AALR proudly presents a new series of interviews with four young Asian American writers of speculative fiction: Ken Liu, E. Lily Yu, Charles Yu, and Ted Chiang. All under forty-five, these writers have amassed numerous major science fiction and literary award nominations and awards–evidence of their ability to bridge the parallel universes of speculative and mainstream literatures. Their work differs radically, ranging from peculiar fables to intricate meditations on the relationship between humans and technology. But taken together, that work exemplifies the kind of intersectionist worldview that shifts conventionalized perceptions, encouraging us to think across traditional social and literary categories.
Conducting the interviews is Betsy Huang, Associate Professor of English at Clark University, author of Contesting Genres in Contemporary Asian American Fiction (Palgrave, 2010).
Accompanying the interview below is a review of Charles Yu’s How to Life Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by scholar and poet Timothy Yu.
Interviewed by Betsy Huang
Charles Yu writes the kind of fiction that prompts us to dwell in as well as on the multiple dimensions of his fictional worlds. His 2010 debut novel, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, compels us to consider the metaphorical range of what it means to live in a “minor universe.” And his two short story collections, the 2006 Third Class Superhero and the just released 2012 Sorry Please Thank You, take us on disorienting journeys through fantastic and mundane scenarios that simulate our efforts to navigate the profusion and confusion of our consumer-driven, ever-proliferating subcultural locales. The result is a persistent sense that we inhabit a multitude of hyperrealities but live nowhere, and that contemporary life has become an accumulation of chronotopic displacements. It is, of course, up to the reader to decide whether this condition is stimulating or terrifying.
When we met over Skype on a Saturday morning for the interview, we paused to muse on the marvel of being able to have a face-to-face conversation from our respective homes in California and Massachusetts. How technology restructures human relations across time and space is, after all, one of Yu’s chief preoccupations in his fiction. Smart, witty, and unassuming, Yu spoke thoughtfully about his family and education, his geek cred, his layering of time travel and immigrant narratives, and his abiding interest in making generative connections between fiction and science.
Betsy Huang: Why don’t we start with a brief account of who Charles Yu was and is? How did you find your way to writing fiction?
Charles Yu: I was born in Los Angeles. Both of my parents are from Taiwan. They immigrated to the U.S. separately and met here in the U.S. My dad came in 1965; he is an engineer and came on a scholarship. I think the first place he went to was Mississippi State, and then to Oregon State, before moving to Los Angeles to get his Ph.D. in engineering from UCLA. My mom came later, in 1970, to the San Francisco Bay area briefly, then lived in Alabama and Ohio with family before moving out west. My parents met by writing letters to each other…
CY: Yes! They ended up in L.A. together, where my dad was in the Ph.D. program. I was born in 1976 and raised first in Mar Vista, near where I live now. My parents then moved to a different neighborhood for a better school system. I went to Berkeley, where I majored in biology for a pre-med track, like a dutiful son. I was also an English minor–something my parents were not thrilled with, but I guess they eventually came around to it. And now they are very supportive of my writing–they sort of always were, but I think in some ways they didn’t know that I was serious about it, how much work I was willing to put into it. I think they get that now, and these days, talking with them about it is a treat.
But I didn’t get into medical school. They encouraged me to try again, but I saw it not only as a sign, but a statement that I shouldn’t be a doctor. I knew it, and I think that deep down they knew it too, though it took them a little while to get used to the idea. I then applied to and was admitted to Columbia Law, went out to New York for three years, enjoyed it, but decided to move back to L.A. to be near my parents, and my younger brother, Kelvin, who was and still is here, too.
BH: I suspect that many Asian Americans can relate to your dual membership in the sciences and the humanities while at college. It resonates with me, actually. I went to a math and science high school and entered college intending to major in aerospace engineering. I performed miserably during my first semester because my heart wasn’t in it, and found my way to the English major.
CY: My dad was–is–an aerospace engineer, so I did something similar to what you had done. Before I committed myself fully to biology, I took a lot of engineering courses. But I quickly found out that I was not cut out to be an engineer. I was no slouch at math and science, but every time I walked into one of the engineering classes, I was hit by this tidal wave of intellectual energy. There are some incredibly smart, hard-working people at Berkeley, and I realized just how outclassed I was within a couple of weeks.
It was the early nineties, so that by the time this cohort graduated in 1997, we found ourselves smack in the middle of the first tech boom, and specifically, the dot-com bubble. Many of those who graduated with me went to work for the startups that would later become the major companies in the cycle, some of which flamed out, and some of which are thriving or even dominant today. The pressure to be part of this boom and to succeed was definitely felt by those in pre-med, pre-engineering, econ, and so on.
Kids that shared my background–middle-class Asian American kids raised by immigrant parents, mostly Taiwanese, Cantonese, Korean, Vietnamese–I had this sense that many of them almost viewed Berkeley as a vocational school. Here you are, at university, at the kind of place where you open up the course catalog (which was as thick as the phonebook for a medium-sized city). You could pick any course in it at random, and you’d have world-class professors and graduate students teaching it. All of that is available, and yet there was definitely this feeling among some portion of the students that all of this was just a path toward getting a job. I don’t mean this judgmentally–I understood that pressure, and felt it myself.
Now that I’m older, I see it less. But my daughter just turned five, and we are already feeling the competitive vibes–already dealing with the jostling and scrambling and clawing to the top. It starts in pre-school. It’s nuts.
BH: It is nuts. In some ways, this is a theme I pick up in some of your fiction, this idea of being carried along by a script written by someone else. You’re not quite fully conscious of this script, but you feel coerced by a role you’re supposed to play. I can map this on to my own experiences, and I see it in yours too.
But you were an English minor. It’s a departure from the familiar script, no? How was that experience, taking the literature courses alongside the biology coursework?
CY: It was the beginning of my dual or split identity that I still have to this day. Back then, I’d run back and forth between my bio lab and my poetry workshop. I did feel like I existed in two worlds, but in some ways that was the most comfortable thing for me. I can function in the bio world as an average or above-average student, but I could live with that because in the writing world, it wasn’t so hierarchical and I didn’t feel like a failure all the time.
I was exploring this completely different way of seeing the world. And I was reading, and I understood that there was this other part of my life that doesn’t touch the bio part at all. It was great. I took many, many poetry workshops. Berkeley doesn’t have an MFA, but it does have an undergraduate writing program, and that’s what I participated in. I didn’t take a lot of literature courses because I chose the creative writing track of the English minor. But I remember the ones I took–a survey in post-Civil War American novels, twentieth century American poetry, an introductory course in literary theory.
The workshops were definitely formative. I wrote all through my childhood, but it was never something I thought I’d do, in the way I do it today. I also never thought that I was going to take a bunch of workshops to earn an MFA. Rather, I discovered this thing called the literary journal during my freshman year, and that discovery brought the idea of writing to a different level.
BH: How did the discovery of literary journals change your idea of writing?
CY: It was a revelation. Does that sound like the nerdiest revelation ever? It might be. But it really was. Books were untouchable, high up on the shelf, things you saw in Borders or libraries. It seems silly now, but you know, I was seventeen years old. I didn’t know anyone who had ever written a book, so that seemed very distant to me–the world of authors.
But literary journals–well, what were these things? These were perfect-bound, or sometimes even stapled together. They were made up of stories and poems by people–many of whom were still students themselves. I would read their bios in the back and say, “Oh, this is a real live person, five or ten years older than I am.” And I would read their work, and sometimes admire it, and sometimes not, and the stuff that I didn’t like was as important as the stuff I did like–I could see how they were still working out their own voices.
BH: So you had dual citizenship in Biology and English at Berkeley. Now you inhabit the science fiction world as well as the mainstream literary world. How has that been like?
CY: I often feel like I don’t fully belong in either community. I’ve been called a literary author who dresses up the narrative with a science fictional skin. I guess the assumption is that this is something that authors want to do–that is, use SF tropes to give a hook to their stories. I’m not sure exactly what the logic is there–I suppose the idea is that I’d be trying to expand my readership by straddling two areas–but in practice, I don’t think that’s necessarily what happens.
In any case, I don’t know how to write anything other what I am writing. Would I want to sit down to try to write, for lack of a better term, a conventionally realist novel? I might, but I have no idea what will come of it. In my ten, eleven years of writing, I’ve never produced anything of any length in that mode that feels interesting to me. I doubt I’ll ever write anything that is straight realism. On the other hand, I don’t think I’ll ever produce something that’ll be considered “center genre” for science fiction. I feel a little stuck between the two, but that’s probably a good place to be–always a little uncomfortable. And I’m generally okay with discomfort. You might even say I’m most comfortable being uncomfortable.
BH: And while we’re on the subject of inhabiting multiple cultural milieus, you’ve been to Comic Con as part of your book tour. What do you think about the entire Con culture? Have you been to other Cons? Tell our readers who are unfamiliar with the Con culture something about this universe unto itself.
CY: I haven’t been to any other Cons other than Comic Con. I got an invitation to Readercon in Massachusetts, but I wasn’t able to attend. I’ve been to Comic Con three years in a row now to promote my books. I loved it. Now that I know what to expect, it’s less overwhelming, less of a sensory overload.
It’s a visual reminder of how people love stories, how they want to engage with the stories and immerse in their worlds. It’s a physically enveloping space when you enter into the convention center. Also, the downtown San Diego area turns into a space for those few days where it’s safe to be totally nerded out. Whatever you want to be visibly into, it’s safe to do it. I love that energy. It’s different from what you see on the Internet, where this kind of play can become snarky and competitive. It doesn’t feel that way at the Con. Perhaps it’s the lack of anonymity, but it feels much more positive, earnest.
BH: I like the way you put it–that the Con is a safe space for people to physically and visibly inhabit their favorite imaginary worlds. It’s a kind of carnivalesque space where its visibility performs a critical function that calls out the constructed normality of the streets that surround the Con. Who determines the standards of the normal and the weird?
CY: That’s right. And another interesting aspect of the Con is its backstage-ness. What people look forward to is the engagement not only with the story, but with the story’s creators. Comic Con is about not just the actors and the Hollywood element, but the writers and artists of the comics, the writers of the television shows. The rock star panels are those that feature the writers and creators. And even though the Con has definitely moved away from its comic book roots into a much bigger venue, there’s still something there that rewards the serious fan.
BH: So you were just there to promote the release of your new short story collection, Sorry Please Thank You. It has been getting quite a lot of attention, and positive attention at that.
CY: Yes, and it’s surprising and particularly nice for a short story collection. Short story collections are stepchildren of fiction. People generally want to know when the next novel is coming out–as in, “Oh, story collection, oh nice,” they say politely, and then look away, pretending not to see the food stuck in your teeth. The focus is usually on novels, and big, fat novels at that. And so a collection of short, speculative, somewhat experimental stories is…I’m surprised it got any reviews at all, let alone some of the ones it did. The attention is largely due to the efforts of my publisher, of course.
But if I could speculate, it may have had something to do with the subject matter. It does seem to be focused on technology, or at least it could be spun that way as an angle for a story. And I’m grateful for that.
BH: I think we’re in a cultural moment when people are trying to figure out our relationships with the gadgets we own. The appeal of Sorry Please–and certainly How to Live in a Science Fictional Universe too–is in the range of scenarios you present to consider the different kinds of anxieties we have with our technology.
You’ve just wrapped up a book tour for Sorry Please, so I don’t want to ask you questions you’ve heard so many times over that might make you feel as though you were stuck in an awful time loop, answering the same questions over and over. What were some questions that you tend to get on the book tour and at book readings?
CY: [Laughs] I do get a few that are recurring. The most common types are from people who are writers, and in the middle of the writing process. How long do you write everyday? How do you write? And even more particularly and literally: do you write on a computer or long-hand? Do you outline? How much do you revise? That’s one category of questions.
The other kind I often get are very specific questions about details in the fiction–what I meant when I said or referenced something. I like these questions very much because they remind me that people are reading very carefully. They make it worthwhile to labor over a sentence. I’ll also get questions that are more general–what I think about the role of technology, especially in response to my latest book, and to How to Live Safely as well–because I write speculative fiction. But the ones that I get most are without a doubt the craft questions.
BH: Were you curious about those same process and craft issues when you were writing, and when you go to readings by other writers? Did you find them helpful?
CY: I wish I could go to more readings–I used to try to go, but you know, most readings start at 7 p.m., and are often in Pasadena or Los Feliz or somewhere that is effectively two hours away from my office, with L.A. traffic factored in. So work, plus kids, equals not much chance to go to readings.
I do read a lot of writer interviews on the Internet. What I found useful were not by those who spoke abstractly, but by those who gave me the sense that they were messy, disorganized human beings who could eventually create something that was beautiful or brilliant or both. If I could get a sense of how they are in their workshop, in their own personal box–that’s the kind of interview that interests me. But I read those less often now, and those I do read, I read differently. Not because I’ve figured everything (or anything) out on my own, but because I know now that I’m never going to have any method other than exactly what my method is.
BH: There is often a point of diminishing returns, where trying too many possible methods can make us feel unmoored.
CY: Yes. For me, now it’s more interesting when it’s a writer I know I like and interviews are a way to get more information about them. But it’s no longer the way I used to regard interviews, when I was hungry for some kind of rules or guidance.
BH: So, are you a card-carrying member of the SF geekverse? What’s your cred for writing speculative fiction?
CY: [Laughs] I’ve got cred. I played D&D…
BH: [Laughs] Of course. That is a necessary rite of passage.
CY: Yes. I owned many twenty-sided dice, back in the day. I read comic books, read SF, watched cartoons (Macross was a personal favorite–I had all of the episodes on VHS cassette, taped off of my local LA station that was kind enough to air them). Of course, I played video games. All of which is to say I was a pretty standard-issue kid growing up in the ‘80s and ‘90s. I don’t know if I ever felt a sense of community about any of these things, other than knowing I was generally part of the nerd group in high school.
I think something’s changed since then. Now, when I go to places like io9 or similar sites, I often feel like a tourist. Part of it seems like people have found each other, thanks to the Internet. Fans of something from the ‘80s who were previously isolated, they can now find each other and create these deep, rich communities and stores of knowledge and minutiae and shared experiences about their beloved stories and worlds. But there is also a kind of aggressive competitiveness in the geek culture. They have such a wealth of knowledge about these fictional universes that makes me feel like I’m in the shallow end of a very deep pool. I’m impressed by it, but lately I’ve been experiencing a sort of internal backlash. My own personal tendency is to assume that I’m a kind of fraud or lightweight.
But it occurred to me that it’s partly my own baggage I’m bringing to it. When I grew up, I was doing all of that stuff, really was interested in those worlds. But the fact that I don’t edit the Wiki for Battlestar Galactica or can’t name five hundred characters from the Marvel Universe off the top of my head doesn’t make me any less of a geek. I think it makes me a thirty-six-year-old who is doing what thirty-six-year-olds do.
That’s probably going to come off as hostile, but I actually mean it. It’s something I’ve resolved to say going forward because I’ve been playing this kind of card that says, “Oh, I don’t know enough about these worlds.” But my geek cred–it is what it is. Well, that was an unusually defiant answer! [Laughs] I’m vehemently arguing against some kind of hypothetical opponent who is questioning the legitimacy of my geek cred. I need help.
BH: [Laughs] No, it’s great. As someone older than you, I agree and totally get it. For instance, I’ve done directed studies with students whose breadth of SF knowledge is truly impressive. It’s the world they inhabit, the lingo they speak. At times I feel that they should be schooling me. But I don’t fetishize these worlds as much as some of them do, and I problematize the fetish for them. Some resist, but they all know it’s a necessary line of critique. It is a fetish culture. In your case, you’re calling it out through parodic and self-referential moments in your fiction–those are important critical moves.
Also, that whole universe is constantly evolving. As the technologies and the various online platforms change, the vernacular of the geekverse changes, too. It’s interesting to observe the way its langue and parole are shaped by the technologies they wield and the products they consume.
CY: It really is. And what you said about critiquing the fetish culture is interesting. io9 specifically, I think, does a great job of it because they understand the fetishization, as well as the real, genuine, sincere fanhood, because they are genuine, sincere fans. And I don’t want to discount that, even from the perspective of someone who is completely fetishizing all of it. The fact that people love to fall into these universes and want to be completely immersed in them–I don’t know if that’s more true now than twenty years ago. Perhaps we’ve become better at creating and inhabiting these worlds, and we’re just moving along the curve of how a world could so fully absorb a reader.
But io9 does have that critical distance. I know that Annalee Newitz, io9’s editor-in-chief, was a PhD student at Berkeley when I was an undergrad there. She used to publish this zine, Bad Subjects, which I used to read…
BH: I remember Bad Subjects!
CY: Yeah! I brought it up to her when I met her a couple of years ago and she said, “I can’t believe you read that!” I told her I used to read it, didn’t understand a word of it because it was all grad student theory. But it’s amazing to have these former grad students and brilliant theory people who are running one of the biggest (and in my opinion, best) techno/science/speculative genre/geek culture sites on the Internet.
BH: Your io9 chat a few weeks ago was a very useful resource for my interview, incidentally. You said in the chat that the hardest aspect of writing SF for you is the readers because of their “crazy amounts of genre savvy.” What are some of the conventions and clichÃ©s in SF that you consciously try to deal with in your fiction? Take your story “Yeoman” from the new collection, in which a Star Trek extra who has been given the hapless red shirt strategizes to prolong his life on the show. Were you satirizing not only the notoriously transparent costume clues on the show, but the jokes about this that have become clichÃ©d as well?
CY: I’m not sure I set out to satirize. In that story, the ending certainly isn’t satire. It started out as a way for me to investigate the conventions of that kind of story. Specifically, a Star Trek story, but more broadly, a kind of Christopher Columbus narrative in which the universe is seen as a big globe, and we’re going to explore it along with all of our assumptions and perspectives on it. And so it is less about science fiction than it is about the worldview embedded in that kind of story, which is the assumption that everything we encounter is going to be translatable culturally, conceptually, morally into something we can grasp.
“Yeoman” doesn’t nearly approach that level of complexity, but the genesis of it is rooted in the question of why these kinds of stories end up feeling so safe. And that’s why “Yeoman” has a tidy ending.
To answer your question more specifically, I wish we had more stories that were more commensurate with our experiences when we encounter something weird. For example, I just read Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris. The novel was published forty years ago, but I wish I were reading more books like that now. Maybe there are many that achieve what Solaris does, but I’m just not aware of them.
BH: Solaris is one of my all-time favorites. What did you like about it?
CY: Well, Lem explicitly takes on that idea of human intelligence encountering something that isn’t going to be understandable. Why would we assume that we could communicate with an alien intelligence in any meaningful way? By the end of the novel, I began to feel silly about those assumptions–to feel parochial and myopic about my view of human intelligence in general.
BH: The planet, or giant brain, or whatever metaphor you draw on to describe or name the entity in the novel, always seems inadequate or imprecise. The entity escapes our epistemological and linguistic capacities to understand it. We just don’t have the language for it.
CY: Perhaps there are arguments for how it would have to be like us in some way because life has to develop in certain ways to be close to intelligence, or that certain universals–mathematics, for example–would provide some common ground between us. I’m hopeful for that, but the novel poses the question: what if we encounter alien life that isn’t hostile or friendly, but just…alien?
BH: Yes. I love one of the final scenes when the ocean-like surface of this planet forms a pocket around the protagonist Kris Kelvin’s outstretched hand but does not touch it. It’s a humbling experience for the human scientists in the novel, for whom “a hundred years of Solaristics” and a research station with a huge library got them no closer to a working theory of the nature of this alien entity.
But back to your fiction. In the io9 chat, a reader posted a question about his confusion while reading your novel How to Live Safely.
You said in your reply that you too were confused. Were you? Or did you just say that in jest?
CY: Yes, I was confused. I was joking, yes, but it had a kernel of truth. I was confused on a couple of levels. I was confused about my central metaphor…
BH: Which was?
CY: I’m going to have to reduce it for the sake of conversation, but it is an extended set of equalities:
Time Travel = Language = Memory = Story = Family
I actually wrote this out on a piece of paper, and also put it in the footer of my novel draft, so while I was working on the book, whether I was staring at the wall or staring at my screen, I was always reminded of it.
I was trying to create this long, attenuated chain-link metaphor where I could use the language of time travel to talk about all these other things, and have them function together not like a strained analogy, but an organic whole. I was trying to create a vocabulary where, like “Solaristics,” I invented “chronodiegetics,” my made-up science. “Chronodiegetics” allowed me to talk about all those subjects in one common vocabulary.
BH: “Chronodiegetics”: I believe you described it in the novel as “a theory of the past tense, a theory of regret.”
CY: Yes. Sometimes I would lose my thread because I was trying not to overthink it, to make it too clear of a map. In those moments, it could get away from me and confuse me. Another level of confusion for me was the logical continuity and the paradox at the center of the novel. The novel doesn’t really have a complicated plot; in some ways, it’s very simple. But certain elements were taking it in different directions while I was trying to achieve an overall effect of a thing that collapses on itself. My editor was very helpful in this respect; we both knew where I wanted to end up and he helped keep me on track.
BH: That’s interesting: the idea that a plot that is supposed to loop can actually get away from you is, well, paradoxical.
On the subject of genre savviness, genre clichÃ©s and such, I wanted to get your thoughts on the current vogue of the post-apocalyptic or disaster tale vis-Ã -vis, say, the time travel or time loop story in mainstream cinema and fiction. The latter does not seem to have as much appeal as post-apocalyptic narratives in popular fiction and cinema. Which, in my book, is a badge of honor…[Laughs]
CY: [Laughs] Yeah!
BH: So what is appealing to you about time travel? Why do you think it isn’t as popular as, say, disaster narratives? Is there some kind of cognitive or intellectual challenge posed by the time-focused narratives that post-apocalyptic narratives don’t pose?
CY: That’s really interesting–I hadn’t thought about it in those terms. The post-apocalyptic scenario can certainly have the big, cinematic elements, even in a novel. There’s something about it that matches up very well with the feeling evoked by a classic, mythic structure with a universalist theme. It also gratifies an escapist impulse; it’s self-annihilation porn. And you get to watch this spectacle through an alternate reality simulator. But the fact that we could find ourselves in the imagined situation or that we might be close to it gives it that extra charge. This is what the environmental disaster novel achieves.
BH: I like “self-annihilation porn.” That sounds exactly right, and it echoes what Susan Sontag had said in “Imagination of Disaster”: that science fiction movies are gratifying not because they are about science, but because they are about disaster. The big disaster pictures are particularly good at this because they give us concrete, spectacular images of how humanity might meet its end. It seems to me that the time travel narrative, by contrast, abstractly imagines and defers the arrival of the “end.” Movies like La JetÃ©e, 12 Monkeys, and The Terminator can poignantly move us to consider–“chronodiegetically,” to use your terminology–the meanings and implications of our actions at various points in our lives. But they can also be inordinately confusing if we try to resolve the logic of their time loops.
CY: The better a time travel story is, the harder it is to understand. It wrestles with ideas for which we don’t have any machinery for comprehending yet. The movie Primer is a good example. I read somewhere that Shane Carruth made the film for $7,000, so it’s understandable that the production quality doesn’t look like that of a studio movie. But the fascination is with structure of the story and what he did with it. People have diagrammed all the time loops in that movie on the Internet. It’s incredibly complex.
I’m not the kind of person who would want to diagram something like that. I also will never be the kind of person who needs to do that in order to enjoy something. But I do understand that if you’re really going to think about time travel in a rigorous way, or even a non-rigorous way, you’ll quickly find yourself in rough territory.
BH: Yes. It seems to me that there are two ways to think about time travel “rigorously”–as a rational or rationalizable system of logic, or as a rich metaphor for human conceptions of history. The diagrammers are interested in the former, and you seem more interested in the latter.
This is a good segue into a question I have about the critical reception of How to Live Safely. Most of the reviews seem to fixate on your preoccupations with narrative experimentation, metafictional exercises, scientific and philosophic meditations, techno-human relations and such. But no one seems to pick up on your dramatization of ethnic and immigrant concerns–the trials of assimilation, of citizenship and belonging, of, well, how to live safely as a minority in the U.S. I saw very few explicit references to this dimension of your fiction. Is this something you’ve recognized in the critical reception as well?
CY: Yes. I definitely appreciate that, because I agree–it’s not something that reviewers have really touched on. Asian Americans–specifically the Taiwanese Americans that I know–have commented on this at readings or on the Internet. It has been gratifying to hear them say that it touched them on some level.
I wonder if it’s a kind of dog whistle so that you only see and hear it if you pick up that tone. Because it really isn’t explicit, at least in terms of using proper nouns. I never name a country, for example. And it might be easily to overlook because of all the other plot issues. It may not be intentional, but I think that the idea of immigrant strivings is something that people have not picked up to be particularly important to me, even though it is.
It’s something I wrestle with because by its very nature, that novel is an immigrant story. But I never see it described that way. It’s an immigrant story, and it’s a story about being the kid of immigrants, too.
BH: You said during the io9 chat that your parents are immigrants and had to navigate the channel between discrimination and opportunity, as many immigrants do. You also said that it is the “outsider” experience and perspective that is instrumental in why you write and what you write about. Could you elaborate?
CY: It occurred to me while writing the novel that the immigrant, the outsider experience, was the perfect map. I wondered why I haven’t read more books with this conceit–that being an immigrant is exactly like being someone who is trying to navigate another universe. This was the most natural way for me to talk about the immigrant experience. It’s a very apt metaphor.
BH: There are some passages in the novel where, to me, the question is almost explicitly posed: how the narrator’s father could or couldn’t live safely in America. I picked up on your critiques of the American Dream that are woven into the narrator’s accounts of the father’s strivings and failures. The entire novel is intoned with the notion of “minorness,” of perpetually being stuck in a minor status, minor universe. So it was alarming to me that virtually no reviewer touched on this theme.
Another dimension of the novel that has to do with both time and your Chinese background is a passage in which the narrator mentions the lack of tenses in the Chinese language. For me, it imbues the father’s efforts toward the “acquisition of tensed information” in the novel with a whole other layer of meaning. Do you speak Chinese?
CY: I grew up speaking Taiwanese. My parents identify as Taiwanese and I was raised Taiwanese American. The language they spoke at home was Taiwanese, and that was my first language. I started to lose it during elementary school, but I knew enough to pick it up again later–there have been times in my life when I got some of it back, and then others where I lost most of it again. My parents are probably the only people in the world who can understand me.
But I understand that there is basically one verb form in Taiwanese, Mandarin, and Cantonese–my wife is Cantonese American and I understand from her that there are no verb tenses in Cantonese as well.
BH: I wasn’t sure how to formulate a question about the significance of this grammatological difference between the Chinese dialects and English in the structure of How to Live Safely other than to say that when I read the aforementioned passage, it resonated deeply with me–that confusion about conceptions of time that results from being raised in a language that does not have tenses. English is not my native tongue; I spoke only Mandarin until the age of ten, when my family moved to the U.S. I am an English professor now, but I still have problems with verb tenses to this day because they confuse me…
CY: Is that right?
BH: Yes. I know textbook grammar and can spot and fix the errors in writing or print. But verbally, off the cuff, I mix up tenses all the time. It’s a kind of ongoing ESL condition that I can’t kick.
CY: If you came here when you were ten, then you must still speak Chinese?
BH: I do. But only conversational Chinese. When I watch Chinese and Taiwanese news programs on cable television, I can’t follow the report. The level of Chinese I retained is that of a fourth-grader. When I am Chinese, I’m a ten-year-old.
CY: [Laughs] That’s a form of time travel.
BH: [Laughs] I like that! And I wonder: if language shapes our conception of the world, then would our conceptions of time be more flexible or more limited if we contemplated it from a language with or without complex tense forms?
CY: I would say more flexible, now that think about it. I read in your bio that you came to many works of literature in English first through Chinese translations of them, which I thought was fascinating. With this piece you’ve added about your ten-year-old Chinese vocabulary and grammar, I think that this would give you a uniquely bi-focal perspective on it.
BH: I’d like to think so. Okay, who is doing the interviewing? [Laughs] Speaking of different languages and ways of thought: what kind of law do you practice, and has it informed the way you write fiction in any way?
CY: I think unfortunately–or fortunately, I don’t know–I’m not sure of the extent to which being a lawyer has influenced my fiction writing. In the cases of literary scholars who are also creative writers, academic work probably has some way of informing their psyche and shaping their consciousness that is difficult to define. As a lawyer, it’s inevitable that I’m being shaped by it.
I can say that I probably approach things more analytically than I otherwise would. I was
never a particularly analytical person before I went to law school. I just did not think of things in any systematic way; I was very intuitive. I am not a good explainer; I know the answer, but often can’t articulate how I got there. This is still generally true about me. For instance, in this conversation, you are articulating things I’ve often thought. You have this ability to say exactly what I was thinking. I don’t always have the machinery for that; I come at things impressionistically. And so being a lawyer was beneficial because it forced me to think things through and be more attentive to detail.
BH: Your feeling that you can’t explain things well is really surprising to me. The interlocking implications of the social and logical conceptions of time in How to Live Safely can get pretty complex, but you “explain” it all with great clarity. If you didn’t, the book would have been intellectually confusing rather than emotionally moving.
What kind of law do you practice?
CY: I am in-house at a company, so I do all sorts of things–mostly contracts. I was a corporate lawyer doing transactions for a couple of years–mergers, securities, and such. When we wanted to have kids, it made sense to move in-house. So now I’m kind of a generalist.
BH: I guess what we’re talking about is the conventions of different genres–not fiction or literary genres, but rhetorical genres. We’re talking about discourse communities. Now that I think about it, your short story collections are actually exercises in practicing the grammar of different genres. I’m thinking of the story “Designer Emotion #67” in the new collection, which seems to be an exercise in satirizing corporate speak and marketing strategies. It’s as though each story moves through a different rhetorical community.
CY: That is interesting. That is one question I’ve been asked: What ties this collection together? And I’ve been giving this kind of soft answer that it’s a bunch of experiments in form. But I think what you’re saying is more precise and more correct, which is that it is exploring different rhetorical styles, voices, languages that we encounter in our lives as consumers and citizens.
BH: So in Sorry Please Thank You, which story was the hardest to write? And have you abandoned stories you started because you tried a concept that proved too difficult to work with?
CY: There definitely have been stories I’ve abandoned, but my abandoned ideas almost always come back in some form. I’ve got stories I’ve been kicking around for years that I’m sure will bubble up in something I’ll write later. In Sorry Please Thank You, I had trouble with a few of the stories because it felt as though they were simply ideas–not organic stories with ideas in them, but ideas that I needed to put people into. That is always a troubling place to be because I know from the get-go that it’s going to be hard to make this engaging for a reader. There are, of course, readers who are interested in reading about stories that are idea-centered, but I feel this need to entertain.
One thing that definitely ran through many of the stories in Sorry Please was that I had
trouble ending them. I had trouble with ending almost all of them, because of that impulse, the need to not just have a formal experiment, but to try to make it into a story about real people. I don’t have a problem with that impulse, of course–it’s generally what feels natural. But I do recognize that not everything can or even should be forced into that mold, of a recognizable story, and that at times I have been guilty of forcing something into a shape that it didn’t need to be forced into, in the process losing something vital about it, or unruly, losing the thing that made it most unclassifiable and therefore interesting. So sometimes I think I should be fighting that impulse within myself.
BH: What, then, do you do when you can’t end them? This reminds me of what you’d said earlier about “Yeoman,” too–that you had given it a “tidy ending.”
CY: One of three things. One is that I tie it off in a kind of neat bow, in the way I had with “Yeoman.” It’s not a plot ending per se, but tonally and thematically, it feels like much more of a conclusive ending than I usually write. Others would be like the one in “Adult Contemporary,” where it’s an open ending in every possible sense. It’s a metafictional story that ends with the guy both outside the fourth wall and inside his purchase story.
Then there is “Standard Loneliness Package,” which I ended with music. By music, I mean
that I try to find a tonal ending that doesn’t necessarily have a rational resolution. Rather, I leave with the sound of the words that feel like an ending. But I also know that the ending doesn’t have to feel like one. It’s something I need to move past, but it’s something I struggled with when writing this collection.
BH: We’re so tyrannized by the need for the sense of an ending. But I really like your description of the ending of “Standard Loneliness Package.” You’re right–you ended it with a feeling that lingers. It had more of a poetic quality instead of just a narratological arrangement. And it is a fitting quality for the story, because it leaves us with a melancholic mood that corresponds with the narrator’s at the end of the story.
In the recent NPR Weekend Edition interview, the introduction describes the story as
“entirely about humans using technology as a way to buy detachment from the ordinary emotions of human experience–grief, heartbreak, awkwardness.” That’s all true. But I also think it’s about the sadness of people who have become the technology in the entire outsourcing trend, the means for others–the consumers who can afford it–to buy happiness. It’s the people in the developing economies that have been technologized, and you are telling the story from their point of view. And so am I off base to say that the story is about the technology (the labor) and less about the consumers? I guess I am seeking validation from the author for my reading. [Laughs]
CY: [Laughs] Well, you’re going to get it. You are exactly right. That’s the impulse behind the story and that’s where the story goes. And I don’t mean to call out any particular outlets, but I think when you have very compressed interviews, you can only ask questions in a certain way that is constrained by the format, and I think the tendency was to focus on the conceit, the idea of outsourcing, and how it would affect consumers of the services, as opposed to what it means for labor. In an interview with an academic like you, we can of course talk about the details of a story at a very different level. All of which is to say, I’m glad you said it.
BH:. Perhaps a first-world perspective encourages some of the readers to position themselves in the story as those who can afford to outsource rather than those to whom the pain would be outsourced. They may not immediately align themselves with people in developing economies. And there may be readers who have these types of jobs who might experience stronger emotional affinities with the narrator in the story.
CY: Yes. It’s told in first person by somebody who is experiencing the pain of rich people. And you’re right–to expect a little more of readers, I think it’s fair to say that there could be a kind of blindness on the part of first-world readers. I’m probably as guilty as anyone, but that’s what I was trying to do in the story–that is, to see it from the other side.
BH: On that note, I wanted to ask about your sense of your writerly identity as an Asian American, as Taiwanese American more specifically. Has being Asian American impacted your writing in any significant way?
CY: In every way, but also in no specific way. This might sound like a BS answer, but it really isn’t. I don’t have a particular community of any writers, let alone Asian American writers. I don’t know many of them. I recently met Jay Caspian Kang in New York; his novel, The Dead Do Not Improve, just came out recently. Before that, I had met Ed Park over email, and I know Alexander Chee over Twitter. So no, I hardly know any Asian American writers, and one nice thing about publishing books is that I get opportunities to meet them. Now I feel like I will have people to talk to, even if only by email, or see once every couple of years. That has made a big difference.
But I’ve just felt like a writer. Because it was hard enough to get the writing out, I didn’t consciously add expectations of myself as having to bring something to this as an Asian American writer. It’s already and necessarily there because I am Asian American. I will always be that, and it’s already coming through in everything I’m writing because of who I am. It could also be because I haven’t been thought of in that way. I’m not sure that I’ve been thought of as an Asian American writer.
BH: I don’t think you have been. In fact, I think it has gone the other way. If we consider what this might mean, it could be wonderful and a bit dubious at the same time, in the sense that some might be willfully blind to an aspect of who you are, and to the point where they are not picking up certain dimensions of your work.
CY: Yes. It can be wonderful, as you say, that people might be reading the work and possibly making the incidental observation that the writer is Asian American, or not even note it at all. It’s a good response to work that isn’t based on assumptions about the writer’s background. But then it could be the result of blind spots, too.
BH: Do you read fiction by Asian American writers? You may not know many of them personally, but do you read their work?
CY: Not disproportionately compared to my reading in general, but I do. But I’m just thinking of the ones I’ve wanted to read but simply haven’t gotten around to it.
BH: No no–this was not a question meant to induce guilt…[Laughs]
CY: [Laughs] The guilt just comes out naturally.
BH: Well, here’s an easier question, then. Critics and reviewers have cited resonances of Borges, Dick, Vonnegut, Adams, Hemingway, Beckett, and even Woolf in your fiction. That’s a pretty wide spectrum of styles. How does that list jibe with the list you’d make?
CY Borges and Vonnegut are certainly two of my favorites. Also Jennifer Egan, Jonathan Lethem, Donald Barthelme, Philip Roth, Don DeLillo, Colson Whitehead.
I guess this list is interesting because even though many of these writers have science fiction elements in their work, no one here would be shelved in the science fiction section in a bookstore except for early Jonathan Lethem.
This might be because of their success–and I don’t simply mean commercially. This might be a different conversation altogether, but at some point if certain audiences and critics decide that you’ve transcended a genre, then you’re not considered genre anymore even if you still write genre. Lethem is the best example of this. He has written novels that are easily classified as science fiction, but he is very highly regarded as a literary author (and rightfully so, I think). This doesn’t happen with many SF writers, but for some reason it happens to some–and I’m not exactly sure why. Kurt Vonnegut would be another example, I think.
But back to your question. That’s my list. And they were more influences than writers whose work mine “resonates” with. I’m not sure that I’m a descendant of any of them because I don’t think I’ve even written enough to know that. But they are certainly people whose work I go back to when I sit down to write, to see how they do it.
BH: On that question of what that line is when you “exceed” or–the word you used was “transcend”–genre: I think it was Tzvetan Todorov, the poststructuralist theorist, who said in a discussion of the typology of detective fiction that to write exemplary genre fiction is to conform to the conventions, not to transgress them. Those who transgress would be writing “literature,” not genre. The latter is taken to be work that “exceeds” or “transcends” the constraints of genre writing, and would be shelved in, say, the “Fiction and Literature” section of Barnes and Noble rather than in the genre sections.
It seems to me that many of the writers you name, and yourself included, don’t necessarily set out to simultaneously write genre and transgress or “transcend” it too. That is to say, I think you combine a number of generic vocabularies, and the result no longer fits neatly into any generic category. That combination or synthesis is perceived as some form of “transcendence.” But, to me, it simply calls out the less visible conventions of texts that are shelved in the “Fiction and Literature,” which are made more visible when combined with another generic lexicon.
CY: Yes–that makes a lot of sense.
BH: One last question. It’s one I’m asking all of you in this interview series. If you were to teach a course in speculative fiction, who and what texts would you teach?
CY: In addition to the writers I already named, I would teach Lem. Umberto Eco’s collection of essays, Six Walks in the Fictional Woods, based on his Norton Lectures at Harvard. I would also include someone like James Glick–really good non-fiction science writers, and especially books about quantum mechanics or information theory, or the major twentieth-century innovations in physics. If you’re going to read speculative fiction, so much of it is grounded in or inspired by science. It’d be great to see a different kind of storytelling as well. The storytelling of the history of these scientific developments could be interesting for students. It is for me; it’s what I read a lot of.
BH: Yes, I entirely agree that good science writing is as useful and wonderful a way to study narrative as any. I wanted to ask you about Godel, Escher, Bach, a book that was clearly influential to you.
CY: Yes. I actually thank Douglas Hofstadter in the acknowledgments of How to Live Safely even though I’ve never met him. I love that book. If you talk about one-of-a-kind works, that book is simply an amazing feat in freethinking. Hofstadter didn’t try to conform to any known box or category for a piece of literature, science, or any other type of thought or writing. It’s impossible to know what to call that book.
BH: I’ve only read snippets of that book, and the experience was very much like reading certain technical parts of How To Live Safely. It’s where I feel like I’m pivoting between cognition and confusion. It’s a stimulating state to be in. I’m just trying to stay afloat in a world, in a discourse community that isn’t “native” to me.
CY: That reminds me to return to an earlier question of yours about the outsider experience–the one about how the immigrant narrative lines up with the science fiction genre, and my point that How to Live Safely is an immigrant story. The father in the story in particular believes that the way you assimilate is by learning all the rules and following them perfectly–socially, in the workplace, as a student.
BH: I’m really glad you returned to elaborate on this point, because this was what I most appreciated about the novel. But then I think that the father in How To Live Safely is not merely living by the rules. He believed in the rules, but he also believed, perhaps foolishly, that the rules enabled him to be inventive, to do something over and above what is merely expected of him. The tragedy, of course, is that there were mechanisms that kept him in his “minor” place. I remember those lines from the novel very keenly:
The world has always felt just out of his reach. […] And yet my father will never stop trying, my father will go on for years after this day, thinking that if he just reads another book, just figures out the key, the secret, the world, the world of science fiction with its promise and possibility, will open up to him, to us, for us.
CY: That’s why it’s “how to live safely in a science fiction-al universe” rather than a “science fiction universe”–it’s meant to be explicitly metafictional. The family is learning how to live in this alien genre, as it were, and I wanted to emphasize this.
Charles Yu is the author of How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, which was named one of the best books of the year by Time magazine. He received the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 Award for his story collection Third Class Superhero, and was a finalist for the PEN Center USA Literary Award. His work has been published in The New York Times, Playboy, and Slate, among other periodicals. Yu lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Michelle, and their two children.