My newest - and final - column for The Barnes & Noble Review focuses on Yunte Huang's new book about the famed fictional Chinese detective, one whose influence has ranged wide and provoked all manner of controversy and uncomfortable discussion about race in the United States. Here's how my piece opens:
Despite the many strides the past few decades have made toward eliminating ethnic injustice, race is an issue that isn't going away just yet -- and is, instead, heating up. A black president in conjunction with a crippled economy and a 24/7 news cycle means innocuous comments are blown out of proportion, latent ugly feelings become blatantly manifest in comments sections and public demonstrations alike, and complex examinations are passé in the face of cartoon-style rhetoric. There are many days when it feels like America hasn't learned from past mistakes, or can't admit it's making them again and again.
Into this volatile mix comes Yunte Huang, an English Professor at UC Santa Barbara. He has spent the past two decades researching one of the most popular and troubling characters in American culture, a star of books and movies and a reminder of some of the country's worst anti-immigration sentiments and practices. Can this character be as Huang writes in Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and his Rendezvous with American History, "a funny, beloved, albeit somewhat inscrutable...character who talks wisely and acts even more wisely" while also "a pernicious example of a racist stereotype"? Can he truly carry "both the stigma of racial parody and the stimulus of creative imitation?"
The answer, of course, is yes, because the character in question is Charlie Chan, born of a primordial stew of culture and politics that includes a legendary Chinese-Hawaiian police detective, a Harvard-educated novelist, a journeyman Swedish actor, argumentative critics and millions of Americans looking for fleeting entertainment. Naturally this is a tricky maze of contexts to navigate, but in choosing to assemble a psycho-biography of Charlie Chan, Huang had to merge these disparate strands into a cohesive narrative whole. The end result is not merely successful, but a revelation: you're never going to think the same way again about the wise detective's broken English aphorisms like "An idle brain is the devil's workshop" or "Biggest mistakes in history made by people who didn't think."
Read on for the rest, and for a much fuller and comprehensive treatment, see Jill Lepore's excellent essay on Huang's book and the cultural significance of Charlie Chan in the New Yorker.