Photo by Anthony Tran on Unsplash
Photo by Anthony Tran on Unsplash

Between the Pages of Contemporary Asian American Literature

There’s an evolution in contemporary Asian American literature from the usual immigrant story to something more nuanced and varied, something that’s more reflective of the varieties of “Asian Americaness”.

Early in Kevin Kwan’s Sex and Vanity, the half-Chinese, half-old money WASP Lucie Tang Churchill is confronted with (yet another) request to explain her identity. Lucie is in Capri alongside her equally WASPy (but not Chinese) cousin Charlotte when a tour guide mistakes Lucie for a friend rather than a relation. 

“Oh? Your cousin?” Paolo glanced reflexively at Lucie in surprise, but Lucie simply smiled. She knew that within the next few seconds, Charlotte would automatically launch into the explanation she had always given since Lucie was a little girl. 

“Yes, her father was my uncle,” Charlotte replied adding, “her mother is Chinese, but her father is American.”

So is Mom. She was born in Seattle, Lucie wanted to say, but of course, she didn’t.

While nothing further comes of it and Paolo leads the cousins to their rooms, it’s an early example of Kwan addressing microaggressions against Asians, particularly within one’s own family. Charlotte can’t recognize that her aunt with Chinese heritage is indeed American. Paolo needs an explanation as to why two cousins don’t look similar to one another. Lucie holds her tongue so as not to be accused of “overreacting”. 

The backdrop for Kwan’s more reflective moments is, of course, the flamboyant characters, jaw-dropping settings, and the insider snark that propelled Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians trilogy to the best-seller list and into Jon M. Chu’s 2018 blockbuster and ground-breaking Hollywood film. Yet, in both stories, there was nary a model immigrant to be found. Crazy Rich Asians and Sex and Vanity don’t center around the immigrant struggle and instead show a full cast of Asian characters just going about their daily lives, even if those lives entail private jets and remote tropical islands.

That we’re even talking about private jets and microaggressions seems to suggest a widening of a lens on an “Asian-American” story. It wasn’t so long ago that English-language readers interested in stories by and about Asian Americans had limited choices. What they found was mostly focused on immigration and the “model immigrant” story. Louis Chu’s 1961 best-selling novel, Eat a Bowl of Tea, for example, portrayed the bachelor society in New York’s Chinatown after World War II and was adapted into a film by Wayne Wang in 1989.

At the same time Eat a Bowl of Tea was released in cinemas, Amy Tan’s debut novel, The Joy Luck Club, was published to best-seller status. Her book tells the story of four Chinese women, their immigration to the US, and the cultural differences with their American-born daughters. In the decade between the publications of Eat a Bowl of Tea and The Joy Luck Club, Maxine Hong Kingston published The Woman Warrior, a true account of her immigrant family in California. Although it was a memoir, Hong Kingston wove Chinese mythology into her story, giving the book a hybrid feel of non-fiction and fiction.

To be clear, such stories have been and remain important: racism is overt in America, immigrants are demonized and scapegoated, and children of immigrants carry a heavy burden to succeed. These stories can help readers understand the histories, experiences, and communities of Asians and Asian Americans. But there has also been an evolution from the immigrant story to something more nuanced and varied — something that is perhaps more reflective of the varieties of “Asian Americaness” in the US today; a problematic issue can arise if non-Asian Americans only read stories as immigrant narratives.

There are a number of recent examples about what it means to be Asian in America told through a different lens than that of the model minority immigrant. In 2020, for example, C Pam Zhang’s How Much of These Hills Is Gold, tells the story of a Chinese family in the American Wild West at the time of the transcontinental railroad construction. Sam and Lucy are young sisters, perpetually on the run from violent bandits and other settlers. Not only is the Wild West wild, but Sam is persecuted for dressing as a boy and Lucy will do anything to protect her. 

Susie Yang received critical acclaim for her debut novel, White Ivy (2020), a modern take on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby with overtones of Donna Tartt’s, The Secret History (1992). Yang ventures into upper-crust New England with her dark tale of belonging, which in the end has as much–or more–to do with the White characters as it does Chinese American Ivy Lin.

Alexandra Chang’s Days of Distraction (2020) is about a young Chinese American woman who follows her boyfriend from the US West Coast to Ithaca, New York, and what it means to be a trailing partner. Along the course of the story, the main character, also named Alexandra, tries to teach her boyfriend the troubled and often violent history of Asians in America, yet he fails to read the articles she emails him and doesn’t take to heart her concerns about the way in which she’s treated differently from him. 

Young Adult literature novels such as Kelly Yang’s Parachutes (2020) centers around sexual assault and harassment in a California high school, with a wealthy protagonist who “parachutes” into the school from Shanghai. Jenny Lee’s Anna K. (2020) is a Korean American take on Leo Tolstoy’s epic Anna Karenina, set on Park Avenue in New York and filled with drug-fueled parties.

These stories feature Asian, Asian American, and non-Asian characters but don’t necessarily involve some of the struggles typically seen in immigrant stories. Rather than breaking free from parents with high expectations or building lives in a new land, these are stories of the American Wild West, rape culture, and rich kids gone wild — all topics that authors have addressed with non-Asian characters for decades and yet, until very recently, have been absent in stories featuring Asian American characters. 

While the publishing landscape has changed, some authors still have difficulty shedding the “struggle of” and “model immigrant” storytelling methods. If the typical stories continue to dominate with non-Asian American readers, how is it possible to see nuance and variance not only in stories but in experiences of being Asian American? How do these works influence racist assumptions?