Asian American Literature

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Common Themes

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 486

During the 1970’s and 1980’s, various demographic trends, such as increased immigration from Asia and Mexico, helped the United States become much more multicultural, and more Asian American writers felt encouraged to explore Asian themes. Although Asia is a large continent with many languages, cultures, and religions, certain themes and elements appear to be common in Asian American literature. These include the balance between dark and light and between masculine and feminine; conflicts between ancient heritage, familial obligations, and contemporary (often Western) lifestyles; and the effects of immigration. After Kingston’s work became popular, there was widespread appreciation for novelists, poets, dramatists, and essayists of Asian ancestry.

Many Asian American women have written of the cultural conflicts that women experience when they move from traditional Asian cultures to the more liberal American culture. Velina Hasu Houston explored this theme in a 1985 trilogy, Asa ga Kimashita, American Dream, and Tea, whose main characters are Japanese war brides who have to cross traditional boundaries in order to survive in their new environment. In Arranged Marriages (1995), Indian-born poet Divakaruni presents images of the adjustment problems that many women from traditional Indian backgrounds have in American society.

Asian American writers also have explored familial obligations and tensions. In “Seventeen Syllables” (1994), Hisaye Yamamoto explored the tensions created within Japanese American families when traditional cultural expectations clash with contemporary lifestyles. In Clay Walls (1986), a novel by Korean American Kim Ronyoung, the issue of obligation to family is explored as the wife and mother ruins her eyes doing embroidery work to support her family after her husband loses all their money gambling.

Some Asian American writers based their stories on the immigrant experience, as did Wakako Yamauchi in her novel And the Soul Shall Dance (1977) and Fred Ho in the play Chinaman’s Chance (1987). In Honey Bucket (1979), Filipino American Mel Escueta explored the issue of identity, attempting to deal with the guilt he felt after killing Asians during the Vietnam War. Frank Chin used stereotypes in the humorous novel Donald Duk (1991), as did David Henry Hwang in his Tony Award- winning play M Butterfly (1988).

Perhaps after Kingston, who made the American public aware of Asian American literature, Chinese American Amy Tan is the writer who did most to popularize the genre. Tan rose to public attention with the publication of her novel The Joy Luck Club in 1989. She won both the National Book Award and the Los Angeles Times book award that year. Tan turned her novel into a screenplay for the 1993 film The Joy Luck Club. She has objected to having her work described as Asian American literature because she believes that the themes in her work, which include male-female relationships and family obligations, are universal. Still, Tan’s themes arise from an experience that may be termed Asian American: the balance between male and female; clashes between traditional cultures and contemporary lifestyles; struggles with familial obligations; and identity and spirituality issues.

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