The Dead Do Not Improve: A Novel

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Jay Caspian Kang Wants to Provoke You


Jay Caspian Kang has been working as a journalist for more than 10 years now, but he still thinks of himself as a novelist. “I haven’t really written fiction in a long time,” he says; the idea of writing fiction “terrifies” him. Nonetheless, for Kang, bringing a novelist’s eye to interior experience is what he thinks makes writing fun. “And I am very much of the sensibility that writers should enjoy writing.”
So it was with a nod toward fiction that he went into his heavily researched and reported new work of nonfiction, The Loneliest Americans—out in October from Crown. Though each chapter could be seen as a stand-alone essay or article, Kang, who is speaking from his basement office in his Berkeley, Calif., home, doesn’t view the book as a collection. (He says, bluntly: “I would never read a book of essays.”) Instead, he approached the work as a “novel” in which he, the central character, is navigating what it means to be Asian American today. Each chapter’s ideas are built upon in the next.
Kang finished writing Loneliest during the pandemic, at a time when its central premise—that Asian American assimilation makes for the lonely experience of not knowing whether you’re more “white” or “person of color”—was being challenged as hate crimes against Asian people skyrocketed.
In the first months of lockdown, he wasn’t sleeping more than a few hours a night and found himself wondering whether he should move his family to Korea, where his parents were born, but no longer live. He quickly decided against it, citing how difficult it would be for his Jewish wife and their young daughter to assimilate. “It also occurred to me that most of the people who were being attacked were working-class people, people who didn’t really speak English, people who might be undocumented. People who work in the sex worker industry and have very, very shallow foundations here in the United States,” he says. In his writing, Kang argues that any Asian American rights movement needs to address these less privileged people first, rather than focusing on more “elite” problems like Hollywood representation.
“Our current politics really is rooted in questions of microaggressions,” Kang says. “Asian people citing white people asking questions like, ‘Why does your lunch look like that?’ or, ‘Where are you really from?’ Or, you know, the experience of being mistaken for a delivery boy,” he says, rolling his eyes. Looking younger than his 41 years, he has an air of mischief about him.
“Should we actually have Asian American politics based on the feelings of an upwardly ascendant, upper-middle class?” Kang asks. “People like, for example, me, who live in the Berkeley Hills and complain about traffic? My life is fine. It’s great.”
In The Loneliest Americans, Kang asks this same question from multiple angles as he gets to know Asian men’s rights activists who troll Asian women for marrying white men; covers protests against police violence and explores the historical tension between Black and Asian communities; learns about the overlap between the Jewish American and Asian American immigrant experiences; and examines his own economic privilege, wondering if the term people of color has become little more than a class signifier for those educated enough to know it.
“By mimicking the language of the Black struggle in America, we hope to become legible as a comrade, a fellow traveler, or a ‘person of color.’ There’s an implicit apology to this sort of pleading: ‘We know we don’t have it as bad as you, but we also aren’t white and need a way to talk about it,’ ” Kang writes in the book. He continues: “The loneliness comes from the realization that nobody, whether white or Black, really cares if we succeed in creating these identities.”
Kang makes many other bold statements throughout the work, sometimes intended to inspire debate. “There are still only two races in America: Black and white,” he writes. “Everyone else is part of a demographic group headed in one direction or the other.” His writing is meant to provoke and to make the reader a little uncomfortable.
Kang welcomes any potential controversy; in fact, he thrives on it. He also expects blowback to The Loneliest Americans from Asian Americans, and he’s fine with that. “I hope that people get mad at parts of it,” he says. “I hope there’s some criticism of the book, even bad reviews of the book. It was written as a way to start a lot of arguments that I think need to be out there. And I’m okay with being criticized. Some books by minorities are kind of, like, patted on the head, and people say, ‘Good job, you spoke your truth.’ If that happens, I’ll be extremely disappointed. I would rather have the book panned.”
Kang, who has worked at Vice and currently writes for both The New Yorker and The New York Times, is acutely aware of the media and publishing landscape he’s a part of. (In the book, he quips that his writing is primarily read by “lawyers on planes, other journalists.”) He knows The Loneliest Americans is coming out during what could be called “a moment” in Asian American publishing. In the past few years especially, several books about the Asian American experience have gained notoriety—Minor Feelings, Interior Chinatown, and Crying in H Mart, just to name a few.
“A new readiness, or level of awareness, appears to be asserting itself in facets of the story of how Asians are overlooked, agglomerated, and otherwise diminished and misunderstood in, or by, the American consciousness,” Kang’s agent, Jim Rutman, says. “And the origins of that story appear to be poorly understood and far too infrequently appreciated. If American readers are more ready to finally think and read about how the frustrations and struggles of Asians in America manifest, then I suppose that counts as progress, and I hope that Jay’s book will help expand and fill out the pursuit of questions we should have been asking all along.”
Indeed, Kang has been asking these questions for years—not just in his reporting and essays, but also in his 2012 debut novel, The Dead Do Not Improve, which follows a character modeled on the Korean American Virginia Tech shooter.
“When I wrote that novel,” Kang says, “I was thinking through the ways in which I might have seen myself in that guy, and also the ways in which doing so was dangerous, because at some level, he’s just a psychopath, you know? I’d think, ‘Why am I reading his writings? He’s totally incoherent, why am I watching his videos, where he just rants and rants? And why do I have to see myself in this guy?’ It’d be a lot easier if I was just like, ‘what a horrible tragedy.’ And so that question was what the first book was.” Now, with The Loneliest Americans, he says he’s delivered his “nonfiction way of executing those ideas.” He continues: “The formative experiences of so many Asian American men’s lives is a feeling of sexual rejection. And it’s a very difficult thing to talk about.”
Luckily for readers, Kang thrives when he’s tackling very difficult things to talk about. This is where his writing soars; the more personal and uncomfortable he gets, the more provocative the result.

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

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