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'Interior Chinatown' Puts That Guy In The Background Front And Center

Willis Wu is often seen as a generic Asian Man in a restaurant or the background of a crime scene on a television drama called Black and White. You kind of know the show: She's an accomplished young detective, he's a third-generation cop, together they are Black and White, and they solve impossible cases.

Willis hopes one day to be a Kung Fu Guy on movie screens around the world. But for now, he's the star of Interior Chinatown, the new novel from Charles Yu, an award-winning writer for Westworld and other shows.

Yu says Willis lives a kind of marginal existence. "We've all seen Law & Order, and every few seasons it seems like they do an episode set in Chinatown. And you have the two leads and they're in the foreground and it's their story, and way in the background, almost out of focus, is a guy unloading a van. And I wanted to tell a story about that guy."

Interview Highlights

On the stereotypical dialogue Willis gets stuck with

He has to say things about "doing it for my family's honor," or "you wouldn't understand in my culture." ... I've definitely seen a lot of them, [but] in my TV work, I have had the good fortune of writing on shows where my bosses would never let that line get through.

On what's missing from stories about Chinese history in America

For me — and that really gets at the impetus for writing the book, and writing it this way — I think what I was trying to get at with telling the story this way was capturing something about the feeling of what it's like to be not the center of the action ... Chinese Americans and Taiwanese Americans and other Asian American groups have excelled in various fields. And yet, at least from my perspective, there can be still a feeling of, it doesn't seem to add up.

This story to me came at a time in my life when, yes, I'd been working in TV for a couple of years. But I'm also reaching age where my own parents are, you know, aging. And they've been in America for decades, more than 50 years. And my my own kids are reaching an age, too, where they're asking questions. They can watch the news, and they can ask, are we real Americans? You know, is there a qualifier in front of that? And so positioned between them, as this sort of middle aged writer, I wanted to write a book about what it's like from all of their perspectives.

On Willis' desire for a moment when the light hits his face just right

It's a little bit of, you know, who doesn't want that moment? And yet, it's not a moment that, especially a lot of Asian actors, you know, have gotten. And recently, we have seen — it's incredible to watch Awkwafina onstage accepting a Golden Globe. I watched that moment with my daughter, who's 12. And for her to see ... a face that looks like hers get that award, that's something I won't forget.

This story was produced for radio by Ian Stewart and D. Parvaz, and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.