Asian American Short Fiction Analysis

Aiiieeeee! Constructing an Asian American Cultural Politics

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Some of the early critical voices who attempted to define a new Asian American aesthetic were Frank Chin, Jeffrey Paul Chan, Lawson Fusao Inada, and Shawn Wong. They assembled one of the first literary anthologies featuring the work of Asian American writers, Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Asian-American Writers (1974, 1991). In this trailblazing anthology, the editors outlined in an introductory manifesto the long history of racism against Asians in the United States and discuss the erasure of “real,” “more authentic” forms of Asian American history, literature, and culture by the publishing industry, by the Hollywood film industry, and by the educational and capitalist economic system in the United States.

The editors discuss how difficult it was to convince the white, male-dominated publishing industry to consider seriously the literature of Asian American writers. Their literary anthology was most likely perceived as too aggressively hostile, alien, and marginal to the interests of an American reading public. That is, it did not present the “Oriental” in ways that were accessible, familiar, and comfortable for mainstream white readers. In the volatile period of the 1960’s and 1970’s, Aiiieeeee! did not represent “similarity” and “difference” in “acceptable” or “tolerable” forms of cultural-political visibility and identity for subordinated racial-ethnic groups or general reading audiences. In their manifesto, the Aiiieeeee! editors remind writers and readers of the serious political implications and dilemmas in making choices about the style, language, and content by which one constructs and articulates alternative or oppositional forms of subjectivity against privileged cultural discourses and practices. They stress the need to interrogate and challenge how and why publishing institutions, cultural products, consumers, and critics might choose one text over another, one writer over another—sometimes for very racist and sexist reasons. The Aiiieeeee! anthology was repeatedly turned down by mainstream presses in the early 1970’s, until it was finally published in 1974 by Howard University Press, an African American university press.

The editors urged writers to recover and articulate authenticating cultural identities, histories, and cultures that reflected voices and experiences not bounded by “white racist love.” Such “love,” they claimed, left Asian Americans not only marginalized and invisible within mainstream American culture but also in a “state of contempt, self- rejection, and disintegration.” The Aiiieeeee! editors revealed how Asian Americans have been made invisible in society—how their history and voices are not represented in dominant discourses in society or, if represented, are often stereotypical, racist,...

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Chinese American Short Stories

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Edith Eaton, the Chinese American Lily, was one of the earliest Chinese American writers in the United States. She took the pen name Sui Sin Far. She was born in 1865 to an English father and Chinese mother—the eldest child in a family of fourteen surviving children. Her parents met in China, married, and returned to England. The family then moved to Montreal, Canada, where Eaton was educated. As a young woman, she worked as a traveling journalist. She finally settled in the United States (more specifically, in the San Francisco and Seattle areas) in 1898. Eaton’s first collection of thirty-seven short stories and vignettes was published in 1912 (reissued 1995) as Mrs. Spring Fragrance, edited by Amy Ling and Annette White-Parks.

Eaton wrote in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when anti-Chinese hysteria was high. From the 1870’s into the early 1900’s, white-supremacist politicians, settlers, nativists, and craft and labor unionists agitated forcefully against the so-called hordes of coolie laborers, which they perceived as constituting a “Yellow Peril” competing for jobs with immigrant white European- Americans in an increasingly depressed economic market. As a result of this anti-Chinese hysteria, there was a great deal of racial violence against individual Chinese and their ethnic communities. They were harassed, burned out of town, murdered, and legally hounded by the government. In crowded Chinatowns, there was little freedom, safety, privacy, or peace to be found. More specifically, the Chinese, in their individual and communal lives, were governed by both federal and state laws concerning immigration, miscegenation, citizenship, and basic human rights. Regulations monitored and disciplined their work, hygiene, sexuality, behavior, everyday aesthetics, travel, and leisure.

Edith Eaton was deeply concerned by the representations and treatment of the Chinese in America. As a Eurasian, she understood racism and sexism from a personal perspective as well. She could not understand why her Chinese mother’s ancestry was treated with such vicious contempt in comparison to her English father’s. Throughout her life, she documented the racist and sexist encounters she experienced in her autobiographical article “Leaves from the Mental Portfolio of an Eurasian.” Eaton was constantly an object of curiosity and disdain in British and American society.

Moreover, Asians were often portrayed in simplistic and dehumanizing images and stereotypes in popular American culture. These representations were often one-dimensional portrayals and stereotypes from the perspectives of white writers. In contrast, Sui Sin Far’s Mrs. Spring Fragrance was one of the first attempts to explore Chinese American experiences by a woman with Chinese ethnic heritage. Eaton chose the pen name of Sui Sin Far (literally, “the narcissus flower”) to indicate her solidarity and alliance with the Chinese. She died in 1914 and was memorialized by the Chinese American community that she loved.

Sui Sin Far’s stories reverse the typical stereotypical images that suggested the criminality, cruelty, and inscrutability of the Chinese. In her short stories, Sui Sin Far set out to portray the Chinese and their ethnic communities in an empathetic and complex manner. Her stories advocated not only for Chinese and Chinese Americans but also for women’s rights. Sui Sin Far herself remained a single, independent working woman, an unfashionable state for a woman in her time. In such stories as “The Inferior Woman” and “The Chinese Lily,” she championed working-class women and women’s rights.

Mrs. Spring Fragrance is divided into two sections: The first seventeen stories are categorized under “Mrs. Spring Fragrance” and include her more serious adult stories; the second section includes twenty stories categorized as “Tales of Chinese Children.” In this collection, there are a range of human stories about love, family relationships, and male and female friendships, as well as betrayals and tragedies within the Chinese community and the white world. The relationships between women and men were sometimes interracial. For example, in “The Story of One White Woman Who Married a Chinese” and “Her Chinese Husband,” Sui Sin Far forefronts the relationship between a white woman, abused by her former white husband, who befriends and marries a Chinese man named Liu Kanghi. He is portrayed lovingly in both his strengths and weaknesses as a man, husband, and father. Liu Kanghi is tragically murdered on his way home to his family.

The literary critic Annette White-Parks has analyzed the technical writing strategies of Sui Sin Far’s short stories. She examines Sui Sin Far’s desire to portray experiences and stories that were erased or marginalized in dominant Western portrayals of the Chinese in U.S. society. The Chinese and Chinese American characters become the “fictional center” of Sui Sin Far’s stories, reversing more typical mainstream narrative structures and interpretations of Chinese experiences and culture:White Americans simultaneously shift to positions of ‘Other-ness’ or ‘outsiders’, appearing in this new light as antagonists to Chinese-Americans, and to the Chinatown community/culture. Frequently, Sui Sin Far’s stylistic techniques also reverse the expected order of gender, as it is through the voices of the stereotypically silenced Chinese- American females that most viewpoints emerge.

Furthermore, the characters in Sui Sin Far’s stories “are not valued by how closely they...

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Japanese American Short Stories

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Japanese American writers have a vibrant literary history during the years leading up to World War II; they were producing a wide range of literary work in both Japanese and English. According to literary historian Stan Yogi, a number of Issei writers (first- generation Japanese born between 1885 and 1924) wrote in Japanese and composed in traditional Japanese literary forms in ethnic newspapers in Hawaii and in West Coast venues. The work in English by Japanese Americans was primarily produced by Nisei (second- generation Japanese Americans who were born between 1910 and 1924) and Sansei (third-generation Japanese Americans writing in the period of the 1960’s and 1970’s).

There were generational and...

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Postwar Nisei Writers

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Two well-known Japanese American Nisei short-story writers are Hisaye Yamamoto and Wakako Yamauchi. Their short stories sensitively chart lives of Japanese American individuals, families, and communities during the prewar period and through the war and postwar years. Yamamoto was born in 1921 in Redondo Beach, California, to Japanese immigrant parents. The family moved a great deal but finally settled in Oceanside, California, before their relocation to Poston, Arizona, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941. Yamamoto began writing in the 1930’s for the Japanese American press. She continued to write for the internment camp newspaper The Poston Chronicle. There she befriended Wakako Yamauchi, a young artist, writer,...

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Filipino American Short Stories

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

To understand Filipino American writing is to trace, in part, its links to nearly three centuries of Spanish colonialization, U.S. colonization (1902-1941), and neocolonial dependency (1946- 1990’s). The early Filipino groups coming to the United States were mostly young male workers, who immigrated to the Hawaiian islands or to the mainland United States between 1902 and 1946. Within an exploitative transnational capitalist economy between the U.S. and its colony, many Filipino men found backbreaking work on plantations and low-paying domestic and factory work in cities. This first wave of immigration consisted of “American nationals” who were able to enter the United States without visas but were not granted the rights of...

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Flips and Expatriates

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

A generation of young writers coming of age during the 1960’s and 1970’s are known as the “Flips,” who include Alfred Robles, Sam Tagatac, and Oscar Peñaranda. Besides this group, there emerged in the 1970’s what Campomanes calls the “politically expatriated generation” of Epifanio San Juan, Linda Ty-Casper, Ninotchka Rosca, and Michelle Skinner.

The Filipino American writer Peter Bacho, a product of the 1960’s and 1970’s, won the American Book Award of the Before Columbus Foundation for his first novel, Cebu (1991). His first collection of short stories, Dark Blue Suit and Other Stories (1997), portrays life in a Filipino American community in Seattle and is partly...

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Korean American Short Stories

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

According to literary critic Elaine Kim, “published works written in English by Korean Americans are relatively few and were mostly brought to press after 1980.” There are, however, two notable short-story writers to mention: Ty Pak and Gary Pak. Ty Pak published a collection of short stories entitled Guilt Payment (1983). He lived through the Japanese occupation of Korea until its liberation in 1945, as well as the trauma of the Korean War. He received a law degree from Seoul National University and worked as a reporter in Korea until 1965, when he came to the United States. He attended Bowling Green State University, receiving a Ph.D. in English. Ty Pak taught in the English Department at the University of Hawaii....

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South Asian American Short Stories

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

One of the best-known South Asian American novelists, essayists, and short-story writers is Bharati Mukherjee, who was born into a Hindu Bengali Brahman family and attended school in the United States, where she met and married her Canadian husband. In the 1970’s, Mukherjee settled in Toronto, Canada, with her family. In 1980, disturbed by the racial prejudice against Indians that she encountered in Toronto, she decided to resettle with her family in the United States, a country that she asserts is more amenable to her claims on an American identity. She is known for such novels as The Tiger’s Daughter (1972), Wife (1975), Jasmine (1989), The Holder of the World (1993), and Leave It to...

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Chitra Banerjee Divarkaruni

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Another South Asian writer is Chitra Banerjee Divarkaruni, an award-winning poet, novelist, and short-story writer. Her poetry and prose have been recognized by the Santa Clara Arts Council 1994 Award for Fiction and by the Wallace Alexander Gerbode Foundation’s 1994 Award in Poetry. Her collection of eleven stories, Arranged Marriage (1995) won the 1996 American Book Award, the PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Award, and the Bay Area Book Reviewers Award for Fiction. The stories are about the immigrant experiences of Indian-born girls and women whose lives often bridge fascinatingly complex, and often conflicted, worlds in India and/or the United States. The stories engage with colonialism, geopolitical and cultural...

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New South Asian American Short Fiction

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Another original voice in South Asian American writing is Ginu Kamani, who was born in Bombay, India, and moved to the United States in 1962. She received an M.A. in creative writing from the University of Colorado, Boulder, in 1987. The eleven stories of her collection Junglee Girl (1995) are provocative and idiosyncratic in their explorations of sexual desires and sensual awakenings by female characters who challenge and subvert the oppressive traditions and taboos within culture and society. The word “junglee” is derived from a Sanskrit root, jungle, and refers in India to a wild and uncontrollable woman. Her short stories have also been published in the anthology Our Feet Walk the Sky: Women of the...

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Vietnamese American Short Stories

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Vietnamese American short stories in English are still emerging. According to Truong Vu, the term “Vietnamese Americans” refers toAmericans of Vietnamese descent, including immigrants who may have arrived prior to 1975, refugees who started arriving in 1975, those who entered the United States as immigrants, starting in 1979 through the Orderly Departure Program, as well as the subsequent generations who have been and will be born in the United States.

The short stories of new Vietnamese and other Southeast American writers can be found in journals and anthologies such as Viêt Nam Forum, The Other Side of Heaven: Postwar Fiction by Vietnamese and American Writers (edited by Wayne Karlin, Le Minh...

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(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Campomanes, Oscar V. “Filipinos in the United States.” In Reading the Literatures of Asian America, edited by Shirley Geok-lin Lim and Amy Ling. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992.

Chan, Jeffrey Paul, et al., eds. The Big Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Chinese American and Japanese American Literature. New York: Meridian, 1991.

Cheung, King-Kok. Articulate Silences: Hisaye Yamamoto, Maxine Hong Kingston, Joy Kogawa. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1993. A critical study that analyzes Asian American literature, especially its nuanced and articulate silences.


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