ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Is a friendship with someone you've never met more authentic or less? On the one hand, you can't look them in the eyes, read their nonverbal cues. On the other hand, you don't jump to conclusions based on stereotypes about their race, their size, their age. The book "New Waves" is about technology, race and friendship. The characters build relationships with each other online that translate to the real world with mixed results.
The author is a first-time novelist, Kevin Nguyen, and I started by asking him how he began writing this book.
KEVIN NGUYEN: It was a haphazard process. I tend to write a lot on my phone when I'm, like, really anxious on the subway. So one time, there was just a really crowded subway, and I just started hammering a bunch of ideas into a note - really loose stuff, like ideas for sci-fi stories, just imagining dialogue. And I kept adding things to this note over the course of several weeks. And then the note got so big that the app crashed. And then, you know, just for kicks, I copy-pasted the note into a Google Doc, and it turns out I had written, like, close to 20,000 words.
NGUYEN: Suddenly, I was like, wow, that's a lot of garbage. That's 20,000 useless words. And I actually - I gave it a read through, and I found a kind of strange through line in it. And I was like, oh, maybe this is something.
SHAPIRO: What was the nugget of the idea that made its way from that crashed app into this novel?
NGUYEN: It's a couple things. One of them was I'd always wanted to write a novel about grief and how funny it is. You know, a lot of books about grief obviously are very bleak, and then they're hard to read. And they're kind of a bummer, which is certainly part of the experience, but there's something about grief that is actually very funny and makes people do funny, selfish things.
SHAPIRO: What gave you that insight?
NGUYEN: My best friend died when we were both 20, and I just had this really distinct memory. Obviously, you know, it was devastating. But me and, you know, our closest friends, after we learned the news, we showed up to the old Quiznos that we all used to hang out, and we just started laughing. And I just, like, tried to take that energy and - that weird, like, unexplainable energy and put that into a work of fiction.
SHAPIRO: And that is the beginning of this story. Two best friends who work at a tech company - he's Asian; she's African American - that comes to bear on the story. And she dies in the first part of the book, and everything unfolds from there.
NGUYEN: Yeah. The Asian man, sort of in his grief, just starts making a lot of interesting immoral decisions that have consequences that he doesn't realize until later.
SHAPIRO: Give us an example.
NGUYEN: So they both work at a tech company. And I - one thing I wanted to parallel was it's really easy to feel a distance when you work at a tech company where you make decisions about how a service works or an app looks. And a lot of those decisions are made quickly 'cause the point is to do things as quickly as possible and not as thoughtfully as possible. So all the characters in this novel are making quick decisions like that. And that kind of thinking bleeds into their personal lives.
SHAPIRO: Early on in the book, the main character, Lucas, and his best friend Margo have a conversation where they compare what it's like to go through the world as an Asian man versus an African American woman. Will you read this section?
(Reading) At least you're American, I said. Maybe it was a weak attempt to get her to change direction. Maybe I just wanted her to see me as equal. You see black people on TV, in music, in politics, in some form every day. Asians are foreign, alien, otherworldly. We might as well be invisible.
Her reaction to this surprised me. She could talk circles around me. She knew this. But Margo listened and, in fact, envied. Imagine that - the ability to disappear, she said. I'd give anything for a day where I don't have to be reminded of who I am. Margo grabbed my shoulders, shook me a little. If there was a machine that could do it, I'd change places with you right now, Lucas.
As you paid the tab and got ready to leave, I knew what was coming next. I would be an Asian man, and I would move through the world unnoticed and no one would bother me. True friendship was drunken body-swapping.
SHAPIRO: Is this scene taken from your life?
NGUYEN: No. No, it's all imagined. But you know, like, there are obviously real things in here. I did want to write, you know, a story about people of color who are friends but people of color who have very different life experiences. And I think about this all the time, you know? You have your co-worker. And like, you know, after work, you get drinks and you complain about work. And you complain about, you know, the racism you experience, the microaggressions.
But if you're different people, you know, that might manifest in different ways. And the characters in this book, they're young. And they know how to talk about themselves, but they don't really know how to listen to others. So it's sort of about internalizing experiences and characters who sympathize but haven't figured out how to empathize yet.
SHAPIRO: There is actually a conversation in this book about whether an author chooses to reveal a character's race and whether a reader assumes that a character is white or their own race. And it almost felt like a metacommentary on your own writing.
NGUYEN: (Laughter). Yeah, I think it was kind of more of a metacommentary on just the sort of literature that we consume by people of color. And a lot of people of color, they write, you know, incredible books about their experiences. The ones that publishing tends to surface the most, they tend to be written, I would say, toward the white gaze.
So when I was writing this, you know, I wanted to subvert that a little bit but, you know, at the same time, play into it a little bit - kind of lull readers into the sense that maybe this is what the book was going to be. And in some ways, you see that reflected by the title. There's a lot of, I would say in particular Asian American literature, that has a title that evokes, like, you know, something beautiful in nature. And the title "New Waves" has multiple meanings throughout the book, but it never becomes about anything scenic or nature-driven.
SHAPIRO: We don't get Mt. Fuji with cherry blossoms. It's the wrong kind of Asian, I realize.
NGUYEN: (Laughter) I know.
SHAPIRO: But the stereotype, yeah.
NGUYEN: I just want someone to pick up the book and be like, this sounds like it's going to be about Mt. Fuji and beautiful waves. And then they're just not going to find it.
SHAPIRO: Technology is everywhere in this book. And we get relationships that are mediated by technology and relationships that are not. How do you weigh the advantages and disadvantages of building relationships online versus face-to-face?
NGUYEN: I think it's really easy to talk about relationships on the Internet and how we don't interact as much face-to-face anymore as just a pure negative. And I don't really see it that way. There was an era of the Internet, really before Facebook and certainly before Twitter, where, you know, we were just skittish about putting our real names online. So we were completely anonymous. We had screen names. And you would meet strangers, and they would always be strangers. But it'd be sort of a disembodied kind of friendship.
NGUYEN: And you know, I just sort of took that to the inevitable conclusion of like - well, you know, if someone is disembodied, then like the main character - he's online, and no one sees him as an Asian man. And for the character of Margo, no one sees her as a black woman. And you know, how would they react to that in ways good and bad?
SHAPIRO: One of the other running thread throughout the novel is music. And the book's title, "New Waves," among other things, references the phrase bossa nova.
SHAPIRO: It's a rough translation. How do you think about the role that music plays in this story?
NGUYEN: I think of it as like a cultural touchstone, especially a lot of the early Internet was driven by music piracy. Right?
SHAPIRO: Like Napster, yeah.
NGUYEN: Napster, yeah. I'm thinking that era. There's an Internet forum that shows up in the book called PORK, which is loosely based on a real one called OiNK. I think about it as a personal experience honestly.
SHAPIRO: Were you a denizen of those platforms?
NGUYEN: You know, OiNK was very exclusive, and I was never invited on. But I was on a handful of other forums just discovering music.
SHAPIRO: Did you have a deep dive niche of your own?
NGUYEN: Bossa nova was mine, for sure.
SHAPIRO: Oh, it was?
SHAPIRO: You want to give us a bossa nova deep cut that we can conclude on?
NGUYEN: Maybe not a deep cut but kind of forgotten is Antonio Carlos Jobim has an amazing album called "Wave" that's - it's actually new wave-y (ph). It's maybe not the best expression of bossa nova in the traditional sense, but the music really holds up.
SHAPIRO: Let's go out on the title track of this 1967 Antonio Carlos Jobim album called "Wave."
(SOUNDBITE OF ANTONIO CARLOS JOBIM'S "WAVE")
SHAPIRO: Kevin Nguyen, thanks for talking with us.
NGUYEN: Thanks for having me.
SHAPIRO: He is the author of the new novel "New Waves." He's also features editor at The Verge.
(SOUNDBITE OF ANTONIO CARLOS JOBIM'S "WAVE")
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