Recent years have seen a string of scandals around white people pretending to be other races in order to obtain presumed advantages.
Rachel Dolezal, then a chapter president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, went viral in 2015 for claiming to be a black woman despite not having African ancestry. That same year, a white poet called Michael Derrick Hudson was found to be submitting poems to literary journals using the name Yi-Fen Chou. Hudson admitted to using the pseudonym whenever a poem of his was rejected under his real name.
This type of incident is a central concern in Elaine Hsieh Chou’s debut novel Disorientation. Twenty-nine-year-old Taiwanese-American PhD student Ingrid Yang is eight years into her dissertation on the fictional Xiao-Wen Chou, considered to be “the greatest Chinese-American poet,” who has a dedicated archive at Barnes University. Yang was coaxed into this line of research by her supervisor, Michael: “They’ll be looking for another Chouian scholar in a few years. They’ll want someone young and energetic,” he tells her.
But writing about Chou’s enjambment (a literary device in which a sentence of poetry continues after the line breaks without a grammatical pause) yields few words for Yang, who instead procrastinates by taking too many antacids, obsessing over her rival Vivian — the darling of the postcolonial department — and avoiding anything political, including the word “white.” Everything changes when Yang finds a note in one of the books in Chou’s archive. She then descends into a rabbit hole, alongside her best friend Eunice, and eventually discovers that the acclaimed poet is not only still alive, but is actually a white man called John Smith who, for decades, pretended to be Chinese, through the use of black wigs, yellowface makeup and eyelid tape.
Though the novel is an absurdist take on the ways in which the literary world eats up works that reduce the east Asian experience to rivers, spoons and tea, it also acutely inspects the power of the white gaze, academic imperialism, peer rivalry and self-hate. There are times when the book struggles to grapple with all of the themes it has brought to the surface: affirmative action, fascism, identity politics, the sexualization of East Asian women, cultural appropriation, assimilation and the ways in which universities preserve whiteness are all discussed but not in equal measure, and so sometimes the novel feels lopsided.
Overly comedic scenes sometimes clash with the poignant social commentary, but the fact that the novel doesn’t shy away from the topical is commendable. It gets candid about the concept of model minorities, the stickiness of interracial dating and the way misogyny violently affects Asian women. We hear about how users of an online forum share a story about a Thai woman “chopped up” by an English guy. “Everyone was saying she deserved it,” Eunice’s brother Alex tells Yang, “that it wouldn’t have happened if she wasn’t chasing white dick.”
Yang is in many ways an antihero. Even though she is the one to unmask Chou as a conman (which causes the campus to descend into chaos), she lets someone else take the glory because she’s not photogenic or a good public speaker. Still, there’s something about the way Chou has written Yang’s imperfections — constantly scratching at her eczema, jealous of beautiful women, and perpetually unmotivated — that subtly and powerfully subverts the doll-like ideals that have long plagued east Asian women.
At times, the dialogue lacks surprise — a few of the characters’ arcs are easy to predict — but with so many of the debates the book raises playing out in the real world, it would be hard to write the perfect story. Disorientation is messy, but that’s often what emboldens it.
At the Brics summit in South Africa in August, Xi Jinping (習近平) made headlines when he failed to appear at a leaders’ meeting to deliver a scheduled speech. Another scene also did the rounds: a Chinese aide hurrying to catch up with Xi, only to be body slammed by security guards and held back, flailing, as the president cruised on through the closing doors, not bothered by the chaos behind him. The first incident prompted rampant speculation about Xi’s health, a political crisis or conspiracy. The second, mostly memes. But it perhaps served as a metaphor. Xi has had a rough few
A recent report by TaiwanPlus presented a widely believed factoid about solar photovoltaic (PV) power farms: “they take precious land away from agriculture.” Similarly, a Reuters piece from August last year contends that agricultural land in Taiwan is precious and that “there is little room for sprawling wind and solar farms, which take up significantly more space than conventional energy sources.” Both of Reuters’ claims are false. There is plenty of room in Taiwan for all the renewable energy systems we need. Our problem is not a lack of land, but Taiwan’s crazed land management policies and programs. An excellent
As Vladimir Nabokov revised his autobiography, Speak, Memory, he found himself in a strange psychological state. He had first written the book in English, published in 1951. A few years later, a New York publisher asked him to translate it back into Russian for the emigre community. The use of his mother tongue brought back a flood of new details from his childhood, which he converted into his adopted language for a final edition, published in 1966. “This re-Englishing of a Russian re-version of what had been an English re-telling of Russian memories in the first place, proved to be a
While participating in outrigger canoe activities in Hawaii, Yvonne Jiann (江伊茉) often heard indigenous locals say that their ancestors came from Taiwan. “I didn’t really understand why,” the long-time US resident tells the Taipei Times. Growing up in Taipei, she knew little about indigenous culture. “Only when I returned to Taiwan did I learn about our shared Austronesian cultural background and saw the similarities.” Jiann visited Taiwan just before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down international travel. Unable to leave and missing her canoe family across the Pacific Ocean, she started the Taiwan Outrigger Canoe Club (TOCC) and began researching how