Ryan Lee Wong’s debut novel, ‘Which Side Are You On’, follows Reed’s brief but memorable period in his life. For several months, he has been protesting the death of Akai Gurley, a black man who was shot by Peter Liang, an Asian-American police officer, in a housing project in New York City. Now on academic probation and feeling uninspired by 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 Akai Gurley and Peter Liang sound familiar, it’s because Wong weaved into this novel a true tragedy, a tragedy that sparked countless protests and counter-protests in New York between 2015 and 2016. On the one hand, a group of Asian Americans who saw Liang as scapegoats for white police officers involved in deadly shootings sacrificed themselves because of his Chinese ancestry. On the other side were Black Lives Matter protesters, joined by many Asian Americans, who viewed Liang as yet another example of police brutality against the black community and demanded his conviction for killing an unarmed man.
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Reed, a relative newcomer to the delicate world of Black-Asian alliance, has found his way forward without many instructive models. He freely admits that much of his social justice education has come from Twitter or his peers, and he considers himself a “naive, privileged kid trying to build my analytic parachute in the middle of a free fall.” While he is 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 any of them, surprised that there’s anything worth looking for in their past that’s relevant to him now.
Wong’s main characters are beautifully crafted and deeply human in their fallibility. Sometimes already youthful seriousness and desire to do good and be good come through. At other times he is unbearably hypocritical and unwittingly comical in his know-it-all pretensions. No one brings up this tension more than his mother, “a middle-aged Asian woman with a round face and a sensible bob,” who is introduced on the first page as she shouts an expletive at a car-sharing driver as she picks up Reed. from the airport . When Reed learns that she co-founded a black-Korean coalition in Los Angeles in the 1980s, he wants to download everything he can from her in hopes of finally offering something of value to the movement — a model of the work. that they do. try to do together. But while Reed is desperate to learn, it’s unclear if he can listen to the harsh truths his mother must share, such as the risks to his own life, both emotionally and physically.
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 artfully and meaningfully blends LA’s background into the novel. Driving through a city still haunted by the 1992 riots and violence between black and Korean communities, it’s no wonder their discussions yield more arguments than answers. At one point, Reed shouts something his mother knows for sure because she’s seen it over and over: “People are… dying. The police are hunting black people, and Asian people are willing to approve if it means getting a taste of whiteness.
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If Reed were just a source of opinions without self-doubt, ambiguity, or reflection, he’d probably be a difficult character to follow for the duration of a novel, even one as thin as “Which Side Are You On.” But Wong introduces Reed to situations that force him to struggle with what he’s doing and why he’s doing it. In addition to chatting with his mom, he spends time with his friend, CJ, a former high school classmate who breathes fire and suspense into every scene she appears in by challenging Reed’s tweet-friendly opinions and “Frasier-ass social justice language.” He also searches for Bobby, his mother’s former co-organizer, who agrees with Reed’s parents that he should not drop out of college, which frustrates and confuses him. He later tells his mother, “I’m privileged, I get it. And yet, when I try to give up that privilege, everyone tells me not to.”
At times, the conversations between Reed and others feel overly didactic due to unnatural, explanatory dialogue that slows down the novel’s otherwise fast pace. But at best, which it often is, “Which Side Are You On” carries the distinction of telling a story for and of our time, asking difficult, but necessary questions of the narrator and readers next to 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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