Alexandra Chang and Her Novel That May Be Sadly More Relevant Than Ever
The author of 'Days of Distraction' talks about racism, releasing a book amid a pandemic
|Apr 21, 2020|
Alexandra Chang wrote a novel about a young Asian American woman discovering herself in present-day America. The book, Days of Distraction, touches on issues such as racism and xenophobia.
Days of Distraction came out on March 31, in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. The timing’s not ideal for Chang, a debut novelist. But it’s also a moment when some Asian Americans describe verbal and intimidating assaults from people who blame them for the crisis.
In other words, people are witnessing in the open some of the things Chang wrote about in Days of Distraction. Alexandra Chang talks about this aspect of her book’s release and more in the interview below.
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Interview with Alexandra Chang
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
I grew up mostly in San Francisco and Davis, Calif. (there was also about a year in Shanghai when I was eight), and now live in Ithaca, NY. I moved here with my boyfriend at the time (now husband), for him to start graduate school at Cornell.
We’ve been here for more than six years now, which is the longest I’ve lived in a place besides San Francisco.
The narrator of your debut novel, Days of Distraction, is a former reporter who used to cover tech companies in Silicon Valley. Is that a job you had before moving to New York?
Yes, I worked in tech journalism and continued to freelance for tech publications for a while after moving to Ithaca. That time period informs a lot of the first section of the book.
It was a really exciting job to have in my early 20s, and it was a formative experience for me. I learned a lot, not only about tech but about myself and the people around me.
There was a lot of optimism about the tech industry, around its products, at the time, but it didn’t always live up to its ideals. I dramatized and put a lot the emotional experience—the excitement and confusion and frustration—I had into the book.
Is it accurate to describe Days of Distraction as autofiction?
I’m a little resistant to the term autofiction because I don’t think my book is working in the same vein as other books that typically lumped into this category. (Although I do love many of those books.)
The novel definitely draws from my life, so it is autobiographical in nature. It also on occasion invites people to read the narrator as myself, but on other occasions pushes against those expectations.
Your novel confronts many contemporary challenges, including racism and gender equality. Did you approach Days of Distraction with the intent of highlighting these issues and their effects?
I wrote with the intention of putting into words this experience of figuring out and finding a sense of self as a young Asian woman in modern-day America. In writing from that perspective, it was natural to interrogate the ways in which negative and unwieldy forces like racism, sexism, and capitalism affect this woman’s day-to-day life.
Days of Distraction happened to come out during the COVID-19 pandemic, a time when some Asian Americans describe assaults from people who blame them for the crisis. Do you think your novel underscores this phenomenon?
It's strange and sad to think that my book might be more "relevant" now because of the increasing visibility of anti-Asian racism and xenophobia. The book takes place is in 2012 and 2013, and a lot of it is about the ways in which the narrator experiences and navigates veiled forms of racism—microagressions from supposedly well-intentioned people, lack of visibility, lack of access to opportunities, an overarching feeling of loneliness.
While these forms of racism hide just beneath the surface, we’re seeing today (and we’ve seen throughout history) that it takes very little for much nastier forms of racism to burst forth. I hope that my book shows how white society is built on this inherent racism and xenophobia, veiled or not.
How has the pandemic impacted the release of your book?
All of my book events were cancelled, which was definitely the right thing to do, but still disappointing. It feels very strange to release a debut during a pandemic—selfishly, I’m sad that many of my first-time book experiences were taken away, but that also feels very small in comparison to the suffering and losses that are happening across the world.
It has been heartening to see communities come together in support of one another. For example, the literary community putting on virtual events, signal boosting books that are coming out these days, and rallying to keep independent bookstores around.
Any updates you can share on your upcoming story collection, Tomb Sweeping?
I’m working on it! It’s set to come out in late 2021 or early 2022, also from Ecco. The stories span many years of writing—the oldest one I wrote in 2013, and I’m continuing to work on newer stories. They also range in topic and voice and form, but like the novel, are largely about Asian and Asian American experience.
Who are some of your favorite writers, both past and present?
Yiyun Li, Lucia Berlin, Henry James, Julie Otsuka, Valeria Luiselli, Joy Williams, James Baldwin, Lydia Davis, Chekhov, Mary Robison, Grace Paley
What are some of the best books you’ve read lately?
I’ve been in awe of so many debuts that have come out this year, and ones that are coming soon. Some of my favorites: Little Gods by Meng Jin, Lakewood by Megan Giddings, and Luster by Raven Leilani (which is out in August).
Anything else you'd like Bidwell Hollow followers to know about you or your work?
I have a dog (Irving) and a cat (AJ), and fictionalizations of them also make appearances in my novel!