Asian American Authors in YA - Where We Are and Where We're Going

In a genre that has been largely dominated by white authors, people of color and LGBTQ+ writers are just recently making waves in young adult fiction. YA fiction has gone through quite a few phases, including supernatural romance and post-pandemic dystopia. Only in the past couple years have we seen a rise in the popularity of books that address real issues teens face. Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli highlighted the struggles of LGBTQ+ youth. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas gave us a look at police violence and its aftermath from a young black teen’s perspective. YA has lacked marginalized voices for a long time, and as they begin to make breakthroughs in the genre, I wonder: where do Asian American authors fit?

Image Source: On Being

If I asked you to name an Asian American author, what name would you say? I imagine a lot of people saying Amy Tan. More recent names might include Kevin Kwan, of Crazy Rich Asians fame, or Jenny Han, author of To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. There’s been an absence of Asian voices in literature in general, not just YA. Why is this? When I attended the Smithsonian’s Asian American Literature Festival this summer, a couple of the authors speaking at a panel focused on Asians in YA addressed this situation pretty bluntly. Asian American children are often raised in households that value obtaining a quality education and good job over creative expression. One of the panelists even brought up a rather comical anecdote: his parents wanted him to be excellent at playing piano, but they didn’t want him to be a pianist. Even if you’re good at something, you may be expected to go down a more "reliable" career path. There’s certainly nothing wrong with parents wanting the best for their kids, but it can be stifling and lead to a suppression of creativity. It’s no wonder there isn't an abundance of Asian American authors, you might think. But that’s not all.

Misa Sugiura, who was also on the panel, brought up the problem with publishers: “A publisher might say, ‘Sorry, but we already have an Asian rom-com coming out this year.’ They wouldn’t say that to a white author.” When I heard this, I realized that publishers continue to see PoC work as some sort of novelty. It’s an unfortunate and disheartening situation. However, there is hope. If publishers see a demand for Asian American literature (a.k.a. people actually go out and buy books written by Asian American authors), then there will likely be more Asian American work published. Money talks.

Image Source: Riveted by Simon Teen

Now, not all Asian American YA is created equal. There are questions within the reading and writing communities about the representation of PoC in literature. Many YA readers have been upset with portrayals of PoC characters — which has even led to canceled book releases — and since has become a bit of a touchy topic. Topics the authors at the Smithsonian panel addressed included the tendency to lean into or away from stereotypes and the desire to write from an Asian perspective at all. To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before features a half Asian protagonist, but her Korean mother is not present and there are only a few nods at her ethnicity throughout the novel. This worked in Jenny Han’s favor, as the book was palatable to a wider, non-Asian audience. Kendare Blake, an author who I greatly respect and whose work I really enjoy, is ethnically Korean, but none of her work features Asian characters. Lang Leav, whose poetry resonates with a lot of angst-ridden teenagers and young adults, is Thai, but her poetry rarely reflects this. Works like Wicked Fox, by Kat Cho, take place in Asia (in Cho’s case, Korea) and focus on aspects of the countries’ cultures. There is no right or wrong in any of these cases. Our backgrounds inform our creative work differently. But I think, just as we like to see ourselves represented in literature and the wider umbrella of “the media,” it’s important to challenge ourselves to read from different, often uncomfortable, perspectives.

Image Source: Gist

Well, what’s out now? What can I buy to show my support? I hope these are questions you’re asking. I’m happy to say that the past couple of years have brought more attention to Asian American writers in YA. Patron Saints of Nothing, by Randy Ribay, tells the powerful story of a young Filipino American man whose cousin is killed during Duterte’s war on drugs. Another acclaimed author, Laurie Halse Anderson, describes the book as “brilliant, honest, and equal parts heartbreaking and soul-healing.” Looking through interviews with Ribay, it is clear he understood the responsibility that came with writing this story and took every measure to get it right. It’s no wonder the book was a National Book Award finalist. The Astonishing Color of After, by Emily X. R. Pan, is Pan’s debut novel and was on the New York Times Best Sellers list. It features a half Taiwanese protagonist whose mother dies by suicide. This book addresses depression, guilt, family, and identity. Pan, too, clearly did her research while writing. If these don’t pique your interest, then perhaps Kendare Blake’s dark fantasy series, Three Dark Crowns, will. The world of Three Dark Crowns concerns triplets who are destined to fight to the death for the throne of their homeland, Fennbirn.

Asian American authors are just starting to make their mark on YA literature, and they show no signs of stopping. I look forward to the day Asian American stories, as well as stories from other marginalized communities, become part of the norm instead of just another niche read.