians” and develop them, giving them the attention and complexity they deserve.

Attendees also submitted live questions. The Q&A was moderated by Jennifer Lee ’23 and Kesavan Srivilliputhur ’23, co-presidents of the Asian-American Students Association. Although the event was free and open to all, most of the questions were submitted by Princeton undergraduates eager to connect their own experiences to those of Mr. Yu. A student in their first year at the University asked him what advice he would give to his younger self. Yu replied, laughing, “If I could talk to my post graduate self? Like, do your laundry more often, it's gross.” But he went on to answer the question more seriously and in more detail, saying: “When I was first writing things I just wrote them. I didn't have any craft. I had never taken a fiction workshop. I took poetry workshops. So I guess that might be something I would say. Just, like, you know, enjoy this freedom and even if it seems impossible, enjoy writing for no one you know.”

The questions touched on deeply personal topics, and the answers did not shy away. One student, who prefaced his question by mentioning that he was in Professor Nadal’s class (currently reading Interior Chinatown), asked Yu how his relationship to his Asian-American identity had changed over time, and what events had influenced it. Yu recounted his comparatively sheltered childhood in Southern California and his education at UC Berkeley, both places with a sizable Asian-American population. But after going east to pursue law, he said, his perception shifted. There were times when he was the only person of color in a room. Yu described “going through long stretches not thinking about [his identity] then having those stretches then punctuated by moments of acutely becoming aware.” This feeling of “dual consciousness,” as Yu put it, was directly reflected in his novel – how Asian-Americans sometimes occupy an uncertain space in the American racial landscape, simultaneously privileged and mistreated or ignored.

While the event was mostly about literary and lived experiences, it could not ignore current events. The recent uptick in violence and bigotry against Asian-American communities was not far from anyone’s mind. In response to a question about how Asian-Americans can stand with other marginalized groups amid a precarious political environment, Yu talked about the violence as “a really sort of visceral reminder of the continued sort of feeling of Asian faces and bodies being sort of other” but that he also hoped these experiences would catalyze more advocacy and activism within the community,  on behalf of Asian-Americans but also in solidarity with other minorities.

The event was a lively, fun, and often moving conversation about identity and acceptance. For anyone interested in literature, social justice, or the Asian-American experience, it offers an excellent starting point for discussion and thought. You can find a full recording below. 

The FOCUS Speaker Series is a program designed to offer students and the wider university community the chance to participate in meaningful discussions with some of the foremost anti-racist writers, activists, and thinkers in the world. New FOCUS events can be found on the ODUS website or on our social media, so please continue to check back!