A Conversation Between Authors Elaine Hsieh Chou and Kashana Cauley

A Conversation Between Authors Elaine Hsieh Chou and Kashana Cauley

A Note from Kashana Cauley, Author of The Survivalists:


Disorientation came into my life during a time when I was finding and falling in love with revenge narratives written by people of color. The cultural, financial and social degradation that we are subjected to makes for some excellent revenge art that flips society on its head, gives us the chance to battle the injustices we’ve suffered under and portray ourselves as fuller, richer versions of ourselves than are commonly seen. Disorientation, as a novel, is many things, among them a campus novel, a novel with a rich and full discussion of race, and a satire. But Ingrid’s battle to define herself is tied up in a righteous anger against the ways that she is often treated as a Taiwanese American woman, and one of the most satisfying payoffs of that anger was her quest for revenge.


KC: Disorientation satirizes everything from East Asian Studies departments to the modern American alt-right, to the campus left, to Asian fetishists. What made going after so many targets appealing to you?

EHC: The novel was a kind of space where I could explore certain obsessions and ideas, as if I were having a conversation with my friends and myself. When it came to E. A. Studies and Asian fetishists, I wanted revenge against their narratives that have dominated for centuries. The alt-right storyline was informed by the 2016 election (in one version where Ingrid’s husband is a congressman, the election is specifically satirized!). As for the campus left, which I'm very much a part of, it was only fair to poke fun at my own convictions—I had to trust that the reader would be able to separate Ingrid’s limited POV from mine.


KC: So much of Ingrid’s quest seems to be a struggle to shape the contours of her own identity as an Asian American woman. What role does identity play in the novel, and why is it so important to Ingrid?

EHC: I am fascinated by identity. How do people suppress it, invent it, weaponize it? While a character like Azumi tries to literally profit from identity, Ingrid tries to suppress her Taiwanese identity. I understand she didn’t want to be defined as “just” Taiwanese as if that was all there was to her, but she felt ashamed when she should’ve never had to feel that way. When we consider where and when she grew up, it’s hard to blame her. But by not thinking critically about race and its intersection with gender, Ingrid is not putting a name to the specific violence(s) she faces and therefore lacks the vocabulary to ask for the justice she deserves.


KC: Why do you think Ingrid hangs on to Stephen, or the idea of Stephen, for so long?

EHC: When we first meet her, Ingrid is chasing the model minority myth that was forced upon, but also upheld by, the Asian American community. It manifests in her life as the desire for “upward mobility” in the form of safety and security. Ingrid has been conditioned to believe that, in the romantic sense, this amounts to marrying a white man. So although there's no reason for her to hold on to the thoroughly mediocre man that Stephen is, Ingrid keeps holding on because walking away means giving up the life she always thought she wanted. It means loving herself enough to believe she deserves more—a hard task.


KC: Ingrid is a delightfully messy protagonist, who lets her anger lead her to revenge. Why does she ache for revenge, and how does her quest for it serve her?

EHC: Read one way, the novel is a character study of a person who's suppressed an essential part of herself. I wanted to ask, what happens when an impossible-to-ignore event breaks the suppression? Ingrid has so much rage as an Asian femme who's been subject to micro-aggressions and outright aggressions. If certain events hadn’t unfolded, that rage might've never found an exit. Allowing herself to feel rage is an important part of her self-growth. It acknowledges that she's been wronged. It acknowledges that she's not what others have expected her to be. She's allowed to be as three-dimensional as everyone else around her.


KC: Why did satire seem like the best way to frame Ingrid’s journey?

EHC: The funny thing is I didn’t set out to write a satire. But when I first put pen to paper in an early version of the novel, the voice of a snarky omniscient narrator emerged and I realized I was carrying a lot of anger. True satire is punching up and the novel became a project in punching up towards a traditionally revered demographic: the “open-minded” lover of Asian cultures and languages. But you know, I’m not entirely sure if the novel is a satire—many readers have told me that specific incidents have happened to them almost word for word, and many incidents were inspired by real-world events. Is it a satire or is real life already a satire?


A Final Note from Kashana:

Disorientation is one Asian American woman’s lively quest to be the best version of herself in a white-dominated society that will stop at nothing to stuff her in a box. It’s entertaining and full of heart. Pick up a copy at your local indie bookstore!