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.
Illustrator: Shing Yin Khor is a cartoonist and sculptor living in Los Angeles, by way of Malacca, Malaysia.
The following roundtable discussion was conducted via email and edited for clarity and length.
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.
Nicole: Do you all remember the first Asian American books you ever read? I am wondering if they were as scarce in your childhoods as they were in mine.
The first book I remember reading with Asian American main characters was the memoir Farewell to Manzanar, which I picked up by chance in my grade-school library before I even knew what internment was, and I read it unsupervised and it gave me nightmares. Then, in early middle school, my aunt gave me a copy of this YA novel called April and the Dragon Lady (I mean, “dragon lady” is literally in the title!). The pickings were just a lot slimmer when we were kids. I read a lot of Amy Tan in high school, for example, and did so feeling a kind of desperation to read Asian American writers, but I couldn’t fully relate to her stories; I was this totally Americanized Korean moving in all-white spaces. Her books — and Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior, maybe — seemed to be the sum total of what most people thought “Asian American literature” was or should be when I was growing up. Amy Tan was the only Asian American author my white friends and family could name, or had ever read; honestly this might still be the case today, for many of them. And somehow they assumed I must have read and loved and connected with her work, because Asian.
Christine: I don’t think I read a single piece of Asian American literature growing up. Chang-rae Lee didn’t start publishing until I graduated from college, and The Joy Luck Club came out when I was in high school. I think I began reading Asian American literature in college, and I devoured it all. With hunger.
Cathy: I can’t recall reading Asian American books as a child, but I’d read poems and stories by Asian American peers in high school (in creative writing class and for our high school literary art journal). I specifically remember disliking stories that went on and on about food and customs and parents in a way that felt like they were exoticizing or “performing” Asian American culture.
In college, I read and very much liked Li-Young Lee. I love Srikanth Reddy, Karen An-Hwei Lee, Paisley Rekdal, and Matthew Olzmann. A lot of my introduction to Asian American lit has been through Kundiman: reading the works of my peers and faculty mentors. I think that reading their works has been instructive in that their incredible diversity (ethnically, aesthetically, thematically) has exposed me to so much more of what is out there. For instance, I’d had little contact with Spoken Word artists until Kundiman. I also had my first encounters with second- and third-generation APIA writers, APIAs who were adopted into white families, APIA writers whose only language was English and what they studied as a foreign language in high school. Finding this community at Kundiman has expanded rather than contracted what APIA lit means to me.
Karissa: In fifth grade, we read Betty Bao Lord’s In the Year of the Dragon and Jackie Robinson, followed by a unit on Chinese culture. I liked the book because there was a Chinese girl in the story who was my age, but I didn’t really identify with her so much as imagine as she was going through what my mom had gone through (my mom immigrated to the U.S. when she was twelve). Still, it was pretty cool to me that there was a story like this that existed, written by a Chinese American person. Then I started reading Amy Tan, and for a long time considered The Kitchen God’s Wife to be one of my favorite books. Again, it wasn’t so much that I felt she represented my experience as much as I was just excited to see my culture represented in books, and excited to support a writer who looked like me. There were a couple of other YA books that I read about Chinese/Chinese American kids (usually focused heavily on Chinese culture) written by Chinese authors my relatives gave me — I don’t remember what they were anymore. I think, as validating as it was to see my culture represented in some of these books, they didn’t necessarily seem written for me, as much as for people who didn’t already know what Chinese culture was about.
I don’t think it occurred to me until much later that maybe I couldn’t write whatever I wanted. Maybe this was helped by the fact that my parents, in addition to surrounding me with any and all of the books I wanted to read in English, also brought me books from China and Taiwan. I think the cumulative effect was that I saw plenty of Asians being presented in complex situations, and had no reason to believe they couldn’t exist that way in English books either. Though I suppose to some extent I must have noticed the lack (why else have a loyalty to Claudia from Babysitter’s Club?), the question for me, at least when I was young, was never really “Am I allowed to write books like all the ones I love and read?” I think the much more difficult question for me later became, “Do I have to/want to/should I write Asian American characters, and if I do, does that automatically mean I have to include ‘Asian themes’ in my writing?”
As a teenager, I liked Amy Tan and was glad she existed, not so much for the content of her books, but because it meant Asian American women could get published. It only occurred to me later that maybe they could only get published if they wrote about certain things.
Nicole: This is the problem with limited representation. I appreciated the fact that she was writing and publishing, too, but I remember I sometimes felt alienated by the very few APIA books I found when I was younger and trying to write, because my own experience was so far outside what was being written about. Like Karissa, I started to wonder if maybe, as an Asian writer, I’d have to write a certain type of story, one I was not qualified to write. I remember thinking that, even if white readers did want to read “Asian books” like Amy Tan’s (and to my shame, I always imagined the audience as white, probably until college or even after), my stories would never be anything like hers.
Ari: The first Asian American writing I read was Laurence Yep. When I was a kid, one of my first books of short stories was The Rainbow People. Later, I read Child of the Owl, Dragonwings, and his Dragon fantasy series. I don’t think he left a huge impression on me, even though I liked his work. But I kept reading his books because people kept giving them to me.
In high school I tried to move on to more grown-up Asian American writers, and read The Joy Luck Club and Woman Warrior, both of which I would have described back then as “fine.” I remember those books making me feel more self-conscious than liberated. Now I see them as works born out of a specific Asian American generation, but I also remember wondering whether, to become a writer, I had to write like these women. I thought all the time about how my life wasn’t filled with extreme sadness and mother-daughter angst the way these books were. At the same time I was trying to read these books I was also reading Bridget Jones and hating my body, and relating to how Bridget Jones hated her body, and I just remember feeling so much despair that I related to some English woman more than any of the Asian protagonists I’d read.
Karissa: I fretted a lot that I just wasn’t dealing with the things that people in The Joy Luck Club had to deal with. My parents came over as teens, so they were partially Americanized and pretty liberal as far as Asian parents go, so I knew I wouldn’t be writing any Amy Tan-type books. Like Ari, I think characters in other, non-Asian books resonated with me on a personal level much more than her books did.
But I did get asked if I was going to write stories like Amy Tan’s. I got pretty defensive about that, which I think is what pushed me to reject writing about Asian Americans at all for a long time. I’m not entirely sure my brain would have as readily thought of white as the default/“colorblind” choice to make for characters if I hadn’t been asked this, or if it hadn’t been insinuated so often. That said, Amy Tan was important for Asian American literature. I’m grateful she came onto the scene, if just for visibility at that point in time. There still aren’t that many Asian American writers that garner as much attention and renown as she has. I think people these days might still ask an Asian American writer if their stories are like Amy Tan’s, only because a lot of people haven’t heard of what else is out there.
Nicole: Some of you have touched on this a bit already, but I’d like to discuss it further — if you write about race and ethnicity and identity, what are some of the ways you’ve chosen to do it? For a long time, other people drove my family narrative and basically told me what it was supposed to mean that I was Asian, that I was adopted, that I was a part of three families of very different backgrounds, that I had started a multiracial family of my own. I started writing nonfiction because I wanted to explore what all of this meant to me, and in the process help people understand that this story, like so many stories, is far more complex than they might have been led to believe.
So there’s no way to avoid race and heritage – not that I want to avoid it — because so much of my writing is about reclaiming that as part of my identity despite being told, for years, that I shouldn’t. If and when you write about race and ethnicity, does it feel like an obligation, something you want to do, or both? I’ve had more than one person come back to me and say that writing about race is not just divisive, but unnecessary, as if we all should have moved beyond it by now. Someone else warned me against getting cast as an “ethnic writer,” because I should think about appealing to “the mainstream.” Have any of you had experiences like that as well, and if so, how have you responded?
Karissa: I’ve actually had sort of an opposite problem, which was that for a long time, I never mentioned race; I kept the race of my characters ambiguous. I wasn’t always defaulting to white — in some cases I never decided for myself the race of my characters, and if it wasn’t central to the story, I didn’t feel the need to point it out one way or another. Now you could argue that I wasn’t writing great stories that way — that ignoring race weakened their characterizations and therefore the story, and I wouldn’t be able to disagree with you. But at a time when the only model I had of stories with ethnic characters were stories about culture or race, I worried that to explicitly state the race of my characters would be to redirect my story from what themes I thought I was addressing into an automatic “culture” or “race” story. In other words, I worried that a story about, say, childhood abandonment would, with the addition of Chinese “markers,” become interpreted as yet another story about culture clash.
I actually haven’t ever had anyone tell me I shouldn’t write about racial identity, but one of my first teachers, having read a story of mine in which I had imagined the characters to be white but never explicitly stated it one way or another, asked me if they were Asian. When I said I didn’t think so, she encouraged me to make them Asian. “Young ethnic writers are really hot these days!” she said, which of course horrified me and made me want to rebel against the trend even more.
If anything, I felt the most (and you could argue, imagined) pressure to write about Asian characters and my Asian American experience from within the community, feeling that I might be considered a “sellout” if I don’t, or a bad ambassador if I do it but do it poorly. Navigating this burden has preoccupied a large part of my writing life. (That I think about this in itself has given me pause, since this type of anxiety probably doesn’t even cross white writers’ minds.) As I’ve developed as a writer, I understand more and more how my Asian Americanness seeps into all of my experiences, and therefore, my writing, regardless of how explicitly I confront it in my writing. I have begun to embrace writing inside of my skin and explicitly discussing some of the experiences that are unique to my racial background. Still, I feel like I have to do it on my terms — I still believe that at the end of the day, my characters and themes and stories have to be organic to themselves, and that really, while it’s good for me to be critical and aware of all of these factors when I’m not writing, when I sit down to put words on the page, I can only write what feels right to me. Writing is hard enough already, and I’m hard enough on myself without taking on other people’s expectations. I believe very strongly that this world needs strong writers of color who tell their stories, if that is the thing they feel compelled to write. I just don’t think every person of color is required to be a cultural ambassador for their people.
Ari: I feel an obligation to write about race, but it’s not an obligation that I view grudgingly. I care about it, and I spend a lot of time thinking about it in my day-to-day life, and I think fiction has always been an excellent vehicle for creating empathy for others’ stories and asking political questions. Not all of my work is about race, but overall I try to make it my mission to break out those questions in as many mediums as I can.
Before pursuing my MFA, I just wanted to write. But in the past year, on my way to a program, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to be my best political self, and one of the ways that I feel I can do it is to create work that kicks upward. I used to be afraid of being “pigeonholed” as an Asian American writer. I purposely distanced myself from my community when I was younger, when I felt I couldn’t relate. I ended up realizing that a community is a strong force because it’s made up of people who understand your struggles and lift you up. And if your identity lies outside the norm somehow, people will pigeonhole you regardless of what you write. I am taking advantage of the work that has gone into even allowing me the level of freedom I have as a writer, so I owe it a lot to my community to embrace them, lift others up, and to ask readers to confront issues of race.
Christine: It’s interesting that we’re talking about the subject of race as a conscious decision. I can’t avoid the topic — it pops up everywhere in my writing, whether or not I welcome its presence, just as race pops up everywhere in my life. In my nonfiction, my perspective is defined by my own experiences; I’m writing a memoir about my stroke, and my reaction to the stroke and the way I navigated my own recovery is clearly informed by being a daughter of immigrant parents in America. Even in a narrative that isn’t race-centric, race finds its way. In fiction, I make a bit of a conscious decision whether or not to write Asian American characters, but even then, it’s still a decision, and it’s still a reaction, and in that sense, race finds its way into the narrative.
Ari: Agree with these statements so hard. I could write fiction that wasn’t as informed by my own identity (and tried to at one point), but my work is a lot stronger when I don’t actively fight the parts that naturally sort of seep through.
Cathy: I’m not sure that I write directly about race, but I do write very insistently about identity: What does it mean to be a daughter, a child of immigrants, someone who grew up in a poor working-class family, surrounded by poor working-class immigrants? What does it mean to be a Californian? A girl who’s been sexually violated; a woman who has been raped? What does it mean to be a person in love, given all of these elements of my personal history? And how do these layered and intersecting histories inform my worldview today?
Writing about my parents’ experiences during the Vietnam War, for instance, feels very much like an exploration of my identity. After all, who would I be without that war? Perhaps I wouldn’t even be alive! I mean, I can’t write an un-raced account of my parents who lived in Vietnam during the War. If they were white, for instance, they would have had an entirely different position, family life, culture, and they’d have an entirely different access to power. But I also write fairly autobiographically. I don’t create characters and worlds: I take what’s already there and explore what they mean, to the best of my ability.
Karissa: What seems to be the common thread is being able to reclaim our own identities and therefore, our writing, as we feel fit, whatever that may be. I think that who I am and what I write about is informed by my identity — this includes being Asian American, being a woman, being someone who grew up mostly in the New York Tristate area who later moved to Hong Kong, being someone with a certain number of siblings, being the child of separated parents, being privileged to grow up upper-middle class, being someone interested in arts and music, etc. I like to think that my Asian Americanness is one facet of who I am that also informs everything else that I am, and that therefore my own writing can be similarly complex, that it can zoom in and out of different aspects of the questions I have about my experience and the world at-large. But I would like to think that we all get to decide for ourselves how we write about those things, instead of having to live up to the expectations of how others believe we should.
Nicole: Let’s talk a bit about the function of APIA-specific publications and organizations — such as the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, Hyphen, Kundiman, etc. — groups that many of us are or have been involved in. I initially volunteered with Hyphen because I wanted to find a way to not just be involved in but also offer something to the Asian American community — that felt very important to me, and still does, in part because I grew up outside of it. Beyond that, given ongoing challenges in terms of representation and telling our stories, I wanted to be part of a space that purposefully sought out, fostered, and published the work of APIA writers. But I also feel that our stories have to find audiences far afield, and continue to show up in the mainstream, so we’re not writing mainly for one another.
Ari: I experience the most angst when I am isolated (including now, in my MFA program), and I think I experienced angst when I was younger through self-imposed isolation and internalized racism. I grew up in a very high-achieving academic environment, and my white friends were very similar. But while I saw my white friends as complex and interesting, I unfortunately saw my Asian peers as one-dimensional, a stereotype, and a separate group in which I was not reflected.
It was very harmful that I perceived them this way, and embarrassing to admit now. It wasn’t until college that I began to see all the flaws in this thinking. And it wasn’t until after I graduated that I began to seek out communities and organizations where I could feel at home. I am really grateful for places like Hyphen, AAWW, and Kundiman, and I don’t underestimate the way these communities enable and empower people who choose to be a part of them.
Karissa: When I first started pursuing writing seriously, I gravitated towards the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, particularly when they were holding their open mic on a monthly basis, because it was the most visible place where Asian artists convened. The AAWW was the first place where I met APIAs like me — people who understood the kind of cultural background I came from but also wanted to carve out an artist’s life. Even so, I felt a simultaneous pull in two directions, where I felt it was important to be part of the community (a community I really longed for) while at the same time not wanting to be “limited” to audiences made up of only APIAs — there was a part of me that wondered if to do so was just to preach to the choir, so to speak.
I joined Hyphen because I realized that it was important to offer a space within the community first; if I had such strongly held beliefs about wanting to help redefine what Asian American literature is, I had to be part of that movement to celebrate and showcase it so that APIA writers and readers who perhaps might have also only grown up with the Amy Tan version of APIA literature might have that notion expanded. Also, even though Hyphen is a magazine primarily for Asian Americans, it can be something that non-Asians also look to. I would like to think that people will look at Hyphen (and Kartika, Lantern, and the Asian American Literary Review) and think, Here’s a publication that has great writing, and take notice of the writers doing this work. If we don’t champion our own writers and give them a chance to be seen, who will? These organizations offer that community I searched for when I was a younger writer; they gave me a way to feel less alone, and to explore the questions I felt I was alone in asking.
Cathy: I’d like to explore the notion of inside vs. outside with regard to community. I don’t think that there is a set APIA community out there. Community, to me, is not a given, and it is not static. It is built. Community is also constantly evolving — with time, circumstance, political realities, individual and collective ways of thinking. And that’s what organizations like AALR, Hyphen, AAWW, Kartika, Kearny Street, The Hmong American Writers’ Circle, Kaya, SAWCC, RAWI, and Kundiman are trying to do. They are proactively building communities for APIA writers and artists.
Kundiman is a fairly small grassroots organization doing the best it can to mentor the fellows that come to the retreat. We’ve recently enlarged the retreat, expanding to Fiction, but we’ve done so carefully — because what is special about this program is the sense of intimacy fostered there. But that means that space is limited and that many worthy applicants are turned away each year. Which sucks because people sometimes feel like it’s their own community rejecting them. But I’ve seen that, where there is a need, there are people organizing to fill it. The EMW Bookstore in Boston has an incredible Open Mic and creative writing workshop series that creates a real sense of family. In New York, I’ve participated in the Yellow and Brown Power Hour, an informal house gathering looking at APIA literary history to connect writers today with APIA writers of the ’60s and ’70s. I think, if there is a need, and there’s not a community out there serving you, then you can build one for yourself and for others.
I’d also like to see community built across APIA organizations, and organizations that serve writers of color. This is something that we are trying to do with Kundiman. In May, we’re partnering with Kearny Street Workshop and Bao Phi in the Twin Cities to host a coast to coast, simulcast Ancestor Reading. At AWP, we’re presenting a panel on literary partnerships with VONA, Cave Canem, IAIA, and Letras Latinas. I see these as first steps to addressing a real problem in literary publishing. In 2008, AAWW put out this statistic: Less than 1% of all books published were written by APIA writers. And so I think every single book by an APIA author that is published is a victory. The fact that Kundiman has sponsored a Poetry Prize for APIA writers since 2010, and that fellows have published 45 books and 43 chapbooks since 2008 — for me, that’s serious cause for celebration.
APIAs are the fastest-growing racial group in America. People of color make up 37.4% of the U.S. population (around 119,252,539 people), and it is predicted that people of color will become the majority by 2040. I personally do not write with audience in mind. But if we are going to talk about a mainstream or default audience, I will say this: America is not made up of white people. It’s made up of all of us.
Christine: I’ve spent the majority of my life on the west coast — and while I’ve been aware of the AAWW, so many of their events are NYC-centric, and it was hard to feel connected. It wasn’t until I got to NYC that the AAWW felt like a community-center, to me. Ken Chen does an awesome job there. In San Francisco, we have the Kearny Street Workshop. And I often wonder what would happen if the AAWW could partner with the KSW and have a bicoastal relationship. We have a growing number of APIA organizations and I think we could all partner and be better. At AWP a couple of years ago, Hyphen, Lantern Review, and Kartika Review partnered and paid for a table together. And we also welcomed APIA writers who wanted to drop chapbooks and books off. That was a great sense of community.
What isn’t APIA-centric, but focuses on writers of color, is VONA. I’ve been a part of the VONA community since 2005, and it has been life changing for me as a writer. I’ve found mentors and lifelong friends at VONA. So there are spaces for APIA writers outside of APIA-centric zones, too.
Karissa: If we think of the establishment being white (particularly male and white), what I love about the spirit of these organizations is that they came from a place where people wanted something, and seeing the lack of that something, came together to make it themselves. I do wonder about the danger, as some of these organizations become older and more established, of them becoming establishment-like themselves — i.e., that possibility of seeming exclusive because the organization has grown larger, or perhaps become more rigid in outlook and/or goals. At Hyphen, I know we actively try to reassess if our tone and content continues to speak to the audience we envisioned when our founders started the mag; I’m sure other APIA organizations try and do the same. The good news is that for every organization that matures and establishes itself more firmly in society, there are also numerous new grassroots campaigns and ideas popping up, spearheaded by those who have found niches and needs that have yet to be addressed.
Nicole: In talking about the need for representation, the importance of identity, the role of platforms and outlets that specifically make space for and boost Asian American writers, are we working for the notion that one day labels like “diverse lit” and “Asian American lit” don’t seem as necessary — when our stories and our writers are just considered a matter of course? If that day comes, how will that change the mission and advocacy of organizations like Kundiman, Hyphen, etc.?
Ari: We will always be pushing for greater progress. I have been noticing a great amount of political and artistic solidarity in APIA organizations, and people in the APIA community talking about how we never face anti-Blackness and need to, for example. We have a shared responsibility in social justice, and working in solidarity with others recognizes this. So perhaps the mission might change to one that focuses even more on the importance of solidarity with others.
Karissa: In my dreams for the future, I’d hope that our organizations will have to fight less and get to celebrate more, while still being able to advocate for those who still face injustice. I do hope that the imperative need for these organizations in the way we need them now ceases to exist somewhere down the line. I don’t know how far down the line that is, though.
Cathy: I believe that we will always need diverse literature and we will always need Asian American literature. If there is a day when writers of color, including Asian Americans, are well-represented and no longer either ignored or tokenized, that would be wonderful — but that still doesn’t indicate to me that we would need to eradicate those labels. After all, we are a living history. At one Kundiman retreat, Karen An-Hwei Lee exclaimed to this room of emerging writers: “You are fresh lava. You will become the land onto which future generations will stand.” Kundiman is dedicated to the creation and cultivation of Asian American literature. That’s our mission. Fundamentally, we nurture writers and provide them with community, and I can’t see a day when that will be something writers no longer need.
Nicole: Let’s end the discussion with some book and author recommendations. Who do you love? What books have you given to others? I bought Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You for everyone in my family after reading it so fast I gave myself a wicked headache (it was worth it!). I adore Ruth Ozeki and Julie Otsuka and Yiyun Li. For the kids in my family, in recent years, I’ve bought lots of books by Linda Sue Park, Grace Lin, and Cynthia Kadohata, to name just a few. Who do you think of first when you’re looking to buy books for other people — either to expose them to APIA lit/authors, or just because you think they should read that writer in particular?
Karissa: You took mine! Everything I Never Told You was my favorite book I read last year. I read it in like two days and loved it. Over the years I’d started to get wary of anything marketed as “Asian American” literature, and so I appreciated how 1) there was no long Asian woman neck/profile on the cover of this book, and 2) how the book is about identity and not belonging but also the ways we unknowingly hurt each other and don’t communicate with each other, and how tragically flawed but well-intentioned so many actions are. It’s definitely the book I’ve been recommending to everyone.
Don Lee’s most recent book, The Collective, was also very very good, and another example of a book that I was at first wary of, because I was worried it might be too on-the-nose on race, but it was really deftly done. I saw my life reflected back to me in a way that felt really honest instead of tokenizing. Porochista Khakpour’s The Last Illusion was fun, quirky, heartbreaking, original, all at once. Her characters are strange and endearing, and her writing is all at-once mythical and poppy at the same time. How she manages it is really remarkable. I love the language in Bill Cheng’s Southern Cross the Dog. It’s the kind of writing I can really bite into and bathe myself in. Aside from “Is he allowed to write outside his race or isn’t he?” I wish more people had focused on how much the quality of the writing pops off the page. It’s not a perfect novel, but he’s very talented, and I’m looking forward to seeing what else he’ll write.
Both of Julie Otsuka’s books are gorgeous jewels. Her books are so short, with tiny chapters, almost prose poem-like. Kazuo Ishiguro isn’t American, but his books are remarkably well-done. You can really see him growing as a writer with each addition to his oeuvre, and his attempts to try new things. I teach Remains of the Day because it’s such a perfect slender book in terms of craft. I haven’t read Jon Pineda’s poetry, but his fiction book, Apology, devastated me. It’s so well-done. Alexander Chee’s Edinburgh is slightly older, but a beautiful work. He’s coming out with a new novel soon, so I’m looking forward to that.
There are so many other great APIA fiction writers — Ed Lin, Marie Mutsuki Mockett, and Catherine Chung are some that have been by my bedstand lately. And so many young APIA poets have incredible voices and stories to tell: Eugenia Leigh, Matthew Olzmann, Sally Wen Mao, Cathy Linh Che (yes Cathy, I love your work!), Tarfia Faizullah, Brynn Saito, alongside really strong existing poets: Tina Chang, Patrick Rosal, Kimiko Hahn, Cathy Park Hong, Li-young Lee, etc. I’m not going to list out all of their books, but they are worth anybody’s time.
Christine: Well here’s the thing — I had a kid a couple years ago and my reading went into the toilet. Literally. The only time I felt I could read was when I sequestered myself in the bathroom! I used to read a few books a month, and now it’s a miracle if I can read one every couple of months. That said, I just picked up Everything I Never Told You, and agree that it is amazing.
In terms of Asian writers, I also want to recommend Aimee Phan’s Reeducation of Cherry Truong. Wind Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami. Krys Lee’s Drifting House. Forgotten Country by Catherine Chung. Monique Truong’s Book of Salt. Randa Jarrar’s A Map of Home.
Ari: I recommend I Hotel (Karen Yamashita) and Native Speaker (Chang-rae Lee).
Cathy: Here are some of my recommendations, but I’m sure I’m missing a ton:
Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being
Karen An-hwei Lee’s Ardor
Hieu Minh Nguyen’s This Way to Sugar
Paisley Rekdal’s Animal Eye
Li-Young Lee’s Rose
Srikanth Reddy’s Fact for Visitors
Ocean Vuong’s No (out of print, but his first book of poems is coming out in 2016)
Matthew Olzmann’s forthcoming book from Alice James — Contradictions in the Design
Anything by Solmaz Sharif
Nicole Chung is the Managing Editor of The Toast.
Shing Yin Khor is a cranky Hufflepuff, and also an illustrator, writer and sculptor. You can follow her on Twitter.