Ryan Lee Wong’s “Which Side Are You” Book Review

Shortly after Reid, a 21-year-old Columbia University student, returned home to visit in Los Angeles, his mother — outraged at Reed’s seemingly endless views on racism, capitalism, patriarchy, single-use plastic, and more — Ask, “Gah, can we do it for fifteen minutes without ideological criticism?” The short answer that applies to most of the book is no.

Ryan Lee Wong’s debut, Which Side Are You On, follows Reed through a brief but significant time in his life. For months, he had been protesting the shooting of Akai Gurley, a black man, by Asian American police officer Peter Liang at a residential project in New York City. Now on probation and not interested in his studies, Reed wants to drop out of college and devote himself to the Black Lives Matter movement.

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If the names of Akai Gurley and Peter Liang seem familiar, it’s because Huang weaves a real-life tragedy in the novel that led to numerous protests and counter-protests in New York between 2015 and 2016. On one side is a group of Asian-Americans who see Liang as a scapegoat for white police officers involved in the deadly shooting, who died because of his Chinese ancestry. On the other side are Black Lives Matter protesters, joined by many Asian-Americans who see Liang as another example of police brutality against the black community and demand that he be convicted of killing an unarmed man .

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Reed is a relative newcomer to the delicate world of the Black Asia League, and without a lot of instructive models, he’s been moving forward. He candidly admits that much of his education on social justice came from Twitter or his peers, and he sees himself as a “naive, privileged kid trying to build my analytical parachute in free fall.” While he knew the work of pioneering Asian American activists like Grace Lee Boggs, he didn’t fully understand his parents — who he saw as financially comfortable, well-behaved liberties Theists – and to what extent are also pioneers. When his union organizer father asked him if he had ever googled any of them, he was surprised that something worth searching in their past was relevant to him now.

Wang’s main characters are crafted and very human in their mistakes. At times, Reed’s youthful earnestness and desire to do things and be good shine through. At other times, he was unbearably sanctimonious and inadvertently comical in his omniscient conceit. No one can express that tension better than his mother, “a round-faced, middle-aged Asian woman with a sensible bob,” she introduces on page one, picking up Reed from the airport while talking to a carpool The driver yelled. When Reed learned that she co-founded a black-Korean coalition in Los Angeles in the 1980s, he was excited to download everything he could from her in hopes of finally giving the movement something of value – an example of what they do. Try doing it again together. But despite Reed’s desire to learn, it’s unclear whether he’ll be able to listen to the harsh truths his mother has to share, such as the risk to his own life, both emotional and physical.

They had heated and complex conversations in the days they traveled to and from yoga classes, chicken and waffle restaurants, Korean spas and hair salons, among other locations. Wang subtly and meaningfully incorporates the Los Angeles setting into the novel. Driving through a city still plagued by riots in 1992 and violence between black and Korean communities, it’s no wonder their discussions generated more arguments than answers.At one point, Reed shouted out what his mother must have known because she had witnessed it time and time again: “People dying. The cops are going after black people and if that means getting a taste of white people, Asians are ready to condone. “

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If Reed is just a source of views without self-doubt, ambiguity, or reflection, he could be an intractable character in a novel, even a slender character like “Which Side Are You On?” But Huang briefed Reed on the circumstances that forced him to think hard about what he was doing and why. In addition to the conversation with his mother, he also spends time with his friend CJ, a former high school classmate who challenges Reed’s Twitter-friendly views and “Fraser-Ass social justice language. He also found Bobby, his mother’s former co-organizer, who agreed with Reed’s parents that he shouldn’t drop out of school, much to his dismay and confusion. Later, he told his mom: “I’m honored, I Understood. However, when I tried to give up the above privileges, everyone told me not to. “

At times, the dialogue between Reed and others can feel overly didactic, as unnatural, explanatory dialogue slows down the novel’s otherwise brisk pace. But at its best, often, “Which side are you on” has the distinction of telling a story of our time, asking difficult but necessary questions for the narrator and the readers around him.

Rong Yun, Assistant Professor of English at George Washington University, is the author of the novels O Beautiful and Shelter.

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