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Ryan Lee Wong on his fall debut novel ‘Which Side Are You On’

Autumn preview books

On which side are you?

By Ryan LeeWong
Catapult: 192 pages, $24

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When Ryan Lee Wong set out to write a book featuring characters discussing history and ideas, he knew he would buck tradition. The works he read as a child about the life of the spirit were set in cities built for long, contemplative walks – think James Joyce’s Dublin. But his novel Whose Side Are You On wouldn’t require much foot traffic.

“I was like, ‘This can’t happen in LA,'” said Wong, 34, who grew up in the city but can be reached by phone at his current home in Brooklyn, NY “No one says, ‘I walked from downtown to Koreatown and had all these interesting thoughts about history’ because they were driving.”

Instead, in his October debut, the conversations develop in malls, in parking lots, and of course in cars — just like Wong did before he set out for the walkable East more than 10 years ago.

Which Side Are You On centers on Reed, a 21-year-old Columbia University student determined to drop out of college to pursue the Black Lives Matter movement. On a visit home, Reed and his mother zip around LA and begin a series of transformative conversations about organization, racial justice, and historical trauma.

“Ultimately,” Wong said, “this is a story about a mother and son trying to understand each other.”

This story was inspired by his parents’ roots in activism. His father, a fifth-generation Chinese American, was a union attorney and now runs UCLA’s Labor Center. His mother, a Korean immigrant, worked to forge a black-Korean coalition LA County’s Commission on Human Relations not long before the 1992 LA riot sparked in part by the shooting of Latasha Harlins, a 15-year-old black girl, by Korean shopkeeper Soon Ja Du.

The cover of a book with a colorful mall sign that says "On which side are you"

Wong began writing the novel in 2016 when Peter Liang, an NYPD officer, was on trial for fatally shooting Akai Gurley, an unarmed black man. Many Chinese Americans supported the officer, who was eventually given a suspended sentence.

“I suddenly saw this historical pattern repeating itself, where these two communities, Black and Asian, were being manipulated and pushed against each other by these larger forces of racism, and I wanted to understand what was going on,” Wong said.

But when the George Floyd protests erupted four years later, Wong was living in a Zen temple in upstate New York, his book was still unfinished and his time was diverted to more spiritual pursuits. From the quiet, green lot overlooking the Taconic Mountains, he watched on his iPhone as a new movement exploded. “It reminded me again,” he said, “why this story mattered to me in the first place.”

The novel to which he returned benefited from his long dormancy; Over the years, Wong’s rigid good-versus-evil worldview has slowly unraveled. Reed’s friend and adversary, CJ, derides his activist jargon as shallow and performative, and his mother teaches him that organizing successfully takes persuasion, listening, and patience.

“I believe more and more that in the face of a political situation or in the face of an emergency, you have to ask the questions: ‘Which side are you on? How do I feel about that?’” Wong said. “And at the same time, ultimately, there are no sides.”

Reed understands this contradiction, just as his author did during the years he wrote his LA idea novel: “That both are true at the same time.”

https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/books/story/2022-09-01/ryan-lee-wong-on-fall-debut-which-side-are-you-on-fall-arts-preview-2022 Ryan Lee Wong on his fall debut novel ‘Which Side Are You On’

Sarah Ridley

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