On Asian/Pacific Islander American Stories and Why We Need More of Them -The Toast

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Karissa Chen previously participated in “After Amy Tan: An Asian American Literature Roundtable” at The Toast.


Last July, I added a new feature to The Hyphen Reader, a monthly e-newsletter I curate in conjunction with Hyphen, the Asian/Pacific Islander American (APIA) magazine where I am fiction and poetry editor. The new feature was called “Fresh Ink.” Its goal was simple—I wanted to list new literature titles published by APIAs so that their books would be given space and recognition among the many, many titles published by white writers each month.

I sent out a request to APIA groups and forums to self-report titles, since I knew from experience that not all APIA titles are covered by media outlets and bookstores. Soon thereafter, I received an email from a librarian who asked me to clarify what I wanted. “Should the book also have APIA themes?” he asked. “I’ve noticed that some works (e.g. Bill Cheng’s Southern Cross the Dog) wouldn’t necessarily be classified as Asian American literature if we’re aiming to list books with APIA themes/topics.”

This question bothered me. What, I thought, are “APIA themes,” and who determines these definitions? Why wouldn’t books written by APIAs that fall outside these themes be considered APIA literature?

My work as both a writer and an editor has been predicated on the belief that work is Asian/Pacific Islander American literature by virtue of the writer identifying as Asian/Pacific Islander American. APIAs, like all groups in this world, are made up of individuals with varying backgrounds, experiences, interests, passions, sadnesses, and imaginations—it follows that our writing would be as diverse. And yet again and again, we are asked to put ourselves in a box, some neat definition of what “APIA literature” should be, as determined by market forces, societal stereotypes, and a failure of the public imagination.

During the course of our exchange, the librarian directed me to the guidelines for a book award given by an APIA librarian’s association. He said he had understood “Asian American literature” as defined by one of their guidelines in particular: “Works should be related to Asian/Pacific American experiences (either historical or contemporary) or Asian/Pacific American cultures.” I read through the guidelines myself, and while I balked at this line, which seemed to encourage a rather rigid interpretation of Asian American literature, I was even more chagrined at the line that followed it: “Works should be written or illustrated by an Asian/Pacific American, but not limited to.”

Not limited to. Did that mean that while Bill Cheng’s Southern Cross the Dog (a novel about a black jazz player in the Jim Crow-era South) would not be eligible for the award, Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son (a novel about a North Korean citizen) would? Was “Asian American literature” now up for grabs for anyone who wrote about an Asian or Pacific Islander society, including white men, while actual Asian/Pacific Islander Americans were penalized for not writing explicitly about “Asian issues”?

I wrote a long letter to the APIA librarians’ association about my concerns, one that, in the end, I never sent. By the time I finished drafting it, I was too exhausted by my own disappointment. I also questioned whether complaining to other APIA organizations, ones doing their best to bring visibility to APIAs, was the best use of my time. The institutions I was truly angry with were the ones responsible for allowing these definitions to be made in the first place—a publishing world that seemed more likely to publish books about Asians or Pacific Islanders written by white men rather than allow too many APIA voices into the mainstream, and the marketing forces that insisted only certain kinds of books by APIAs would sell.

At the end of each month, I collect the names of titles self-reported to me through a public Google form, ask around the APIA literary community, scour blogs like Book Riot for new releases, and finally, browse through Barnes and Noble’s list of “New Releases” (sorted by “most popular”) in search of books by authors who sound remotely Asian/Pacific Islander American. Obviously I understand that there are limitations and oversights to this method—married, multiracial, or adoptee APIAs with non-Asian last names might be overlooked, as well as those with last names I might be unfamiliar with. Additionally, of course, I may miss any books not ordered by Barnes and Noble. I haven’t collected or analyzed any data scientifically, so my observations are exactly that: anecdotal observations.

Nonetheless, in the months I have been compiling new works for the “Fresh Ink” feature in The Hyphen Reader, I have noticed a few trends. Let’s first talk about the fact that this project is even doable: can you imagine someone trying to make a complete list of the books published by white Americans each month? While it might be possible, it certainly would be an unwieldy process. And yet there are months where I go through pages and pages without finding a name that sounds remotely Asian, indicating how few APIAs are published in this country.

Of the Asian-sounding names that appear in Barnes and Noble’s lists, many of them turn out to be book translations. There are Japanese translations (which seem to be most popular), Chinese translations, Korean translations, Indian translations. There are also imported novels—Indian English authors are quite popular, for example. Does this mean that Americans are more likely to read translated works than support the many Asian/Pacific Islander American writers in our country? Does the publishing industry value translated works more? Does the industry feel more comfortable with Asians who claim a degree of “foreignness,” rather than APIAs who claim to be a version of “American” they’re not sure they understand? Or, worst of all, are all Asians the same to them? Do they believe that, say, publishing Haruki Murakami this month would mean there is no room for a new Japanese American author on their list? (This last possibility is not that hard to imagine: I’ve heard stories of APIA writers whose books were rejected by publishers on the grounds that they “already had another Asian American on their list,” despite the fact that the two books were completely different.)

When I do see a number of APIA writers on the list, they’re more likely to be YA authors or graphic novelists. Poetry is more difficult to determine, since large booksellers seem only to be interested in big-name poets such as Kimiko Hahn anyway. Few APIA writers make it to the first page when sorted by popularity, unless they are already well-known authors, such as Chang-rae Lee.

There are months when my list is as short as four or five names, despite the fact that the Barnes and Noble list is usually thirty-something pages long. I can’t tell you how sad it makes me that this job turns out be so easy.

Last week, in honor of Asian Pacific American Heritage month, the New York Public Library compiled a list of books recommended by their staff. The list included some great writers, including Ruth Ozeki, Viet Thanh Nguyen, and Gene Luen Yang, but also — to many Asian Americans’ bewilderment and frustration — included James Michener’s Hawaii, Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha, and most confusing of all, Evie Wyld’s All the Birds, Singing. The list was rounded out with some (admittedly very good) Asian authors in translation, including Natsume Soseki and Kenzaburo Oe. No South Asian Americans or Filipino Americans were included, nor were there any poets, despite the contributions authors from all of these groups have made to APIA literature.

While the list was obviously created with good intentions, it once again highlights the ways in which APIA writers are constantly pushing against the challenges of finding a seat at the table. In 2015, how are we still pointing to Memoirs of a Geisha for a look into Japanese culture instead of suggesting, say, Julie Otsuka or Marie Mutsuki Mockett? Why fall back to Michener’s Hawaii—is it because there is a lack of narratives written by native Hawaiians being published and circulated? How is a white Anglo Australian writer (presumably) the representative for the Pacific Islands, as opposed to, for example, the poet Craig Santos Perez, a native of Guam? Why are Asian writers considered interchangeable with Asian American writers in a list celebrating Asian Pacific American Heritage month?

If even a list dedicated to Asian/Pacific Islander American writing put together by librarians (i.e., people who read widely) can include two white men writing about (exoticized) Asia/Pacific Islands, two Asians who aren’t American, and a white woman who is neither Asian nor American and isn’t even writing about Asia or the Pacific Islands, then how can APIA writers hope to be heard and recognized by the wider literary community?

girlreading1_editAPIA writers have spent too long being boxed into what outsiders expect of us—be that “society” or “the market” or neat little labels that go on the spine of books. I was greatly disappointed that an award for APIA writers would limit themselves only to those APIAs who write about “Asian experiences”—because that assumes that “Asian American Literature” can only be made up of narratives closely mirroring those that can only be experienced in our own skin. The same expectation is rarely, if ever, placed upon writers in the majority, who are lauded for their imagination, their research skills, their ability to empathize and enter another consciousness, another world.

We’re moving in a direction where APIA writers are so wonderfully imaginative and diverse that there are no longer a few single “Asian American stories” that are itching to come out. Our current generation of APIA writers is exciting because they are able to write across a breathtaking range of topics, from those explicitly about issues of identity, immigration stories, and Asian/Asian American historical narratives to more universal and speculative stories of love and loss, religious awakening, and otherworldly dystopias. Our cultural experiences are important, of course, and those stories need to be told. That being said, our experiences are also augmented by our vast imaginations, and for far too long, we’ve been told our imaginations don’t matter, don’t count.

I’m tired of letting those on the outside own the label “APIA literature” in a way that assumes that the white American canon is the center and APIA literature is on the fringes in its otherness. While there are still many, many writers who do, in fact, write about “APIA experiences” well, I believe strongly that APIA literature should not be defined only by these stories. Being an APIA writer is only a single facet of who a writer is—and every writer has their own relationship to that identity. Let us be defined by the writers we are rather than by the stories we’re supposed to write. Or to put it more bluntly: let us define ourselves.

The corollary to all of this, then, is a question that I don’t yet have the answer for: how can APIAs gain institutional agency in defining what Asian/Pacific Islander American literature is? Now that we’ve begun to claim our individual senses of what it means to be an APIA writer, how can this broader understanding be applied to the very markets and industries that may prevent us from owning them?

There are groups and organizations — such as Kundiman, the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, and Hyphen — that try to push this envelope, but they have limited funds and are often held together by dedicated part-time volunteers. My own work with Hyphen has been an unpaid labor of love, put together in my free time. I say this not to receive a pat on the back, but because I believe a lot of the work being done is by folks like me, who do it out of necessity and passion, who may at some point burn out. This important work—of supporting our writers, of elevating APIA writers into public view, of celebrating our diversity—cannot continue to be done by the small handful of people whom have limited energy and time. At the end of the day, institutional change only happens when commitment in the form of resources and funding are directed towards these efforts, both within the existing, dominant establishment and towards groups who carry this torch. The challenge, then, is convincing the powers that be that our voices are important.

I don’t have a solution for the current situation,  except perhaps to hope that, over time, the publishing industry as a whole will diversify their tastemakers and broaden their tastes. For everyone else, my message is simple: read widely. We’re out there. We write in styles and subjects across the board. Let us surprise you. Listen to our stories. There is no “single story”—we are APIA writers precisely because we each add individual nuance to this ongoing conversation.

Here are a few lists of APIA writers to start with:

  1. Jarry Lee’s awesome list over at Buzzfeed. While no list can EVER be comprehensive, Lee does a great job in giving an overview of some of important APIA writers, including both significant writers from a few generations back to emerging new voices.
  2. This list I compiled last December, featuring all the lit contributors to Hyphen from the past year. I also asked them to recommend some of their favorite books and pieces. It’s worth checking out the works we featured at Hyphen as well as the writers they suggest.
  3. The Poetry Foundation has begun trying to catalog APIA poets. There is a growing number of APIA poets, and the Poetry Foundation has listed a good number of them here. To ignore poetry is to ignore an integral part of literature and the communities we arise from.
  4. Celeste Ng curated a list of Asian American women writers (fiction only) at Salon. Celeste Ng, author of Everything I Never Told You, put this list together partially in response to her personal encounters and partially in response to surveys such as the VIDA count, with the purpose of debunking the myth that “there are no Asian American female writers.”
  5. Diversity in YA put together this list of newer Asian American YA authors. There are a lot of APIA writers writing excellent YA, so this is not even close to comprehensive, but it’s a good place to start finding some newer authors.

About the Illustrator: Shing Yin Khor is a cartoonist and sculptor living in Los Angeles, by way of Malacca, Malaysia. Her previous work for The Toast can be found here.

Karissa Chen is the author of Of Birds and Lovers, a chapbook of short fiction. She is the fiction & poetry editor at Hyphen magazine, and her work has appeared in Guernica, PEN America, PANK, VIDA, and other publications. She is a currently a Fulbright Scholar in Taiwan and is at work on a novel.

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