Asian American Long Fiction Analysis


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

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.

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,...

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(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

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...

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Chinese American long fiction

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

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...

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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

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

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...

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(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

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...

(The entire section is 407 words.)