Asian American voices in the literary mainstream | Daily News


Asian American voices in the literary mainstream

In the summer of 2000, Alexander Chee, then a burgeoning writer struggling to get his first book published, boarded a train to the Upper West Side of Manhattan. On the ride, he pulled out the manuscript that would eventually become his debut novel, Edinburgh, and decided to make an unflinching assessment.

“I’m just going to read it, and if I really think I should stop trying to find a publisher, I will stop,” he says, recalling that day now, 20 years later. Chee, a gay Korean American writer, was being persistently rejected by publishers at a time when the very concept of diverse voices was largely superficial in the industry. “But I was reading it and I was like, I’m my favorite debut author.”

Matter of self-assertion

It was a moment of hubris that still makes Chee bowl over in laughter, but his conviction was a crucial matter of self-assertion. “I wrote a book I wanted to read,” he says. “I wrote a book that I wanted to see in the world.” Yet it was a book — a shattering novel about wading through the trauma of sexual abuse — that much of the industry failed to appreciate. “They couldn’t figure out if it was an Asian American novel or what they call a gay novel,” Chee says. His protagonist was a gay Korean American, but “there wasn’t a coming out story, it wasn’t about immigrant struggles per se.”

Two decades later, the literary landscape looks vastly different and more Asian American than ever. In the eyes of the literary mainstream, the last few years have witnessed a swell of Asian American voices that has generally moved with a great creative freedom — one Chee was fighting to carve out for himself — and in turn produced some of the most exciting and beloved work in recent memory. Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer took home the Pulitzer in 2016; Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise won last year’s National Book Award; Min Jin Lee, Lisa Ko, Karan Mahajan, and Hanya Yanagihara became finalists for the National Book Award in recent years; and Celeste Ng and Kevin Kwan have redefined the bounds of the literary blockbuster.

And yet, to identify this moment as unprecedented is to diminish those who came before. A tricky aspect of identifying an Asian American wave through the lens of establishment recognition — marquee awards and publication under the major publishing houses — is arguably to embolden the claim that the insular and myopic publishing industry constitutes the sole validating force for communities and work that have always existed. Decades earlier, the controversial, sharp-toothed, and yet necessary work of a band of Asian American writers argued — privately among their peers and publicly in the influential anthology Aiiieeeee! — for rejection of this very notion. “Our work matters,” they insisted defiantly, no matter the ignorance of the mainstream gaze.

Those who found success were often entangled in the rule of the one — publishers’ habit of touting one or two writers every few years as the sole representatives of a culture.

Graphic memoir

“It’s never been a question of are there Asian Americans writing,” says Mira Jacob, the author of the graphic memoir Good Talk (which is nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award and is being adapted into a TV show). “We have always been doing the work. There is no shortage of us.” Still, to be anointed by big publishing is to largely ensure a readership, to reach other Asian Americans and in turn inspire more writers. I spoke with a number of contemporary authors for this piece who often cited similar works from earlier generations of Asian American writers — Amy Tan, Maxine Hong Kingston, Arundhati Roy, John Okada, Carlos Bulosan, Chang-Rae Lee, Jhumpa Lahiri — who were instrumental in awakening their imagination as writers, as individuals. But most discovered these literary gems later, often in their twenties; their forebears, the few who broke through, were not readily taught and had to be unearthed.

“I am sometimes haunted by the thought of the books we didn’t get and the great writers whose stories we didn’t get to read,” says Nicole Chung, author of the memoir All You Can Ever Know.

Those who found success were often entangled in the rule of the one — publishers’ habit of touting one or two writers every few years as the sole representatives of a culture. By virtue of there being so few writers with visibility, the work of these individuals was often saddled by expectations from Asians and non-Asians and read through an almost sociological framing: “Explain your land, your world, your people.”

Literary superstardom

“There wasn’t any landscape to look at,” says Tan, whose 1989 debut novel, The Joy Luck Club, shot her into literary superstardom. She was one of the only Asian American writers read in the mainstream, a reality that brought with it suffocating burdens. “People thought I carried the responsibility to do it right,” Tan says. “I had people say, ‘That’s not how my mother was. My mother doesn’t speak broken English. How dare she write a story with a character like that?’ I don’t think that is the case anymore and in part because there are so many more (Asian American) writers out there.”

Amy Tan attends a 25th-anniversary event for the 1993 film “The Joy Luck Club.” Photo: Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

The last few years, in particular, have heralded a robust new class of young Asian American authors. Two of last year’s most celebrated books came from Ocean Vuong’s debut novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous and Jia Tolentino’s debut essay collection Trick Mirror. This year, we’ve already received remarkable works from Meng Jin, E.J. Koh, and Paul Yoon, with more to come from the likes of Cathy Park Hong, Kevin Nguyen, Alexandra Chang, Souvankham Thammavongsa, and Megha Majumdar. -


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