Right now, as in today, I think it’s important for leaders — of anyone, anywhere — to be appropriately hopeful. The “appropriately” is what is causing the struggle for me. Whether to our kids or our colleagues, our parents or our partners, we certainly don’t need to be projecting a sense of optimism that is untethered from reality or possibility. That seems like it could only lead to harm. And to be too unhopeful, to reject what is actually possible, also feels untenable if we intend to move ourselves, and others, forward.
With that said, and in order to inform and widen the approximate for a while longer, I’m taping to the blog wall the bit of poem below. It’s from Fanny Howe –from a poem of hers that Jay Thompson once described as “snow-hushed, prayerful buzzing.” That might be the best we can do right now.
For those teaching Interior Chinatown alongside me (or, more likely, for those considering it as a text that they might teach), below are some questions I’ve used to move us into a deeper consideration of the text.
I’ve found it necessary to slow down our reading of this text. First, it’s a quick read. It’s easy to power through the pages, especially when it is purely unfolding as screenplay. Second, and more important, its most accessible lane is the one that is funny and/or clever. While I love that lane of this book, it’s also easy to stay there, to just coast there. Hence the nature of the following questions, which ask us to dig into what, I think, makes the book special: it poignancy, its broad applicability to many kinds of struggle, its critique of the unseen forces that shape everything from our relationships to our dreams, its ability, in short, to push all kinds of readers into their own interiors.
The Questions (most of which only make sense if you have the book in your hand)
What is the story of Sifu (that starts on page 13)? How does his “role” affect his economic situation toward what seems to be the end of his life? How do you think his story impacts Willis?
What is the story of Older Brother (that starts on page 23)? How do you think his story impacts Willis? Was his ending really “for the best?”
Review the scene from Black and White depicted at the start of Act II. Identify those moments (before the break on page 38) where the show seems to be using typical cop show conventions to make satirical points.
Re-read page 38 and 39. Explain the ways that this passage attacks narrative structure itself in order to demonstrate its harmful effects.
What different modes of expression have we seen so far within this screenplay-novel? Given his larger point about the danger of roles and exclusionary narrative structures (even for those with a good role or place in the narrative) why might the author choose to switch between modes with such seeming abandon?
What happens in the right margin on pages 6, 43, and 72? What might it mean to speak in — or write from — the margins?
What trick does the Old Asian Man play on page 44? Why is it significant, in terms of the text’s metafictional aspirations?
Review pages 46 – 50. Draw a comic book style rendition of the SRO.
Read page 56, when the narrator’s mom tells him to “be more.” Why is this such a significant moment?
What is your version of Kung Fu Guy? How did this particular dream get buried in your heart? [students must answer this question]
At the top of page 58, the narrator writes, a little heartbreakingly, “you always seem to have just arrived and yet never seem to have actually arrived. You’re here, supposedly, in a new land full of opportunity, but somehow have gotten trapped in a pretend version of the old country.” Unpack this. What is he talking about? Why is it tragic, in its way?
Listen to John Denver’s “Country Roads” while reading the karaoke scene on page 65 – 66. Plumb the poignancy of this scene. How does it echo other emerging themes in the text. Why is it both happy and sad? Any other emotions at play? Name them.
If you read my earlier post about Interior Chinatown, you know that I asked my students to do some preliminary thinking (about film, identity, etc.) before reading the first Act of the book.
As I prepped my lesson and planned my opening questions about the actual book, I realized that I had to be sure to begin at the beginning. It’s a simple concept but easy to overlook in one’s planning.
Beginning at the beginning with a book that is written in a screenplay form but calls itself a novel is, quite simply, to ask some obvious questions: What do we have here? What is this text? Where does it fit into our prior reading experiences? Also, there’s a less obvious question that underscores the above: How can we resolve this ambiguity in the right way and at the right pace so as not to reduce it too quickly into something other than itself?
I planned well, taught in the hybrid blur in which we find ourselves right now, and then the lesson was over. I realized, after the last semi-confused student had left the room and the Google Meet, that we had been so very close to understanding the most basic — and important — lesson that Yu had set before us. But we didn’t quite get there.
Why? Because we didn’t realize that the questioning posture that the text insists we assume, from its first beat, is the exact same posture that the text wants us to assume as we encounter the people, and world, around us.
As a fiction (about fiction) that wants to encourage us to see the real world differently, more equitably, with less bias, with less reliance on shortcut-stereotype thinking, Interior Chinatown’s first achievement is to dismantle categories, snap judgments, or what Daniel Kahneman called System 1 thinking. Its first achievement is to shake up all the ways we reduce people to types. Interior Chinatownwants to reinvigorate one of the most important tools we have for knowing, and ultimately caring for, one another: curiosity. Also: the bravery to bathe in ambiguity just a little bit longer, to hold it even and especially when others might try to harm it by solving it.
We shouldn’t have been trying to answer efficiently the question, what is this book? We should have been trying to celebrate the fact that the book’s very existence centers this question. We should have begun at the actual beginning . . . and stayed there long enough to actually absorb the lesson. Simple to say and complex to actually do.
In school tomorrow, we’ll try again to avoid school’s central irony: the things that school ingrains and rewards often undo our purpose for being there in the first place. Act 2 of Interior Chinatown awaits.
Today I tweeted at the start of the next unit / book in my English class.
Here’s the beginning of the “will share.” It’s how I framed the text, asynchronously, for my students. This post is probably just for my English teacher readers, but you might find something useful or fun in it regardless…
Before you crack open Interior Chinatown, I’d like you to do some preliminary exploring and thinking.
IC is written, in part, as a screenplay. So you should spend a few minutes reviewing this website and learning some of the basics of the screenplay form. It’s not a beautifully designed digital space, but it does a good job of labelling the key parts of a screenplay. Jot down a few notes about what you learn.
Next, think about the purpose of screenplays and movies at large. Generally (and I’m not talking about art house / independent movies right now) screenplays, and the movies they lead to, tell us how to think and feel about ourselves, our families, our communities, etc. (I’m not suggesting that they tell us the right things to think and feel.)
They convey their messages through stereotypes and earn money and praise by fulfilling expected character arcs. Think about all of those PG-13 romantic comedies we all secretly love. The couple meets, falls in love, has a small problem, falls back in love, has a really serious-looking breakup, and then one of them runs onto an airport runway, as one often does, stops the plane, and proposes while possibly saving a puppy from danger. It’s the same arc — every time. Only the faces change.
More seriously, movies quite often exhibit what can be called a “normalizing force” on culture. Movies in the past have normalized male dominance, heterosexuality, homosexuality, the Holocaust, racial stereotypes, etc. etc. etc. Think about a movie you have loved in the past. Perhaps one you have seen more than once. What did it seem to be normalizing? Did it make its point through stereotypes? Why did the arc of the movie feel so satisfying for you? Was Ryan Gosling in it? Write down an actual paragraph in your actual notes.
Once you’ve reached this point, you’re ready to open the book. Take a look at the cover* and the Table of Contents. What do these elements tell us about what to expect from the novel? Jot down a few notes about what you learn.
[*Blog bonus: I created a slide below that contains two different versions of the cover that I found online.]
Read Act 1 (pages 3 – 30). As you read, start to keep track of the kinds of parts that different characters get to play, the “world of Black and White,” the use of the word “Generic” and what it seems to mean, and the various storylines and their impact on your understanding of some of the work’s bigger points about identity, race, class, and the way our imaginations / fantasies affect what we allow ourselves, others, and our communities to become or not become.
In 1926 an Irish designer named Eileen Gray, who’d created lots of gorgeous, strange furniture but scarcely a house, began designing a shiplike villa on the south coast of France that would drive the famed architect Le Courbusier wild. Corbu had just announced that a house was “a machine to live in,” but Gray thought, No: a house is a person’s shell, a skin, and should respond to how she lives.
Yes to the resounding no . . . to being defined sometimes by the creativity and scale of our disagreements.