Released March 22, Elaine Hsieh Chou’s debut novel “Disorientation” follows 29-year-old Taiwanese American Ingrid Yang in the eighth year of her doctoral dissertation on the late Chinese American poet, Xiao-Wen Chou. Pushed by her advisor into researching a man she has little interest in, Ingrid makes a shocking discovery that could save her academic career—while also threatening to destroy it.
Ingrid Yang has a problem: she has spent the last four years researching a man she couldn’t care less about. Desperate to finish, she finds a hidden note in the archives that she thinks is her key to not only finishing her dissertation but also upstaging her rival Vivian Vo, “the darling of East Asian Studies.” What Ingrid does not expect is to uncover the dark underbelly of her university, her own marriage, and the society she lives in. With the help of her best friend, Eunice, Ingrid falls down a rabbit hole of lies and is forced to confront her own prejudices and beliefs.
“Disorientation” is a campus satire that hooked me from the very beginning. Although Chou made no effort to conceal the absurdity, I did not think the satire was heavy-handed and appreciated the brutal (and honest) light she portrays academia and society in.
Ingrid begins the novel unaware of social justice discourse and is ignorant of the ways people of color face discrimination and brutality from white Americans and white institutions: white supremacy, yellowface, racist caricatures, and fetishization of Asian people and culture. Throughout the rest of the novel, however, she confronts her own experiences with racism—for example, her white friends in high school asking her to do her “Ying Ying” impression—as well as her fear that she has never understood her place in the world as a Taiwanese American woman. Ingrid’s growth as a character was compelling and honest, beginning to end. Chou examines race through a sharp lens and is unflinching in her portrayal of both casual racism and institutionalized racism.
The cast of characters are all caricatures of real personalities, yet they still manage to have depth, as in no person is 100% good or bad. Stephen, her white husband, is a Japanese translator that has only dated Asian women because they are “his preference.” Michael, Ingrid’s advisor, is the head of the Asian Studies department and treats his wife, Cixi, a Chinese woman as if she is a child. Eunice has her own problems as well, as she happens to only date alt-right white men, but claims it's because she “uses them.” All the characters are complex, and despite my dislike of most of them (ahem, Stephen), Chou did not cast them aside and instead explored them with depth.
The last line of the book happened to be my favorite, and I would recommend reading “Disorientation” if not just for the epilogue. “Disorientation” is my first five out of five book of the year, and I am excited to see what Chou releases next.