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”.


Although difficult to answer and perhaps impossible to be definitive about, the question bears consideration. Over the years of reviewing books authored by Asian Americans for a pan-Asian publication, we have come across a number of small — even tiny — frictions between the way a story is presented and the way it’s received. This may not mean anything independently, but perhaps collectively, it adds up to something more troublesome.

Does it matter, for example, that a (very short) review of Yang’s Parachutes mentions Yang’s observations about culture clashes, race, and racism, but does not mention sexual assault and rape culture and ends with a verdict of “tart, fizzy and fun”? Likely not.

But layer that with, for example, Jean Kwok’s 2019 novel Searching for Sylvie Lee, which is presented as an immigrant story on the book jacket. Kwok structures her story around two sisters, one who grew up in the Netherlands and the other in New York City, and a family drama that goes back to their parents’ years in China decades earlier. While immigration occurs when a young Sylvie is sent to live with relatives in the Netherlands, the reference on the book jacket is not to Sylvie but to the parents’ immigration.

Some of the reviews of Kwan’s Sex and Vanity follow the theme of style over substance — as though an heiress can’t experience racism because she’s in a privileged position or that microaggressions don’t count as something “substantive”. (If Kwan conveyed this issue successfully is a different argument.)

The above examples pre-date the recent COVID-19-era violence against Asians in the United States. In a recent Foreign Policy article, Emily Couch discusses how issues of identity aren’t necessarily served by terms used to describe Asian American in the US. Couch concludes that the “lack of words matters too. Neither the United States nor the United Kingdom has fully developed the language or the paradigms to come to terms with, or respond to, racism against East Asian people. The heterogeneity of Asian experiences should be acknowledged and celebrated.” Couch writes that describing Asian Americans “is a matter of fervent debate”. Indeed, American’s difficulty with defining the Asian American experience carries over to defining the experiences written and published in Asian American fiction. 

Professor Min Hyoung Song of Boston College warns against defining Asian American literature as a single genre. “As the number of literary works by American writers of Asian ancestry, their aspirations, and their critical successes bloom all around us, their sense of purpose has also grown more diffuse and more difficult to categorize. The immigrant narrative is one story among many that they are telling.” While people often bring preconceptions to their readings and analysis, the tendency to assume that Asian American stories follow a single type of narrative can obscure the author’s point.

It’s not only texts that are mislabeled as immigrant stories. The reverse happens as well when subverting the “traditional” immigrant narrative. Chang-Rae Lee tells an Asian immigrant story in his 2020 novel, My Year Abroad, but flips the narrative; rather than framing the story within the dominant white culture of the United States; he shows how Asia plays a central role in global commerce and culture. His protagonist, “⅛ Korean” Tiller Bardmon, travels to China with his mentor, Chinese-American Pong Lou, and thinks back on the people he grew up with in New Jersey, “who are certain they live at the very center of the world, and who have no idea that the center has already shifted.” And yet, My Year Abroad has been called one of the “most obsessive food novels yet written”, clearly minimizing how Lee has reshaped the traditional immigrant story.

The problem in literature isn’t only with immigration stories. Charles Yu recently won the National Book Award for Interior Chinatown (2020), which looks at how Asian Americans have been marginalized in Hollywood since the days of silent movies. Yet his book has been called “darkly hilarious” and “lacerating” funny, discounting the possibility that it wasn’t written to humor readers but to show in caricature certain stereotypes in their true ugliness.

When looking into contemporary Asian American fiction, it’s important to recognize the challenges faced by Asian American authors, such as what publishers expected them to write about. Kathy Wang wrote about the pressure she faced to rewrite one of her characters in her novel Imposter Syndrome (2021) as Asian in order to conform to the idea of making her story a “minority” one. Wang is clear on this line of thinking: “I am writing a novel about spies, and I am Chinese, thus the book should be about a Chinese spy.” Indeed, there’s an expectation of the characters Asian American authors should be writing — they must be Asian, of course, but they just also be “engaging in appropriately Asian things: being cartoonishly wealthy, struggling under extreme poverty, practicing mysticism and overall suffering (to be clear, I have read and loved novels with all these themes). Your minority protagonists should not do bad things, or — that most damning of all traits in commercial fiction — be an unlikeable narrator.”

Simon Han addresses this dilemma in his essay, “Shortcuts to Identity: How We Tell Asian American Stories”. He worries and wonders about readers reacting to mentions of the “American Dream” and “model immigrants”, for he had written his recent novel without “any thought of them at all”. However, he writes, those broad themes are present in Nights When Nothing Happened (2020) or, “maybe it tackles the failure of these themes to tell the full story of everyday people who happen to be Chinese immigrants.”

This idea of a “full story” is critical to seeing the nuanced and different perspectives brought about by diverse Asian American experiences. It’s important to engage with different perspectives and experiences in our reading. Seemingly more so with increasing violence against Asian Americans.

Works Cited

Couch, Emily. “We Don’t Have the Words to Fight Anti-Asian Racism”. Foreign Policy. 7 April 2021.

Han, Simon. “Shortcuts to Identity: How We Tell Asian American Stories”. Literary Hub. 12 February 2021.

Song, Min Hyoung. “Asian American Literature within and beyond the Immigrant Narrative”, in C. Parikh & D. Kim (Eds.), The Cambridge Companion to Asian American Literature (Cambridge Companions to Literature, pp. 3-15). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

Wang, Kathy. “Author Kathy Wang Faced ‘Pressure’ to Write Only Asian Characters ‘Engaging’ in ‘Asian Things’”, People Magazine. 8 April 2021.

Chang, Alexandra. Days of Distraction. Ecco. 2020.

Chu, Louis. Eat a Bowl of Tea. University of Washington Press. 2020.

Han, Simon. Nights When Nothing Happened. Riverhead. 2020.

Hong Kingston, Maxine. The Woman Warrior. Picador. 2015.

Kwan, Kevin. Crazy Rich Asians. Doubleday. 2013.

Kwan, Kevin. Sex and Vanity. Doubleday. 2020.

Kwok, Jean. Searching for Sylvie Lee. William Morrow. 2019.

Lee, Chang-Rae. My Year Abroad. Riverhead. 2021.

Lee, Jenny. Anna K.: A Love Story. Flatiron. 2020.

Tan, Amy. The Joy Luck Club. Putnam. 1989.

Yang, Kelly. Parachutes. Katherine Tegen. 2020.

Yang, Susie. White Ivy. Simon & Schuster. 2020.

Yu, Charles. Interior Chinatown. Pantheon. 2020.

Zhang, C. Pam. How Much of These Hills Is Gold. Riverhead. 2020.