The Asian American Book Club: An Introduction

Sunday, April 29, 2018

This project originally began as the "alternative to the dead white men curriculum," a sort of snarky rebuttal to the traditional canon of, well, dead white men (whom I do admire greatly -- looking at you, Papa Whitman).

I spent ten weeks between my junior and senior year of college reading books almost exclusively by Asian American authors, systematically organizing a queue of nonfiction, fiction, and poetry. After the summer, I continued to pursue works by writers of color, and it changed my life.

In The Sympathizer, one of the first books on my list, Vietnamese American author Viet Thanh Nguyen writes:
Not to own the means of production can lead to premature death, but not to own the means of representation is also a kind of death.
I think the desperation of Asian Americans to see themselves in literature and media is a quiet and often misunderstood one. Limited visibility means that our caricatured, stereotyped images become more legitimate than our complex selves. There are layers and layers of frustration: the preferences for lighter-skinned South Asians, the castrated nerdy men, the hypersexualized vixen, and even more contemporary tropes of the tiger mother, the bookish best friend, the Uber driver. Sitcoms like Fresh off the Boat validate us in new ways (that dishwasher scene, guys!), but also raise questions about whether Asian American actors will always be limited to ethnic roles. And then the follow-up question raised eloquently by Constance Wu: but what's wrong with portraying characters who share our accents, our stories, our histories?

But I digress. The Asian American Book Club continues to grow because while half of us bemoan our lack of representation, the other half disrupt it violently and wonderfully. My own book, while deeply insignificant, aligns itself with the movement of other creatives who, in the absence of literary role models, wrote their own stories into being. We have Ocean Vuong (Night Sky with Exit Wounds), Jenny Zhang (Sour Grapes), and Emily Yoon (Ordinary Misfortunes), among others.

I'm not suggesting that our work is done, or that we've achieved some cultural milestone so if you were hoping to become a revolutionary minority writer, all the spaces have been taken. That's not what I mean at all. I actually think an accidental symptom of writing about nuanced experiences (like that of the Taiwanese American diaspora) is thinking there's only room for one person to do it. I almost gave up on Book of Cord when I found Kenji Liu's Map of an Onion. But the table is infinite, the readers are hungry, and you will always find someone who desperately needed to hear your story.

And so I present The Asian American Book Club, a living, evolving collection of works by Asian American authors I have personally read. It begins here, as a painstakingly organized (color-coded with book covers!) Trello, where it will remain primarily housed, but will also mature on The Official CL, where I'll try to be more thoughtful in considering how each of these writers add something very special to our larger conversation about representation and diversity.

My writers and readers of color, I love you so very much.

Links and Works Mentioned:
01. The Original Asian American Book Club
02. Ocean Vuong - Night Sky with Exit Wounds
03. Jenny Zhang - Sour Grapes
04. Emily Yoon - Ordinary Misfortunes
05. Leona Chen - Book of Cord
06. Kenji Liu - Map of an Onion
07. Viet Thanh Nguyen - The Sympathizer 

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