Asian American Novel

The Encyclopedia of the Novel - Peter Melville Logan 2014

Asian American Novel

James Kyung-Jin Lee

Since the 1970s, writers and critics have struggled to determine the contours around which a novel—and the larger culture from which it derives—might be considered “Asian American.” The Asian American novel, according to generic convention, might be defined as a novel written by a person of Asian descent who resides in the U.S. But such delineation would be put under almost immediate crisis. For there is little if any agreement over what constitutes any of these terms: Asian, American, or novel.

Demographically, the “Asian American” community is composed of people whose ancestors or who themselves hail from widely divergent regions of Asia, as well as, for some, the islands and archipelagos that make up what is often referred to as the Pacific Islands. Historically, the Asian American novel is a relatively recent construction, coinciding with the very origins of the term “Asian American” in the latter half of the twentieth century; like the construction of “Chicana/o” or “Latina/o” literature, the creation of a longer Asian American literary history is at best a conscious reconstruction, what scholar Sau-ling Cynthia Wong calls a “textual coalition,” and at worst a persistent anachronism that plagues any conceptualization. Ideologically, writers and critics regard the Asian American novel as the site and term around which contestations over its form and content provide the ballast for larger political struggle over what might constitute such a cultural community, and for what purpose that community exists (see IDEOLOGY).

A controversy that erupted in 1998 serves as a useful example of these conflicts. In that year, the Association of Asian American Studies presented at a conference in Hawai'i its award in literature to Japanese American, Hawai'i-born writer Lois-Ann Yamanaka for her widely celebrated novel Blu's Hanging (1997). But many in the Association as well as those in the larger Asian American community in Hawai'i vigorously opposed the decision. Protestors, mostly but not exclusively of Filipino descent, were dismayed by what they viewed as the Association's sanctioning of what they considered the novel's derogatory stereotypes of Filipinos. Eventually, the Board of the Association rescinded the award, which led to an outcry from Asian American writers for what they viewed as censorship (see Fujikane and Okamura). This conflict exposed the deep fissures over the very concept of the Asian American novel. Filipino Americans and their allies brought attention to the differential ways that groups relate to the term “Asian American” and suggested that it is often deployed to put in shadow the deep discontinuities of resource allocation and representational access between ethnic groups. Perhaps more importantly, at stake was the function of Yamanaka's novel itself: while those who supported Yamanaka asserted her artistic freedom, protestors demanded culpability on the part of writers and critics alike for the circulation of cultural ideas, however the ideas are disseminated. In other words, analysis of content must be coterminous with an understanding of the novel as novel; the novel serves both mimetic and mediating roles (see DEFINITIONS). Such conflict has been the hallmark of the history of the Asian American novel, even if the tensions have not always reached such an intense pitch.

Early Asian American Novels

Until 1968, the term “Asian American” did not exist. Scholars have retroactively assigned novelists such an identity and given Winnifred Eaton the honor of being Asian America's first. Some do so reluctantly. Writing under the Japanese-sounding pseudonym Onoto Watanna, Eaton—a product of an English father and Chinese mother—established her early literary career writing romance novels set in Japan. Her first, Mrs. Nume of Japan (1899), was followed by A Japanese Nightingale (1902), which won her broad popular appeal and a significant following. One might contrast Eaton's success in the literary marketplace with her older sister Edith Eaton, who wrote journalistic essays and short stories under the Chinese pseudonym Sui Sin Far. Both sisters lived amid widespread anti-Chinese sentiment that culminated in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, whose restriction of Chinese immigration to the U.S. would become the model for exclusionary efforts against other ethnic groups, Asian and otherwise. Edith, as Sui Sin Far, devoted much of her work to railing against unjust treatment of Chinese Americans and struggled to portray Chinese characters as figures of complexity against the dominant view of the Chinese as devoid of human characteristics that could be assimilated into American cultural mores. Winnifred, as Watanna, constructed a literary imagination set almost exclusively in Japan, which proved quite profitable during a time when Japanese culture was considered with deep curiosity, if not desirability. Although she herself never visited Japan, Eaton would often pose for daguerreotypes in full Japanese dress (see PHOTOGRAPHY).

For years, scholars looked with derision on what they construed as W. Eaton's false assumption of Japanese identity. More recently, however, noting that Eaton wrote in a period during which notions of race were closely tied to biological justifications for racial hierarchy, critics have marveled at Eaton's ironic displacement of such theories by renarrating racial identities as developed through cultural process rather than biological essence. The Heart of Hyacinth (1903) tells the story of a young girl whose birth parents are (white) American, but she is raised by a Japanese foster mother in Japan. Hyacinth, as she is called, dresses, speaks, acts, and identifies as Japanese, even as she recognizes her physical difference from her Japanese friends. The ensuing conflict and resolution over her identity astonishingly do not grant the West cultural priority, but instead suggest a kind of coded racial hybridity that would surely have been anathema to biological racists of Eaton's time.

Eaton was certainly an anomalous figure, given that her father's English nationality and merchant status gave her access to the U.S. unavailable to the vast majority of Chinese, and later others of Asian descent. Likewise, long before the mass migration to the U.S. by people from Korea after 1965, Korean immigrant Younghill Kang fled persecution from Japanese colonial occupiers in the early 1920s, just a few years before the National Origins Act of 1924 would have made such flight impossible. Educated in both Confucian and Western traditions, Kang began writing stories in English shortly after his arrival and in 1931 published The Grass Roof, a fictional tale about a young Korean living in the twilight of Korea's feudal society and in the midst of Japanese colonial occupation. His subsequent novel, East Goes West (1937), chronicles his protagonist's journey to reconcile his “Eastern” learning with living in the West. Throughout the novel, Kang is at pains to reconcile Confucian teaching in modern, even modernist, contexts, by depicting his narrator as a cultural outsider who acts very much like a Benjaminian flâneur, but with a racial difference that puts him in curious relation to other minority groups, most notably African Americans, by the novel's end.

Autobiography will become a touchstone for controversy later in the 1970s (see LIFE WRITING), but for early Asian American writers autobiographical fiction seemed to reconcile for novelists the competing interests of artistic imagination with the ambassadorial imperative to represent a “community.” Carlos Bulosan's America Is in the Heart (1946) follows a narrator with Bulosan's namesake who is clearly a composite of different Filipino immigrants living in the U.S. during the era of the Great Depression (1930—39). Like Kang, Bulosan was keenly aware of shifting currents of formal preference, and fused socialist realism (see Russia 20th C) and traditional bildungsroman, in effect to make the case that true “growth” of the individual could only take place when socialism was fully realized. It is perhaps because he did not employ the autobiographical mode that John Okada's No-No Boy (1957) failed to win over audiences. A veteran of WWII, Okada's novel chronicles the story of a “no-no boy,” a Japanese American man who refused to serve in the U.S. military while their families were caged in internment camps throughout the war's duration. Oscillating between extreme REALISM and moments of a stream-of-consciousness mode of narration (see PSYCHOLOGICAL), No-No Boy dared to draw moral equivalence between returning veterans and the “no-no boys” as differing but related responses to the state-sanctioned racism of the Internment. But Okada wrote during the Cold War period, when hints of dissent were largely frowned upon, most especially in the Japanese American community for whom the Internment still left deep scars. It would take another, more radical generation to resurrect Okada and to place his novel at the center of the developing, still contested, Asian American “canon.”

Post-1965 Asian American Novels

In 1968, a young graduate student named Yuji Ichioka coined the term “Asian American” in the heat of political turmoil in the U.S. Informed by Third World movements around the globe, insurgencies by other minority groups in the U.S., and wide-scale protest against the war in Vietnam, those who rallied as Asian American deployed the term ironically in defiance of the quietism that seemed to pervade their communities. Six years later, four young men—Jeffrey Paul Chan, Shawn Wong, Lawson Inada, and most importantly, Frank Chin—edited a collection titled Aiiieeeeee! An Anthology of Asian American Literature (1974), not the first but arguably the most polemical statement on Asian American literature. In their introductory essay, the editors of Aiiieeeeee! excoriate Asian American writers for employing the autobiographical form that serves to resolve Asian American identity through confessional assimilation, the imperative to belong by way of dominant standards. For the editors, the challenge perforce was to develop an alternative language that spoke to Asian American experience without concern for white approval. Ironically, their call for cultural self-determination was actually an anti-mimetic stance, as they sought to create a literary history based on a common aesthetic underpinning, not one caught up in sociological accuracy. Their sense of Asian American aesthetics was brawny, masculine, and refused easy resolution to common understandings of Americanism. Later, Wong and Chin would try their hand at demonstrating this aesthetic in their own novels, Homebase (1979) and American Knees (1995) for Wong, and Donald Duk (1991) for Chin.

Chin continues to lash out at what he regards as “fake” Asian American novelists, the very novelists who are regarded by most others as having given the Asian American novel its mass popularity and its academic narrative of cultural coherence. He directs his harshest criticism at women writers, most notably Maxine Hong Kingston and Amy Tan. Kingston's first book, The Woman Warrior (1975), is at times considered autobiography, at others a collection of short stories, and on rare occasions even ANTHROPOLOGY (though not by Asian Americans). But it is widely regarded as the most important literary work, for both reasons critical and popular, by an Asian American in the final quarter of the twentieth century. Using the oral tradition of “talk-story” that Kingston learned while writing in Hawai'i, The Woman Warrior chronicles the struggle of young Maxine to make sense of the stories her mother teaches her while growing up in Stockton, California, or as she wonders at one point, “What is Chinese tradition and what is the movies?” Kingston would later write stories in the more recognizably novelistic vein—Tripmaster Monkey (1989) and The Fifth Book of Peace (2003), though even here Kingston's playful blurring of genre has continued to confound, delight, or enrage readers and critics.

Tan's Joy Luck Club (1988) took the Kingstonian trope of mother—daughter struggle and broadened it as a cultural conundrum. What enraged Chin about Tan's novel was its tendency to turn culture into essence by aestheticizing it, so that the novel turned into ethnography. On this point, Chin finds curious alliance with feminist critics, who regard the novel as an example of “sugar sisterhood” that leaves intact conventional notions of gender, race, and power. But Tan's redeployment of Kingston's opening was only one of many efflorescences of a contemporary renaissance of Asian American novels. Readers of the 1990s and the beginning of the twenty-first century bore witness to an explosion of writing that is breathtaking in its breadth and depth. Such novelists include Chang-rae Lee, whose investigation into contemporary Korean American identity in Native Speaker (1995) has since given way to novels that feature non-Korean and even non-Asian protagonists, in The Gesture Life (1999) and Aloft (2004), respectively. South Asian American novelists such as Bharati Mukherjee and, more recently, Jhumpa Lahiri, are the most obvious examples of those whose ethnic origins hail from the Indian subcontinent, and their novels such as Jasmine (1999) and The Namesake (2004) return again to questions of belonging and assimilation, tinged by their particular social locations of gender, class, ethnicity, and race. Vietnamese Americans such as Lan Cao and her elegiac novel Monkey Bridge (1997) craft prose that tries to approximate a language of trauma borne from war and exile.

Still others move beyond U.S. borders, even sometimes “return” to Asia, or view the world as its frame for their storytelling: Joy Kogawa's Obasan (1981) lyrically chronicled the struggles of Japanese Canadians' own rendition of the Internment and ushered in an alternative Asian Canadian literary history that had remained in the shadow of Asian American literature; Jessica Hagedorn's satirical play with popular culture, both Filipino and American, in Dogeaters (1990) takes us to the Philippines before the regime (1966—86) of Ferdinand Marcos, and exposes the ideological underpinnings of a transnational Filipino identity whose relationship to U.S. imperialism is simultaneously disavowed and embraced; and Karen Tei Yamashita's Tropic of Orange (1997) places Asian Americans alongside other minority groups in a rearticulation of both physical and discursive geographies in her investigation of contemporary Los Angeles, with definitive imprints from Gabriel García Márquez and cable television. So varied in style and structure is the contemporary Asian American novel, so diverse are the relative commitments of writers to the category itself, and so numerous are its practitioners, it is ironically its successful arrival as a substantial and sustainable body of literature that threatens to break apart the very contours of the Asian American novel that once gave it such political meaning and cultural significance.

See also: African American Novel, Jewish American Novel, Latina/o American Novel, National Literature, Regional Novel.


1. Chan, J.P., Chin, F., Inada, L., and Wong, S., eds. (1974), Aiiieeeee!.

2. Cheung, K.K., ed. (1997), Interethnic Guide to Asian American Literature.

3. Chu, P.P. (2000), Assimilating Asians.

4. Eng, D.L. (2001), Racial Castration.

5. Fujikane, C., and J.Y. Okamura, eds. (2000), “Whose Vision?” Special Issue, Amerasia 26(2).

6. Kim, E.H. (1982), Asian American Literature.

7. Koshy, S. (2000), “The Fictions of Asian American Literature,” reprinted in Asian American Studies, ed. M. Song and J. Wu.

8. Lee, R.C. (1998), Americas of Asian American Literature.

9. Li, D.L. (1998), Imagining the Nation.

10. Ling, J. (1997), Narrating Nationalisms.

11. Lowe, L. (1996), Immigrant Acts.

12. Lye, C. (2004), America's Asia.

13. Nguyen, V.T. (2003), Race and Resistance.

14. Palumbo-Liu, D. (1999), Asian/American.

15. Wong, S-L.C. (1993), Reading Asian American Literature.