The Puzzle of Ryan Lee Wong’s Activist Autofiction

The Puzzle of Ryan Lee Wong’s Activist Autofiction

The Puzzle of Ryan Lee Wong’s Activist Autofiction

In his debut, Which Side Are You On, he examines fractures in the Asian American community through the eyes of a recently radicalized college student.


Over the din of a Korean barbecue restaurant in Los Angeles, Reed, the hero of Ryan Lee Wong’s debut novel, Which Side Are You On, tells his parents that he plans to drop out of Columbia University after spring break. Guilt-stricken after Peter Liang’s killing of Akai Gurley, Reed (of Korean-Chinese heritage) argues that “everything in college is designed to insulate us from the world.” It is 2014. Politically awakened through protests and the left-wing corners of Twitter, he decides he wants no part of “the great American ladder climb, where East Asians hoard resources and try to become white at the expense of Black and Brown people.” This impending change forces his parents to divulge more about their own pasts as activists—admitting that they faced the same choice in university, only to realize life is easier in the long term when you’re not a partisan.

Everything happens over just five days, and there’s no rest for the aspiring revolutionary. Between his halmoni’s (grandma’s) care facility, his mom’s yoga studio, a chicken-and-waffles joint, a Korean night club, and a funeral, Reed cross-examines his parents for stories of Black-Asian solidarity, “exceptions proving the rule of Asian anti-Blackness.” He’s delighted to learn that, in the 1980s, his Korean mother was a cofounder of the city’s Black-Korean Coalition and his Chinese American father was a Communist organizer.

He has all of spring break to mine them, and Bobby, his mom’s Black co-organizer, for their stories. Five days is the same length of time as the Los Angeles Uprising, a major outbreak of violence and civil unrest in 1992 that began in response to the acquittal of four white LAPD policemen who had brutalized Rodney King. Indeed, Reed’s meandering journey across Los Angeles, ferried around by his parents, friends, and rideshare drivers, leaves him right at the intersection of the next uprising and the barely healed scars of a prior generation’s battle.

Thirty years have passed since the Los Angeles Uprising (the 1992 date also remembered as Sa-i-gu, or 4.29, among Koreans). Countless books and media have examined what happened and why: Historian Brenda Stevenson’s compelling and comprehensive study The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins, Steph Cha’s flinty crime novel Your House Will Pay, and Grace Lee’s interactive documentary K-TOWN’92 are three works of note that look at the particular intersection of Korean and Black relations in the city at the time. Wong’s novel joins these, yet it takes a more sardonic, mulish stance. Caught somewhere between satire and earnestness, his novel examines the sometimes foolhardy trajectory of one young man’s well-meaning early political education. And with Reed, we have a protagonist who seems like a cipher, a person for whom racial history is mediated through the Internet and his parents. The question that Wong’s novel seems to ask, then, is: Were East Asian Americans always trying to become “white”?—by which he means, racist and politically disengaged, at the expense of others. It’s a charged question and one that presumes that “East Asian Americans” is one cohesive community. But his novel does try to answer it.

Midway through the novel, Reed’s mom, driving this “Ivy League kid from the Westside” to South Central, offers him a history lesson. He recognizes the streets Florence and Normandie with the excitement of a tourist, “the intersection where people first gathered that evening in April 1992, when all four cops who beat Rodney King bloody were let off with nothing.” Reed says, “I mean, the whole reason Koreans were targeted, right, was because of Soon Ja Du killing Latasha Harlins over a bottle of orange juice.” His mom counters, “They edited that tape…. The two of them were in a big fight right before, swinging at each other and throwing things.” For context, during the trial, the prosecution, led by Deputy District Attorney Roxanne Caravajal, presented to the jury a version of the security tape that added arrows and circles to clarify their movements; and this edited version showed the full fight. (Later, a broadcast version that cut out the fight was circulated in the public.) That grainy, silent security video of a Korean grocer ending a girl’s life replayed on television sets and fueled rage. And what Reed’s mom implies is that Du acted in self-defense.

From Soon Ja Du shooting 15-year-old Latasha Harlins to Hong Kong immigrant cop Peter Liang killing Akai Gurley, Reed draws a direct line between 1992 LA and 2014 Brooklyn. East Asian communities are complicit in white supremacy and anti-Blackness, he says, and justice in the present is simple: A prison sentence for Peter Liang. His mother disagrees: “Isn’t this the son who, last time he was home, was railing about how prisons shouldn’t exist?” The Korean shopkeepers were killed and persecuted too, she says. He replies: That’s just the colonizer’s paranoia. The back-and-forth continues.

During the LA Uprising, “Blacks were not the only participants and Koreans were not the only targets,” historian Brenda Stevenson writes in The Contested Murder. “Koreans sustained tremendous property loss and damage but so too did shops owned by Latinos/as and blacks…. One Korean American died in the uprising; but blacks constituted 44% of those killed in all related deaths; Latinos were 31% and whites were 22%.” Wong notably leaves out the actions of the white judge, Joyce Karlin, whose sentence for Du went against the jury’s recommendation for the 16-year maximum. Du received no jail time.

A thorny debut novel, Which Side Are You On is a swift, funny, polemical primer on Los Angeles, Asian American history, and cross-racial organizing. But Reed is not always the best tour guide of the tensions that thrum through Los Angeles. In skewering the desire for the correct politics and the desire to be a perfect activist, the novel misses an opportunity to examine what is a much more ambiguous story about race relations.

Still, Reed exemplifies a generation, of which I count myself part, who gorged on Twitter and were activated by Black Lives Matter during the Obama years. “The degree is just another resource I’m hoarding, propelling myself up the ladder toward whiteness,” he preaches to his equally well educated Korean-American best friend, CJ. “You sound like Adorno if he, like, worked out his ideas on Twitter,” she says. So Reed is annoying—a bit of a sanctimonious know-it-all, really—but a familiar figure.

Are we meant to laugh at Reed’s “Frasier-ass social justice language,” as CJ calls it? With the endless repartee between him, and, well, everyone, it’s unclear how seriously we’re meant to take his character and analysis. By the novel’s end, Reed has undergone a sincere political change-of-heart (“I can’t get behind asking for Liang to go to jail”) and reconciles with his mother and his best friend. Reed still believes, however, that Asians do not organize, and when they do, they organize for the wrong side. Such claims feel dated in 2022, given the long-standing internationalist movements that have been documented by groups like the Black Woman Radicals, Asian American Feminist Collective, and Red Star Over Asia. Reed can’t see beyond the Asian-Black conflicts of recent decades, or beyond America, or for the most part, beyond his own life.

I craved more specificity, especially when Reed described the Korean shopkeepers who discriminated against their African American customers: “All these Koreans who were abused, then returned that abuse here. Of course they were neocolonizers extracting resources from South Central, of course they climbed onto their rooftops with guns during Sa-i-gu.” Instead of such a pat explanation, or “Abusers gonna abuse,” a better one would have examined these men to a greater degree. Many K-Town shopkeepers who armed themselves to protect person and property were Vietnam War veterans, military men whose childhoods were marked by the Korean War. They took to a familiar solution, formed militias, and arrived on the scene informed by broadcasts from Radio Korea, a Korean-language station. And as Roy Choi, whose parents owned a liquor store then, said with frustration in a recent interview, it was their hardheadedness, essential to survive in a foreign country and language, that became their downfall. Psychological explanations we are given—citing Korean han (melancholia) or hwabyung (burning sickness)—fail to mention the actual policies, wars, or events that elicit grief or rage.

Reed’s father provides a grounded counterpoint to his son’s views, but he appears too little. As a former Communist organizer, Reed’s father gives him a Power Analysis lesson in his office after Reed shares his disappointment over Liang’s reduced sentence. The lesson also serves as a sneaky tool kit for readers who might also be interested in organizing. His father explains the risks and costs of activism, such as surveillance by Cointelpro and his thwarted opportunity to run for office because of red-baiting. Yet the novel does not follow up on this communist history, perhaps a symptom of its desire to depart from writings of the past generation. But by doing so, it lacks the critical edge that could be granted by context and feelings of class solidarity. Perhaps if Reed looked away from himself for a while, to decolonizing movements across the globe and the factors that brought communities of people to migrate to LA, he’d find that identity—even racial—is not fixed, and, as his dad says, “The revolution will be there when you finish.”

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