Recent years have seen a string of scandals around white people pretending to be other races in order to obtain presumed advantages. Rachel Dolezal, then a chapter president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, went viral in 2015 for claiming to be a black woman despite not having African ancestry. That same year, a white poet called Michael Derrick Hudson was found to be submitting poems to literary journals using the name Yi-Fen Chou. Hudson admitted to using the pseudonym whenever a poem of his was rejected under his real name.
This type of incident is a central concern in Elaine Hsieh Chou’s debut novel Disorientation. Twenty-nine-year-old Taiwanese-American PhD student Ingrid Yang is eight years into her dissertation on the fictional Xiao-Wen Chou, considered to be “the greatest Chinese-American poet”, who has a dedicated archive at Barnes University. Yang was coaxed into this line of research by her supervisor, Michael. “They’ll be looking for another Chouian scholar in a few years. They’ll want someone young and energetic,” he tells her. But writing about Chou’s enjambment (a literary device in which a sentence of poetry continues after the line breaks without a grammatical pause) yields few words for Yang, who instead procrastinates by taking too many antacids, obsessing over her rival Vivian – the darling of the postcolonial department – and avoiding anything political, including the word “white”. Everything changes when Yang finds a note in one of the books in Chou’s archive. She then descends into a rabbit hole, alongside her best friend Eunice, and eventually discovers that the acclaimed poet is not only still alive, but is actually a white man called John Smith who, for decades, pretended to be Chinese, through the use of black wigs, yellowface makeup and eyelid tape.
Though the novel is an absurdist take on the ways in which the literary world eats up works that reduce the east Asian experience to rivers, spoons and tea, it also acutely inspects the power of the white gaze, academic imperialism, peer rivalry and self-hate. There are times when the book struggles to grapple with all of the themes it has brought to the surface: affirmative action, fascism, identity politics, the sexualisation of east Asian women, cultural appropriation, assimilation and the ways in which universities preserve whiteness are all discussed but not in equal measure, and so sometimes the novel feels lopsided. Overly comedic scenes sometimes clash with the poignant social commentary, but the fact that the novel doesn’t shy away from the topical is commendable. It gets candid about the concept of model minorities, the stickiness of inter-racial dating and the way misogyny violently affects Asian women. We hear about how users of an online forum share a story about a Thai woman “chopped up” by an English guy. “Everyone was saying she deserved it,” Eunice’s brother Alex tells Yang, “that it wouldn’t have happened if she wasn’t chasing white dick.”
Yang is in many ways an antihero. Even though she is the one to unmask Chou as a conman (which causes the campus to descend into chaos), she lets someone else take the glory because she’s not photogenic or a good public speaker. Still, there’s something about the way Chou has written Chang’s imperfections – constantly scratching at her eczema, jealous of beautiful women, and perpetually unmotivated – that subtly and powerfully subverts the doll-like ideals that have long plagued east Asian women.
At times, the dialogue lacks surprise – a few of the characters’ arcs are easy to predict – but with so many of the debates the book raises playing out in the real world, it would be hard to write the perfect story. Disorientation is messy, but that’s often what emboldens it.
Disorientation by Elaine Hsieh Chou is published by Picador (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply