Sunday, May 3, 2009

Shawna Yang Ryan: Asian American Lit

May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month--what better time to start dipping your toes into books by Asian American authors?

Though a few Asian American authors, such as Sui Sin Far, Han Suyin and Jade Snow Wong, broke through to the mainstream in the early to mid-20th century, it was not until Maxine Hong Kingston and Amy Tan that Asian American writers gained major attention. While many early works covered issues of cultural/generational conflict and identity, in the three decades since Kingston's Woman Warrior first came out, Asian American literature has flourished. Asian American writers, with strength in numbers, no longer bear the burden of being the single representative voice of Asian America. We are now blessed with idiosyncratic novels covering every conceivable human theme. 

Below are five of my favorites:

1. American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang
This delightful graphic novel entwines three stories--the mythic Monkey King, a sitcom-like plot involving "Chin-Kee," and the adolescent travails of Jin--into a funny and insightful tale of self-acceptance. And you gotta love a book in which the overriding metaphor is a Transformer.

2. Native Speaker by Chang-Rae Lee
Luminous prose. Intriguing themes. Politics. Stereotypes turned literal in intriguing, smart ways. There's so much going on Lee's 1995 debut--it should be on any list of must-read American novels.

3. Donald Duk by Frank Chin
"Only the Chinese are stupid enough to give a kid a stupid name like Donald Duk," Donald says to himself. "And if the Chinese were that smart, why didn't they invent tap dancing?"
Frank Chin's literary career is perhaps outshone by his infamous feud with Maxine Hong Kingston, but that's a shame because Donald Duk, about a 12-year-old boy in San Francisco's Chinatown is a funny and generous (without being precious) account of how he comes to term with being Chinese  American. There are gods and railroad workers and Vietnam Vets--Chin covers big ideas with a light touch.

The first time I read this, I was struck by how... authentic the stories were. Some of the stories in this 1988 collection date back to the 1940s, and I suppose I was expecting something prim in accordance with the times, but instead I found writing surprisingly modern and honest, and without the stylistic tics that sometimes date mid-century writing. As beautiful as the haikus upon which the title is based.

5. Miles from Nowhere by Nami Mun
 Joon is a Korean American runaway and Mun's 2008 debut follows her struggle on the streets in precise, heart-rending prose. This book exemplifies my point about new generation Asian American writing--this edgy, smart story is about an American girl--who just happens to be Korean too.

Again, this is just a sampling. There are too many to cover in a single post. Suggest your favorites in the comments!

I'm so happy to have had a chance to share my thoughts via the Well-Read Donkey! I look forward to presenting my new novel, Water Ghosts, at Kepler's on Tuesday, May 5th at 7:30. It happens to be an Asian American book too--about America's last Chinese town, Locke, on the Sacramento Delta. Richard Fong, the gambling hall manager, hasn't seen his wife in ten years. On Tuesday night, find out what happens when they meet in Locke for the first time in a decade....

1 comment:

  1. you are just determined to keep me in tears...chest pooching all the way out! i'm wearing my pride for you well...