Disorientation by Elaine Hsieh Chou

Disorientation is a satirical campus novel that explores the academic world of authenticity, race, and power, as a student uncovers a secret about a canonical poet. Ingrid Yang is close to the end of her PhD on the Chinese American poet Xiao-Wen Chou, but she’s finding it hard to be inspired to write anything, especially as she doesn’t really care about her topic. A discovery in the poet’s archive leads her down the path of a mystery that might give her something interesting to write about, but it goes deeper than that, and Ingrid is forced, with the help of her best friend Eunice, to confront herself, her white boyfriend, and people across campus, as the place becomes a battleground for Ingrid’s discovery.

This is a classic biting campus novel that takes a fresh perspective, looking not only at who gets to call authenticity in literature and academia, but at one woman’s grappling with her own relationship to her identity and relationships to others. Ingrid is thrown from her safe existence with her mundane boyfriend to a life filled with harder morality and questions, and the book takes the reader through her journey in a satisfying way, with more of a character-focus than some satirical books can have. A lot of big topics are covered, most notably race, tokenism, and fetishisation of cultures, but also ideas of what free speech in universities means and even kinds of radicalisation, in both alt-right and incel communities. The conceit of the book might be satirical, but a lot of what is shows is very real.

I found this a funny and sharp novel, written in an engaging way, that shows the complexity and, yes, the disorientating experience of a character learning more about white institutions and what they uphold and protect, whilst she also tries to navigate what this means for her own work and love life.