This semester, I took an “Introduction to Asian American Literature” course, and it has absolutely changed my life. I realized in high school literature class we read so many books from so many authors. The Great Gatsby, To Kill a Mockingbird, Pride and Prejudice, to name a few. Don’t get me wrong, all of these are great books. And yet, all were written by white authors.
Where were the books written by people of color? By minorities that built this country from the ground up? Is the Asian American experience not considered American enough? I never realized this was an issue until recently. I was so content with just reading the “classics” people shoved at me that I never thought there was so much more literature out there to explore. Literature that perfectly captured an underrepresented experience. Literature that rendered me speechless by how much I resonated with it.
So, with this class, I’ve started to explore more Asian American literature. Here are some of the most powerful stories I have read this year:
- The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston
Semi-autobiographical, The Woman Warrior is made up of five interconnected chapters, each read as a short story. One of the short stories, “No Name Woman”, beautifully captures the difficulties of navigating Chinese-American femininity. It is a heart-wrenching story with major themes of dark family histories, the importance of cultural histories, and femininity.
“Those of us in the first American generations have had to figure out how the invisible world the emigrants built around our childhoods fit in solid America.”
- Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong
Published in 2020, Minor Feelings has already become a staple of the Asian American experience. Hong writes about the difficulties of navigating the Asian-American identity in a society that constantly dismisses and trivializes our experiences. I’m only halfway through the book, but I’ve had to pause so many times to just reflect for a minute.
“When I hear the phrase ‘Asians are next in line to be white,’ I replaced the word ‘white’ with ‘disappear.’ Asians are next in line to disappear.”
- On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong
This book absolutely changed my life. It is written in the form of letters from a Vietnamese son to his illiterate mother, as he navigates race, class, and sexuality in American society. Not only was the story beautiful, but the writing was also probably some of the most breathtaking writing I have ever read.
“In Vietnamese, the word for missing someone and remembering them is the same: nhớ. Sometimes, when you ask me over the phone, Có nhớ mẹ không? I flinch, thinking you meant, Do you remember me?
I miss you more than I remember you.”
- Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu
Written in the format of a play, Yu writes a whimsical, satirical story showing the otherness of the Chinese-American experience. Asian characters take on racialized roles, such as Generic Asian Man, Kung Fu Guy, Pretty Oriental Flower, Asiatic Seductress, and more.
“You came here, your parents and their parents and their parents, and you always seem to have just arrived and yet never seem to have actually arrived.”
- Deceit and other Possibilities by Vanessa Hua
This is another collection of short stories about the immigrant experience. In class, we read the short story “Accepted”, which was based on a true story about an Asian American student who faked her way into Stanford. Written through an unreliable narrator, this is a story about the model minority myth and the terrifying expectations of the immigrant family.
“My scores, my accomplishments, my volunteer work were identical to hundreds, maybe thousands of other applicants, and Admissions had reached its quota of hard-luck, hard-working, children of immigrants.”
I’m so glad that I started to explore new perspectives through literature. Just as we should advocate for proper representation in other social institutions, we should advocate for granting Asian American authors a voice, not just in political and social discourse, but also in genres like science fiction, romance, and fantasy (Chloe Gong!!!!).
I love reading. If you do too, I encourage you to seek out literature, authors, and media that you resonate with, and that challenges your existing beliefs.