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'It’s hard to even talk about': Charles Yu and Lisa Ling unpack anti-Asian hate in U.S.

Eric Webb
Austin 360
Author Charles Yu participated in a conversation with journalist Lisa Ling as the Friday keynote for SXSW Online on March 19, 2021.

"Those who were killed were more than just victims," author Charles Yu said in an introduction to his Friday keynote during South by Southwest. Those opening remarks were recorded just days ago, in light of a spree of attacks at Atlanta-area spas that left 8 dead, mostly women of Asian descent

"They were individuals, human beings with lives and families," he said of those killed.

Yu's 2020 novel "Interior Chinatown" was a New York Times bestseller and won the National Book Award for Fiction. Over the course of a virtual SXSW conversation with journalist Lisa Ling, he unpacked his experience as an Asian American man and his path to becoming a celebrated writer. Though the keynote was recorded "a couple of weeks ago," Yu and Ling talked at length about the rise in violence against Asian Americans over the past year.

Many have linked the crisis to former President Donald Trump, who has repeatedly used racist language to describe the coronavirus. Researchers have found that anti-Asian language surged on Twitter after Trump first tweeted the slur "Chinese virus," according to the Washington Post.

Yu said in his introduction that he was in shock and still processing the events of this week, but he urged viewers to go to stopaapihate.org and advancingjustice-aajc.org for more information on how to help.

Here are a few highlights from the keynote.

Author Charles Yu and journalist Lisa Ling speak as part of a SXSW Online keynote on Friday, March 19, 2021.

On his path to writing

"I went to law school like a good Asian boy, but not that good," Yu joked, adding that the original plan was medical school. "Doctors are grown-ups. I’m not a grown-up."

As a boy, Yu, loved writing poems, but writing was just a hobby for a while. "For many years, I was writing and working as a lawyer at the same time, and they were two very separate things," said Yu, 45.

In 2006, he published his first short story collection, but kept his law firm job until he got a call asking if he'd be interested in writing for the HBO sci-fi drama "Westworld," which was his breakthrough.

On representation

"I grew up in the '80s and '90s never seeing an Asian on TV," he said. "It was a once-a-year occurrence — 'Oh look, there’s an Asian.'" That excitement would always be tempered, he said, by stereotypical portrayals: characters delivering food, doing martial arts, speaking in fake accents.

Growing up in Southern California around Asian enclaves and with Taiwanese American parents who were active in their community, Yu said his lived reality didn't line up with those depictions.

"What does that do to you as you’re watching that?" Yu asked rhetorically of both Asian Americans and people of other heritages. Not seeing how you figure into the biggest stories can skew your perception of the country, he said.

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He described a sense of invisibility and self-consciousness that Asian Americans develop from a lack of representation on screen. Ling echoed the idea, saying that she only saw herself represented in newswoman Connie Chung growing up. Yu flipped that around on Ling; he said seeing her as a host of "The View" was a landmark moment.

Yu hopes he can help reshape that perception, but he thinks he's not there yet. He's hopeful for a bigger platform: The author currently is working with Hulu to develop "Interior Chinatown" for TV.

Ling pointed to examples of increased spotlight for Asian stories in media: director Chloé Zhao, who won big at the Golden Globes this year for "Nomadland," and Bong Joon Ho's Oscar-winning "Parasite." Yu agreed, also shouting out director Lee Isaac Chung's "Minari." It feels like there’s a "momentum and permanence" to these gains, he said, but "it will take work to maintain" without any structural inertia. 

Asian Americans are winning awards and being victimized, and it's all happening at the same time, Yu said.

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On dehumanization

Ling pointed out that "Interior Chinatown" came out amid the backdrop of the pandemic and the subsequent racism against Asians. (The first case of the virus was detected in China.) Even for all the videos on social media of Asian people being attacked, "we know so few of their names" and the victims remain largely without identity, she said.

Yu gave the characters in his book generic names that evoke tropes — "Old Asian Woman," for example — for a reason. Older Asian people in this country are too often seen as foreign, Yu said, and not as American. It's not shocking to see the kind of victimization plaguing the community, he said, because many have an inability to see people of Asian descent as fully human.

“It’s horrifying," Yu said. "It’s hard to even talk about."

Learning more about the history of anti-Asian discrimination in the U.S. "put everything in a total different perspective," he said. Yu and Ling discussed the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Rock Springs massacre and the internment of Japanese Americans — hateful actions that codified the "alienness of Asians," Yu said — as causing repercussions that we're still living with. Even the "model minority" myth dissolves in the face of a pandemic, Ling said, and it's back to scapegoating.

"I don’t know if I will ever see a time where I will feel entirely American," Ling said about public perceptions of Asian identity.

"It’s one thing for me to grapple with that. I live, in so many ways, a very privileged existence," Yu said. "But when I think about how it will affect people who are more vulnerable economically or physically, it really saddens me. It makes me think, 'How can we ever change it?'" 

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The idea that Asian Americans are "a homogenous monolith is not only wrong, it’s damaging," Yu said. One thing unifies the recent attacks, he said: The targets were all Asian, "whatever signals that," even though they've come from different cultural backgrounds in reality.

This moment of inflection is daunting, Yu said, but he tries to have hope. He does not criticize anyone for being ambivalent about it in light of other struggles for social justice, like the movement for Black lives and for economic equality. "At the same time, I don’t think it has to be zero-sum," he said.  

Yu is heartened by the multiracial community activism he sees working to protect people.

"It's not a silver lining. ... If it is a necessary ingredient to progress, it can lead to people really starting to have conversations that are difficult but necessary," he said.