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Campus Read “Interior Chinatown” inspiring action across campus

Posted by Monte Maxwell.
September 20th, 2022
Students in Taiwan
Ching-Hsuan Wu (center) discusses “Interior Chinatown” with her students in a tea shop in Kaohsiung, Taiwan.

This year’s West Virginia University Campus Read, “Interior Chinatown” by Charles Yu, is inspiring students, faculty and staff to ponder race, stereotypes and, possibly, even the confines of achieving the American Dream through versatile coursework, events and social media.

“In choosing a book like ‘Interior Chinatown,’ we not only bring a book of outstanding literary merit to our campus, but one that challenges us to think deeply about aspects of race in America, of the roles we play, and of our sense of home, among many others,” WVU Humanities Center Director Renée Nicholson, who oversees the Campus Read, said. “It balances the weight of these themes with a compelling protagonist and satirical humor.”

“Interior Chinatown” employs the tropes of popular culture to critique the way Asian Americans experience American society and culture. The screenplay format allows the novel to present a collective experience, one in which the characters express feeling as if they are invisible to the larger culture. 

To help excite the WVU community about this unique novel, which uses the form of a screenplay to narrate the story, author Charles Yu will virtually join students, faculty, staff and community members via Zoom on Sept. 27 at 7 p.m. This event is sponsored by the David C. Hardesty Festival of Ideas in collaboration with the Humanities Center, which oversees selection, academic programming and other aspects of the Campus Read.

Register for the Zoom event here.

Along with the author event, the Humanities Center has worked with units across campus and beyond to curate connected events and resources.

Jay Malarcher, Theatre History and Criticism program director in WVU’s School of Theatre and Dance, has created an informative video about how to read the screenplay format of the novel. This is a tool that instructors and students can use as they read and discuss the novel in their classrooms, clubs or in the comfort of their rooms.

Students also have been engaging with this year’s Campus Read in unique ways. Rather than create a traditional essay for his Introduction to Honors course, incoming Honors freshman Andrew Tiu recorded two podcasts on Spotify. In the first podcast, he leads a discussion about “Interior Chinatown.” On his companion podcast, Liu interviews his grandfather on immigrating to the US. Another incoming Honors College freshman, Emma Walker, created a TikTok video response to the Campus Read book, that showcased both her understanding of the book, and her personal connection to the story. 

Additionally, the WVU Chinese Club is integrating the novel into the group’s fall activities.

Teaching the campus read outside the Introduction to Honors course is another important aspect of the Campus Read. This year, more than a thousand honors students and all the English 101 and 102 students will be reading and discussing the book and its themes. And all new faculty received a copy of the book.

However, the book is used in a variety of classroom settings. Lisa Weihman, an associate professor of 20th Century British and Irish Literature in the Department of English and a member of the Campus Read selection committee, is teaching the book in one of her Fall courses.

“Teaching the Campus Read over the years has shown my students the value of the interpretive and analytic work they are doing in my classes. The Campus Read books and the ideas they propose circulate in the wider community of the university and the world beyond, validating the importance of communal reading experiences and the spirited discussion of ideas,” Weihman said. “We see the deep value of humanistic study everywhere through the Campus Read, in how the arts and literature imagine worlds and people far beyond the reach of our classrooms and our towns. Most of my students have no direct experience of life in a tenement building in Chinatown, but through Charles Yu’s vision in ‘Interior Chinatown,’ readers can explore Willis Wu’s struggles with identity and acceptance. For our Asian American students on campus, representation matters – and this is one of the novel’s most powerful themes.”

This past summer, Humanities Center pedagogy grant recipient Ching-Hsuan Wu, associate professor of Applied Linguistics in the Department of World Languages, Literatures, and Linguistics, used “Interior Chinatown” in a study abroad class that traveled to Taiwan.

Wu said immersion in the local culture contrasted sharply with the stereotyping portrayed in the novel and helped participants see how genuine engagement with a culture counters stereotypes about Asians and Asian Americans perpetuated in popular media.

“In our book discussions in a tea shop in Kaohsiung, where we were received with hospitality and respect, students noted that they were not fully aware of the challenges that Asians and Asian Americans experience in the U.S. until they read ‘Interior Chinatown’,” Wu said. “Observing how Taiwanese people live their daily lives heightened the students’ awareness of the inaccuracy of stereotypes and of the importance of authentic representations of Asian and Asian American cultures in American society and media.”

Also this summer, Susan Lantz, a teaching associate professor of Business Communication in the John Chambers College of Business and Economics and coordinator of the Campus Read program under the Humanities Center, held a class with the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at WVU about the novel. She plans to host an online reading group with WVU parents to promote Interior Chinatown within and beyond our campus community. There was even a WVU Parents Club book discussion group meeting on Zoom.

“Recently, a student told me that her mother gets a copy of whatever Campus Read book we are using and reads it,” Lantz said.

By creating a campus-wide reading experience, the Campus Read engages the entire WVU Community and beyond.

“The great thing about the Campus Read is that it gives our whole community a way to have a common intellectual experience,” Lantz said.

“Interior Chinatown” received the 2020 National Book Award Winner in Fiction. Yu is currently writing for a new Hulu series, and his TV writing credits include HBO’s “Westworld.” He is also the author of “Sorry Please Thank You,” “How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe” and “Third Class Superhero.”

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