Disorder, Abbreviation, Clarity, Silence

Days of Distraction: A Novel BY Alexandra Chang. Ecco. 320 pages. $18.
Alexandra Chang. Photo: Alana Davis

In Alexandra Chang’s debut novel, Days of Distraction, the twenty-five-year-old narrator escapes her unfulfilling job as a tech reporter by moving from her native San Francisco to upstate New York with her longtime boyfriend. On their road trip across the country, she begins to question her relationship with J., who is white. Once they settle in Ithaca, the narrator finds herself feeling increasingly distant from her boyfriend, and spends her time collecting forgotten pieces of Asian American history and working in the archives of a historical museum. Dissatisfied with Ithaca, she heads to China, where she lived for two years as a child, reuniting with her father.

The novel is a deep dive into what it means to be an Asian American, a record of a young woman’s struggle to define herself and find a sense of belonging. Days of Distraction assembles snippets of conversations, history, and literature into an impressionistic but harmonized whole, addressing difficult questions about race and identity. Bookforum talked with Chang about fragmentary fiction, the idea of home, and what it means to be Chinese American.

There is a diaristic quality to your novel, with fragmentary thoughts connecting the past and present. How did you decide on this form?

At first, I didn’t think this project was going to become a novel. I spent a summer collecting scenes, snippets of dialogue, and musings about topics I was interested in, adding these pieces to a document without any plan for it—just writing wherever my mind took me. I was reading fragmentary novels like Mary Robison’s Why Did I Ever, Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd, and Renata Adler’s Speedboat. I saw how these authors developed a narrative and created momentum, and how the books’ seemingly disparate pieces could add up to something emotionally powerful. But I was superstitious and I still didn’t want to call it a novel. It wasn’t until I hit a certain word count that I admitted to myself that I was working on one, and I became much more intentional about the form.

It was the right mode for the book because it’s malleable; it allows for disorder, abbreviation, clarity, silence. It dramatizes and externalizes the fragmented nature of life and thought, and illustrates the ways the narrator is grasping at—and simultaneously failing to hold on to—a sense of self.

Your book also includes extensive research into lesser-known Asian American history, particularly figures like Yamei Kin, who was an accomplished doctor, hospital administrator, and lecturer. How did your research become part of the narrative?

I naturally gravitate toward research when I write fiction. It is not only a way to get new ideas and stories—it is also just fun, and I like learning things as I’m writing. I knew I wanted to incorporate Asian American history into the book, so I decided to connect that history to the narrator’s process of figuring out her life. I was reading a lot of firsthand accounts by Asian Americans, particularly Chinese Americans, written during the last couple-hundred years. As I was researching, I was finding out about a lot of people who I had never heard of before and I decided to give that sense of discovery to the narrator.

I found Kin compelling because she had accomplished so much and yet very few people know about her. She’s been largely lost to history. Kin was among the first Chinese women to be educated at a US medical school. She was the first Chinese woman to work for the USDA—she even introduced tofu to the US! She was also married to a white man, and eventually left her husband to become a New Woman. Kin seemed like an incredibly confident and influential person, someone the narrator would be drawn to. The narrator has given up her career for her relationship, and, in doing so, has lost her sense of self. She sees Kin’s choices as an alternative path, a parallel life to her own. As the narrator tries to figure out her next steps, she looks to Kin as an inspiration.

When the narrator returns to China, she searches for a sense of home but never seems to find it. Where does the impulse to “go home” come from and why is home so elusive?

There’s a trope in literature in which an immigrant or a child of immigrants returns to their homeland and finds all the answers, discovering herself in the process. It’s similar to the idea that a person can go abroad and find herself, that a new place will grant a sense of enlightenment or transformation. I think it’s a very human impulse to want to find that space. But it is not always where one might expect it to be, and it might not even be a physical place.

I’ve never experienced either of those things because my own relationship to the idea of home is fraught. I don’t have a very strong connection to China and, like the narrator, I’m not fluent in Mandarin. I wanted to show a different kind of relationship with one’s ancestral homeland, something tense that does not necessarily offer a sense of comfort.

For the narrator, returning to China is like reexperiencing a loss. At times she feels connected to China, but those moments also slip away. She senses another life she could have had, one in which it would have been possible to fit in and have that clear sense of home. She’s nostalgic for a place and a life that don’t exist. The same is true of her life in America.

Much of the novel is about the narrator’s desire to be seen. While driving through the Midwest, the narrator feels “incredibly visible and sickeningly invisible at once, both so inside [her] own body and so outside of it.” Can you talk about invisibility in the Asian American experience?

There’s a disconnect between how the narrator perceives herself and how others perceive her. I don’t want to speak for all Asian Americans or the Asian American experience, but I imagine many of us experience this disconnect and isolation. There’s a sense that one’s race is incredibly visible but, at the same time, who you are as a person is erased. Though the narrator is hyperaware of the way people see her, she doesn’t always push against it, like in the instance you mention. In that moment, out of self-protection, she tries to lean into that invisibility and uses laughter as a way to diminish herself.

There’s another part of the book where the narrator talks about different forms of invisibility—how it can be both harmful and beneficial. There’s the invisibility one feels when one is being erased by society, and that’s the invisibility she’s most familiar with. Then there’s the invisibility of blending in, this being a form of power. The narrator, in her more desperate moments, wishes she had access to this—the invisibility of whiteness, for example. The idea of the “model minority” for Asian Americans is a way to get closer to whiteness, to maintain that invisibility. But even if this seems beneficial, the narrator learns that it’s ultimately harmful, yet another form of erasure. Throughout the book, she grapples with how she can find an authentic self, despite the ways in which society and other people perceive—or have erased—her. But she lapses into shame and doubt. It’s an ongoing process.

One of the clippings the narrator relates to is a passage by Maxine Hong Kingston from The Woman Warrior: “Even now China wraps double binds around my feet.” What does this double bind mean for her?

For the narrator, it means she will never not be Chinese. Even though she’s American, she’s Chinese American first—there’s no escaping her heritage. This affects her understanding of herself and how she is perceived in American culture. As she tries to navigate this, she questions whether she feels a certain way because she’s Chinese, a woman, a millennial, or some combination of all those things. She’s trying to find herself by parsing which pieces of her come from which parts of her identity, but she can’t quite untangle everything. I’ve wrestled with these questions myself. But I don’t have clear answers, and I don’t think the narrator finds them either.

Darren Huang is a writer of fiction and criticism in New York. He is an editor at Full Stop.