In Days of Distraction (Ecco Press), Alexandra Chang’s insightful and propulsive debut novel, she expansively explores the thorny territory of contemporary technology, the nuances within interracial relationships, and race in America. It’s a difficult journey to attempt because it’s somewhat uncharted terrain. Racism toward Asian Americans often lacks a sort of legibility, partly because of the pervasive model minority myth and subsequent invisibility that affect many Chinese Americans. One such person is Chang’s narrator, who works as a technology reporter in San Francisco, writing about the punchy progress of new gadgets by day, and plotting escape by helping J, her white boyfriend, apply to graduate school at night.
I found the book most poignant when it dove into the liminal spaces between bad and good, that uneasy nest that so many of us with complicated identities get tangled in. The narrator is one of the few women of color in her office, and her coworkers think themselves progressive in only the most performative of ways, while repeatedly denying her requests for a raise. While driving across the country with her boyfriend, she finds herself in unfriendly places that are only unfriendly to her, leaving her with a kind of unease that she can’t translate to her partner. Once she relocates to Ithaca, New York, she makes ends meet with mundane freelance jobs and obsessively researches Chinese women in history who also felt lost, alone, and discriminated against, as if trying to convince herself that there were others who felt this way, too. It’s the kind of recognition that many will find within Days of Distraction.
—Kyle Lucia Wu
Kyle Lucia Wu Technology is supposed to point us toward the future and be rooted in progress, but as we see in your novel, the attitudes and mindsets in the tech world can be old-fashioned and narrow––often only superficially progressive. Is that what your experience was like working in the tech world?
Alexandra Chang When I started as a tech reporter, I felt like I made it. It was a thrill to cover these companies and start-ups that were becoming a huge part of all our lives. I was in my early twenties, I was writing for a living, and people read and seemed to care about what I wrote. I admired a lot of the reporters working around me; it felt rewarding just to be a part of that scene.
Over time, I started to feel disillusioned with the job. For one thing, I was making very little money while covering a super wealthy industry. A lot of journalists, especially young ones, are underpaid. There’s a sense that you should be grateful to even have a job, that there are plenty of people who would happily replace you. There was very little security and a huge power imbalance in favor of management. It’s heartening to see so many newsrooms unionizing over the last few years.
There was also a severe lack of diversity. And that’s not limited to my time as a tech reporter; it extends to other workplaces and academic settings I’ve been a part of, like publishing and MFA programs. I wanted to capture how it can be for a young woman of color in these predominantly white spaces, where the system is working against her in small and large ways, and how that affects her psyche and ability to continue contributing to those spaces.
KLW I’ve definitely been there. It felt really validating to see this depiction, which represented the experience of an industry that has an outward appearance of valuing diversity, while internally, it isn’t inclusive. It’s confusing. You start to doubt yourself and your own reactions to this system that everyone else seems to think is fine, and forward-thinking.
AC Yeah, I’ve totally doubted myself in these kinds of spaces. Wondering, Did that really happen? Did they really say that? Did they really mean that? What does it say about me that I’m reacting negatively to somebody who everyone else perceives is doing good? Am I the one blowing this out of proportion? Am I the one being ungrateful? That’s the narrative I’ve seen adopted by people in power time and time again.
KLW There are multiple parts in the book where A observes something unsavory, and feels forced to laugh–-what’s interesting is how she observes herself laughing, as if unsure about how she learned this response. A talks about how as a child, a friend’s mother once “forgot” that she was Asian, and saw her as white. As a child, this felt like a relief, the relief to pass and fit in, and later on, it feels like shame—like nausea—to remember this relief. I think this kind of “awakening” is common for many people who don’t even realize the defense mechanisms that they’ve been conditioned to adopt. It’s a tricky thing to unpack. How did you go about trying to translate this experience to the page?
AC Employing the fragmented form helped capture some of this experience on the page. These moments you mention take place when the narrator is on a road trip and, in response to her environment and the time she has, is in this state of reflection. She’s thinking about and questioning times when she’s opted for non-intrusive reactions, like laughter and silence, to intrusive behavior and comments. Laughter, in this case, is a form of silence, of diminishing oneself. Throughout the novel, she’s grasping at this “awakening,” at freedom, joy, or transcendence even. There’s this hope that once she recognizes her condition, she’ll be free from it. But that’s not necessarily the reality of living among others. Even after these reflections, the narrator lapses into moments of silence, shame, and doubt. It was important to me to capture the disjointedness and incoherence of those experiences, and hopefully the accumulation of these brief moments convey that emotional truth.
KLW Interracial relationships are seldom written about with this kind of micro lens today. Sometimes they seem so normalized to a certain generation, I feel that people can forget the conflict enmeshed in them. Why did you want to explore them this deeply?
AC You’re hitting on one of the reasons. There’s this myth that we’re beyond talking about race in relationships. Like, Is this so normal now that we’ve somehow overcome race and racism? I’ve been told (by white people) that Asian-white relationships don’t really count as interracial anymore. There’s a lot to unpack there.
Just because it’s becoming normalized doesn’t mean that we’re all good, that racism has been fixed. Certain interracial relationships might actually be a product of a specific history of racism and colonialism. I was interested in exploring that history of Asian-white relationships, and its effects on modern day relationships mainly because, well, I am married to a white man. But I do wonder, are interracial relationships all that common? The Pew Research Center released numbers a few years back showing that around eleven percent of whites married outside of their race. Asians in America married outside of their race the most, at twenty nine percent. I do think these relationships are highly visible though, because they were so uncommon for generations.
It’s also worth mentioning the flip side, where there can be a gross level of scrutiny on people in interracial relationships. My narrator dips into that realm at times. I’ve had lots of conversations with friends of color who are in relationships with white people, and I was interested in capturing the messy, nuanced, complex views from that perspective.
KLW The narrator goes unnamed for most of the book, and is called a nickname by her boyfriend and family until near the end, she’s called “Alexandra.”
ACI’d kept the narrator nameless through most drafts. I added the moment when the narrator’s name is my own in one of the last revisions. It was partly because I started to notice a few readers refer to the narrator as “Jing Jing,” which I felt weird about, since she explicitly says that it’s a name only for her family and which she keeps from others. I wanted to give her another name, but I was resistant to calling her some made up name.
KLWDid you conceive of this book as autofiction? I’m interested especially because it’s a common misconception pushed on writers of marginalized identities that their work is more autobiographical than it is–– maybe because we have so many ideas of what it is to be a white person in literature, and fewer for what it means to be a Chinese American one.
AC I drew a lot from my own life. But in writing the book, my experiences became stylized—they became fiction. I enjoyed the freedom to stray from “reality” and memory, to exaggerate situations, to alter circumstances, and to create totally new storylines. It depended, for me, what the scenes, story, characters, and language called for. In some instances, that meant staying close to what really happened and what was real. Like keeping the name “The Milk Club” for the high school friends. It is such an amazing name!
This book certainly invites and anticipates the reader’s assumption that the narrator is the author, and putting my first name in the book added to that. But I also call that into question. (The instance the name appears, for example, is presented as a question.) I’m not outright rejecting the reader’s gaze, but I want to insert a sense of distance and doubt between myself as the author, and the character and world of this book. I felt that distance myself in writing, too, being several years out from the experiences the book is based on. Many, many people have been and continue to write autobiographical fiction or autofiction, but the actual fiction component does seem to be forgotten or tossed out more often with certain writers—especially writers of color, like you mention. I don’t really get why.
KLW The narrator becomes preoccupied with researching certain Asian American figures in history throughout the book, like Yamei Kin, a Chinese-born doctor who lived in the US, who became “something of a celebrity dietitian” according to the New York Times, and returned to China to study the soybean. How did Kin end up in the story? What do you think it meant to the narrator that, at this time in her life of relative isolation, she was able to feel kinship with these “lost” figures of Asian American history?
AC I always knew that I wanted to incorporate historical narratives and documents into the novel, and when I found Yamei Kin (through a lot of research and digging), she stood out to me as a notable character. It made sense that the narrator, at that stage in her life, would be interested in a woman who had largely been forgotten by history, but who, in her time, had lived an incredibly full and unique life. I had never heard of Kin before writing this book and the more I read about her the more fascinated I became. I gave that sense of discovery and interest to the narrator, though her relationship to the material is more fraught.
Putting a narrator in near isolation allowed her to be slightly obsessive in finding connections between her life and the Asian American historical figures. For example, Kin was once married to a white man, and the narrator compares that relationship to her own. I do think it’s meaningful for her to find solace and companionship with the people who came before her, especially as she’s figuring out her life. She’s searching for models. She’s trying to be seen, and part of that process is recognizing and seeing these people who have been largely lost to history.