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Asian-American novelists are rewriting America’s future
Before 1990,” Min Hyoung Song, associate professor of English at Boston College, says with a laugh, “no one thought much about Asian-American literature.” Then came two decades in which Asian-American writers racked up major fiction awards, including the National Book Award (Ha Jin for Waiting), the PEN/Hemingway Award (Chang-rae Lee for Native Speaker, Akhil Sharma for An Obedient Father, Yiyun Lee for A Thousand Years of Good Prayers), and the Pulitzer Prize (Jhumpa Lahiri for Interpreter of Maladies).
In his new book, The Children of 1965: On Writing, and Not Writing, as an Asian American, published in April, Song connects the flowering of Asian-American literature to the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965—the same law that brought his family to Michigan from Korea when he was five years old. With its emphasis on admitting skilled workers and their families, as well as its changes to the national quota system, the Act enabled tens of thousands of young, college-educated Asian doctors and engineers to enter the United States—from a wider array of countries than ever before—tipping the balance of immigration away from Europe toward Asia and Latin America. It is the children of these immigrants, who followed their parents to college and sometimes went on to earn MFAs, who began experimenting with literature.
Song spoke with more than a dozen such writers. He observed among them “a lot of anxiety and fear that they’re expected to write the immigrant narratives”—the so-called ethnic novels—as first- and second-generation Jewish-Americans, to give the most notable example, did before them. Their resistance to this “rite of ethnic succession,” shows up, Song says, in a “willingness to experiment in form,” including graphic novels (Adrian Tomine’s Shortcomings, for instance) and the mixing of poetry and fiction (R. Zamora Linmark’s Rolling the R’s). “The literature feels restless and unsatisfied,” Song says—as do the immigrant offspring whom these writers often describe. In Sonya Chung’s novel Long for This World, for instance, “the characters travel, meet in far-flung places, communicate (or miscommunicate)” by cellphone and email, “divided by time zones and oceans and languages and political borders,” says Song. His point, and possibly the writer’s: In a shrinking world, “Who is to say what an immigrant is?”
The authors Song interviewed frequently cited the Victorians and Russians, “especially Nabokov,” as their literary influences, rather than one another, he notes. And yet, Song says, they have demonstrated a marked attentiveness to “what it means to be an American,” in titles such as Susan Choi’s American Woman, Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese, Gish Jen’s Typical American, and Anurag Mathur’s The Inscrutable Americans, to name a few.
If today’s middle-class Asian-American writers can be said to do “cultural work” and not only produce art, observes Song, their contribution lies in their “ambivalence about race” and their embrace of individuality in a country on the point of major demographic change. The “children of 1965,” he writes, articulate “a future America, one which will no longer be majority white but will nonetheless keep alive a contiguous national character.”
Song has long been fascinated by the intersection of race, art, and national identity. His first book, Strange Future: Pessimism and the 1992 Los Angeles Riots (2005), explored how the violence sparked by the jury verdict in a police abuse case centering on an African-American victim became a “pivotal event” for Korean-Americans. The rioters—mainly African-American and Latino—disproportionately targeted the kyopo (Korean-American) shopkeepers; and the riots, featured, for instance, in the novel Native Speaker and Dai Sil Kim Gibson’s film Sa-I-Gu: From Korean Women’s Perspectives, have been disproportionately the subject of Korean-American scholars, notably sociologists.
Recently, Song began the research for his third book. It will examine how contemporary novelists such as Colson Whitehead and Cormac McCarthy use genre fiction (for example, zombie or post-apocalyptic tales) to explore American fears of immigration, climate change, and societal decline.
Patrick Doyle is a writer based in the Boston area.