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episode 22: 3.4 The Work of Inhabiting a Role: Charles Yu speaks to Chris Fan (JP)

Charles Yu won the 2020 National Book Award for Interior Chinatown but some of us became fans a decade earlier, with How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe (2010). He brilliantly uses SF conventions to uncover the kind of self-deceptive infilling that we all do every day, the little stories we tell ourselves to make our world seem predictable and safe when it’s anything but. His other work includes two books of short stories (Third Class Superhero 2006 and Sorry Please Thank You in 2012) and some episodes of Westworld, He speaks with John and with Chris Fan, Assistant Professor at UC Irvine, senior editor and co-founder of Hyphen magazine, noted SF scholar.

The conversation gets quickly into intimate territory: the pockets of safe space and the "small feelings" that families can and cannot provide, and that science fiction can or cannot recreate. Graph paper and old math books get a star turn. Charlie's time as a lawyer is scrutinized; so too is "acute impostor syndrome" and the everyday feeling of putting on a costume or a mask, as well as what Du Bois called "double consciousness."

In conclusion, we followed the old ND custom of asking Charlie about treats that sustain him while writing. Later, we reached out with this season's question about what new talent he'd love to acquire miraculously. He had a lightning-fast response: "the ability to stop myself from saying a thing I already know I will regret. I would use this on a daily, if not hourly, basis."


  • Dale Carnegie How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936)
  • W. E. B. Du Bois on "double consciousness" (and so much more): Souls of Black Folk (1903)

Aarthi Vadde is Associate Professor of English at Duke University. Email: John Plotz is Barbara Mandel Professor of the Humanities at Brandeis University and co-founder of the Brandeis Educational Justice Initiative. Email:

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 2022-03-17  46m