Asian American literature Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

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), Yan Phou LeeYan Phou Lee, who converted to Christianity and immigrated to the United States to study from 1872 to 1875, sought to show that education could turn a young Chinese into a person suitable to fully participate in American society. A similar goal inspired Yung WingYung Wing’s autobiography, My Life in China and America (1909).Literature;Asian AmericanAsian American immigrants;literatureLiterature;Asian AmericanAsian American immigrants;literature[cat]LITERATURE;Asian American literature[00370][cat]ASIAN IMMIGRANTS;Asian Americanliterature[00370][cat]CULTURE;Asian American literature[00370][cat]LANGUAGE ISSUES;Asian American literature[00370]

Early Asian American Literature

The Chinese American author Eaton, Edith MaudeEdith Maude Eaton, who wrote under the pen name of Sui Sin FarSui Sin Far, was the first Asian American writer fiercely sympathetic to common Chinese immigrants in Canada and the United States, the two countries where she lived after her birth in England. Her short stories and articles, first published in 1896, painted an accurate picture of the struggles and aspirations of the first Chinese immigrants in America who worked hard, menial jobs, lived in Chinatown enclaves, and endured racist taunts and violence. Her last collection of short stories, Mrs. Spring Fragrance (Sui Sin Far)Mrs. Spring Fragrance (1912), was rediscovered and republished in 1995.

Eaton’s younger sister, Eaton, WinnifredWinnifred Eaton, chose a different path. Adopting the Japanese-sounding pen name of Watanna, Onoto“Onoto Watanna,” she entertained readers with lighthearted and sometimes risqué romance novels and short stories with Japanese American themes, but without focusing on the darker sides of the immigrant experience. From her first novel, Mrs. Nume of Japan (Watanna)Mrs. Nume of Japan (1899), and including her greatest bestseller,Tama (Watanna)Tama (1910), Onoto Watanna’s Asian-themed fiction proved popular. During the 1920’s, she turned to writing screenplays in New York City. After returning to Canada in 1932, she worked as a dramatist until her death in 1954.

EtsuSugimoto, Etsu InagakiInagaki Sugimoto’s autobiography,Daughter of the Samurai, A (Sugimoto)A Daughter of the Samurai (1925), introduced her readers to the Japanese American immigrant experience, albeit from an upper-class point of view. Sugimoto’s subsequent fiction chronicled her return to Japan with her two daughters, followed by a return to America for her children’s education, a move not uncommon among some Japanese Americans.

Younghill Kang, YounghillKang’s Grass Roof, The (Kang)The Grass Roof (1931) was well received, in part because immigration to America was the goal of the novel’s Korean protagonist. As the American public came to sympathize with China in its conflict with Japan, Lin YutangLin Yutang’s work My Country and My People (Lin Yutang)My Country and My People (1935) became a bestseller. Even Tsiang, H. T.H. T. Tsiang’s critical novel And China Has Hands (1936), about the oppressed life of a Chinese laundryman, saw publication.

Mainstream American taste for Asian American literature turned sour when Younghill Kang’s second novel, East Goes West (Kang)East Goes West (1937), looked critically at European American society from an educated Korean American immigrant’s point of view. Decades later, however, the work was considered an early Asian American classic.

World War II and the 1950’s

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 ofLowe, PardeePardee Lowe’sFather and Glorious Descendant (Lowe)Father and Glorious Descendant (1943), a story about a Chinese American father and son published during the same year that U.S. Congress repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act.Wong, Jade SnowJade Snow Wong’sFifth Chinese Daughter (Wong)Fifth Chinese Daughter (1945, revised 1950) depicted the daughter of immigrant parents finding her place within American society.

Lowe and Wong’s literary popularity paved the way for the success of Lee, Chin YangChin Yang Lee’s Flower Drum Song (Lee)Flower Drum Song (1957), Chinatowns;San FranciscoSan Francisco;Chinatownan insider’s humorous look at San Francisco’s Chinatown. The novel was also adapted into a popular Broadway musical in 1958, followed by a 1961 film version that featured an almost exclusively Asian American cast led by Kwan, NancyNancy Kwan. Later Asian American critics faulted Chinese American writers of this era for being too accommodating to mainstream tastes, but most critics eventually acknowledged that these early works provided a nonstereotypical view of Asian American life as written by Asian Americans themselves.

Louis Chu, LouisChu’s bitter Eat a Bowl of Tea (Chu)Eat a Bowl of Tea (1961) presented a starkly realistic but always sympathetic look at the prewar, urban bachelor Chinese American immigrant community. Chu’s novel initially failed to win a large mainstream readership before becoming a classic.

Japanese Japanese American internment;in literature[literature]American literature was deeply affected by the internment in remote relocation camps of Japanese and Japanese Americans living on the West Coast from early 1942 until 1945. This infamous political event, for which the United States formally apologized many years later, became a key subject of Japanese American literature. It also delayed publication of Mori, ToshioToshio Mori’s short-story collection Yokohama, California (Mori)Yokohama, California from 1942 to 1949. Mori’s stories perceptively and gently chronicle mostly prewar Japanese American life in rural California.

The internment camp experience also influenced the work of Yamamoto, HisayeHisaye Yamamoto, who began to publish in 1948. Her best stories were republished in Seventeen Syllables and Other Stories (Yamamoto)Seventeen Syllables and Other Stories (1988). The impact of the camp experience on young Japanese American women was rendered also in Ota, ShelleyShelley Ota’s Upon Their Shoulders (1951) and Sone, MonicaMonica Sone’s Nisei Daughter (1953). Okada, JohnJohn Okada’s novel No-No Boy (Okada)[No No Boy (Okada)]No-No Boy (1957) compared the equally bitter fate of two Japanese American men who said either “no” or “yes” to camp authorities who asked male internees if they were ready to renounce Japan and were willing to join the U.S. armed forces. Subsequent works of Japanese American authors, such as Houston, JeanneWakatsukiJeanne Wakatsuki Houston’s autobiography, Farewell to Manzanar (Houston)Farewell to Manzanar (1972, with James D. Houston), continued to describe the camp experience.

Rebellion, Controversy, and Success

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 Assimilation;and Asian American literature[Asian American literature]assimilation to the point of cultural self-denial. In their anthology Aiiieeee! (Chin et al.)Aiiieeee! (1974), writer-editors Chin, FrankFrank Chin, Chan, Jeffrey PaulJeffrey Paul Chan, Inada, Lawson FusaoLawson Fusao Inada, and Wong, Shawn HsuShawn Hsu Wong presented radical short stories, plays, and poems deeply antagonistic to Asian American conformity with mainstream American values. Chin’s play Chickencoop Chinaman (Chin)Chickencoop Chinaman (1974) offered a cynical view of Asian American masculinity threatened by European American racism.

Frank Chin, the author of The Chickencoop Chinaman, the first play by an Asian American to be produced.

(Corky Lee)

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. Kingston, Maxine HongMaxine Hong Kingston’s Woman Warrior, The (Kingston)The Woman Warrior (1976) became a critically acclaimed bestseller. Readers loved its thinly disguised autobiographical tale of a Chinese American girl growing up in Stockton, California’s Chinatowns;StocktonChinatown who overcomes both outside indifference and Chinese misogyny with her belief in a mythic Chinese heroine. The book won Kingston the National Book Critics Circle Award.

On the stage, Hwang, David HenryDavid Henry Hwang dramatized the Asian American immigrant experience. His first play, F.O.B. (Hwang)[FOB (Hwang)F.O.B. (pr. 1978, pb. 1983), alluded to the pejorative term “fresh off the boat” for recent immigrants, particularly Asians. His great critical success, however, came with his play M. Butterfly (Hwang)M. Butterfly (pr., pb. 1988), which moved beyond the immigrant experience to dramatize traditional Western views on Asia and Asian femininity.

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 Kim, RonyoungRonyoung Kim, the Korean American author Hahn, GloriaGloria Hahn wrote Clay Walls (Kim)Clay Walls (1987), a moving account of a Korean family’s coming to California during the 1920’s. Hayslip, Le LyLe Ly Hayslip’s memoir When Heaven and Earth Changed Places (Hayslip)When Heaven and Earth Changed Places (1989) presented a Vietnamese woman’s view of the Vietnam War;in literature[literature]Vietnam War and the postwar Vietnamese American immigrant experience. Sidhwa, BapsiBapsi Sidhwa’s novels told of the Pakistani immigrants;in literature[literature]Pakistani American experience, fromThe Crow Eaters (Pakistan, 1978; United States, 1982) to A Pakistani Bride (2008).

Amy Tan, author of The Joy Luck Club.

(Robert Foothorap)

Amy Tan, AmyTan’s runaway bestseller Joy Luck Club, The (Tan)The Joy Luck Club (1989) told the interwoven tales of four sets of Chinese American mothers and daughters. The book depicts conflicts between first- and second-generation immigrants whose families make the transition from China to America. In 1993, the novel became a successful Hollywood film with an almost entirely Asian cast.

Igniting controversy,Chin, FrankFrank Chin criticized Kingston and Tan for what he called an anti-male bias and pandering to white audiences in their writings. Kingston and Tan rejected his criticisms by pointing out that their works were fiction about individual characters, not anthropological or literary studies of Asian American immigration. Both Kingston and Tan continued to enjoy success even as their fiction turned away from immigrant themes to issues of world peace, in the case of Kingston’s writings, and to the inhumanity of the Burmese military dictatorship in Tan’s Saving Fish from Drowning (2006).

The Immigrant Experience

The 1990’s also saw the rise of the poet and critic Lim, Shirley Geok-linMalaysian immigrants;in literature[literature]Shirley Geok-lin Lim, a first-generation immigrant from Malaysia. Her memoir Among the White Moon Faces (Lim)Among the White Moon Faces (1996) won the American Book Award. Lim also brought further critical attention to Asian American literature through her work as a college English professor. Another Asian American writer and college professor, Mukherjee, BharatiBharati Mukherjee, published her first novel, Asian Indian immigrants;in literature[literature]Tiger’s Daughter, The (Mukherjee)The Tiger’s Daughter, in 1971. Her novel focuses on the vaguely autobiographical journey back to India of a Bengali-born Indian girl educated and married in America. Mukherjee later turned to historical fiction, closing a two-volume tale of Indian rebellion against British colonialism in The Tree Bride (2004).

Many mainstream American readers continued to prefer writings by Asian American authors that focused on Asian American experiences, or at least on Asian topics. Lahiri, JhumpaJhumpa Lahiri’s writings were successful in meeting this demand. Her first collection of short stories about first-generation Bengali immigrants, Interpreter of Maladies (Lahiri)Interpreter of Maladies (1999), won for her the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2000. In 2008, her novel about second- and third-generation Asian Indian Americans, Unaccustomed Earth (Lahiri)Unaccustomed Earth (2008), topped the bestseller list of The New York Times during the week in which it was published.

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, Kadohata, CynthiaCynthia Kadohata and Lee, Chang-RaeChang-Rae Lee both moved away from celebrated first works that focused on immigrant Asian Americans. Kadohata’s The Floating World (1989) and Lee’s Native Speaker (1995) were both successes. In contrast, Kadohata’s science-fiction novel In the Heart of the Valley of Love (1992) flopped. However, she regained her audience with Kira-kira (Kadohata)[Kira kira (Kadohata)]Kira-kira (2004), the story of two Japanese American sisters that won the Newbery Medal. Lee’s novel Aloft (2004), with an Italian American protagonist, failed to attract critics and readers. See, LisaLisa See, who gained literary fame with her family memoir On GoldMountain (See)On Gold Mountain (1995), triggered by the rare occurrence of her Chinese great-grandfather marrying an European American, gave her subsequent works Asian–but not necessarily Asian American–themes. Her novel Shanghai Girls (See)Shanghai Girls (2009) followed her heroines from China to America during the 1950’s.

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 Rowland, Laura JohLaura Joh Rowland, whose sleuth Sano Ichiro operates in seventeenth century Japan, was a noticeable example.Literature;Asian AmericanAsian American immigrants;literature

Further Reading
  • 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.

Child immigrants




Lahiri, Jhumpa

Lim, Shirley Geok-lin


Mukherjee, Bharati

Sidhwa, Bapsi


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