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Martin Paul Eve

Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck, University of London

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This post forms part of my ‘aspects of the novel’ collection. Please do note that these entries, which may appear basic, are simply my own notes on the subject. They implicitly or explicitly describe a canon not of my own making or choosing and replicate this from various sources. The original encyclopaedia articles are far more comprehensive, nuanced and worth consulting. I am especially conscious in articles such as this, which work with complex and detailed racial histories, that the summary here is reductive and incomplete; but nonetheless a starting point. I am also cognizant that some of the living writers here may not even wish to be categorized under this racial rubric. However, as I am summarizing various facts from encyclopaedic sources, I present this as-is, nonetheless.

James Kyun-Jin Lee (p.65) makes a good introductory point: the boundaries of the terms ‘Asian’, ‘American’, and ‘Novel’ are not well defined. This poses a problem for discussing the context of the Asian-American novel. The grouping of ‘Asian Americans’ is composed of a wide geographical catchment area and can refer to historical descent or current migration (i.e. whether your ancestors came from an ‘Asian’ region or whether you, yourself, migrated from one.) The term ‘Asian American’ did not even exist until 1968 and was coined by Yuji Ichioka (Lee, pp. 66, 68, see also Kambhampaty). Perhaps the most significant (and polemical) publication was the 1974 release of Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Asian American Writers.

Despite these confusions, the term is still used. The earliest Asian-American novelist, designated retrospectively, is Winnifred Eaton, the author of Mrs Nume of Japan (1899) and A Japanese Nightingale (1902), who wrote under the pseudonym Onoto Watanna. Importantly, Eaton’s lineage is actually an English mother and a Chinese father, hence there is controversy over whether her writings unjustly appropriate a Japanese identity.

Another significant author for this category is Younghill Kang, a Korean immigrant who moved to America in the early 1920s. Kang is best known for his novel The Grass Roof (1931), set at the close of Korea’s feudal system and covering Japanese occupation.

Meanwhile, the Filipino novelist and poet Carlos Bulosan’s America is in the Heart (1946) has a semi-autobiographical feel to it (the protagonist shares Bulosan’s name). This may have set a precedent for Asian-American novels; an expectation that the subject matter will be autobiographical. Lee (p. 67) notes that this may account for the relative paucity of immediate success for the Japanese-American writer John Okada’s No-No Boy (1957). The introductory essay to Aiiieeeee!, mentioned above, was extremely critical of this autobiographical form and discourses of ‘confessional assimilation’ (Lee, p. 68). Shawn Wong, in Homebase (1979) and American Knees (1995) and Frank Chin in Donald Duk (1991), two of the editors of Aiiieeeee!, sought to advance a different aesthetic that had its own voice.

Frank Chin has been especially outspoken in his criticism of popular Asian-American novelists, and particularly Maxine Hong Kingston and Amy Tan. Kingston’s The Woman Warrior (1973), which won the National Book Critics Circle Award and was named one of TIME magazine’s top nonfiction books of the 70s, is shaped in the tradition of the Hawaiian ‘talk story’. Meanwhile, Tan’s Joy Luck Club (1988), which focuses on a mother-daughter relationship/tussle, had huge popular success, but was criticised on grounds of cultural essentialism, while also taking a feminist bashing.

Since the 1990s, the field has exploded somewhat. Writers such as the Korean-American Chang-rae Lee have had success with The Gesture Life (1999) and Aloft (2004). Bharati Mukherjee and Jhumpa Lahiri, known for The Namesake (2003), are sometimes classified as South-Asian-American novelists. Lan Cao, who was born in South Vietnam, is the author of Monkey Bridge (1997). The Canadian of Japanese descent, Joy Kogawa, is famed for Obasan (1981). Jessica Hagedorn, who has a Scots-Irish-French-Filipino mother, is recognized for her 1990 novel, Dogeaters. The Japanese-American writer Karen Tei Yamashita’s Tropic of Orange (1997) examines contemporary Los Angeles and its racial dynamics.

One of my Ph.D. students, Serena Ceniccola, is working extensively at the moment (2021) on ideas of and complexities within the Japanese-American translingual literature, including work by Minae Mizumura, Julie Otsuka, and Levy Hideo, among others.

Further reading:

  • Cheung, King-Kok, An Interethnic Companion to Asian American Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997)
  • Chin, Frank, Jeffery Paul Chan, Lawson Fusao Inada, Shawn Wong, and Tara Fickle, eds., Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Asian American Writers, Classics of Asian American Literature, 3rd edition (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2019)
  • Lee, James Kyun-Jin, ‘Asian American Novels’, in The Encyclopedia of the Novel, ed. by Peter Melville Logan, Olakunle George, Susan Hegeman, and Efraín Kristal (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), pp. 65–69
  • Palumbo-Liu, David, Asian/American: Historical Crossings of a Racial Frontier (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999)
  • Kambhampaty, Anna Purna, ‘In 1968, These Activists Coined the Term ’Asian American’—And Helped Shape Decades of Advocacy’, Time, 2020 [accessed 8 January 2022]
  • Wong, Sau-ling Cynthia, Reading Asian American Literature: From Necessity to Extravagance (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993)