Ryan Lee Wong's original debut novel, "Which Side Are You On," opens with its 20-year-old protagonist, Reed, at a crossroads. He's on academic probation at Columbia, formerly the college of his dreams, when he flies home to Los Angeles to visit his dying grandmother. His grades tanked as he became a community organizer, working to obtain justice for the family of Akai Gurley, an unarmed Black man fatally shot by Chinese American New York City police officer Peter Liang in 2014.
Full of youthful idealism and righteousness, Reed wants to ameliorate the historical conflicts between Asian and Black people in America. To do so, he plans to drop out and become a full-time organizer; as he tells his parents, "everything in college is designed to insulate us from the world, so we can patch over the neoliberal order without challenging anything structural."
Reed's parents react, as you might guess, with alarm. But they're not just any Asian parents who have supported their son toward Ivy League dreams. They were leftist activists in the '70s and still work on campaigns such as an effort to boost the minimum wage. So when they advise Reed not to drop out, they do so based on hard-won experience.
Still, they've never been forthcoming about their past. "You won't pass down what you learned, and yet you think our analysis is naïve," Reed says, "So maybe you could actually tell me?"
From the moment Reed declares his dropout plans at a strip-mall barbecue joint in Koreatown, the novel unfolds like a Socratic dialogue, if Plato had chronicled Socrates visiting yoga studios, dance clubs and Korean spas while teasing out his interlocutor's logical flaws.
Just as Socrates presents himself as a humble, know-nothing guy, questioning people who believe themselves to be experts until they realize the inconsistencies in their own arguments, Reed's parents humor him, let him express his views, and then show him there's more in heaven and earth than he's dreamed of in his philosophy.
Reed's mother, a Korean immigrant, reveals the difficult work she did trying unite Asian and Black communities before and after the police beating of Rodney King sparked riots. When Reed disdains her excursions to spas and yoga studios, she says, "Organizing is person-to-person, right? And do most people like to sit around in meetings talking about blah-blah racial capitalism? Or do fun things, like sharing food, or exercising, or listening to music?"
Meanwhile, Reed's Chinese American dad displays his evolution from demanding ideological purity to embracing compromise and incremental change. "His pragmatism was its own kind of ideology," Reed thinks.
Wong handles the characterization of Reed perfectly to make the novel fun to read. He puts Reed's social justice jargon-laden thoughts in dialogue, never in narration. Other characters challenge Reed's ideas and make fun of his vocabulary. This introduces playfulness to a story with heavy themes, and allows Reed to grow toward an authentic moment of transformation as he realizes there usually isn't just one right side to be on.
Jenny Shank's story collection, "Mixed Company," won the Colorado Book Award and the George Garrett Fiction Prize and her novel, "The Ringer," won the High Plains Book Award.
Which Side Are You On
By: Ryan Lee Wong.
Publisher: Catapult, 192 pages, $26.