Historical Context

(Literary Newsmakers for Students)

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Post-World War II American and Japanese Society

The United States entered World War II after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in 1941. In 1942, the U.S. government decreed that all Japanese people residing in the United States, including second- and third-generation American citizens, should be placed in internment camps, because it was thought that they might engage in treasonous activities against the United States. Japanese Americans were held prisoner, forced to leave their jobs, property, and possessions until the end of the war in 1945. Millions of dollars in property were lost. Some years later, the Japanese who were interned were compensated at ten cents for every dollar lost. The Civil Liberties Act of 1988, signed into law by President George H. Bush, apologized for the internment and offered reparations to thousands of Japanese Americans who were denied their civil and constitutional rights by the U.S. government during World War II. Though neither Katie nor her parents were held in internment camps, they were still subject to the lingering social distrust toward Japanese Americans after the war. Additionally, in many areas of the South, if a person was not Caucasian he or she was considered to be "colored" regardless of ethnicity and therefore subject to discriminatory Jim Crow laws.

Asian-American Literature

Amy Ling notes in "Teaching Asian American Literature" that Asian American literature often has several broad aims:

to remember the past, give voice to a hitherto silent people with an ignored and therefore unknown history, to correct stereotypes of an exotic or foreign experience and thus, as [writer Maxine] Hong Kingston says, to claim America for the thousands of Americans whose Asian faces too frequently deny them a legitimate place in the country of their birth.

Asian-American literature cannot be fully appreciated without some background information on the historical and cultural contexts of Asians in the United States. Nor can the term "Asian American" be understood as a single entity, for it contains myriad nationalities and languages, dozens of religions, and a multitude of races as originating sources.

Asian-American literature is considered one of the subdivisions of multicultural or multiethnic literature. According to Gonzalo Ramirez and Jan Lee, there are two kinds of multicultural literature: multiethnic children's literature and melting pot literature. Multiethnic children's literature usually addresses the following themes: heritage, the battle against racism and discrimination, everyday experiences, urban civilization, friendship, and family relationships. Cultural problems arise as the protagonist is caught between two cultures and must learn to survive. Melting pot books do not address racial issues but emphasize that Asian Americans have the same lifestyle as any other American.

Asian-American literature first emerged in the 1940s, but at that time it was generally non-Asians who wrote books about Asia or Asian Americans. After the end of World War II, there were many Japanese Americans who wrote autobiographies about their experiences in the internment camps in the United States. The first Chinese author to achieve financial success in the United States, C. Y. Lee, was a mentor to many other Asian writers. He wrote The Flower Drum Song in 1955. In the 1970s, criticism began to emerge about the way that Asians were depicted in literature. Critics argued that the literature lacked diverse illustrations and characterization , and that most illustrations of Asians were drawn in exactly the same way, without regard for cultural or physical distinctions. These illustrations rarely portrayed Asians living in the contemporary United States, wearing modern clothing and living in modern housing. Instead, they offered a stereotyped and unrealistic picture of Asian-American life. There was a call for Asians to write about their experiences and for illustrators to create more accurate representations of...

(The entire section is 1,848 words.)