Sunday, February 1, 2009
Some Favorite Asian American Writers
A long, long time ago (jeez, I sound like Don McLean), I created an Asian American literature class for the English Department's curriculum, chiefly because I thought the course should exist. I'd taught American literature in a variety of venues, and I'd been concentrating a lot on African American literature, but I was straying pretty far afield, and I remember having to do a ton of reading just to come close to being adequately prepared. I was prepared enough to start preparing, in a way.
I think I taught the class two or three times before, thank goodness, the department hired someone with expertise in the field. I haven't taught the class since, and the parting was most cordial indeed. The course and I thanked each other for the good times and parted ways. In addition to exploring interesting texts from good writers with interested students, I also remember a few students who were from Asian American backgrounds, who were not English majors, but who ventured into a senior-level English class because they were curious about/hungry for the material, or perhaps because they were simply curious. I also remember students-in-general being surprised by certain basic facts of American history.
One of innumerable complexities about reading, studying, and teaching this literature is that, of course, it springs from so many different communities, which themselves include many complexities. At a basic level, you have literature produced by persons with filial or cultural ties with Japan, China, the Philippines, Korea, Viet Nam, Cambodia, and so on, and so forth. Then just imagine how complex each of these nations/cultures is, and how particular any one writer's connection to the culture--and to U.S. culture--is. Yikes. Moreover, you may also encounter writers whose backgrounds weave together heritages from two or more of these cultures. I was very glad to have gone a few kilometers down this side-road of reading and teaching, but (to shift metaphors), I knew from the beginning I was merely a place-holder for someone who actually knew something about the field.
I'm still very fond of two anthologies, The Big Aiiieeeee, a landmark anthology of Asian-American literature, controversial because all anthologies are, but also controversial because of Frank Chin's combative introduction, although "combative" may be a stretch. The other one is Charlie Chan Is Dead, a fine anthology of short fiction, really superb.
Among the areas I fell very short in was drama.
I'm not exactly sure why, but I think my favorite Asian American novel, and one of my favorite novels in general, is Bone, by Fae Myenne Ng. The narrative voice and characters seem just right, and the plot is well constructed. All the proportions of the novel seem balanced. It's set in San Francisco.
Of course I like The Joy Luck Club, too, just maybe not as much as other people do. I also like China Boy, by Gus Lee, in part because Gus's primary career is not writing (or wasn't then) and in part because it's a heck of a story. I feel okay about calling Gus Gus because I interviewed him once, we got on well, and it turned out we went to the same university. Homebase, by Shawn Wong, is a classic that's earned that status. A spare, well written novel.
Favorite poets include Hisaye Yamamoto and Marilyn Chin. A terrific anthology of poetry is Watermark, edited by Barbara Tranh, which features poems by Vietnamese-American poets.
Chin is a splendid poet. She really knows what she's doing.
Of course, Japanese-American internment, the use of Chinese immigrants (among others) as lowly paid, overworked labor (especially on railroads), only to be followed by deportation, the hostility toward different immigrant-groups, inter-generational conflict, and gender-conflict loom large in much of this literature, as does the question of the extent writers want or need to identify themselves as "Asian American." I think I first offered the course over 15 years ago, so I can only imagine how much more literature is out there and how much more complex the discussions are. I haven't tried to keep up in any kind of systematic way, partly because I started working hard in African American literature and ended up co-editing a 5-volume encyclopedia on the subject. Encyclopedias are kind of time-consuming, believe it or not.
I think I'll end with my sleeper-favorite book: Wild Meat and the Bully Burgers, by Lois-Ann Yamanaka. It's a hilarious book concerning a working-class family in Hawaii and narrated by a spunky, irreverent young woman, very much her own person but also in possession of just a faint trace of Huck Finn and other famous fictional mischief-makers. Yamanaka has published a couple books since then, including Name Me Nobody.
It was too much work to get such a course going, essentially from scratch, but I'm glad I didn't discover that until afterward. I can always lie like a football coach and say that "it built character."
One semester the scheduler put the class upstairs in the old gym on campus, several steep flights up in a weird little classroom. Just getting to class was an adventure. Good times.