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.
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