Author and TV writer Charles Yu won the National Book Award for Fiction on Wednesday night for his novel “Interior Chinatown,” a satire about typecasting and racism in Hollywood.
The novel, published in January by Pantheon Books, follows an Asian film actor stuck in the background roles of “Generic Asian Man” or “Delivery Guy” with very few lines, while yearning to one day become the “Kung Fu Guy.”
In a virtually-streamed ceremony, the 2020 judging committee praised the book, which was written in the form of a screenplay, as a “wonderfully inventive work.”
“By turns hilarious and flat-out heartbreaking, Charles Yu’s ‘Interior Chinatown’ is a bright, bold, gut punch of a novel,” said the judges’ statement.
When accepting the award on camera, Yu was visibly surprised, laughing in disbelief. “I can’t feel anything in my body right now. I prepared nothing, which tells you about how realistic I thought this was,” he said, quipping that it all felt like a simulation.
“I will probably just stop talking now,” he added. “I’m going to go melt into a puddle right now.”
Yu’s previous works include the science-fiction novel “How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe” and two collections of short stories. He has also written for television, notably for the hit HBO show “Westworld.”
Yu’s win was met with celebration within literary circles as well as the Asian American and Asian diaspora community, with prominent figures congratulating him on the award.
“INTERIOR CHINATOWN is hilarious, poignant, and painfully relevant,” tweeted Viet Thanh Nguyen, a Vietnamese-American novelist who won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
Jen Sookfong Lee, a Chinese Canadian novelist, also shared her congratulations online. “I can’t express enough how Interior Chinatown feels both familiar and subversive, how I saw myself and my friends and my relatives on every page, how it interrogates the mainstream narrative about being Asian in North America,” she tweeted.
Established in 1950, the National Book Award is one of the most prestigious literary awards in the United States. Past recipients include William Faulkner, Alice Walker, Philip Roth and Adrienne Rich.
Each year the National Book Foundation presents awards to winners in fiction, nonfiction, poetry, translated literature and young people’s literature categories. This year, the finalists were selected from a total of 1,692 submissions; among them was Karla Cornejo Villavicencio for “The Undocumented Americans,” the first time an undocumented immigrant has been named a finalist. (Though she recently received her green card and became a legal permanent resident).
Apart from Yu, the finalists for the fiction category included Rumaan Alam’s “Leave the World Behind,” Lydia Millet’s “A Children’s Bible,” Deesha Philyaw’s The Secret Lives of Church Ladies,” and Douglas Stuart’s “Shuggie Bain.”
In the other categories, Les Payne and daughter Tamara Payne’s “The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X” won the nonfiction prize; Don Mee Choi’s “DMZ Colony” won the poetry prize; Yu Miri’s “Tokyo Ueno Station,” translated from Japanese by Morgan Giles, won the translated literature prize; and Kacen Callender’s “King and the Dragonflies” won the young people’s literature prize.