'Interior Chinatown' Puts That Guy In The Background Front And Center Charles Yu's new novel follows a TV actor who often gets stuck playing generic Asian men. Yu says he was inspired by shows that set episodes in Chinatown — but keep Asian actors in the background.
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'Interior Chinatown' Puts That Guy In The Background Front And Center

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'Interior Chinatown' Puts That Guy In The Background Front And Center

'Interior Chinatown' Puts That Guy In The Background Front And Center

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Willis Wu is often seen as a generic Asian man in a restaurant or the background of a crime scene on a television drama called Black and White. You kind of know the show.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: She's the most accomplished young detective in the history of the department. He's a third-generation cop who left Wall Street to honor his father's legacy. Together, they head the impossible crimes unit tasked with cracking the most unsolvable cases. When all others have failed, the ICU is the last hope for justice. When all others have failed, you call Black and White. This is their story.

(SOUNDBITE OF EMERGENCY VEHICLE SIREN)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Dead asian guy is dead.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: He's dead.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Looks that way.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Our heroes regard the prone Asian male body, partially covered with a sheet.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Mexican?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Checking.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: A crime scene investigator swabs something.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAMERA SHUTTER)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Another measures the radius and dispersal pattern of a pool of drying blood. A female officer in uniform - black, 20s, attractive - approaches white lady cop and black dude cop.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: What you got?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Restaurant worker says the parents live nearby. We're hunting down an address.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Good. We'll pay a visit - might have some questions for them. Anyone else?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: A brother - seems to have gone missing.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Black and white exchange a look.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: This might be a case of...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: The Wong guy.

(SOUNDBITE OF "LAW AND ORDER" SOUND EFFECT)

SIMON: But Willis hopes one day to be kung fu guy on movie screens around the world. "Interior Chinatown" is a novel by Charles Yu. And Charles Yu, an award-winning writer for "Westworld" and other shows and author of three books, joins us now from NPR West. Thanks so much for being with us.

CHARLES YU: Thank you so much for having me, Scott.

SIMON: That's a dramatization straight from your book. Did we get it right?

YU: (Laughter) You really did. I was struggling not to laugh and ruin it. But it was - that was wonderful.

SIMON: Yeah. Willis Wu is an actor of large ambitions - so far locked into small roles. Help us appreciate how he feels.

YU: Well, I mean, I think you said it. He's locked in. And he lives this kind of marginal existence. And, you know, we've all seen "Law And Order." And every few seasons, it seems like they do an episode set in Chinatown, and you have the two leads. And they're in the foreground. And it's their story. And way in the background - almost out of focus - is a guy unloading a van. And I wanted to tell a story about that guy.

SIMON: Yeah. Willis Wu was born in the U.S. But he has to put an accent on to get some speaking roles, a line here or two, doesn't he?

YU: Yes. Right. That's part of his job - is to be generic asian man number three. And that's actually about midway up the hierarchy in the...

SIMON: Yes. You present...

YU: ...Ladder.

SIMON: You present the hierarchy, don't you? You lay it out for us.

YU: Right. At the bottom is being the dead body. And then at the very top - and this is the most coveted role that an Asian guy can get in the world of Black and White, the fictional procedural show that I created - is kung fu guy. And that's what Willis dreams of. He's dreamt of being that ever since he was a little boy.

SIMON: What are some of the lines Willis often has to utter?

YU: He has to say things about, doing it for my family's honor. Or you wouldn't understand in my culture.

SIMON: Forgive me, Mr. Yu, have you written lines like that?

YU: (Laughter) Not on purpose. I've probably...

SIMON: Outside of this novel, I mean. Yeah.

YU: (Laughter). I've definitely seen a lot of them.

SIMON: We see so many stories these days. We know so many life stories these days about Chinese American scientists, doctors, lawyers, university presidents, grad students, novelists. What do these stories often miss about Chinese history in America?

YU: I think what I was trying to get at with telling the story this way was capturing something about the feeling of what it's like to be not the center of the action, to - even as you touched on, you know, Chinese Americans and Taiwanese Americans and other Asian American groups have excelled in various fields. And yet, at least from my perspective, there can be still a feeling of it doesn't seem to add up.

This story, to me, came at a time in my life when I - yes, I've been working in TV for a couple of years. But I'm also reaching an age where my own parents are, you know, aging. And they've been in America for decades, more - you know, more than 50 years. And my own kids are reaching an age, too, where they are asking questions.

They can watch the news. And they can ask, are we real Americans? You know, is there a qualifier in front of that? And so positioned between them is this sort of middle-aged writer. I wanted to write a book about what it's like from all of their perspectives.

SIMON: I wrote down one of your lines that I admire so much. Willis muses, someday you want the light to hit your face just right.

YU: It (laughter) - it's a little bit of, you know, who doesn't want that moment?

SIMON: Yeah.

YU: And yet it's not a moment that - especially a lot of Asian actors, you know, have gotten. And recently, we have seen - I mean, it's incredible to watch Awkwafina on stage accepting a Golden Globe. I watched that moment with my daughter, who's 12. And for her to see her - you know, a face that looks like hers get that award - that's something I won't forget.

SIMON: I have to ask, writing for "Westworld" and other shows, with this novel, which I enjoyed a lot, are you biting one of the hands that feeds you?

YU: (Laughter) Hopefully not biting it, maybe nibbling it.

(LAUGHTER)

YU: And so I hope it's seen as a way in to talk about issues, hopefully, that's both playful and entertaining but also does get at some more substantial questions and challenges.

SIMON: Charles Yu - his novel "Interior Chinatown." Thank you so much for being with us.

YU: Thank you, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF NAKED CITY'S "CHINATOWN")

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