Asian American Long Fiction

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 788

In the study of Asian American literature, the issue of authenticity is as problematic as the definition of “Asian American.” While the racial boundary of the Asian American community is historically and geographically delineated by the origins of its immigrants and ontologically dictated by a common struggle for dignity and social justice, Asian American literature’s cultural configuration is a subject of controversy. For example, The Big Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Chinese and Japanese American Literature, edited by Chinese American writer and critic Frank Chin and others, was published in 1991, and the selections chosen for the anthology are as controversial as Chin’s introductory article, “Come All Ye Asian American Writers of the Real and the Fake,” in which he divides Chinese American and Japanese American writers into two groups: Asian American authors and Americanized Asian authors.

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Chin posits that only those Asian American writers who are not susceptible to Christian conversion and who uphold traditional Chinese and Japanese values such as Confucianism, the Japanese sense of honor, and the samurai sense of nobility can be considered the “real” voice in Asian American literature. This group includes Chinese American writer Louis Chu (Eat a Bowl of Tea, 1961) and Japanese American writers Toshio Mori (Yokohama, California, 1949) and John Okada (No-No Boy, 1957). The “fake,” according to Chin, include Chinese American writers such as Pardee Lowe (Father and Glorious Descendant, 1943), Jade Snow Wong (Fifth Chinese Daughter, 1950), Maxine Hong Kingston (The Woman Warrior, 1976; China Men, 1980; Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book, 1989; and the memoir The Fifth Book of Peace, 2003), and Amy Tan (The Joy Luck Club, 1989; The Kitchen God’s Wife, 1991; The Hundred Secret Senses, 1995; and The Bonesetter’s Daughter, 2001); Japanese American writers Mike Masaru Masaoka and Bill Hosokawa (Nisei: The Quiet Americans, 1969); and any Asian American writers who use the exclusively Christian form of autobiography and revise Asian history, culture, and childhood literature and myth. In their depictions of dual personality and identity crises, these writers, according to Chin, not only misrepresent their own cultural heritage but also betray its values.

In the foreword to Reading the Literatures of Asian America (1992), Korean American scholar Elaine H. Kim acknowledges that the pioneering work of the members of the Combined Asian-American Resources Project (CARP)—Chin, Chan, Lawson Fusao Inada, Nathan Lee, Benjamin R. Tong, and Shawn Hsu Wong—played an important role in helping to define the identity of the Asian American community and to establish Asian American literary voices. However, Kim points out that the terms of Asian Americans’ cultural negotiations have changed, and are changing, over time because of differences in historical circumstances and needs. As the body of Asian American literature grows, it reflects desires to traverse the boundaries of unity and diversity, to enable the individual to take flight, and to claim infinite layers of self and community.

Chinese American Amy Ling agrees with Kim. In her article “Creating One’s Self: The Eaton Sisters,” Ling reiterates what has become almost a truism—that the self is not a fixed entity but a fluid, changing construct or creation determined by context or historical conditions and particularly by power relationships. By using the example of the Eaton sisters, who were Amerasians but, in their creative writing, had adopted identities of their choice—one Chinese and one Japanese—Ling convincingly reveals the dialectical relationship between creation and re-creation and between the permeability of the boundaries of the self and the influence of historical conditions.

In Articulate Silence (1993), Chinese American scholar King-Kok Cheung suggests that it is a distrust of inherited language and of traditional myth with a patriarchal ethos that brings Asian American writers, especially Asian American female writers, to the conclusion that they must cross cultural borders. They seek ways not only to revise history but also to transfigure ethnicity; the point is not to return to the original but to tell it with a difference. The “two-toned language” thus concretely objectifies the attempt of a large group of Asian American writers to negotiate a ground on which they can establish their own identity.

Many Asian American writers are trying to identify a voice that can describe the Asian American experience; they are not in search of a mouthpiece that can only echo what has already been expressed and described in Asian literatures. Given the fact that a person cannot achieve self-actualization without first identifying his or her relationship with her or his own cultural heritage, to be a hyphenated American means that a person is blessed with two cultures and can have the freedom and luxury to be selective. As Brave Orchid, the dynamic mother in Kingston’s The Woman Warrior, puts it, “When you come to America, it’s a chance to forget some of the bad Chinese habits.”


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The development of Asian American literature can be divided into two periods. The first period lasted for almost a century. It started with journals, diaries, and poems written by new Asian immigrants in their native languages and culminated with semiautobiographical novels in the early 1980’s. This period was marked by Asian American writers’ interest in using the autobiographical approach to describe their experience and to define their relationship with mainstream American culture. Chinese American writers Pardee Lowe, in Father and Glorious Descendant, and Jade Snow Wong, in Fifth Chinese Daughter; Japanese American writers Daniel Inouye, in Journey to Washington (1967), and Monica Sone, in Nisei Daughter (1953); and Filipino American writer Carlos Bulosan, in America Is in the Heart (1943), use autobiography to describe the authors’ struggles with both intercultural and intracultural conflict.

Asian American long fiction was born in the autobiographical tradition and Asian American writers’ sharpened sensitivities built on an increased awareness of their own cultural heritage. From the mid-1960’s to the early 1980’s, Asian American literature was rich with fictionalized memoirs that can be read as semiautobiographies. Virginia Lee’s The House That Tai Ming Built (1963), Chuang Hua’s Crossings (1968), Kingston’s The Woman Warrior and China Men, Shawn Wong’s Homebase (1979), and Kazuo Miyamoto’s Hawaii: End of the Rainbow (1964) could be (and often are) categorized as creative nonfiction rather than fiction. The authors follow the autobiographical tradition in portraying the Asian American experience, in celebrating their cultural heritage, and in reclaiming their sense of history and identity.

The late 1980’s through the early 1990’s was a busy period in the development of Asian American literature. Established Asian American creative writers were able to continue their successful writing careers, while new Asian American novelists launched theirs. During this period, Asian American long fiction came of age. In 1989, Japanese American writer Cynthia Kadohata and Chinese American writer Amy Tan published their critically acclaimed novels The Floating World and The Joy Luck Club, respectively. Both heralded the Asian American renaissance of the early and mid-1990’s. In 1991 alone, notable novels by four Chinese American writers appeared: Tan published her second novel, The Kitchen God’s Wife; Gish Jen’s first novel, Typical American, received positive reviews; Frank Chin published his first long work, Donald Duk; and Gus Lee, a lawyer, released an autobiographical novel, China Boy.

During the same period, Asian American novelists of Filipino, Korean, and South and Southeast Asian descent were ready to meet the challenge of diversifying the portrayal of the Asian American experience. Filipino American writers Cecilia Manguerra Brainard’s When the Rainbow Goddess Wept (1994) and Jessica Hagedorn’s The Gangster of Love (1996), Korean American writers Kim Ronyoung’s Clay Walls (1987) and Chang-Rae Lee’s Native Speaker (1995), Asian Indian American writer Bharati Mukherjee’s Jasmine (1989), and Vietnamese American writer Jade Ngoc Quang Huynh’s South Wind Changing (1994) enriched the voice and spectrum of Asian American long fiction and brought readers’ attention to the diverse nature of the Asian American community.

Chinese American long fiction

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Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior and China Men and Tan’s The Joy Luck Club represent two distinctive periods in the development of Asian American literature to the end of the twentieth century. The Woman Warrior and China Men are representative of the early development and achievement of Asian American literature. Both use the autobiographical approach to describe their characters’ struggles with their identities and their search for voice. Both use memories, oral stories, and traditional Chinese legends, and both interweave the past and the present, fact and fiction, reality and imagination, and traditional Chinese and modern American culture. As Chin observes, in The Woman Warrior Kingston mixes two famous Chinese legendary characters, Fa Mulan and Yue Fei, from two different stories. The attempt, contrary to what Chin argues, is not to rewrite Fa Mulan according to “the specs of the stereotype of the Chinese woman as a pathological white supremacist victimized and trapped in a hideous Chinese civilization” but to reveal the richness of the Asian American experience in general and of Asian American literature in particular. Kingston attempts to destroy both the traditional Chinese gender line, which places women at the bottom of the social totem, and the line that separates imagination and reality. The latter approach explains why both The Woman Warrior and China Men are often categorized as nonfiction.

Tan’s The Joy Luck Club intermingles the thematic treatment of intercultural conflict with that of intergenerational conflict. The mothers who immigrated to the United States from China still have strong cultural ties to their old home, and they want to rear their children in the traditional way. Their Chinese American daughters, however, believe that they are trapped in the conflict between traditional Chinese culture and mainstream American society, between their aspirations for individual freedom and their sense of familial and social obligations, and between their false and their true identities. The conflict is both frustrating and constructive. The daughters are eventually led to conclude that they must embrace what they cannot culturally reject and to realize that they are as American as they are Chinese. Other Chinese American women writers include Jen (Typical American, 1991; Mona in the Promised Land, 1996; and The Love Wife, 2004), and Fae Myenne Ng (Bone, 1993, and Steer Toward Rock, 2008).

Filipino American long fiction

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Filipino Americans occupy a unique place in the history of the United States. From the end of the Spanish-American War (1898) to the independence of the Philippines (1946), Filipinos were considered subjects of the United States, and there was no restriction on their immigration. For many years, therefore, Filipino Americans were the largest ethnic group in the Asian American community. This unique historical phenomenon created ambivalent feelings among Filipino Americans toward the United States. Whereas many appreciate the economic opportunities, Filipino American writers such as Joaquin Legaspi, José Garcia Villa, Alfred A. Robles, Bayani L. Mariano,N. V. M. Gonzalez, Samuel Tagatac, J. C. Dionisio, and Bienvenido N. Santos also aspire to reconnect with the native Filipino culture, literature, and art. Filipino American long fiction is largely built on this aspiration; it grows out of the fear of losing what Mariano, in his poem “What We Know,” calls the “best of ourselves.”

Cecilia Manguerra Brainard and Jessica Hagedorn are two leading Filipino American novelists. The main event of Brainard’s When the Rainbow Goddess Wept occurs in Asia during World War II. The novel is narrated from a nine-year-old’s perspective. With her family, Yvonne Macaraig flees the Japanese invasion of the Philippines to join the resistance effort. In the jungle she is nourished by the legends of Bongkatolan, the Woman Warrior, and the merciful rainbow goddess. Jessica Hagedorn is a novelist, critic, and anthologist whose novel Dogeaters (1990) was nominated for a National Book Award. In her 1996 novel The Gangster of Love, she portrays a new immigrant from the Philippines who, while excited about his new life in the United States, is haunted by the memory of the homeland he left behind. Both Brainard’s When the Rainbow Goddess Wept and Hagedorn’s The Gangster of Love represent Filipino Americans’ effort to reclaim their sense of history and identity by making connections with their homeland and with the Filipino culture.

Japanese American long fiction

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Japanese American literature started with logs, diaries, journals, and chronicles written in Japanese. Many Issei (first-generation Japanese immigrants to the United States) did not feel the need to learn English. They were not allowed to become U.S. citizens, and many had come to the United States with the intention of returning to Japan when they had saved enough money. Japanese American literature began to take shape with the emergence of Nisei (second-generation) writers. Some of these writers spoke fluent Japanese as well as English. Besides serving as a bridge between their parents’ Japanese culture and American culture, many Nisei writers assumed the responsibility of making the Japanese American voice heard in what Japanese American poet and critic Lawson Fusao Inada calls “the Occidental world of mainstream American literature.”

Japanese American novelist John Okada was one of the first Nisei writers to bring readers’ attention to the traumatic experience suffered by many Japanese Americans during and after World War II. During the war, 120,000 Japanese Americans living on the West Coast of the United States were forced into relocation camps. The experience left an indelible impact on the Japanese American community and its literature. Okada’s No-No Boy (1957) depicts a second-generation Japanese American’s struggle to balance his loyalty to the Japanese culture, to his parents, and to his country, the United States. The protagonist, Ichiro Yamada, interned during World War II, is put in jail for refusing to forswear allegiance to Japan and join the U.S. Army. After he is released from prison, Ichiro moves back to Seattle and is caught between two seemingly irreconcilable worlds. On one side are his parents, very proud of being Japanese. On the other side is the United States, a country to which he still feels he belongs. During his search for his identity, Ichiro meets several people who help shape his perspective of himself and of his relationship with the United States. After witnessing the tragic deaths of several of his friends, Ichiro starts to think about his own future. He begins to chase the faint insinuation of promise that takes shape in his mind and heart.

In the second period of Japanese American literature, Sansei (third-generation) female writers made significant literary contributions. Cynthia Kadohata and Holly Uyemoto are two leading voices in the development of Japanese American long fiction. The narrator of Kadohata’s The Floating World (1989), Olivia Ann, is a Sansei. As Olivia is growing up in the 1950’s, her family is always on the move from job to job. Having to live in ukiyo, the floating world—“the gas station attendants, restaurants, and jobs,” “the motel towns floating in the middle of fields and mountains”—the narrator learns early in her life that she and her family must rely on what is stable while traveling through an unstable world. What is stable is the secret of the family’s history, the strong role models in Olivia’s mother and her grandmother (obasan), and the closeness of the family.

Uyemoto’s Go (1996) also describes a Sansei’s search for connectedness, for her identity, and for her spiritual home. Wil is a burned-out college student. After having an abortion and separating from her politically correct boyfriend, she returns to her family in search of support. Through the disentanglement of her family history, Wil learns about her grandparents’ past, the experiences of Issei and Nisei in World War II internment camps, and a cultural heritage deeply embedded in her emotional and spiritual being. If The Floating World is exquisitely elegant, picaresque, and observant, Go is amusing, zany, and engaging. Both works celebrate Japanese American culture, both portray strong Japanese American female characters, and both suggest strong ties in characters’ relationships with their family history and with that of the community.

Korean American long fiction

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Korean American long fiction came into its own in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Because of the Korean War, Korean immigration to the United States had dramatically increased in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Children of first-generation Korean immigrants graduated from college in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s and began to contribute to the flourishing of Asian American literature. Kim Ronyoung was one of the pioneers in Korean American long fiction. Her novel Clay Walls (1987) chronicles the journey of a newly married Korean couple, Haesu and Chun, to the United States and their struggle to take root in the new land. The novel experiments with narrative points of view. Events are seen through the eyes of three characters: Haesu, Chun, and Faye, the couple’s American-born daughter.

Like the literary works produced by writers from other ethnic groups in the United States, Asian American long fiction includes an important component that is frequently neglected in the study of Asian American literature. Asian American popular novels occupy a special place in Asian American literature and often introduce the culture to the reading public. Amerasian writer Ruthanne Lum McCunn’s Thousand Pieces of Gold (1981), Chinese American writer Bette Bao Lord’s Spring Moon (1981) and The Middle Heart (1996), Evelina Chao’s Gates of Grace (1985), and Gus Lee’s China Boy (1991) and Tiger’s Tail (1996) all fit into this category. In Korean American literature, Chang-rae Lee’s Native Speaker, a detective story, also belongs in this company. The narrator of the novel, Henry Park, is a spy for a private business. His ethnicity provides him with an expedient cover for his work. This amusing and intriguing novel vividly and accurately introduces the customs and traditions of the Korean American community to the reader. Lee’s later novels A Gesture Life (1999) and Aloft (2004) confirm his place as one of the most accomplished contemporary American writers.

South and Southeast Asian American long fiction

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In the late 1980’s and the 1990’s, the spectrum of contemporary Asian American long fiction witnessed two major changes from its earlier period. First, autobiographical novels and fictional memoirs were replaced as the predominant voice in the description of the Asian American experience. Asian American writers became more interested in experimenting with different literary genres and in searching for literary forms that can accurately depict the Asian American experience. Second, Asian American writers other than Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, and Korean Americans began to attract attention. Jhumpa Lahiri’s first collection of short stories, Interpreter of Maladies (1999), won the Pulitzer Prize in fiction in 2000 for tales set both in India and in the United States, and her novel The Namesake (2003), about the difficulties of moving from one culture to another, was made into a popular film.

One pioneering South and Southeast Asian American novelist is Asian Indian American writer Bharati Mukherjee. Mukherjee is a first-generation immigrant from India whose novel Jasmine depicts a new immigrant’s journey from her native country to the United States. The narrator, Jasmine Vijh, was born in Hasnapur, India, and given the name Jyoti. She is her parents’ fifth daughter and the seventh of nine children; as such, she was somewhat unwanted. An astrologer predicted that she was doomed to widowhood and exile. Determined to chart the course of her own life, Jasmine married Prakash Vijh at the age of fourteen, and he renamed her Jasmine as a means of breaking her from her past.

After her husband is murdered by a Muslim fanatic, Jasmine fulfills Prakash’s wish and goes to the United States. She first works as a caregiver for Taylor Hayes, a college professor in New York City. She then flees from Sukhwinder, the man who killed her husband, and moves to Baden, Iowa, where she falls in love with Bud Ripplemeyer and becomes his common-law wife, living as Jane Ripplemeyer. Taylor eventually finds Jasmine, and the two decide to move to California. In the novel, Jasmine has several identities; she is a different person to different people. To Prakash, she is Jasmine; to Half-Face, a man who rapes her, she is the goddess Kali; to Lilian Gordon, who helps her find a job in New York City, she is Jazzy; to Taylor, she is Jase; to Bud, she is Jane. Her various identities finally make Jasmine realize that she can be whoever she wants to make herself. At the end of the book, she is ready to take control of her own destiny.

Vietnamese American writer Jade Ngoc Quang Huynh is also a first-generation immigrant. Huynh was a college student in Vietnam, but he was sent to labor camps for “education in communist ideology, psychological and physical retraining, and lessons on how to become a happy and productive member in their new society.” Huynh escaped Vietnam in 1977, a few years after the end of the Vietnam War, and went to the United States. His South Wind Changing (1994) follows the traditions established by Vietnamese American writers such as Le Ly Hayslip, whose two powerful autobiographies, When Heaven and Earth Changed Places (1990) and Child of War, Woman of Peace (1993), touched readers’ hearts and were later made into a film (Heaven and Earth, 1993) directed by Oliver Stone. South Wind Changing is about family, traditions, and the stark contrast between the beauty of nature and the cruelty of war and ideological battles. The novel traces the narrator’s footsteps from Vietnam to the United States. Its first-person narrative is believable, patient, and moving.


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Adams, Bella. Asian American Literature. Edinburgh, Scotland: Edinburgh University Press, 2008. Introductory guide to Asian American literature that includes historical and thematic perspectives. Focuses on works published after 1969, but earlier works are examined as well.

Chan, Jeffery Paul, Frank Chin, Lawson Fusao Inada, and Shawn Wong, eds. The Big Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Chinese American and Japanese American Literature. New York: Meridian, 1991. Includes Frank Chin’s article “Come All Ye Asian American Writers of the Real and the Fake,” which discusses literary histories of Chinese American and Japanese American literature and criticizes the development of contemporary Asian American literature from a cultural-nationalist point of view.

Cheung, King-Kok. Articulate Silences. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1993. Examines the influential works of Japanese American writer Hisaye Yamamoto, Japanese Canadian writer Joy Kogawa, and Chinese American writer Maxine Hong Kingston in a discussion of women’s contributions to the development of Asian American and Asian Canadian literature.

_______, ed. An Interethnic Companion to Asian American Literature. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997. Collection of essays that survey North American writers of Asian descent in terms of both national origins (Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Korean, South Asian, Vietnamese) and shared concerns.

Huang, Guiyou. The Columbia Guide to Asian American Literature Since 1945. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006. Excellent reference work with citations to a wide range of Asian American writers and literature published after World War II.

_______, ed. Asian American Literary Studies. Edinburgh, Scotland: Edinburgh University Press, 2005. Examines themes such as war and Asian American literary works, self-agency in Asian American autobiography, the “confines of binary oppositions of gender,” and “pan-ethnicity.”

_______, ed. The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Asian American Literature. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2008. This comprehensive three-volume work contains more than 270 entries on writers, works, genres, events, and special topics in Asian American literature.

Kim, Elaine H. Asian American Literature: An Introduction to the Writings and Their Social Context. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1982. One of the pioneer works in the study of Asian American literature. Examines first- and second-generation Asian American writers and their portraits of Chinatown, the Japanese American community, the search for a new self-image, and other topics. An invaluable resource.

Lim, Shirley Geok-lin, and Amy Ling, eds. Reading the Literatures of Asian America. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992. Collection of essays by leading scholars in the study of Asian American literatures and cultures. Essays include “The Ambivalent American: Asian American Literature on the Cusp” and “The Death of Asia on the American Field of Representation.”

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