Disorientation by Elaine Hsieh Chou review – witty tale of campus chaos

This funny, fearless debut novel about a student’s dissertation on a fictional poet dives into the maelstrom of topical arguments about race and comes up fighting

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.

Disorientation by Elaine Hsieh Chou is published by Picador (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply

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