Shortly after 21-year-old Columbia University student Reed returns home to Los Angeles for a visit, his mother – exasperated by Reed’s seemingly endless supply of opinions about racism, capitalism, the patriarchy, single-use plastics, etc. – asks, “Gah, can we go for fifteen minutes without an ideological critique?” The short answer, which applies to much of the book, is no.
Ryan Lee Wong’s debut novel, “Which Side Are You On,” follows Reed through a brief but momentous time in his life. For several months, he’s been protesting the death of Akai Gurley, a Black man shot in a New York City housing project by Peter Liang, an Asian American police officer. Now on academic probation and feeling uninspired by his studies, Reed wants to drop out of college and dedicate himself to the Black Lives Matter movement.
If the names Akai Gurley and Peter Liang seem familiar, that’s because Wong has woven into this novel a real-life tragedy, one that resulted in numerous protests and counter-protests in New York between 2015 and 2016. On one side was a group of Asian Americans who saw Liang as a scapegoat for White police officers involved in fatal shootings, sacrificed because of his Chinese heritage. On the other side were Black Lives Matter protesters, joined by many Asian Americans, who considered Liang yet another example of police violence against the Black community and demanded his conviction for the killing of an unarmed man.
Reed, a relative newcomer to the delicate world of Black-Asian allyship, has been navigating his way forward without many instructive models. He freely admits that much of his education about social justice has come from Twitter or his peers, and he thinks of himself as a “naive, privileged kid trying to build my analytical parachute mid-free-fall.” Although he’s aware of the work of pioneering Asian American activists such as Grace Lee Boggs, he doesn’t fully understand the extent to which his parents – whom he sees as financially comfortable, well-behaved liberals – were also pioneers. He’s surprised when his union organizer father asks if he’s ever Googled either of them, surprised that there’s something worth searching for in their past that’s relevant to him now.
Wong’s main characters are wonderfully crafted and deeply human in their fallibility. At times, Reed’s youthful earnestness and desire to do and be good shine through. At other times, he’s unbearably sanctimonious and unwittingly comical in his know-it-all pretensions. No one brings out this tension more than his mother, “a round-faced, middle-aged Asian woman with a sensible bob,” who’s introduced on the first page screaming an expletive at a ride-share driver while picking Reed up from the airport. When Reed learns that she co-founded a Black-Korean coalition in Los Angeles during the 1980s, he’s excited to download all that he can from her in the hopes of finally offering something valuable to the movement – a model of the very work they’re trying to do together. But while Reed is desperate to learn, it’s unclear if he’s able to listen to the hard truths his mother has to share, such as the risks to his own life, both emotional and physical.
Their intense, complicated conversations take place over the course of several days as they bounce to and from a yoga class, a chicken-and-waffles restaurant, a Korean spa and a hair salon, among other locations. Wong blends the backdrop of L.A. artfully and meaningfully into the novel. Driving through a city still haunted by the 1992 riots and the violence between Black and Korean communities, it’s little wonder that their discussions yield more arguments than answers. At one point, Reed shouts something his mother surely knows because she’s witnessed it time and again: “People are dying. Cops are hunting Black folks, and Asian people are ready to condone it if it means getting a taste of whiteness.”
If Reed were simply a fount of opinions without self-doubt, equivocation or reflection, he’d probably be a difficult character to follow for the duration of a novel, even one as slim as “Which Side Are You On.” But Wong introduces Reed to situations that force him to grapple with what he’s doing and why he’s doing it. In addition to the conversations with his mother, he spends time with his friend, CJ, a former high school classmate who breathes fire and tension into every scene in which she appears by challenging Reed’s tweet-friendly opinions and “Frasier-ass social justice language.” He also seeks out his mother’s former co-organizer, Bobby, who agrees with Reed’s parents that he shouldn’t drop out of college, which frustrates and confuses him. Later, he tells his mom: “I’m privileged, I get it. And yet, when I try to give up said privilege, everyone tells me not to.”
Occasionally, the conversations between Reed and others feel overly didactic because of unnatural, explanatory runs of dialogue that slow the novel’s otherwise brisk pace. But at its best, which it frequently is, “Which Side Are You On” bears the distinction of telling a story for and of our times, asking difficult, but necessary, questions of its narrator and readers alongside him.
Jung Yun, an assistant professor of English at George Washington University, is the author of the novels “O Beautiful” and “Shelter.”
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