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.