Disorientation is one of those books I immediately finished and had to buy copies for my friends and family. Literally. I have already lent out my copy and am considering buying another to lend out. Keep reading this book review for my full thoughts.
Twenty-nine-year-old PhD student Ingrid Yang is desperate to finish her dissertation on the late canonical poet Xiao-Wen Chou and never read about “Chinese-y” things again. But after years of grueling research, all she has to show for her efforts are junk food addiction and stomach pain. When she accidentally stumbles upon a curious note in the Chou archives one afternoon, she convinces herself it’s her ticket out of academic hell.
But Ingrid’s in much deeper than she thinks. Her clumsy exploits to unravel the note’s message lead to an explosive discovery, upending not only her sheltered life within academia but her entire world beyond it. With her trusty friend Eunice Kim by her side and her rival Vivian Vo hot on her tail, together they set off a roller coaster of mishaps and misadventures, from book burnings and OTC drug hallucinations, to hot-button protests and Yellow Peril 2.0 propaganda.
In the aftermath, nothing looks the same to Ingrid—including her gentle and doting fiancé, Stephen Greene. When he embarks on a book tour with the super kawaii Japanese author he’s translated, doubts and insecurities creep in for the first time… As the events Ingrid instigated keep spiraling, she’ll have to confront her sticky relationship to white men and white institutions—and, most of all, herself.
I was excited for Disorientation from the beginning. I’ve seen so much hype from my favorite people about how much they loved this book so already the expectations were high. And then they were completely smashed through as I spent afternoon after afternoon totally absorbed. This is one of those books which quickly became one of my favorite of the year. It’s a book that stretches your brain, makes you think. Especially as a Chinese American woman, this book was a gut punch.
This literary fiction debut navigates nuance, (internalized) racism, and academia with care. Multi-faceted and masterful, Disorientation negotiates relationships. The ways in which we can be so content before we wake up. For me, this book discusses this awakening process. Of realizing the microaggresions we’ve never recognized, the soup of fetishization and racial politics. And the ways our relationship to ourselves, to our identity, is never cut and dry.
On one level, Disorientation explores how the surface level never tells the full story. Chou examines interracial relationships and fetishization. The blurry line when a ‘type’ becomes a fetishization. And this fascination with the Other, with ‘an appreciation for a culture’, an ‘obsession with certain media’. On another level, it’s almost a direct response to outcry about affirmative action, about these conscious efforts to diversify and to celebrate marginalized identities. The pieces of ourselves we try to reconcile with the assimilation, with the whiteness shoved down our throat – particularly in the US.
Disorientation is clever and thought provoking. Our identity can never exist apolitically. It’s just the reality in which we live, the lenses and expectations heaped upon us, and socializations we learn from our first breaths. Ingrid certainly isn’t perfect. No one in this book – or life – is. And Hsieh Chou never falls into the trap of smoothing over, airbrushing. It’s a book deeply committed to discussing performance and authenticity. To knowing that nothing exists in a vacuum.