Through their writing, Asian American authors have portrayed the Asian immigrant experience as seen by themselves rather than through the eyes of American mainstream press and literature. Their early works focused strongly on the Asian American family and communal adaptations to life in America. As the Asian American community matured, its writers moved beyond the immediate immigrant experience, often featuring Asian American characters of many different ethnic backgrounds and often retaining a focus on Asia.
Toward the end of the nineteenth century, Chinese American immigrants were the first Asian Americans to write about their experience in English. Their primary impulse was to combat negative racist stereotypes held about the Chinese by the popular American press and literature of the day. In his autobiography, When I Was a Boy in China (1887),
The Chinese American author
Eaton’s younger sister,
Mainstream American taste for Asian American literature turned sour when Younghill Kang’s second novel,
Japan’s attack on the U.S. Navy base at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, not only brought America into World War II but it also brought decisive changes for the Asian American community that Asian American writers reflected in their literature. Pro-Chinese sentiment led to publication and success of
Lowe and Wong’s literary popularity paved the way for the success of
The internment camp experience also influenced the work of
During the early 1970’s, a group of young Asian American authors rebelled against style and themes of much classic Asian American literature that they rejected for promoting subservient immigrant
Frank Chin, the author of The Chickencoop Chinaman, the first play by an Asian American to be produced.
The 1970’s and 1980’s saw a substantial rise of successful Asian American writers whose focus on immigrant families and first- and second-generation Asian immigrant protagonists captivated an enthusiastic readership.
On the stage,
Since the 1980’s, the growing ethnic diversity of Asian American writers has offered readers views of Asian immigrant experiences from quite different national backgrounds. Under the pen name
Amy Tan, author of The Joy Luck Club.
The 1990’s also saw the rise of the poet and critic
Many mainstream American readers continued to prefer writings by Asian American authors that focused on Asian American experiences, or at least on Asian topics.
As Asian American literature has matured, some authors have strived to move beyond immigrant themes and autobiographical works. In general, however, Asian American writers who have tried to do this have had limited success. For example,
By the early twenty-first century, most Asian American literature still focused strongly on the Asian American immigrant experience and featured many Asian American immigrant characters. Those Asian American authors who sought alternative topics generally retained links to Asia. The crime series of
Cheung, King-Kok, ed. Words Matter: Conversations with Asian American Writers. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2000. Interviews of nineteen Asian American authors who talk about the influence of the immigrant experience on their work. Huang, Guiyou. The Columbia Guide to Asian American Literature Since 1945. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006. Comprehensive reference work with narrative overview, six review chapters organized by literary forms and genres, a bibliography of literary criticism, and an overview of periodicals focused on Asian American literature. Readable, accessible, and well researched. Kim, Elaine H. Asian American Literature: An Introduction to the Writings and Their Social Context. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1982. One of the first studies of the subject; still widely available and influential. A good starting point for the study of the emergence of Asian American literature. Leonard, George J., ed. The Asian Pacific American Heritage: A Companion to Literature and the Arts. New York: Garland, 1999. Written for high school students, this volume contains a section on literature that is particularly useful, as it discusses major Asian American authors and places their works in their social and historical contexts. Oh, Seiwoong, ed. Encyclopedia of Asian American Literature. New York: Facts On File, 2007. Comprehensive work with author entries, bibliography of secondary sources, and list of major literary works. Especially good for the study of individual writers. Srikanth, Rajini. The World Next Door: South Asian American Literature and the Idea of America. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2004. Scholarly analysis of Asian Indian authors that focuses on the interaction of literature and the immigrant experience. The book’s last chapter, “Trust and Betrayal in the Idea of America,” is especially perceptive.
Lim, Shirley Geok-lin