After Amy Tan: An Asian American Literature Roundtable

February 19, 2015


Illustration by Shing Yin Khor

This post originally appeared on The Toast

Cathy Linh Che is the author of Split (Alice James Books) and the Managing Director at Kundiman. Karissa Chen is the author of Of Birds and Lovers, a chapbook of short fiction, and is the fiction and poetry editor at Hyphen magazine. Ari Laurel is a blog editor for Hyphen, and native Californian, getting her MFA in fiction writing in Montana. Christine Hyung-Oak Lee is at work on a memoir and novel; she is the fiction editor at Kartika Review. Nicole Chung is the managing editor of The Toast.

Nicole Chung: Hi everyone, thank you so much for being part of this discussion. This is a question whose answer might seem obvious, but I still think it’s a good place for us to begin: what exactly is “Asian American literature”? Some people might hear that term and only be able to come up with one or two writers; others might think of writers who deal with certain types of “Asian themes.” What does the term mean to each of you? What kind of work can and does it encompass?

Christine Hyung-Oak Lee: When we started Kartika Review, an Asian American lit mag, we had to define this up-front, and we had some discussions about this definition. For the sake of inclusion, we defined Asian American literature as work by Asian & Pacific Islander American writers regardless of subject matter, as well as work by non-APIA writers focusing on Asian American characters/themes/experiences. Kartika also includes West Asians -- and we define that as writers of Middle Eastern descent, often excluded from APIA lit. These definitions have worked well for us, as I appreciate the vast well of experiences and creative work.

Personally, I think Asian American literature is defined as anything written by APIA writers. I know there are those who say that the subject matter must also be APIA-centric. But then how do you characterize Chang-rae Lee, who wrote A Gesture Life and Native Speaker alongside Aloft? I mean, Aloft has one Asian American character, but the book isn’t about APIA life.

Karissa Chen: This is a question I agonized over a lot. I grew up in the ’90s, right around when Amy Tan was making her splash, and Asian American studies seemed to be getting more serious and gaining attention. I think that gave me the impression that there was a “certain kind” of Asian American story that was told. By the time I was ready to think about my own role in Asian American literature a decade or so later, I wasn’t sure if I was “allowed” to write anything outside of certain themes (you know the ones I’m talking about -- immigration stories, generational differences, identity politics) and still be considered an Asian American writer. In fact, I think I actively resisted having my writing labeled as “Asian American literature” because it connoted a particular type of story I didn’t want to be pigeonholed as writing.

It’s taken me several years to reclaim the terms “Asian American literature” and “Asian American writer” for myself. I began to think -- why should I let others define this term for me? I am an Asian American; ergo, my writing is Asian American. Why allow someone from outside define the box I have to be in, when it is my prerogative to define my writing? I feel like these terms are often confused with marketing slots, to know which shelf to throw a book on, but nobody tells white American writers they have to write about hot dogs and baseball for their work to be considered proper American literature. So I refuse to be told that Asian American literature exists within certain thematic boundaries as well.

My policy for Hyphen has been crafted around this conviction. I went into the position wanting to showcase a breadth of talent, to demonstrate to people that Asian American writers write with as much diversity in terms of themes, voice, style, etc. as white Americans do. If you’re Asian American, and you’re writing, you’re writing Asian American literature.

Ari Laurel: I have always thought of Asian American literature as work done by Asian & Pacific Islander American writers regardless of subject matter. I recently learned from Karissa that there is an award for writing about “Asian themes” without regard to the identification of the author, and that is kind of irritating. Because we already know that certain authors have more freedoms than others. My mother is a big reader but our tastes don’t always overlap, and she loved Memoirs of a Geisha as much as she did The Joy Luck Club, but it’s only the latter that I would consider Asian American writing. The latter is informed by experiences as an Asian American, while the former isn’t, and that seems to be an important distinction to draw. Asian Americans who choose not to write about Asians are still informed by being Asian in this industry. APIA writers see early on which spaces we can easily move in, and have to decide whether to push the boundaries of those spaces.

Karissa Chen: I read Memoirs of a Geisha when I was fourteen, and I loved it for a long time. There are actually a lot of books/plays/shows/movies I loved that now, as a more critical adult, I think about differently. But I wonder if it says something that I just took it for granted that it was totally okay for Golden to write what he did because, hey, at least Asians were being written about, and at least there was someone who looked like me somewhere, anywhere.

Cathy Linh Che: I agree with everyone’s definition of APIA lit. And I want to add in the word “identify”: “Asian American literature is work written by those who identify as APIA writers.”

At Kundiman, we get the question a lot: “I am [insert ethnicity]. Am I eligible to apply to the Kundiman Asian American Writing Retreat?”And the question I ask back is: “Do you self-identify as APIA? If your answer is yes, our answer is yes.” I think there is power in allowing people to self-identify, to have to wrestle with big issues of identity, without having others tell them via map or residency status what APIA really means.

I want to respond to something that was said earlier: “Asian American writers write with as much diversity in terms of themes, voice, style, etc., as white Americans do.” Now, this may be naive, but I wonder where that statement comes from? It seems to me that to argue that I can write anything -- just as white people can -- is from its outset stating that white people are allowed to have and write more humanity in literature than APIAs are. From whom are we asking or seeking permission? Who says or has ever said that the APIA story is only immigration lit/family conflict/identity politics? If anyone has ever said that, I’ve certainly never bothered to listen.

I grew up in L.A. and Long Beach. White people were always the minority in my schools and neighborhoods, so I’ve never imagined “white people” to be my audience. I never felt the need to write a poem that in any way was limited by how others might attempt to define me. I contain multitudes, as anyone does, and I have never and will not ever, use white as a default, aspiration, or reference point.

Ari: Cathy, I agree with you, but I also think APIA writers can get a lot of pushback when trying to experiment outside “Asian themes.” I specifically remember a Chang-rae Lee interview about his novel Aloft, in which the interviewer mentioned with surprise that he wrote white people so well. His response was very gracious, but he basically said that white stories are eveywhere. Eddie Huang wrote a piece recently about all the fighting he had to do to make Fresh off the Boat even vaguely resemble his memoir. And Monique Troung’s editors once asked her to play up her protagonist’s relationship with his mother more.

So I do think there is a self-consciousness of white being a default audience. When I write overtly political fiction, I definitely keep in mind how didactic or how oblique I want to be, how much background information I want to give, or if I’m comfortable with letting a non-Asian reader be clueless about certain aspects of the culture I’m writing.

Cathy: Yes, I can see that with genres that aren’t poetry, in which money is at stake and market audiences are something that editors take into consideration, that people might want certain things from an APIA writer. But perhaps that’s the beautiful freedom of writing poetry. No editor is going to tell you how you’re to write your story and what story you are or are not allowed to tell. I do understand that translating language and culture can be a negotiation; when I write in Vietnamese in my poems, I don’t bother translating into English. I don’t care if it alienates readers: They can look it up if they care all that much. Otherwise, Vietnamese American people will get it. And it enacts that inside/outside thing that happens when languages and customs differ. When I write Vietnamese customs, I try to describe what is happening with as much clarity as possible, but in poetry, again, you don’t have to explain everything. Perhaps there are real genre differences there?

Karissa: I don’t think the idea that “I can write anything just like white people can” was something I consciously thought about until I began to take my writing more seriously and look more critically at what was being published. I found myself instinctively pushing against the Amy Tan type of writing in my own writing, and asked myself where that came from. It was when I parsed that a little bit that I realized I had spent my entire life assuming that I was just an American girl who could write whatever the hell I wanted -- only to feel, at a certain point, that maybe I couldn’t.

I hate to admit it, but I used to wish that I had a “white-sounding” last name, because then no one would judge or expect something about the content of a book I wrote based upon the name on the spine. Where did that come from? It came from the fact that all the fiction I saw being written by Asian Americans happened to be about a certain kind of “thing.” Meanwhile, when I looked at who had written some of the books I read and loved, about all kinds of other things, I realized they were more often than not white authors. That’s when I realized -- Oh, white people get to write about whatever they want, however they want, and it lands on shelves.

I guess, then, the implicit “they” is some sort of marketing/publishing/industry machine. I don’t write for the publishing industry -- if anything I write for myself -- but the question about what the world will do with my writing and if it will be allowed to have an audience is something I realistically wondered about.

Ari: I have a lot of concerns about what it means to write APIA lit when I know that most of the time editors and readers will look at it in terms of its potential to sell to the “mainstream.” I have definitely gotten slight pushback about this in workshops, and even though classes focus on craft, there is this implicit current about what is “canon,” and what you can “get away with.”

A professor and mentor of mine brought up the notion of performing for white readers. I try very hard to avoid shamanism in my work, and an attitude of bestowing a sort of ancient wisdom for non-Asian readers. It feels like self-exotification and self-betrayal. I notice that I will do things like mention Chinese philosophy and, say, Instagram, in the same paragraph. I will have narrators go on a tangent about spam instead of offering a standard “ethnic” food porn scene.

Read the full roundtable discussion at The Toast.