Many literary anthologies have the straightforward purpose of preserving the work of a particular historical period or artistic movement; others are much more polemical and focused on political issues. Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Asian-American Writers fits the latter category. Originally published in 1974 and significantly revised in 1983, this anthology was adopted as a textbook and used in many college multicultural literature classes. In an important introductory essay the editors denounce well-known works such as Pardee Lowe’s Father and Glorious Descendant (1943), Jade Snow Wong’s Fifth Chinese Daughter (1945), and C. Y. Lee’s Flower Drum Song (1957) as examples of a literature that merely reinforced mainstream American stereotypes of Asians similar to the demeaning caricatures in Earl Derr Biggers’ popular Charlie Chan mysteries of the 1920’s. Such literature, write the editors, is “not only offensive to Chinese and Japanese America but was actively inoffensive to white sensibilities” and actively supported notions of white supremacy and Asian exoticism.
To counter this tradition the editors offer Toshio Mori, John Okada, and Louis Chan as precursors of a more realistic and militant literature, as well as other works primarily addressed to Asian American readers. Mori, a Japanese American Nisei (born in the United States of Japanese immigrant parents), wrote short stories that highlight the ability of the immigrant community to assimilate American mainstream values while retaining important elements of Japanese culture. Okada’s novel No-No Boy (1957) recounts the experiences of Japanese Americans in the internment camps of World War II; and Louis Chu’s Eat a Bowl of Tea (1961) depicts a realistic version of urban neighborhoods that hardly resemble the picturesque Chinatown of Flower Drum Song. Frank Chin’s play The Chickencoop Chinaman, first produced in 1972, follows Louis Chu’s realistic approach, focusing on the difficulties of cultural assimilation and the generation gap that develops between immigrants and their more Americanized children. This theme also appears in stories such as Shawn Hsu Wong’s “Each Year Grain” and Hisaye Yamamoto’s acclaimed “Yoneko’s Earthquake.” The anthology allowed these works to reach a wide audience.
Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Asian-American Writers established a precedent for Asian American writers to explore the experience of their communities and families in a self-defining way while protesting the damaging effects of ethnic stereotypes. The anthology provides inspiration and direction for Asian American fiction writers, playwrights, and poets.