2017: the year Asian-American writers broke into mainstream of US literary publishing
Led by Viet Thanh Nguyen, Jenny Zhang and the poet Ocean Vuong, this year has seen widespread praise for a variety of authors for bringing their stories about the immigrant experience to English reader
After years on the peripheries of US fiction and poetry, Asian-American authors have stepped into the spotlight during 2017. Books by writers of East and Southeast Asian heritage led by Viet Thanh Nguyen, Jenny Zhang and the poet Ocean Vuong are among the hottest trends this year.
It marks the emergence into the centre of the US literary world of a previously marginalised group.
Transcultural writers, born to immigrant parents in the US or immigrants themselves as children, are channelling their experiences into writing that, with perfect historical timing, challenges readers to resist attacks on immigrants’ rights and to see refugees as individuals with unique stories.
The experiences of displaced people are central to the work of this new generation of Asian-Americans, and their books cross genres and forms.
Vuong, who recently won the Forward prize for best first collection, arrived in the US as a refugee from Vietnam in 1990. His poems in Night Sky With Exit Wounds mix migration with myth and eroticism. His images stick in the reader’s mind and, though it is never said explicitly, feel as if they are etched in the memory of the young gay Asian man navigating the 21st-century US in subsequent poems.
The stories in Nguyen’s The Refugees are set in Vietnam and among refugee communities in California. The author disarms the reader, consistently complicating our sympathies. What came before and after the characters’ journeys across the Pacific pervade the collection. His book is dedicated to “all refugees, everywhere”.
The privileged twenty-somethings in Tony Tulathimutte’s satirical novel, Private Citizens , inhabit a different San Francisco tech scene in the 2000s – but like Nguyen’s characters, they’re alive to the nuances of Asian-American experience. Tulathimutte’s Thai-American protagonist, Will, is accused of being paranoid about racism, but he is clearly on to something as he witnesses the lives of Asians overlooked because, he says, “they’re outside the black-white binary”.
There is a thrilling and almost wild energy about Jenny Zhang’s long sentences in the connected stories of Sour Heart. The brutality of communist China is vividly remembered and the hardships of immigrant life graphically enumerated by young narrators, among them a girl who says: “Going to school in Little Neck was the only thing – short of spending eighty grand on a down payment for a new house, short of having hundreds of thousands of dollars for private tuition – that stood any chance of saving me from a life of misery, poverty and pain.”
Violence features in all these books, not least in South Korean-born Patty Yumi Cottrell’s autobiographical novel, Sorry to Disrupt the Peace, in which an alienated young woman tries to discover why her adoptive brother committed suicide.
One of the year’s most distinctive memoirs, meanwhile, is Li Yiyun’s piercing Dear Friend, From My Life I Write to You in Your Life in which Li, who moved to the US in her 20s, calls her decision to write in English instead of Chinese “a suicide”.
There are, of course, some older Asian-American authors who paved the way. Notable among them are Maxine Hong Kingston, whose The Woman Warrior (1976) articulates her experiences as a first generation Chinese-American woman, and the late Hisaye Yamamoto , whose Seventeen Syllables and Other Stories (1988) concerns Japanese immigrants and their American descendants, including the important story of those sent to internment camps in California during the second world war.
More recently, the South Korean-American Hanya Yanagihara and the Chinese-Canadian Madeleine Thien were shortlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2015 and 2016 respectively, while the Taiwanese-American Tao Lin has ploughed a distinctive furrow with his experimental metafiction. But these authors seemed like lonely trailblazers.
Will other places such as the UK also see another wave of literature by writers of East and Southeast Asian heritage? It is already rising, with the poetry of Hong Kong-born Sarah Howe , the fiction of Japanese-Chinese-British-American Rowan Hisayo Buchanan and London-based Chinese writer Guo Xiaolu.
And of course, it would be odd not to mention Japanese-born English Nobel laureate Kazuo Ishiguro, whose body of work tells us subtle and enduring truths about who we are, as only writers who can reveal a culture from the outside can.