Great Asian-Pacific American Authors: Amy Tan, Jhumpa Lahiri, and More
May is Asian-Pacific American Heritage month in the U.S., and, to honor the occasion, we’ve highlighted some of our favorite (but by no means all of our favorite) authors of Asian-Pacific heritage who celebrate their cultures in their writing. From classics such as Yoko Kawashima Watkins’ So Far From the Bamboo Grove to newer works, such as Amy Tan’s The Valley of Amazement, these books written by Asian-Pacific American authors showcase varied and insightful perspectives on identity and American life.
Pushcart Prize-winning Celeste Ng’s first novel, Everything I Never Told You, isn’t out until June, but she’s already being hailed as an author to watch by outlets such as Booklist and Library Journal. The novel examines a Chinese-American family’s grief after their middle (and favorite) child is found dead in a lake in their Ohio town. Ng has dissected identity, cultural differences, and feelings of displacement in her work before, as, for example, in her story “How to Be Chinese,” in which protagonist Mackenzie Altman grapples with feelings of alienation among her ethnically Chinese peers.
So Far From the Bamboo Grove, an autobiographical novel about Japanese author Yoko Kawashima Watkins’ time in Korea near the end of World War II, was banned from the sixth-grade curriculum of a Massachusetts middle school in 2006. Community members felt Watkins’ depiction of the Koreans’ treatment of Japanese women living in Korea near the end of World War II presented an inaccurate version of events; specifically, they took issue with the book’s suggestion that Korean men raped Japanese women.
The book was later reinstated, and Watkins’ novel remains an important text about the era, having won several awards, such as the Literary Lights for Children Award, for its candid portrayal of Korean-Japanese relations. The controversy around this slim volume, though, seems unlikely to die down anytime soon, and subsequent attempts to ban the book from school curricula have been successful.
Chang-rae Lee is a celebrated Korean-American novelist who was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2011 for his novel The Surrendered. He may be best known, however, for his most recent novel, the much-buzzed-about On Such a Full Sea, which takes place in a near-future not unlike that of Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story. Lee paints an unsettling picture of urban American life, complete with a rigid class structure and an exploited working class. Owing to his multicultural background, Lee interrogates the notion of the American identity in a way that’s both resonant and unsettling.
Don’t be fooled by her strawberry-blond locks and freckles: Lisa See is part Chinese (she has a Chinese great-grandfather) and grew up with a large Chinese-American extended family. In 2001, she was named National Woman of the Year by the Organization of Chinese American Women. Of her cultural background, See writes: “In many ways I straddle two cultures. I try to bring what I know from both [Chinese and American] cultures into my work. The American side of me tries to open a window into China and things Chinese for non-Chinese, while the Chinese side of me makes sure that what I’m writing is true to the Chinese culture without it seeming too ‘exotic’ or ‘foreign.’” In her most recent book, China Dolls, See takes on the Japanese internment in the United States during World War II, as well as the larger issue of racial passing.
Yangsze Choo is a fourth-generation Malaysian of Chinese descent. Her cultural background informs her novel The Ghost Bride—which takes place in colonial Malaya, and paints a vivid picture of Chinese culture there in the late 19th century. In the novel she tells the story of a young girl, Li Lan, who is promised to a prominent family whose son has died. Li Lan and her family agree that she will become his ghost bride so that his spirit can rest more peacefully. But once she moves in with his family, she is drawn into the fantastical world of the Chinese afterlife where she is haunted by all manner of spirits.
The Ghost Bride has historical underpinnings: Choo told Zola Books in an interview, “There were many variations of ghost marriages amongst the Chinese diaspora (and they still occasionally occur today) for individual reasons, although they tended to be tied to the traditional practice of ancestor worship.”
Amy Tan, author of the 1989 bestselling book The Joy Luck Club (which is structured like a game of mahjong), frequently takes on themes of family. She particularly focuses on the relationships between generations of mothers and daughters. In her newest book, The Valley of Amazement, Tan writes about a courtesan house in Shanghai, a painting bearing the same name as the novel, and three women whose lives intertwine across more than 50 years. She focuses heavily on themes of identity and what it means to “belong” somewhere or with a certain group of people—ideas that are pervasive throughout her larger body of work.
Letitia Moffitt’s new book, Sidewalk Dancing, is unusual in that it’s a novel told in a series of short stories. Protagonist Miranda McGee deals with feeling like she doesn’t belong anywhere, and grapples with understanding the relationship between her parents. Moffitt deals extensively with her heritage in her writing (her mother is Chinese, and Letitia was born and raised in Hawaii). In her essay “On Acronyms and Attraction,” she writes candidly about the relationship between her own parents and the stereotype of a white man marrying an Asian woman and viewing her as the exotic 'other.'
Ha Jin is the pen name of Jin Xuefei—a Chinese American novelist and poet who has won a National Book Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, 2 PEN/Faulkner Awards, among other honors, for his work. His 2004 Pulitzer Prize-nominated novel War Trash follows the plight of protagonist Yu Yuan, a soldier in the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army. Yu Yuan is sent to Korea during the Korean War to fight on the side of the communists, but is captured as a prisoner of war. The saga that follows depicts Yu Yuan’s fight to remain loyal and eventually return home to China.
Jhumpa Lahiri won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction for her book of short stories Interpreter of Maladies, and she has written extensively about the lives of Indian Americans and their experiences with American culture and higher education. Lahiri was born in London, but moved to the U.S. where she was raised in Rhode Island. Her most recent novel, The Lowland, tells the story of two brothers who lead very different lives but whose close relationship is only strengthened when a great misfortune befalls one brother in the lowland near the family’s home.
Kaui Hart Hemmings made a real splash with her debut novel, The Descendants, which was made into a film starring George Clooney and Shailene Woodley in 2011. Her newest novel, The Possibilities, comes out this month and marks a departure from the lush Hawaiian setting in The Descendants. Though Hemmings trades her native Hawaii for Breckenridge, Colorado, she writes with the same warmth and candor that marks her earlier work. Hemmings weaves a tale that is about family, loss, and resilience.
Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe is the unconventional story of a time machine mechanic who has the same name as the author. What ensues is a non-linear, self-referential text about the nature of memory, father-son relationships, and how humans develop and maintain a sense of self. Charles Yu is a Taiwanese-American writer, and attended Columbia Law School before settling into a career as a novelist. Interestingly, he doesn’t identify specifically as an Asian-American writer, but has said that he was raised to feel like a Taiwanese American.