13 Asian American & Pacific Islander Authors On The First Time They Saw Themselves In A Book
The past year has seen the publication of numerous brilliant works of fiction by Asian American and Pacific Islander authors, yet there are so many narratives still to be explored. There are 48 countries in Asia and three Oceanic sub-regions, and the experiences of those with heritages from these cultures vary dramatically from state to state, city to city, and individual to individual. The publishing world has only recently begun to catch up to the striking diversity of these experiences.
Bustle asked 13 Asian American and Pacific Islander authors about the first time they saw themselves in a book. Their answers are revealing. Just a few decades ago, there were fewer works of fiction in which readers might see themselves reflected. Some authors didn’t see characters with whom they identified until they were already adults. Others may not have been looking for characters with a particular heritage. Some authors made do with makeshift glimpses of representation.
Today, authors are creating a phenomenal, heterogenous canon for readers. Books spring to life when readers read and talk about them. During the present moment, in which some seek to narrow what it means to be American, what it means to be us, it’s more vital than ever to buy, read, and support these rich, pioneering works:
'A River of Stars' author Vanessa Hua first saw herself in Lan Samantha Chang’s 'Hunger':
“My childhood heroes were feisty girls who wanted to become writers: Jo March from Little Women, Anne Shirley of Green Gables, and Laura Ingalls from the Little House books. Their ambitions made mine seem possible. But we didn’t share the same face, race, or place, and I yearned to read about a character with a background similar to mine, who might make me feel visible. The depictions of immigrant Chinese families in Laurence Yep’s Dragonwings, Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, and Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior compelled me, but they still seemed a bit outside of my experience. In college, I encountered Lan Samantha Chang’s short story, “The Eve of the Spirit Festival,” anthologized in the Best American Short Stories, and later collected in Hunger. Though my own family wasn’t one to believe in ghosts, and we lived in the suburbs, not the city, the characters resonated with me deeply, particularly their struggle for assimilation and professional success. It inspired me to write stories that reflected my interests and experiences of my own.”
'America Is Not the Heart' author Elaine Castillo first saw herself in Carlos Bulosan’s 'America Is In The Heart':
“Carlos Bulosan’s America Is In The Heart is the seminal epic about immigrants from the rural poor of the Philippines — the same province and class background as my mother — who struggle to make lives as migrant laborers along the American West Coast.
America Is In The Heart is indispensable American literature — as much as someone like Steinbeck has become canonical for treading similar ground. [It is indispensable because] of Bulosan’s stark depictions of the miseries and realities of early immigrant life — particularly [those of] Filipino and Mexican migrant labor on the West Coast in the 1930s — and its lacerating portrayals of white supremacist discrimination, racist mobs, police brutality, and economic deprivation.
The book also depicts a frankly harrowing ecosystem of misogyny that Bulosan’s autobiographical narrator recognizes but largely fails to truly engage with, never actively connecting the oppression of these women to his own. At their best, [the women are] long-suffering noble poor tropes; at their worst, we get scene after scene of women belittled, beaten, raped, disappeared. Ultimately, the women live at the edge of the page. But it’s also at that edge that the most vital reading can happen.
I want more people to read Bulosan critically the way I want more people to read Steinbeck critically... The gift of reading Bulosan is the gift of being able to truly have a grasp of American literature, because not engaging with fiction about the people who made our nation possible is a surefire way to impoverish us as readers, and as people."
'Pachinko' author Min Jin Lee first saw herself in Ronyoung Kim’s 'Clay Walls':
“I read Clay Walls by Ronyoung Kim, the pen name of Gloria Hahn, when I was a college student. Set in the early 20th century, the Pulitzer Prize-nominated novel centers on Korean immigrants, Haesu and Chun, and their American-born daughter Faye. Haesu comes from a wealthy and aristocratic family and cares about the independence of her birthplace Korea, and her husband Chun is from a tenant farming background and wants to make a home in their new country, America. Clay Walls is a story about immigration and colonial trauma, and it is also a story about marriage, class, and patriarchy. At the time, I did not think I could be a writer, so I did not read it as a lofty literary example; rather, I read it and loved it because it was a beautifully written work of American literature that was both absorbing and deeply felt.”
'There’s Something About Sweetie' author Sandhya Menon first saw herself in Arundhati Roy's 'The God of Small Things':
“I still remember one of my aunts handing me a copy of Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things. Although at 14 years old, I didn't really understand the book, it was the first time I realized a woman of Indian heritage could write a book that would be read the world over. Until then, I'd read the books on my parents' shelves, and they were invariably by ancient Indian men or white authors from around the world. The idea that a woman who looked like me, with a name like mine, could alter the landscape of literature with her pen was like a dozen fireworks going off in my brain. It was a life-changing moment, even though I didn't know it then!”
Sandhya Menon’s novel There’s Something About Sweetie will be released on May 14, 2019. Her novels When Dimple Met Rishi and From Twinkle, With Love are available now, as is Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things.
'Pioneer Girl' author Bich Minh Nguyen first saw herself in Maxine Hong Kingston’s 'The Woman Warrior':
“It wasn’t until college that I read books by Asian Americans, that I learned such a thing was even possible. I grew up in a Vietnamese refugee family in a conservative Michigan town, far from where Maxine Hong Kingston grew up in California. In general, the Vietnamese American experience differs from the Chinese American experience. Yet when I first read The Woman Warrior, I saw myself because we’re both Asian American women. Not only did I understand her depictions of racism and sexism, I understood that they weren’t isolated. That we weren’t, didn’t have to be. I saw, and actively felt, her voice giving strength to readers like me.”
Bich Minh Nguyen’s novels Pioneer Girl and Short Girls, as well as her memoir Stealing Buddha’s Dinner are available now. Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior: Memoir of A Girlhood Among Ghosts is available now.
'Unmarriageable: Pride and Prejudice in Pakistan' author Soniah Kamal first saw herself in Judy Blume's 'Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.':
“I was in the seventh grade in Saudi Arabia when it was finally my turn to read a book that was doing the ‘must read’ rounds — Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. First, there was Laura Danker being bullied for her large chest, her reputation sullied for no reason she could control. I, too, had a large chest that garnered uninvited attention. I was also maligned for not being a ‘good girl’ who lowers her eyes and agrees meekly with her parents, teachers, and society’s views. Secondly, the novel stood out to me because the protagonist, Margaret, is exploring religions and she would have visited a mosque too had there been one in her New Jersey. This was the first time I came across any representation of Islam on the page and it made such a difference. Between Laura and all the themes of identity and agency this middle-grade novel raises, it remains a topical read.”
'The Charm Buyers' author Lillian Howan first saw herself in Chantal Spitz’s 'Island of Shattered Dreams':
“Finding myself in a work of literature has proved elusive due to the multiple strands of my background: I write in English, my third language, and I'm Hakka of parents from Tahiti and Ra'iātea. Island of Shattered Dreams, by Chantal Spitz, depicts Tahiti and the islands of the South Pacific where my parents were born. The narrative voice, passionate, angry, and tender, captures the sublime landscape and underlying turmoil that marked the islands during French nuclear testing in the Pacific, a time that extended into the 1990s. The novel’s impact on me was like a fiery meteor illuminating the void. First written in French as L'Île des rêves écrases, Chantal Spitz's masterpiece was translated as The Island of Shattered Dreams, by Jean Anderson."
'A Small Revolution' author Jimin Han first saw herself in Sylvia Louis Engdahl’s 'Enchantress from the Stars':
“As an immigrant child who felt alienated not only from the children in school around me, but also from my own Korean family, I remember a profound sense of connection to Sylvia Louis Engdahl’s actual alien protagonist Elana from Enchantress from the Stars who had the power of telepathy. She traveled the universe trying to save other beings. I could relate to her isolation and her determination to be of use. She wrote about her experiences like I did in my little room with my garage-sale Royal typewriter, looking at the night sky outside my window. Elana made me feel possible.”
'The Water Diviner and Other Stories' author Ruvanee Pietersz Vilhauer first saw herself in Shyam Selvadurai's 'Funny Boy':
"Growing up in Sri Lanka, I had no access to books by South Asian writers. As a child, I identified with the children in the books I read, which were mostly by British authors. I imagined myself exploring shipwrecks and hunting for lost treasure alongside the Famous Five in Enid Blyton’s books, despite the fact that these children ate so much chocolate — which was for me a luxury — that they often found forgotten bars in their pockets, and ate kippers — which I had never seen and imagined were shaped like betel leaves — for breakfast. It was only much later that I came across books with characters who had lives like mine. Shyam Selvadurai’s Funny Boy was one of these. I loved it not only because of its vivid characters and emotional complexity, but also the shock of familiarity it induced: Here were people whose names rolled off my tongue, who wore saris and sarongs, whose families tangled like my own, and who grew up amidst the race and class tensions I’d witnessed myself."
'The Night Tiger' author Yangsze Choo first saw herself in Beatrix Potter's 'The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies':
“Interestingly, the first time I saw myself in a book was as an animal, and not a human. When I was a little girl, I read The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies by Beatrix Potter. In this classic story of sheer carelessness, six little rabbits eat too much and pass out on a heap of old lettuce. The word used was 'soporific,' which I discovered meant sleepy. The picture of the bunnies lying on the lettuce was both cute and horrific. I myself had eaten too much earlier that day and could easily imagine being popped into a sack and kidnapped by Mr. McGregor. That, combined with the usual Chinese warnings of 'don’t go to sleep without covering your stomach' (which the bunnies were certainly not doing), filled me with guilty fascination.”
'White Dancing Elephants' Chaya Bhuvaneswar first saw herself in Bharati Mukherjee's 'Wife':
"The first time I saw a character even remotely like myself in a book was when I read Bharati Mukherjee's deliciously devious and scabrous book Wife. Have you read it? It is not a polite book. There is a terrifying way in which violence — mindless, entertaining for the female protagonist, even — seems like an inevitable response to the various oppressions that have stripped her of humanity and individuality. I felt a kinship, though, with her aspiration to have a certain kind of arranged marriage, which I, too, lived with the expectation of until I was about 14 and realized I could not go through with anything like it. I see Wife as cautionary. I was enormously blessed not to have to go through with any type of marriage like that, and indeed, by the time I did get married, I was already completely OK with being single and dating for the rest of my life, working to help others, reading, writing. There are people who have this type of life and are extremely content."
'The End of Peril, The End of Enmity, The End of Strife, A Haven' Author Thirii Myo Kyaw Myint first saw herself in Nam Le’s 'The Boat':
"I first read Nam Le’s short story 'Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice' at a coffee shop in Iowa City when I was there for creative writing summer camp. I was 16 years old, and though I had been writing voraciously for more than half of my young life, that summer in Iowa was the first time I began considering myself a writer. It was also the first time I realized that to some people I would never be just 'a writer,' but 'an Asian writer,' or 'a Burmese writer,' which was something marked, limited, and much less important. The narrator in Le’s story was, like me, a writer grappling with this gap or dissonance between his own sense of self, and the projections and expectations that are placed upon him because of his 'ethnic'-ness. 'How can you have writer’s block?' a friend asks the narrator at one point, 'Just write a story about Vietnam.' The narrator follows his friend’s advice, almost spitefully, and decides he will write 'the ethnic story of my Vietnamese father,' but Le’s story was not that story, and Le’s narrator was so much more complex, and human than that story would have allowed him to be."
Thirii Myo Kyaw Myint’s The End of Peril, The End of Enmity, The End of Strife, A Haven is available now. Nam Le’s short story collection The Boat: Stories is also available now.
'The Bride Test' author Helen Hoang first saw herself in Nalini Singh's 'Slave to Sensation':
“One of the first books where I saw someone similar to myself was Slave to Sensation by Nalini Singh. The character, Sascha Duncan, isn't exactly like me, but she's mixed (part Japanese and part Indian, while I'm half Vietnamese) and she's darker skinned. I remember being so surprised to see a darker skinned woman described as beautiful. I confess it took me a while to adjust because I'd been reading white heroines and I subconsciously believed that anyone who deviated from that, including me, had no place.”