Reading Asian American Literature or Supporting Artistic Efforts

This post started because of something that Jeff Yang, Hudson Yang’s father, wrote. I will also admit I haven’t watched Fresh Off the Boat.  This isn’t a choice based upon preference or judgement.  It is simply that it shows in the middle of the kids’ bedtime routine, when the TV must stay off.  Yes, I’m a Luddite without a DVR.

In any case, because of his article, I’m listing below the last 10 Asian American books I’ve read.  This list is in reverse chronological order.  This is not a top 10 list.

  1. A Chinaman’s Chance: One Family’s Journey and the Chinese American Dream, Eric Liu
  2. Don’t Go Back to Sleep, Timothy Liu
  3. The History of Anonymity: Poems, Jennifer Chang
  4. Circle, Victoria Chang
  5. Hard Love Province, Marilyn Chin
  6. Lucky Fish, Aimee Nezhukumatathil
  7. Seam, Tarfia Faizullah
  8. Stone Bow Prayer, Amy Uyematsu
  9. Coral Road: Poems, Garrett Hongo
  10. Turning Japanese: Memoirs of a Sansei, David Mura

This list is weak on the central and western Asia quotient.  That’s a fact, and one that I’d like to correct.  Some of these books I loved (Lucky Fish) and one I wasn’t particularly fond of (not naming).  The rest fall in between, although I will say I enjoyed them.  A point of Jeff Yang’s article is the need on the part of Asian American’s to support Asian American artistic efforts.  While the article if focused on primetime TV, the point is well taken in other artistic fields, like acting and literature.  The question I asked myself was “Am I doing my part?”  My answer was, I don’t know.

My impression is that as a group, Asian Americans are less inclined to support our artists than other groups.  If I’m wrong, I would love for someone to prove it to me.  I do believe we face some real obstacles to widespread success, and not all of those have to do with the quality of the work.  The group of books above have a number of writers my age and younger who have written wonderful works.  This group also doesn’t include more than a half dozen other Asian American poets and writers I’ve read over the last 10 years (this list covers about 18 months) that have also produced works of the same quality.  Twenty years ago, when I was doing my MFA, I was reading Cathy Song, Li-Young Lee, Lawson Fusao Inada, and a slew of other Asian American writers who were not just producing wonderful works, but were also winning big prizes as well.  As a community, I’m not convinced that we’ve really been producing only, or even mostly, sub-par performers or artists of the past few decades.  But I do think not supporting our artists has done more damage than sub-par work has.  As I get ready to publish my first poetry books, this has been something that has crossed my mind.

It may be or seem easy to declare racism as an easy excuse for to excuse failure.  But as with all racism, it cuts both ways.  Declaring racism is also an easy excuse for our own apathy towards our efforts to flesh out our community.  In the history of India, China, Korea, Japan, and the whole array of Asia, our old cultures have had a staggering tradition of artistic output.  I don’t see any reason to believe as Asian Americans we can’t have the same.

So am I doing my part?  One in every five or six books I read is probably written by an Asian American.  And I think that’s fair considering that I read a lot of books on history, finance, the martial arts, and general career development.  To that point, because this is my blog, there does seem to be dearth of Asian American martial arts books as well.  But I digress.  I’m trying to support the cause, but I’d like to do more.

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of poetry books produced in the United States every year.  It’s amazingly difficult to keep up with all of them.  If anyone has a recommendation, please give it to me.  The worst feeling in the world is heading into a bookstore and thinking there’s nothing that I’m looking for.

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