One Foot in the World of Black and White: An Interview With ‘Westworld’ Writer Charles Yu

One Foot in the World of Black and White: An Interview With ‘Westworld’ Writer Charles Yu
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Charles Yu

What you need to know

Charles Yu speaks on the influences that formed his latest novel 'Interior Chinatown.'

Charles Yu, a writer for the TV series Westworld, won the 2020 National Book Award for Fiction for his second novel, Interior Chinatown.

The book is an ambitious exploration of the influence of stereotypes on identity and self-worth. Willis Wu, an Asian American actor at the center of the story, is constantly typecast in generic Asian roles, and his search for understanding what it means to develop a self. He spoke to Jonathan Hum for The News Lens about his new book.

Tell me a little about yourself growing up. 

I was born and raised in Los Angeles, California, in 1976. My parents immigrated from Taiwan in the 60’s. I was an LA native until attending college at UC Berkeley and then law school in New York at Columbia University. I practiced law for many years while simultaneously writing. 

Growing up I had a lot of Asian friends, but did not spend much time in Chinatown. The closest location to me would have been the downtown LA Chinatown, but there wasn’t too much there except the place we’d go for dim sum, which is now closed. My high school was about 30 - 40 percent Asian students, and Berkeley was also very similar. My experience was a very second generation Asian American experience. The child of immigrants who was born and raised here.

Can you expand more on that Asian American experience growing up? Did you experience much prejudice?

Right. It was weird on many levels. It was a very happy, comfortable stable childhood. And it wasn’t until I got a bit older that I grew conscious a bit about feeling a bit like an outsider. And it was a weird thing considering I had plenty of Asian Americans around me. But as I started out into the world, especially the working world, there would be sudden instances where I wouldn’t feel like I was any different from other Americans, but interactions with others would lead me to sometimes forget what my face looks like. And people would have questions about where I was from or where my parents were from. 

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Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images
Los Angeles Chinatown, August 13, 2014.
Was there a particular memory that highlighted a difference in how people perceived or reacted around you?

In elementary school. At that point I did go to a school that didn’t have a lot of Asian kids, and was subjected to racial slurs and comments. Especially about the food I’d bring to school. So I was conscious of it fairly early on.

There was a particular event I do recall. It was in New York while I was still in law school around 1999-2000. I was out with a group of friends, all Asians, part of the Asian Pacific American Law Students Association, and we were walking out of a restaurant when another group was walking in. And one of the guys we passed muttered under his breath, “Smells like Chinese food in here.” It kind of just blew my mind. Just not something you’re expecting to happen. And it was a little jarring, making me think was I just walking around naive? Thinking that everyone is colorblind or what?

In terms of how I think about things, in the book it’s like playing a role. There’s a social interaction there’s some layer underneath where it’s like, “Oh, I don’t totally fit in here.” Even if no one’s saying anything, there’s an awareness of being different.

Was your family close to their cultural background? Did you learn Taiwanese at all?

Yes. The first language I learned was Taiwanese and I spoke it as a child exclusively until four or five. However, once I started going to school I refused to engage in any language outside of English. I do have a memory of having a little bit of an accent and kids laughing at me when I couldn’t pronounce certain letters. My parents spoke Taiwanese to each other, but I didn’t speak it too well throughout my childhood. Even though there was a period where my Dad opened up a Taiwanese language school in our neighborhood. It lasted a few years and I went to that during its operation, but outside of that not much. My parents were very involved in the community aspect of the culture. They were very active in the Taiwanese American Citizens League. We went to retreats in Michigan called the Taiwanese American Foundation and I did get sent to camps and retreats that were aimed at Taiwanese American kids. The community was smaller than the general Asian American community and they definitely tried to foster that as an identity in me. It was an important part of my life growing up.

When I read Interior Chinatown, it brought up a lot of memories as a teenager struggling with stereotyping and coming to terms with my cultural and ancestral identity. Yet, the economic conditions were more reflective of stories my grandparents told of their experiences growing up in Washington, D.C.’s Chinatown, rather than my own experiences. Can you shed light on how you created this environment?

Willis is really someone who doesn’t feel comfortable in the world he finds himself existing in. He lives in this world Black and white, and he always feels a little bit of a distance as he’s portraying a very shallow version of himself. So to the larger Black and white world, the most resilient feature about him is his “Asianess,” and it’s not even specified as to what he just is — Asian. But inside he has a complexity to him. He is not the same as the generation above him. He has one foot in the world of Black and white and one foot in the world he grew up in. And even though he’s very comfortable with his family and loves them very much, he still feels that this pulls him towards answering the specific question of how do I define myself in this other larger world in a way that still feels authentic? How do I transcend this label as being the Asian guy, and that’s very much how I and other people I knew growing up felt. Willis is trapped in an in between that I tried to make relatable to everyone. 

There’s a generational struggle here too. There’s this American dream where the immigrant generation comes and they work really hard and struggle economically; but once they make it, it’s supposed to get better each generation. Yet in some ways, better kind of means moving out into the suburbs where you might be in an enclave closer to lots of people but create a distance culturally as you assimilate. And what does it mean to assimilate, is there a loss there? In this sense, yes, I drew from my personal experiences here. And my wife’s side, going back a few generations. Her family is Cantonese. Her parents were born here. Her father was born here and her mother came from Hong Kong when she was a baby. They have had very different experiences.

In a lot of ways the book is a blend of how all these really diverse kinds of experiences still have some commonality and the commonality for me lies in the “Asianess.” No matter what generation you are, a lot of people in American will look at you and be like, “That’s an Asian.” You could be from any one of three dozen countries and they’ll still be like, “Yeah, that’s an Asian.” That’s a commonality that I wanted to explore.

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Photo Credit: Courtesy of Charles Yu
What was your message that you were trying to convey, if any, in telling it? 

I don’t think there’s any one specific take away I was hoping to get across, so much as really create a cast of characters where there’s someone in there where people can say “Oh, I recognize that.” There are probably parts that some people say I don’t know what that is and maybe it’ll be interesting to them, but I also hope there will be a wide range of bits and pieces of the book that people will identify with.

I found it interesting that you chose to present the story in a screenplay format, allowing Willis Wu’s reality to seamlessly blur with the conceived role he was trying to play. What made you go this route instead of a more mainstream format?

Yeah, I am also very happy to hear you describe it that way because that was really my aim to blur the boundaries between Willis, his role, and who he is inside. I started writing this in earnest probably around 2013, maybe even a little before that. It was a good three-plus years where I had some sections written but I didn’t know how to put them together. There was no framing device, I didn’t know what it was. I had some of the substance but didn’t have the form. And then there was a sort of a eureka moment, which I’ve literally only had three or four times in the 20 years I’ve been writing fiction. It was just one of those moments where some of the first lines of the book came out and I thought, “Oh that’s interesting, I have a character. I have something he wants already wrapped up in the opening lines and here we get a sense of the story.” I recognized the potential energy in the book. Having him be an Asian actor playing this certain kind of part where it blended between reality and metaphor. 

It was the process of figuring out how do you walk the line between these two realities. The screenplay format was really useful in that way, as it visually shows you dialogue and the stage description or action lines. So you can see when you were on the script and when Willis starts to go off script. It was really helpful to be able to jump back and forth between Willis as generic Asian man and Willis as himself. Once those boundaries were established I then proceeded to let those boundaries bleed into each other. There were points where this bleeding effect happened but wasn’t even intentional. 

You’ve been working as a TV writer aside from being a novelist. How are the two storytelling mediums different for you? 

They are very different. And yet there are some levels of overlap. The main thing going from writing prose fiction to writing for TV was I really needed to learn how to think visually, in images. Real people would have to say the words that I was writing and I had to keep in mind the production designer would have to design the set or the director would have to explain to actors or understand what it meant. That’s not always what I think about personally in my own fiction writing. 

One of the wonderful things about writing prose is that you don’t have any budget and you don’t have any constraints on what’s possible. You can do whatever you want. From that comes a sense of freedom and even ambiguity which is really what I am aiming for. That ambiguity from the previous question of when is Willis playing the role and when is he not. It’s harder to sustain and maybe it’s not even desirable in TV. Adapting to TV writing made me learn how to write more economically and with more clarity. 

And then, there’s the collaborative aspect of TV writing. In these environments you’re not alone. There are still many many people who are involved in the process but it is very different from the activity of sitting alone in my house writing this book for several years. 

Was there a preference in terms of which medium felt more comfortable? If you had to choose.

If I had to only do one, I would have to choose writing fiction. It’s my first love and this is where I’m drawn to. However I am very glad for the chance to still dip into the TV world. I’ve learned from it. But if I had to choose, yeah, it’d be writing stories and essays. 

This work seems to comment on not just preconceived notions of racial identity in the eyes of the overall public and their effect on individuals, but also the typecasting of minorities in media. Has your experience writing for television affected or reinforced your perception of how minorities are cast and portrayed?

To me it’s not so clear as to be able to easily point to something and say this is a clear example of typecasting. I think, one, I’ve had really good luck in the people I’ve worked with and two, we’re in a period of time where people (at least in the TV rooms I’ve worked in) are very sensitive and aware of trying to be inclusive and listen to voices that might come from a different point of view; whether that be racial, religious, or sexual. There are a lot of shows out there with different points of view and it’s exciting people are looking for these different voices and stories.

Specifically speaking of Westworld, this was a show set in the wild west, sort of, right? And this allows a sort of license to not have to portray reality as it exists right now. This allows you to focus more on what the show is about: individuality, consciousness, free will, and technology. I thought it was really cool that the Westworld cast was really diverse. There were prominent Black leads really driving the show and there’s an Asian American cast as a season one regular. I’ve had good experiences on both the shows I’ve worked with and the people I’ve worked with. 

To me there’s a larger blind spot, not necessarily on Westworld, just in general. Most of the writing rooms I’ve been in, and I’ve been in six writing rooms so far, I have been the only person of color. Most of the rooms are still pretty white, and you can have the best intentions of the world, be very conscientious and very informed, and yet you’re going to have to have a certain kind of conversation when you have a pretty homogeneous room. It’s also true of class too. But people are coming from a certain socioeconomic background and that too can limit the kinds of conversation. 

As much as I think there are really good intentions and probably a lot of progressive thought, there’s still a long way to go before you can eliminate the money aspect. There’s a lot of money on the line and a lot of people involved. No matter what the initial story is, it’s going to be touched and changed by so many hands that it’s hard to see a singular voice or point of view break through. That’s why it’s really a miracle when something like, Atlanta on FX, one of my favorite shows. I can’t believe that show got made. It feels like one complete vision from somebody who had a specific point of view, and succeeded in getting it through the system. 

Like a game of narrative telephone where, as it goes up the chain, it kind of morphs what the initial message or view was?

Yes [laughs] that’s a really good, concise way of putting it. There are a lot of forces there to sand off the edges of things because first it has to be discussed in a room of somewhere between four and 10 writers, and then it needs to be written and rewritten by the show runners who then have to get it approved by the network. There are a lot of layers before something gets on air — and that doesn’t even include the editing. What you said is better [laughs].

The United States is currently involved in an outcry of social injustice and unrest with the Black Lives Matter movement at the forefront. Do you see connections between this movement and the themes you touch on in your book?

Yeah. I finished writing in 2019 and wouldn’t have known what 2020 would bring on any level, but a lot of the conditions that gave rise to BLM were already present before I even started writing. BLM to me is a very important and urgent conversation that is long overdue. In some small way I wanted to share my opinion. I don’t want my book to be viewed as subtractive to any of it. I hope that it’s additive to that conversation. Willis exists in this procedural called Black and white, and if I had to boil that down to it’s essence, then too often when we talk about race in America it’s often about Black and white. It’s a struggle for Black Americans to overcome this systemic discrimination that’s been going on for centuries and as important as that is, it’s also important to remember that there are more races in America and that looking at things from a more 360 view, I hope, is helpful in fighting this struggle. 

Willis’s point of view is to look at the leads, one Black cop and one white cop and say, “Okay, we know what the main story looks like, but does this offer any perspective or insight to look at the view of the Asian guy off to the side?” By telling a story from this perspective, I was hoping to give some insight into at least one character’s Asian American experience. 

Well I have to say that the way the trial plays out was a particular interesting part of the story for me. Can you explain your thought process of why you chose for it to play out like it did?

For a long time I didn’t know how to end the book. There was a sense of well... a law and order structure. For people who may or may not be familiar, typically this structure of the franchise starts with a dead body or a crime. The first half of the show you have the police investigation and then the second half shifts into a courtroom drama. And I thought, “Well, this would be a natural progression.” I also wanted a reason for the story to get there. 

It all sort of dovetailed when I started to do some research about some of these court cases that I included into the scene. And then I thought maybe it isn’t accidental that Older brother goes off to law school. Because really, here’s Willis in a struggle to transcend his role and be seen as a “real American,” but there’s this parallel thing happening in the back that we don’t find out until the end that Older brother has been going to law school and learning about all this legal history. Which is really a history of Asian Americans gaining rights through the court system in the U.S., because they didn’t have rights politically. They didn’t have any cultural or political power. But the one thing they could do was sue in court to enforce rights or, really, to establish rights. The right to rent an apartment, the right to marry, the right to testify in court. Those were real things that had to be fought for and won. I just thought here’s a perfect example of how the story wanted to go that direction and it thematically felt right. It was almost by subconscious design, and I really wanted that classic courtroom monologue at the end.

For those of you who haven’t read the book but are reading this, spoiler: the courtroom scene devolves into Kung Fu. I didn’t mean to depict the court system as a sham. I wanted that because of the substance of it, and thought it was important to give the book the weight it should have with the struggle and the story of these characters, and also I was conscious of the fact that I had just put a bunch of legitimate court cases into a book and thought well this needs to end on a higher note and have some fun. 

I found the sham court scene to be my favorite part.

I didn’t mean to invalidate the court system in that way. Talking about how the sham court scene evolves leads to a discussion about if this is really an impartial judge, or if any one is going to get a fair shake. Thematically that was important to me. To me, what’s happening now... These supreme court justices being confirmed and the vote split, five to four, six to three today in favor of this or against that — all voted on party lines, it goes to this question, right? Are judges actually impartial or are they just another arm of the political machine. In law school you’re taught, “No, they are impartial.” Yes, you could talk about liberal or conservative leaning justices, but when you read the opinions, there has to be a basis in law. There have to be principles to their thinking and reasoning, and so the question is are you a realist about it? Do you really believe these judges aren’t just getting the results they want first and then working backwards from it, or are they starting from a point of “I don’t know how I’m going to decide” and reasoning forward from it. 

I wanted to talk about that idea of how fair a shake do you really get in the courts and shouldn’t we have a really truly independent judiciary. I personally think that sometimes the media makes things too simplistic. They assign predictable actions based solely on political affiliation, though there is some reality to it. People of course have their biases, inclinations and values. People are much more likely to decide certain things a certain way based on those values. All of that factored into how I wanted to portray the satirical, jokey climax of the story. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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