This past weekend was the 16th annual CityLit Festival in Baltimore, MD. I was in charge of choosing the topic for a discussion panel, finding panelists, and then moderating the panel. My panel was “Your Classics Aren’t My Classics! Deconstructing Literary Canon for Asian Americans.” If you missed it, I was also on NPR’s On the Record talking about my hopes for the panel along with CityLit Project executive director, Carla DuPree.
What we consider classics combined with the lack of representation in academia and publishing has made it so that only white writers are ever considered canon. I grew up thinking that the most important books were written by white men. I mean, it only makes sense, right? The books assigned in American schools run the gamut from Shakespearean dramas to Victorian romances. We learn about the punishments of Puritan society, lovesick Jazz Age tycoons and the plight of white migrant farmers in the American southwest.
But how many migrant farmers are white anymore? What about the fact that the first Filipinos arrived on U.S. soil in the 1500s? And did you know that 1 in 7 Asian Americans is undocumented? Where are their stories?
It's not unusual. White men have always been the ones defining American culture. And the message they've been sending us for centuries is that Great Literature is White Literature. In my discussion panel, we deconstructed that idea — for Asian Americans, especially. And it wasn’t just about diversifying our own literary canon, we talked about making our own voices dominant.
When I was growing up, it was almost impossible to find a book written by an Asian American. The 2016 Pulitzer Prize winner, Viet Thanh Nguyen, wrote in the New York Times about how white literary critics basically erased Asian American literary canon by saying that authors like him are “finally giving voice to the voiceless.” To him, Asian Americans were never voiceless, we just weren't being heard.
Racism in literature manifests itself in myriad ways: characters whose personalities are reduced to their accents, cultural dress or foods; brown or black characters “rescued” by white saviors; the “surprising” friendship between a white character and a character of color; or, a white character’s journey to a “foreign” or “third world” country in search of enlightenment. These narratives, some of the most common and enduring in literature, exist mainly to service and conform to the white gaze. And yet they are rarely deemed problematic in book reviews. The reason why has everything to do with who is writing those reviews.
The western or white gaze is unimaginative, misrepresentative, and often harmful. Unfortunately, most white critics, if they recognize it at all, will attempt to disguise its presence in reviews with race-neutral language. This is bad for both author and reader, because it excuses and perpetuates racial stereotypes and racist narratives. Such devices, which serve only to create emotional and intellectual distance, are ultimately failures of craft.
Examples of this phenomenon are everywhere. For example, poverty enlightenment, a popular theme in narratives about white people traveling to brown or black countries, is similarly problematic when looked at through an anti-colonialist lens. Soniah Kamal, in a review of the Julie Feldon’s Karma Gone Bad (a memoir that proudly evinces its colonialist gaze in the title), notes that the author “sees beauty in the world after meeting a slum family, interacting with an orphan girl, and seeing a little barefoot errand boy. Does Feldon experience the same beauty when witnessing poverty in the US?
(Anjali Enjeti, Quartz.)
Young Adult (YA) literature is an often overlooked but important genre. For a lot of young people, this is the age when they really start to discover a love of reading. They also turn to books to explore some of the topics that they might not necessarily feel comfortable talking to their parents or friends about. Like romance. This is why a lot of YA involves some sort of first love theme in their coming of age stories.
This is the story of Finding My Voice, the first Asian American young adult novel ever published:
In 1992, the first teen novel was released by a major publisher with a contemporary Asian American protagonist by an Asian American author. It was called Finding My Voice and it was written by Marie Myung-Ok Lee, also known as Marie G. Lee. If her name sounds familiar, she's also the founder of the nonprofit, Asian American Writers Workshop (AAWW). Her road to publication was a major struggle. Her agent sent it out over and over again over the course of a year and it kept getting rejected. Back then, everyone's idea of diversity was basically really superficial, an all white cast of characters but throw in an Asian person or a black person for color. And if a novel did focus on a character's race or ethnicity, it was only done in the form of historical fiction, It was made absolutely clear that publishers were rejecting her manuscript not because of genre, but because of race. Because of her very blunt treatment of race, particularly Asian American, literary agents found it off-putting. The book deals with the main character, Ellen Sung, and her abuse by small town white racists and a lot of other tough issues. It's strange for us to think about because a YA novel like that would probably be in high demand in today's market and the search for authenticity and “our own voices.”
When you think about that kind of bias in the entire publishing industry, that is the reason why you barely ever saw any novels that focused on being a person of color in contemporary America. You know, there are a few generations that were completely erased and had no representation at all. It wasn't because nobody was writing these stories. There were lots of authors like Marie G. Lee who were doing it. They were straight up rejected.
In retrospect, Marie G .Lee's novel has faced criticism about it being way too stereotypical. It's very much like the unfair treatment of Joy Luck Club. Breaking ground meant being everything to everyone. Everyone wants to attack it. It's impossible to meet everyone's expectations.
Marie G. Lee is a pioneer in Asian American literature. She also wrote one of the first YA novels that explored the traumatic and often negative effects of transracial adoption -- specifically, Korean adoptees into white families. Her work is some of the first to straddle that line between YA and prestigious literature.
(Special thanks to Gabrielle Moss for telling Marie G. Lee’s story in her book, Paperback Crush.)
At the end of the panel, I opened up the floor so the audience could ask questions and comment on the discussion. One man in the back said that he grew up in a very bookish family and that his parents were very dedicated to making sure all voices were represented in the stories they read together — Black, Native, Latino, LGBT, etc. But not once did they read a book by an Asian or Asian American author. He said looking back, his experience spoke volumes about the erasure and invisibility of Asians in not just literature, but all forms of media. We just weren’t even part of the conversation.
I really hope that the takeaways from my discussion panel are an understanding of why there historically have been no Asian American stories in literature and I hope everyone understands their own power as consumers of books and literature. There is a ton of collective influence on the demand side. I also hope that the educators in the audience were able to come away with an understanding of how important it is to assign more Asian American nonfiction and fiction works to their students and not just at the college level -- at the elementary school, middle school and high school levels.
Racial mirroring is everything to a child and sets the stage for a healthy relationship with their race and ethnic identity. After all, literature is one of the most powerful forms of activism.