I work in development at UC Hastings College of the Law, where Frank H. Wu has served as Chancellor and Dean for the past three years. He is also the author of Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White, a blogger on The Huffington Post, and a contributor to The New York Times, among other publications. That my new boss, a young, Asian American, motorcycle-riding writer, is head of a law school and was voted the most influential dean in legal education by The National Jurist, warranted an interview.
We met up twice at Soluna in San Francisco’s Civic Center, a bar reminiscent of the ’90s show Ally McBeal, where lawyers gather for drinks after long days in court. Several times during the interview, we were interrupted by lawyers and district attorneys wanting to shake Dean Wu’s hand. It took over forty minutes for him to answer my first question. There were digressions to his digressions. But like any good interviewer, instead of getting frustrated, I pushed aside my prepared notes, took another sip of wine, and let him take the lead.
It turns out the most interesting things are revealed when you let go. We talked about writing, race, assimilation, his hometown of Detroit, and the similarities between the Vincent Chin and Trayvon Martin cases.
The Rumpus: I’ve never interviewed my boss’s boss’s boss before, and I wonder if I have free license to ask you anything. I’m not sure what the legal implications are, if any. It’s after work hours and we’re in a bar off-campus.
Frank H. Wu: You can ask me anything, but there are things that I can’t say. There are things I can’t say because I’m your boss, and there are other things that aren’t appropriate to say because of the role that I have. This is all me as a writer talking. I’ll say things that are un-dean-like. I am a writer with a day job, like most writers. I have a very good day job. I love my day job. And I’m less and less of a writer as the days go by.
Rumpus: Because of the day job?
That’s not actually true. I am writing a book now that I’ve been working on for a better part of a decade. But after that I won’t have any more ideas. That will be it.
I’ll also tell you about my secret writing project. I have a secret writing project. So every few years, I realize everything I thought was wrong, and I choose to reinvent myself. So if you had asked me five years ago what I thought about people who wrote genre work, I would’ve said it was a waste of one’s talent and time. I’ve entirely changed my mind. My secret project: I want to write a thriller, a mystery, a page-turner. Here’s why: I’ve realized it is very difficult. It’s very, very hard to entertain people.
Rumpus: What’s the hardest part for you?
Wu: Well, I’ve written six chapters of a bad trashy novel. What I’ve written, nobody’s gonna want to read. My sentences are too long. It’s sort of Baroque. There are giant run-on sentences with allusions to Dante and the Italian rhyming scheme he uses that can’t be done in English.
Rumpus: Are you gonna dumb it down a little bit?
Wu: This is another way in which I’ve changed. I grew up as a classic Asian American nerdy kid. For the past five years, I’ve been working out at a gym. I told my trainer I’d like to be intimidatingly large.
Wu: My trainer had exactly that reaction. So I now go and pump iron at six a.m., three to four times a week.
Rumpus: How much can you lift?
Wu: I can bench about 185 pounds, which is not bad.
Rumpus: So tell me about the main book you’re working on now.
Wu: It’s about the Vincent Chin case and the book is very problematic. Let me tell you the story about Vincent Chin, and I’ll tell you the two problems about writing this book. Vincent Chin is a twenty-seven-year-old Chinese-American man in Detroit in 1982. If he were white, he’d be a “good ol’ boy,” but he’s just a guy. He didn’t set out to be a civil rights martyr. He’s not the model minority; he’s a college dropout, drinks too much, drives too fast, flirts with too many women, loud, boisterous. But he’s sociable, gregarious, and well-known. Just a guy.
He’s engaged to be married, so he goes out for a bachelor party. He’s at a strip club. This is in Detroit, the Motor City, where everything is about automobiles. It’s at the height of a recession. This is at a time period when it’s hard to imagine now the fact that in the ’70s people didn’t drive imported cars. They didn’t drive Japanese cars. People would make fun of you for “Jap crap.” They would try to run you off the road, throw a brick through your windshield, or let the air out of your tires in a parking lot. A lot of hostility. A real American buys American. Japanese cars started coming in after OPEC called an oil embargo in 1973. People still recalled Pearl Harbor.
Chin runs into two guys: white, working-class, father and stepson. The father is a foreman at a Chrysler plant, the same plant where his stepson had just been laid off. They’re like Chin: hard-drinking, red-blooded, normal American guys.
Rumpus: On the inside.
Wu: Yeah, except for the color of skin, the texture of hair, and the shape of the eyes.
Many of the details are disputed. The two men, using a baseball bat in the trunk of their car, bludgeoned Chin to death. They allegedly used racial slurs and said, “It’s because of you motherfuckers that we’re out of work.” They never disputed that they committed the act. But they denied that they did so because of race.
Rumpus: There are similarities to the Trayvon Martin case.
Wu: There are so many other cases of selective sympathy, like Chin. The issue is: who do you identify with? Do you see yourself as potentially being the victim or possibly the perpetrator, or, most troubling, even both?
The Trayvon Martin shooting is an example. It presents us as a society with all the complexities of race. That includes whether it is even properly thought of as involving race. To me, it is clear it involves race. Even those who insist it isn’t an example of racism, I would think, must concede it implicates race. And the data shows that if you are white and attack blacks, or black and attack blacks, you are much less likely to face punishment than if you are black and attack whites.
So my conception of the book is to write what French academics would call a total history. This is not just a story about Vincent, two killers, the justice system, the protest movement. This is also about a city that was iconic. A city that represented American industrialism, might, power, progress, the twentieth century. It’s about an era.
Rumpus: And a city that is now bankrupt.
Wu: The Motor City is bankrupt. I mean literally, legally bankrupt. It is the most significant municipality in American history to face such circumstances. Everyone is aware now of its sad story. But you have to go look for yourself to comprehend the reality. No news report captures the tragedy. It exceeds anything I have seen, because it happened so slowly and with so many decisions made over that time—it could have been prevented.
Rumpus: In a recent Huffington Post blog post, you describe Detroit as “a place of decay so severe and despair so evident,” with abandoned factories and homes that have “collapsed into themselves.” What motivated you to live in the city proper as recently as five years ago?
Wu: I returned to Detroit twenty years after I left the city. I thought it was important for me to live up to my ideals. If I really wanted to promote civic engagement, the place to go was my hometown, when nobody is clamoring to move there. People actually said to me, “Your career is fine, you don’t have to go there.” And of course, I didn’t have to. That’s the point. Places die if everyone with an option to leave decides to do so. I left because my wife, who stayed in Washington, D.C., developed serious health issues we had to attend to.
Rumpus: Who’s the target reader for your book on Detroit?
Wu: My target reader is a twenty-two-year-old college student who is white, not Asian American—and not from Detroit. For a twenty-two-year-old, 1982 may as well be 1882. Bear in mind, there’s no internet, PCs are brand new, and the latest technology is the fax machine. The compact disc is new. Detroit may as well be a foreign country, its demise makes it so different. The latest advertisements for Chrysler dub their cars “imported from Detroit.” Not a bad slogan.
Rumpus: Why target only white students?
Wu: There are many more white people. I want to sell books. Why would I want to sell books just to Asian Americans? That’s a bad life goal. It’s not a life goal that I have. Does Jeremy Lin play basketball just for Asian Americans?
Seriously, though, there is an unstated norm of whiteness. Toni Morrison has discussed that. The assumption is that everyone is white, unless they are explicitly defined against that standard. I do want to challenge the norm. But I want to do it from the inside.
So anyway, if you’re not from Detroit, you can’t understand the total decline, the magnificent wreck of the city. If you’re not Asian American, it’s hard to understand what it means to be Asian American in Detroit. Even if you’re an Asian American from New York City, LA, or San Francisco, it would be hard to understand. There’s no harder place to be Asian American than that time period in Detroit.
Rumpus: So what are the problems with the book?
Wu: The problem with the book is ambiguity. The defense lawyers would say Chin was no saint. He was eager to fight at first before there was a baseball bat. He was as hard-drinking and temperamental. And at first I was worried. Does depicting him this way somehow harm the message of the book? But then I had a revelation. Actually, no. That makes the case more compelling because he isn’t a saint, he’s just a guy. That’s the whole point of the story. The fact that he’s hard-drinking? Great! The whole point is, he’s like his killers: he’s assimilated, he’s indistinguishable except for race.
The fact that they’re just guys at a strip club also makes it a stronger story. Here’s why: I’m not scared of the KKK. What I mean by that is, the actual risk in my life that a KKK member is going to kill me is probably pretty low. It’s not zero, but it’s remarkably low, and my ability to avoid a posse wearing white sheets is actually pretty high. I can avoid them by living in San Francisco. Lots of other ways I can lower the risk here. But there’s the possibility that the next guy sitting alongside me at the bar, just a normal guy, who has just lost his job, has enough drinks, and it’s during a time of economic uncertainty. He loses his temper, there’s some triggering factors. The risk posed to me by the normal guy is much higher.
Rumpus: At the time of the attack on Chin, you were a teenager growing up in Detroit who had experienced his fair share of teasing and taunting for being the only Asian American kid in school. In your article “A Mockery of Olympic Ideals,” you describe the harassment you received as a child as “more painful than any physical harm” you can recall.
Wu: I have a whole speech but you don’t want to hear me deliver it over polenta fries and cabernet… So let me preface this by saying, I had a normal childhood. I rode my bike around the block. I never went hungry at night. I was relatively privileged, and it’s important for me to say that, in part because I recognize that there’s this criticism and most of it’s misguided. It suggests that people of color complain and whine and want special treatment, etc. So it’s important that I say that my life is pretty good.
So before I answer your question, let me digress and tell you a little story. For a decade, I spent a lot of time around deaf people as a trustee of Gallaudet University, which changed my life. I’m not myself deaf, but when I was on campus, I was the disabled one; the other people weren’t disabled. The interpreters were there for me.
I was once with a friend of mine who was deaf and she had a service dog. And I said to her, “This is appalling, the way this restaurant is treating you.” And she said, “Oh, this is nothing, this is just normal.” And I realized that I was indignant more than she was because I was seeing the bias and prejudice toward her that was out of my ordinary experience. But for her, it was her daily life.
So I’ve had that same experience when I’ve been with friends who were white and someone drives down the street, rolls down the window, and says, “Hey, you chink, go back to where you came from,” or something like that. While that’s not something I enjoy, it’s not actually novel or interesting. Sometimes when a kid comes up to me and does karate moves on the street and “ching-chong” noises, I’m not offended as an Asian American. I’m offended as someone with a sense of humor, because if you’re gonna diss me, at least get some new material.
Wu: I got you to laugh. (See, I’m not going to be as funny in print. You have to add in the introduction how funny I am.)
When I was a kid, I’d be teased and taunted, and teachers in school would always say to me, “Just reply, ‘Sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me.’” That’s among the stupidest advice I’ve ever gotten. It shifts responsibility away from the bullies, as well as the teachers.
There are two reasons this is not good counsel. Reason one is the words lead to the sticks and stones. It’s on a spectrum. Sometimes people say, “Oh come on, lighten up, it’s just name calling.” All right, you’re right, if it’s just name-calling. But it’s never just name calling. There’s always the possibility that if someone has a baseball bat in their car, they’re gonna come out and kill you.
Rumpus: There’s a link.
Wu: Yeah, that’s the first problem. The words are a prelude—they’re a warning, a signal. The second problem is, I was also like other kids. I flew off the swing set, knocked teeth out, broke bones, I tumbled down the stairs, I had high fevers, I skinned my knees. Kids are fearless. But they recover from physical injuries in a way that they don’t from psychological trauma.
It’s not as if I walk around thinking about race. I walk around thinking about dogs, the law school, budgets, how to be nicer to my wife. And then suddenly something happens: you take a parking space and someone gets angry and they start shouting at you, and then it all tumbles out, some weird racial thing about Asian drivers, go back to where you came from, you don’t deserve to be here, don’t you know this is how we do it in our country. And on and on.
Rumpus: Do you consider yourself Chinese or Taiwanese?
Wu: I don’t really consider myself either. My parents certainly would think of themselves as coming from Taiwan, but the Taiwanese wouldn’t think of my parents as Taiwanese. They don’t speak the Taiwanese language. My parents are part of a migration of a couple million who left mainland China and took over Taiwan. So the Taiwanese would see them as usurpers.
People ask me what is my view on mainland China versus Taiwan. My answer is, “I don’t know, beats me.” I feel no great emotion about this issue right now between China and Japan over a disputed set of islands. I mean, I care about it as an American. I feel no territorial interest, it does not offend me if the Japanese claim the island. What difference does it make to me? And some would say, “Oh that’s horrible, you’re too assimilated, where’s your pride and your heritage?”
Actually quite the contrary. I think it’s good. You know why? The only way to overcome ancient hatreds that lead to bloodshed of the worst type is for there to come along a generation that forgets. I have some vague interest in U.S.-China relations, and in relations within the Pacific Rim, as an American and in an intellectual sense, but I am not moved at a gut level, an emotional level, about any territorial claims that China has. Why would I be? I grew up in Detroit. The first time I went to mainland China was in 2007. I was forty years old.
When I wrote Yellow, I was actually much more interested in questions such as, Should minority communities assimilate?Or not? Now I have a very different kind of view. I actually don’t think it’s a choice. The reason it’s not a choice is that the important decision made about these matters is made when you’re five years old. Who am I to judge that they grew up speaking nothing of whatever language their grandmother spoke? Why would we expect anything different? They grew up under different circumstances and that’s not to say that I’m not critical or judgmental. I’m still very critical and judgmental, it’s just understanding that we have to cut all of us as human beings some slack.
All right, so I’ve answered a few questions in an hour and fifteen minutes. You haven’t asked me what writers I read.
Rumpus: Um, no, not yet.
Wu: I’ve recently gone through a couple of different phases. I was only reading non-fiction. I read a bunch of presidential biographies, like Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln. I am mulling over whether to read the definitive Lincoln biography, by Burlingame. It’s about 2,500 pages. I already read the David Herbert Donald biography, which was considered the best when it came out, and Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, which everyone looks to as a how-to guide for political leadership.
Then I decided I’m just going to read Sherlock Holmes. I, of course, have read the four novels and fifty-six stories that are canonical.
Rumpus: And you watch the new BBC show, right?
Wu: It’s actually very good.
As an adolescent, I got a copy of William S. Baring-Gould’s two-volume classic, The Annotated Sherlock Holmes, which I read cover to cover. I also own Leslie S. Clinger’s The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, which I’ve not yet read. But in the past three years, all I’ve read have been Sherlock Holmes pastiches, what would now be called fanfiction. Short stories and novels featuring the character by other writers.
I’ve also read most of Paul Auster’s work. I like Stephen Millhauser. I like Annie Dillard. There have been several great American novels in the past decade. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay and Middlesex come to mind. Really wonderful, enjoyable reads that blend big ideas and rich characterization with compelling plots and historical figures.
That’s about it. I’m poorly-read and poorly-travelled.
Image of Detroit © by Bob Jagendorf.