When Julie Shigekuni, author of the upcoming “Invisible Gardens,” was interviewing to teach a first-time course in Asian American literature at the University of New Mexico near her home, she says this is how she was asked about the insights she would bring to the class: “Amy Tan has already written the Asian American experience. Why should we hire you?”
Tan also haunts Mako Yoshikawa, author of the June release “Once Removed” (Bantam), an explosive novel about two estranged sisters, a Japanese American and her American stepsister, who find each other after 17 years. “I feel uncomfortable with the Amy Tan legacy,” Yoshikawa says almost reluctantly, like countless young women who say, yeah, I’m grateful to Betty Friedan and all, but jeez, isn’t it time to move on?
Tan’s 1989 novel, “The Joy Luck Club,” presented a heartwarming picture of Chinese American life that enjoyed wide mainstream acclaim, but that many younger Asians felt was overly romanticized, even “whitewashed.” Before Tan, the 1976 Maxine Hong Kingston novel, “The Woman Warrior,” faced similar criticism, although her works contained more anger than Tan’s. There were other writers of the 1970s and ‘80s -- Chang-rae Lee, Jessica Hagedorn, Ha Jin, Frank Chin and Garrett Hongo -- who also brought fame and credibility to Asian American writing.
Now, whether a result of that legacy or the nuisance of persisting stereotypes that insist Asians are quiet, studious and obedient, the bulwark of “immigrant fiction” has burst. A flood of vital, angry, sometimes violent and even sardonic new fiction from young Asian American novelists is being released this year.
The new works present Asian Americans in a more realistic light, the writers say, including characters not always sympathetic and likable, and puts them into mainstream, current-day settings.
It is an approach perhaps pioneered by Sandra Tsing Loh, the self-deprecating NPR commentator and humor writer. It is now being explored in other venues as well, such as director Justin Lin’s “Better Luck Tomorrow,” released this spring.
The movie begins with a stereotypical set of Asian American characters: good students from upper-middle-class backgrounds. But their social lives are filled with petty crime, drugs and gang activities. The new film “Charlotte Sometimes” also features an Asian American cast and explores some of the more common Asian stereotypes.
“What we’re witnessing is not that different from the coming of age of the Jewish writers in the 1960s,” says Sandy Dijkstra, a San Diego-based literary agent whose client list includes Tan, Kingston, Lisa See, Anchee Min and such new authors as Carolyn Hwang. “They finally have the education and the financial security to write,” Dijkstra says.
“There’s also a return to story. The more homogenized a culture gets, the further a writer gets from family and story, they lose the connection to the old culture and the possibility of witnessing its transformation,” she says. “The young writers I’m seeing are still reaching back for stories but are proud to have the distance that allows them to laugh and experiment.”
So is this post-immigrant fiction? Some Korean American writers call it “second-generation fiction.”
“Maybe there won’t be so many Hollywood endings,” says Suki Kim, author of this year’s “The Interpreter” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). “Amy Tan and Maxine Hong Kingston ... paved the way for a new kind of writing. They did that whole immigrant thing. I no longer have to explain that Koreans are not the same as Japanese,” Kim says gratefully.
The 29-year-old protagonist of her novel has affairs with two married men, and comes from a severely dysfunctional New York family. A Publishers Weekly critic called it “an intriguing, tortured portrait of a second-generation Korean American by a promising young writer.”
“I was trying to burst open the stereotype that the Asian family is always a bonding experience. Just because you’re Asian doesn’t mean you have to love your family,” Kim says. “Any anger my characters feel is not hidden.
“A lot of the Chinese American and Japanese American writers are fourth generation. Their stories go back to the 1800s. But my immigrant experience is brand-new,” she adds. “Every day there is some new difficulty in my non-English speaking parents’ lives that I have to deal with. I am very close to them. They feel that I’ve made it all worthwhile for them. But a lot of my anger comes from the fact that the experience is so raw.”
Hwang, the Korean American author of the recent “In Full Bloom” (Dutton/Plume), a hilarious romp through the relationship between a Korean mother, who insists that her daughter marry a Korean man, and her daughter, Ginger, who is in full rebellion against family tradition, agrees. “Older voices were looking back at what they left behind,” she says. “I wanted to move ahead. The previous generation wrote often from the standpoint of victims, whether it was of communism or prejudice. In this next generation, guess what? The immigrants are actually behaving badly!”
This in itself is a departure from the last wave of Asian American fiction in the late 1980s to early 1990s, when the pressure to create heartwarming, tradition-tempered characters was at its highest. Tan has said that her generation was trying harder just to be American, in a time when ethnicity was “not fashionable.” In many ways, her writing was a product of her time.
“I have been amused, annoyed and alarmed by some of the things that have been said about me,” Tan says. “I didn’t write ‘The Joy Luck Club’ to blaze any trails. I’m glad if I’ve helped and I’m sorry if I seem to have prevented people from being heard. No one person is able to be the voice for one race, let alone many races,” says Tan from New York, where she is finishing work on a book coming out in the fall from Penguin Putnam called “The Opposite of Fate: A Book of Musings.”
Reticence about race
There are many similarities between the feminist backlash and what UCLA professor and author David Wong Louie calls a “post-racial consciousness” among his Asian American writing students. “There is a reluctance to write about race,” he says, a sort of “don’t drag me down with that old story” mentality. “ ‘We’ve moved beyond race,’ they tell me. Well guess what, it’s not a post-racial world.”
For many writers of this next generation, novels and stories are built more around characters that are somewhat independent from their vague Asian backgrounds. These authors are less interested in establishing the context of their history and lineage than they are in asserting the individuality of the people in their stories.
“I don’t know much about Vietnam,” says Dao Strom, who came to the U.S. from Saigon when she was 2 and now lives in Northern California. But her novel earlier this year, “Grass Roof, Tin Roof” (Houghton Mifflin), is set in Vietnam. “I’m interested in human relationships and community.” She is one of the few first-generation writers in this year’s crop of fiction by Asian Americans (although maybe she should be considered a part of the 1.5 generation since she immigrated so young).
Kim is another; she came from Korea when she was 13. “My generation writes more explosive stuff because they are not writing about asserting their presence in a new country so much as being creative within that presence.”
For some writers, like Yoshikawa, it’s not so much a question of rebellion against something as it is of correcting stereotypes. “There’s so much strange curiosity in America about the victimization of Asian women, the foot binding and concubines. I want to write about the strength of Asian women.” Yoshikawa spent more time reading Alice Munro and Toni Morrison, she says, than she did writers like Tan.
Hwang, who lives in New York, finds that Asian American stories differ not only in tone and subject matter, but also in the degree of assimilation in the authors’ family. Some families experience more pressure to assimilate than others, she says.
“My parents weren’t as traditional,” she says, although she admits that if any of her three siblings (two corporate lawyers and an MBA) had tried to become a writer, “it just wouldn’t have happened.” She, being the youngest, managed to slip past her parents’ radar.
The last book Hwang read before writing her novel was “Angela’s Ashes,” which made her realize how “funny the immigrant experience could be.” A suffocating legacy of Tan’s generation, she says, is the imperative that Asian American literature be “earnest.”
At Glamour, where Hwang worked, there were two columns: “Hers,” written by white women about the quirkiness in their lives, and “Bridges,” earnest tales by nonwhites showing how universal their experiences were. “I always wanted to write for ‘Hers,’ but my editor was always trying to get me to write for ‘Bridges,’ ” she says, laughing.
A new generation of Chinese literature coming to the U.S., from such writers as Mian Mian, is also tapping into that post-racial mind-set.
Mian is a 32-year-old Shanghai author whose novel, “Candy,” could be set in any American city. The story of a 17-year-old girl’s travels in the club/drug underworld became a kind of cult manifesto and was banned in China after selling 60,000 copies. (Mian was labeled “the poster child for spiritual pollution,” she says by phone.) Her book has just been translated into English and is set for a July release from Little, Brown & Co.
These shifting forms of expression are helping shape novelists’ desire to look forward and explore new territory.
Shigekuni’s “Invisible Gardens” (Thomas Dunne Books) is about a middle-aged suburban woman rebelling against the perfection and order of her life. “I’m ready to look outward, rather than inward,” she says. “It’s not so easy anymore to mistake one Asian for another. We have made our presence known.
“My mother had nine sisters up and down the coast of California. They spoke what they thought was Japanese, but back in Japan they were told they had all the wrong words for things. They spoke a hybrid language. I like to think my book was written in that language.”