Days of Distraction by Alexandra Chang
The simplistic and elegantly designed cover of Alexandra Chang’s debut novel, Days of Distraction, is the first thing that catches the eye and entices one to select it from the shelf. Illustrated by Canadian artist GG (Ohgigue), the cover features an Asian American woman, whose dark hair, dark eyes, and green scarf stand out against the white background. Her deviation from whiteness makes the colors feel dangerously conspicuous, a common feeling for people of color living in the United States. The paradoxical hyper-visibility and invisibility of race are explored in a candid, nuanced, and provocative way in Chang’s genre-bending novel.
The novel features a 24-year-old Chinese American woman, Jing Jing, who works as a technology reporter for a white-dominated technology publication. When her white boyfriend, J, gets accepted to the biochemistry Ph.D. program at Cornell, she decides to leave her low-paid job and move to Ithaca with him. When they embark on the road-trip, a cross-country move from California to upstate New York, Jing Jing becomes increasingly frustrated by the racism, xenophobia, and microaggressions she experiences throughout her journey. She also becomes keenly aware of the different ways she and J experience the world. She envies how confident and fearless J is when she, a “small Asian woman,” has to stay wary and on edge all the time. At one point in their road trip, she starts to wonder how she could hide her “Asianness” and whether J’s white male presence could “provide a sufficient cloak,” a protective cloak that could fend off potential threats from a highly racialized society.
In her Vanity Fair interview, Chang addresses the lack of literature exploring interracial relationships especially, Asian-White couples: “I wanted the book to show a kind of relationship—an interracial relationship—that I hadn’t seen in literature before.” A major task of Chang’s creative project is to “capture the messy, nuanced and complex views that…a woman of color especially—might feel in being in a relationship with a white partner.” As a third-generation Irish immigrant, J is a “sturdy, reliable and strong” partner and he feels far more secure about his position in society. When watching the historical television show, Hell on Wheels, together Jing Jing feels connected to J when she witnesses how Irish immigrants were mistreated in the post-Civil War 1860s; yet she is disappointed by J’s reaction: “it does not appear that he identifies with his historically oppressed ancestors on the computer’s screen.” Though deeply in love with J, Jing Jing is often angered by how well-protected J is by his white privilege and she confesses her jealousy in a candid way. She writes, “If there were an app that let me see the world as J sees the world, I’d pay more than two dollars for it and would give it five out of five stars.” Jing Jing is painfully aware of how their skin colors affect their view of the world.
When Jing Jing feels uncomfortable seeing so many mirror couples (Asian woman, white man) in San Francisco, J regards it as a happy coincidence. Jing Jing feels the urge to probe deeper into this repeated racial match-up and ask more questions about the status quo: “why don’t we ever find ourselves in a place with all Asian-man-white-woman couples? Or Asian-woman-black-man couples? Or black-woman-white-man couples? Or Latina-woman-Asian-man couples?” Or is J right? Is this a mere happy coincidence and “race doesn’t have anything to do with it?” Chang does not provide a definite answer in her novel because the novel itself is a quest. It is about asking questions and searching for answers and in this process, we cannot help but reflect on what racism has done to our country, our community, and even our most intimate relationships.
For long, Asian American scholars like Patricia Chu advocated that Asian writers challenge the established Anglo-American genre conventions and “rewrite the genre to register their vexed and unstable positions in America,” a position marred by “exclusion, discrimination, internment, and cultural marginalization.” Inspired by Maxine Hong Kingston’s memoir The Woman Warrior, Chang’s novel is written in hybrid forms and the narrative is highly fragmentary. Chang incorporates information she retrieved from a diverse range of sources, including the 1908 New York Times coverage of Chinese immigrants, Reddit threads, Okcupid FAQ, Yahoo! Answers, Anna May Wong’s interview, Yamei Kin’s speech to Peace Congress, etc. Chang’s research provides a powerful panoramic investigation of the racism against the Asian American community and the way Chang weaves them into Jing Jing’s first-person narration sparks an intellectual ignition. The oscillation between personal narrative and external sources connects Jing Jing’s life story with Asian American immigrant history and adds more nuance to her experience as a racialized “other.”
In one of the most touching moments of the novel, Jing Jing addresses the intersectionality of her identity: “it is difficult to parse which parts of me come from my family, from being Chinese, from being Asian American, from being American, from being a woman, from being of a certain generation, and from, simply, being.” Chang’s debut novel provides a sharp and honest inquiry into the Asian American experience and asks the many questions that are important to ask and hard to answer: against the vast background of whiteness, how does a woman of color navigate the highly racialized climate?
LI ZHUANG is a Chinese international student pursuing her PhD in Creative Writing at Florida State University. In May 2019, Li graduated with an MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia University. Her fiction and creative non-fiction have appeared in The Madison Review, The New Engagement, The Collapsar, and others.