Hot Properties : More Asian Americans Suddenly Are Winning Mainstream Literary Acclaim


“I might have been a diva in China. It used to frustrate me that the moment I awakened the language would be lost. Now I see the loss can be taken as a gain. The trick is to render the opera in English when I awake.” --Genny Lim, “A Juk-Sing Opera”

In the dawn of the Communist Revolution a generation ago, Mao Tse-tung urged Chinese writers to create dazzling works of art, to “let a hundred flowers bloom.”

A generation later in the United States, Asian American writers have spawned their own artistic revolution. From obscure poets to famed novelists, Asian Americans are suddenly hot literary property, according to scholars, writers and publishing industry experts.

“They’re defining themselves and making thrilling artistic statements,” said Elaine Kim, a dean at UC Berkeley’s School of Letters and Sciences and the author of a book on Asian American literature.


“We’re claiming our place in America,” declared playwright David Henry Hwang. “We’re rewriting our histories.”

A sampling from the latest literary trend:

* At least seven important novels and short-story books by Asian American writers have been published recently: Amy Tan’s best-selling “The Joy Luck Club,” “Tripmaster Monkey” by Maxine Hong Kingston, “The Floating World” by Cynthia Kadohata, Frank Chin’s “The Chinaman Pacific & Frisco R.R. Co.,” “The Coffin Tree” by Wendy Law-Yone, “Seventeen Syllables” by Hisaye Yamamoto and Lowry Pei’s “Family Resemblances.” Two more will hit the bookstore shelves this fall: Steven Lo’s “The Incorporation of Eric Chung” and “Rebel a Without a Clue” by 19-year-old Holly Uyemoto.

* Four Asian American poets have won prestigious national awards, from the Lamont Poetry Prize to the Yale Series of Younger Poets. Two poets on the rise--Garrett Hongo and Li-Young Lee--will be featured on a PBS poetry series hosted by Bill Moyers later this month.


* Big-city theaters are showcasing more works by Asian American playwrights than at any time in history. Much of the interest arose after the success of Hwang’s “M. Butterfly,” the Broadway hit that won a Tony Award last year. A recent Time magazine profile on the playwright trumpeted that Hwang could become the finest American dramatist since Arthur Miller, and “maybe the best of them all.”

* At least four new Asian American literary anthologies are on sale now or in the editing stage. The anthologies--put out by Beacon Press, New American Library, Greenfield Review Press and Calyx Press--focus on writings from unknown college students to famous authors such as Hong Kingston.

“More publishers are willing to take the risk and publish different voices,” said fiction writer Tan, speaking from her Victorian home in San Francisco. “There’s an awareness growing, and it’s just beginning.”

Educators point out that Asian American literature began over a century ago--long before Tan’s success with “The Joy Luck Club"--with the poems and oral histories of immigrants. The literary tradition was carried on through the 1960s by angry young writers influenced by the civil rights movement and fiery street politics.

But for the first time, a growing number of Asian American writers are gaining a wide mainstream audience. They’re earning dazzling commercial success and high marks from tough critics and scholars. A new literati is taking shape.

Diverse Topics

And their new work reflects the richness of Asian America. Literature is springing from authors who live in chic Manhattan, the sweltering Texas prairie, the lush Pacific rain forests. Their characters range from Burmese immigrants to fashion models who die of AIDS. And they write about topics as diverse as religion, pornography and interracial love.

“We’re shaping a great democracy--an Asian American literary democracy,” said author Hongo, who is writing a memoir about his boyhood in Volcano, Hawaii. “There’s no party line.”


Many of the writers have passionately read one another for years while studying in cultural isolation among white writers and scholars. In some instances, their emotional meetings resemble a family reunion.

Hongo, whose poetry book, “The River of Heaven,” was a Pulitzer Prize finalist this year, laughed like a kid on his first roller-coaster ride as he recalled a literary gathering in New Jersey last spring.

Late for a big dinner, Hongo raced into the hotel ballroom. Before he could grab a seat, a young Chinese man built like a gymnast wrapped the stocky poet in a hug and lifted him off the ground.

“Garrett Hongo!” the stranger cried out. “At last we meet!” The ecstatic man was Li-Young Lee, a young poet at Northwestern University who had admired Hongo’s work for a decade.

Publishers Take Notice

The new fervency among Asian American writers is not going unnoticed. Publishers and agents, who spot trends faster than you can say computer magazine , are starting to eye the Pacific Rim market and prowl for fresh writing talent.

“Publishers are always searching for new voices that will awaken us from our torpor, and they’re looking to Asian American writers with an unprecedented intensity, curiosity and interest,” said literary agent Sandra Dijkstra, whose clients include Tan and Vietnamese author Le Li Hayslip (“When Heaven and Earth Changed Places,” a memoir).

Many have predicted it was only a matter of time before Asian Americans--long successful in the sciences, business, medicine and engineering--turned to literature.


“There’s always been an enormous amount of talent out there,” says Grant Ujifusa, a Reader’s Digest editor who worked at Macmillan, Random House and Houghton Mifflin for 17 years. “We knew lightning was going to strike eventually, and now it’s striking in a big way.”

Even at this early stage, a new genre of Asian American literature is emerging, believes Gary Luke, an editor at New American Library who is putting together an Asian American anthology called “The Big Aiiieeeee!”

“There’s a small trend developing; hopefully it’ll turn into a bigger, hotter trend,” said Luke, who also published Hwang. “There are a lot of stories out there worth telling to mainstream readers.”

According to Luke, the recent 10,000-copy printing of “M. Butterfly” has sold “a fair number” of copies for a play. The paperback is also “one of the fastest-moving books” for the Literary Guild Book Club, he says.

“Good stuff sells regardless of what race the author belongs to,” said Luke.

Common Ground

For certain, it’s the universality of the new work--the appeal to a common human experience--that is helping Asian American writers transcend the old literary ghetto and reach a broader audience. More Asian American writers are “riding on the hyphen,” the slang phrase used when minority artists “cross over” to new white audiences. The phrase refers to the use of hyphenated labels (as in “Chinese-American”) that grammatically divides ethnic groups from other Americans.

“Asian Americans are starting to write about themselves in the larger culture, which is a more complex universe,” says Shirley Kwan-Kisaichi, a writer, book reviewer and film producer in New York. “It’s as if they’ve burst through a membrane into another artistic world.”

Despite the recent gains, writing can be a treacherous journey for minority playwrights and authors. Asian American writers often are expected to play the roles of cultural ambassadors, to speak for their race. Their fictional characters must be shining role models, many believe. And because the history of Asian Americans has gone largely untold for decades, some feel that Asian American writers have the artistic duty to shatter stereotypes and honor the historical record with a religious fervor.

Race Relations

“People expect your work to eliminate all prejudice and to completely enlighten white culture on the race question,” says David Mura, a writing teacher in St. Paul, Minn., whose book, “After We Lost Our Way,” won the National Poetry Series award this year. “Maybe God can change the world, but not one or two Asian American writers.”

The authors must also buck the tendency of publishers to peg them as the next Great Exotic Yellow Writer who will fit into a neat marketing niche. Playwright Hwang calls it “the curse of American letters--the tendency to put us all in categories no matter what diverse backgrounds we come from.”

When “The Joy Luck Club” came out last spring, author Tan dodged questions comparing her to Hong Kingston, whose best-selling 1976 book, “The Woman Warrior,” inspired scores of Asian American writers.

Nowadays, says Tan, new Asian American writers must steer clear of being compared to her. Tan tells the story of an editor at a big publishing house who recently sold his colleagues on a promising unknown by calling the writer “another Amy Tan.”

Read ‘Woman Warrior’

And Hong Kingston reports that aspiring authors grumble about getting “Maxine Hong Kingston rejection letters” from publishing houses. The publishers admire their manuscripts, but suggest the writers read “Woman Warrior” and “China Men” to get a better feel for the market.

“One woman told me, ‘Does that mean I have to write about mah-jongg? I don’t even know anyone who plays mah-jongg!’ ” said Hong Kingston at a recent lecture in San Francisco.

“Publishers,” Tan said, “are looking at previous commercial successes as validation for publishing new books, which is both unfortunate and helpful. It’s always dangerous to categorize and pigeonhole work. But the commercial successes also pave the road for other writers.”

Cynthia Kadohata, a 32-year-old novelist in New York, endured a trial by fire peculiar to young minority authors during the spring release of her first novel, “The Floating World.”

Since her days studying journalism at USC, Kadohata’s career has been a fairy-tale rise to literary respectability. After one of her short stories ran in the New Yorker, she signed on with Andrew Wylie, a powerful agent who handles Salman Rushdie and Philip Roth. To Kadohata’s delight, five publishers bid for the hard-cover rights to her book; Viking won with a $65,000 offer. The first printing--20,000 copies--was large for a first novel. Glowing book reviews poured in as she started her promotional tour.

But the author’s bliss was short-lived. During a media interview on the West Coast, a minority journalist challenged her on the moral obligations of writers of color.

“We got into an argument over my responsibility as an Asian American writer,” says Kadohata from her New York apartment. “He thought I had the obligation to portray the exact history of our people; I’m not a historian--I write fiction.

“My writing has a very strong and definite Asian sensibility, but I don’t think a writer should be pigeonholed as an ‘Asian American writer.’ A writer shouldn’t be limited. That’s the beauty of literature.”

Many feel today’s Asian American authors and playwrights show a new artistic vision and sophistication--a break from the angry writers of the ‘60s who often toed the “correct” political line. They’ve boned up on critical and philosophical thought. They’ve studied the literary traditions of the West and East, from Beckett to Basho.

Losing the Edge

“There’s more intellectual expression, more discourse on ideas,” said Russell Leong, editor of Amerasia Journal, published by the UCLA Asian American Studies Center. “They’re losing a certain vitality and raw edge, but they’re gaining the power to influence people.”

Much of the writing parallels the work of Jewish, black and American Indian writers such as Roth, Bernard Malamud, Toni Morrison and Louise Erdich. Many themes are shared: The struggle against racism and alienation. Finding one’s place in a white world. The preservation of strong cultural traditions. Seeking a new voice and a language.

According to many of the writers, the civil rights and feminist movements and the Japanese American redress issue helped create cultural pride, which has led to a sense of artistic freedom.

“When you’ve accepted your world,” says playwright Philip Kan Gotanda, “you can write from the heart and tell your story and not worry what white society thinks about it.”

Gotanda, whose play “The Wash” was shown recently on PBS and released in theaters, is finishing the screenplay for an Ubu Productions/CBS television movie on the World War II internment of Japanese Americans and the redress movement.

His biggest influences now? “Spike Lee and (playwright) August Wilson,” Gotanda said. “Their reality, the African American psyche, is a source of endless inspiration for them in the same way my world inspires my work.”

Three new novels indicate the growing artistic diversity of Asian American writers:

Hong Kingston’s “Tripmaster Monkey,” the picaresque story of a wild Chinese American poet in the 1960s, is a roman a clef of the Asian American literary community--a daring departure from her earlier books that appealed to mainstream readers. “Rebel Without a Clue,” penned by the teen-ager Uyemoto, a UC Davis dropout, is a universal coming-of-age novel whose characters have nothing to do with traditional Asian American issues. And Steven Lo’s comic tale, “The Incorporation of Eric Chung,” deals with a new topic: the misadventures of a Taiwanese immigrant in the Dallas corporate world.

Dissenting Opinion

At least one strong dissenting voice--playwright and fiction writer Frank Chin--argues that the new literati is overrated and has made no artistic progress.

The combative Chin is regarded as “the Godfather” of modern Asian American writers. His seminal work from the early 1970s--"Chickencoop Chinaman” and “The Year of the Dragon"--were the first Asian American plays produced on the New York stage.

When Chin talks, Asian American writers listen. And he charges that the current crop of writers are deeply ignorant of their cultures. They’re guilty of rehashing stereotypical images and values, he contends, and of catering to white racial expectations of Asians.

“They’re bright and literate, but they still don’t confront the issues of what it means to be an Asian American,” says Chin, a tall, lanky man whose tongue is as sharp as his prose. “They’re still ornamental Orientals, the latest chimps that can talk sign language.”

Ironically, nearly every Asian American writer cites Chin’s pioneering work as a major influence. But they argue that they use Asian images (Chinese mythology in “Woman Warrior” or the Western-created Madame Butterfly in “M. Butterfly”) to combat stereotypical notions and create imaginative worlds in which they--not white culture--shape the language and motifs.

One of the writers creating a visionary artistic landscape is Northwestern University’s Lee.

Novelists would kill for Lee’s astonishing story. His late father was Mao Tse-tung’s personal doctor after World War II. And Lee’s great-great-grandfather was Yuan Shikai, the first president of the Republic of China who succeeded the Last Emperor, Pu Yi, at the turn of the century.

Exiles in Asia

Before the political persecution of the Cultural Revolution spread in the mid-1960s, the Lee family fled their homeland. They roamed for years as exiles in Southeast Asia and Hong Kong. Lee’s father, following a new career as an evangelical minister, brought the family half-way around the world to a small steel town in Pennsylvania.

“My parents had this illustrious background,” says Lee, “but all I saw as a child were steel mills belching smoke. Other Chinese immigrants had communities to embrace, but I felt totally alienated.”

Then Lee discovered fiction and poetry in college. He read and read, as if the great writers would help him confront the ghosts of his lost ancestral past. But white authors let him down, and he plunged into “a psychological crisis.”

“I was reading Conrad,” said Lee, “when it occurred to me, ‘Wait a minute, I’m not Lord Jim-- I’m the dark guy he’s colonizing. ' I had been so indoctrinated into thinking of myself as a white guy that I could only identify with these narrators, who were all white.”

Lee’s anger and confusion led him to study writers of color. He read another novel, “The Coffin Tree,” a moving book by a Burmese American writer, Wendy Law-Yone. “It floored me,” said Lee. “It was about alienation, courage, the soul--everything fine literature should be about.”

The writings inspired Lee to pursue his studies as a poet. He vowed to dive deeper into his family’s rich, unexplored history.

“We have all these great stories for material,” said Lee. “But we still have to create literature without pandering or making it seem exotic. We still have to create art.”

Now that Lee and other Asian American writers are capturing a share of literary glory, it’s unclear whether their art is here to stay--or whether their work will fade away with the next publishing fad.

“I’ve seen Eastern European writers in vogue for two years, then Latin American writers,” said editor Ujifusa. “The question is: Will people like Amy Tan be hot two years from now?”