Interior Chinatown: Beginning, Again, at the Beginning

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 Chinatown wants 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.

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