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'Disappear Doppelgänger Disappear': Matthew Salesses' Exploration Of Identity And Alienation

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In Matthew Salesses’ Disappear Doppelgänger Disappear, protagonist Matt Kim is battling himself in a world that would rather have his double if it suits their expectations of what makes the model minority Asian American. When Matt Kim discovers his double has vanished, he fears he will be next. He sets off on to find out what happened to the other Matt and discover himself.   

Highlights from the Interview with Matthew Salesses

On the doppelgangers in the novel

The protagonist, Matt, is pretty depressed. He believes that he is disappearing, and the evidence for this is that most of the people in his life that he loves left him behind, mainly because he is not so great at communicating or being like a kind of regular social member of society. At the beginning of the novel, there's a kind of earthquake that happens that stirs everything up, literally and figuratively. He ends up finding out that he has a doppelganger who has lived a much more successful life, possibly better life than him, except that his doppelganger is actually disappeared. And he's not sure why he then is still around when he has been kind of living a worse version of this other person's life.

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On the exclusions and disappearances in American history that inform the book:

When I first started teaching Asian American literature and Asian American Studies, I was really surprised to find that most of my students had never even heard of the Japanese internments in which hundreds of thousands of Japanese were incarcerated during World War II for being suspected of being traitors. So the list [of disappearances at the beginning of the novel] is a kind of offering of context for the book so that people can go into the book, understanding what the book is  entering, right, the history that the book is entering into and the context for what disappearance means for Asian Americans, which I think is pretty different for Asian Americans in particular. For example, the first and only ethnic group to be banned from entering the U.S.  by name is still the Chinese and the Chinese Exclusion Act, which in 1882 was a way of trying to drive out and keep out Chinese after they were used to help build the railroad and labor then was not needed anymore in specific ways.

On the power of stories — and a need to understand the power dynamics inscribed in a standard variety of a language

I believe in the power of stories, maybe more than anything. But I also have to kind of reckon with the fact that the power hierarchy is inscribed into the language itself. And so I think a lot about that Audre Lorde quote,  “the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house” and the difficulty really of kind of speaking in this language that was made to exclude certain people and to set up a kind of power dynamic based on class and race and so forth. The difficulty really is you're using these words that already have meanings to them that you’re spreading without even knowing it sometimes. What I wanted with the book was to focus people in — not in the language that is used — and to try to, in some small way, alter it.

On the book’s acknowledgements page and the details about writing the novel over the last seven years, the birth of his second child, and the death of his wife

It's another way I think of trying to make it clear what my context is, what the context of the author is, which you can't really see so much on the page usually, but it's so important. The author kind of creates the second self. It’s sometimes called the implied author…I've tried various ways of trying to get the context of the book into the book itself, through that list of disappearances. But I was thinking about it. Fearing and living through it was a tough. It was a tough time. It was a lot of change. Seven years were a lot of change for me, really different lifetimes. And I think those different lifetimes are the context for the different lives that Matt lives in the book.

Yvette Benavides can be reached at bookpublic@tpr.org.