Asian American Literature Analysis

At Issue

(Representations of Race in American Literature)

The first published Asian American writers were two sisters, Sui Sin Far (Edith Maud Eaton) and Onoto Watanna (Winifred Eaton), the daughters of British planter Edward Eaton and his Chinese wife, Lotus Blossom. Critics have accused Sui Sin Far of presenting stereotypical descriptions of the Chinese and of Chinatown, but in fact, through her collection of short stories Mrs. Spring Fragrance (1912), she portrayed the discrimination and psychic pain that Chinese immigrants endured. In novels such as Heart of Hyacinth (1904), Onoto Watanna wrote of love affairs between Asian women and white men in which the Asian woman always accepted the superiority of a Western lover. She chose a Japanese-sounding name for her pen name because at the time, although the American public discriminated against the Japanese, they viewed them more favorably than the Chinese, stereotyping them as harder working and more intelligent.

Before World War II, several Asian American writers described their experiences growing up in the United States. One book, Younghill Kang’s East Goes West (1937), offers a humorous look at the life of a young Korean American and pokes fun at white people’s prejudices.

After World War II, several Japanese Americans published books about the internment camps and other wartime experiences. In The Two Worlds of Jim Yoshida (1972), Nisei (second-generation Japanese American) Jim Yoshida, who was in Japan when World War II broke out, relates how he was forced to serve in the Imperial Army and had to sue to regain U.S. citizenship after the war. In No- No Boy (1957), John Okada, another Nisei, wrote about the hysteria that he experienced in wartime America, and in the award-winning book Obasan (1981), Joy Kogawa described her life in a Canadian World War II internment camp.

Asian American Literature The 1960’s and 1970’s

(Representations of Race in American Literature)

During the 1960’s and 1970’s, the Civil Rights and women’s movements inspired many minority groups to become active politically and to become more aware of their heritage. This heightened activity and awareness resulted in the publication of more works by Asian Americans, which helped others understand and respect them.

In 1972, the first anthology of Asian American literature, edited by Kai-Yu Hsu and Helen Palubinskas, was published. This anthology included works from only three Asian American groups—Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino—and gave priority to writers born in America such as Frank Chin, Jeffrey Paul Chan, Lawson Fusao Inada, and Shawn Wong. However, other anthologies soon followed, broadening the spectrum of Asian American writers to include Americans of Korean, Southeast Asian, and Indian ancestry and immigrants such as Chitra Divakaruni.

In 1972, The Chickencoop Chinaman, was the first play by an Asian American, Frank Chin, to receive critical acclaim in New York. Asian American literature received widespread recognition with the publication in 1976 of Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior: Memories of a Girlhood Among Ghosts. Kingston used ancient Chinese stories to develop her best-selling novel around the character of Fa Mulan, a woman warrior. This work, like many others by Asian American writers, incorporated elements of traditional Asian mythology and culture. It also illustrated the effect that the Civil Rights and women’s movements had on literature produced by members of minority groups.

Asian American Literature Core Resources

(Representations of Race in American Literature)

King-kok Cheung edited An Interpretive Companion to Asian American Literature (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1996). Shirley Geok-lin Lim and Amy Ling edited Reading the Literature of Asian America (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996). Judith Caesar explored Asian American themes in “Patriarchy, Imperialism, and Knowledge in The Kitchen God’s Wife ” in North Dakota Quarterly (62, no. 4, 1994-1995). Asian American literature is discussed in Sucheng Chann’s Asian Americans: An Interpretive History (Boston: Twayne, 1991).