There’s always a new crop of fresh-faced writers emerging. But here in the mid-‘90s, there’s a subtle twist on this old theme: Suddenly, the literary scene is awash with new novels by writers who are young, gifted - and Asian-American.
Whether it’s the result of the success of Amy Tan’s “The Joy Luck Club” or the discovery of what a publishing executive calls “diversity within diversity,” at least a handful of novels by writers of Korean, Chinese and Japanese descent have debuted this spring and summer from mainstream publishing houses.
And while all feature Asian-American protagonists and explore such themes as cultural identity and generational interaction, each tells its story in its own way.
“Native Speaker,” by Chang-Rae Lee (Riverhead Books, $22.95), focuses on Henry Park, a young Korean-American who works for an industrial espionage firm and uses his ethnicity to get close to his targets, usually immigrants or foreigners.
“Moon Cakes,” by Andrea Louie (One World/Ballantine Books, $21), follows a young Chinese-American woman reared in Ohio who travels to China on a package tour in hopes of connecting with her heritage.
“A Bridge Between Us,” by Julie Shigekuni (Anchor Books, $18.95), depicts four generations of Japanese-American women who live together in San Francisco but are separated by secrets and misunderstandings.
“A Little Too Much Is Enough,” by Kathleen Tyau (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $18), looks at the extended family of Mahi, a Chinese-Hawaiian girl growing up on the island of Oahu surrounded by a bounty of natural beauty, ethnic foods and love.
“Go,” by Holly Uyemoto (Dutton, $18.95), centers on a 21-year-old Japanese-American woman who tries to piece together stories of her family’s experiences in a World War II internment camp.
Two other books deal with cross-cultural themes: “Katherine,” by Anchee Min (Riverhead Books, $22.95), the first novel by the author of “Red Azalea,” about an American woman in China six years after the death of Chairman Mao Tse-tung; and “On Gold Mountain: The 100-Year Odyssey of a Chinese-American Family,” by Lisa See (St. Martin’s, $24.95), a family memoir tracing four generations of the See family.
“The exciting part for publishers is that within the Asian-American experience, there is such a wide range of voices. It’s not a monolithic group,” said Cheryl Woodruff, executive editor of One World Publishing and a vice president of the Ballantine Publishing Group.
Diverse as they are, the writers all seem to be riding the wake of Tan’s astonishingly successful best seller “The Joy Luck Club,” published in 1989.
“She proved to the publishing world that not only can Asian-American stories affect a mainstream general audience, but that it can make money,” said Chang-Rae Lee, 29, who teaches creative writing at the University of Oregon in Eugene.
Woodruff agrees. She called Tan’s novel about Old World mothers and their Americanized daughters “a standard-bearer for both artistic and commercial success,” and a book that “shattered forever” the myth that a novel by an Asian-American writer was doomed to limited commercial appeal.
And at least one of the writers, Andrea Louie, has been touched by Tan’s magic directly.
As a reporter for the Akron Beacon-Journal, she interviewed the novelist during a book tour for “The Kitchen God’s Wife” in 1992, sent a copy of the article to Tan’s paperback publisher and was subsequently offered a contract for a novel of her own by Ballantine editor-in-chief Clare Ferraro.<
“It was like it fell out of the sky. It was very, very strange,” said Louie, 29, of New York.
As anthologies of Asian-American fiction such as “Aiiieeeee!” (1974) and “Charlie Chan Is Dead” (1993) prove, these writers are the most recent of a long line of fiction writers of Asian descent.
“The fact of the matter is, Asian-Americans have always been writing and it has always been smaller, kind of underground collectives and workshops and so forth,” Louie said.
And Woodruff acknowledges the importance of the core audience of Asian and Asian-American readers.
“I think that the core audience is also very eager to support and read writers who come from their own community. I think we underestimate the power of being able to read about your own experience in a book,” she said.
“We never know when a book is going to completely change the course of a life by virtue of its existence. A book is a very powerful affirmation of life and culture.”
What’s different is that these writers are being published by mainstream publishing houses whose advertising and marketing budgets can help the novels find an audience outside that of Asian and Asian-American readers. The publishers, for example, have sent several of the authors on multicity tours for readings and signings.
Said Holly Uyemoto: “The Japanese-American community is only about 2 percent of the population. If you’re reliant on only 2 percent of the population to make your living, you’re going to be sharing KalKan with the cat. You are not going to earn out on your advances.
“And so the work has to find a hospitable audience with the larger population, and in order to do that, you have to have a story that is more than the record of a cultural experience.”
Uyemoto seems to be carving a niche writing about social issues. Her first novel, “Rebel Without a Clue,” published in 1989 when she was 19, dealt with the AIDS crisis. In “Go,” she looks at the effects of internment on three generations of a Japanese-American family. A fourth-generation Japanese-American, her parents were interned during the war.
“I did feel some of the aftereffects of that even though I was never interned myself. In terms of what the story is, it’s much more the echoes of my life than its essence. It’s not autobiographical, it’s not a story about me, it’s a story about this family,” she said.
“It’s a very American story in a lot of ways. Nobody will ever look at me and say, ‘Look, there’s an American girl,’ but the story that I’m telling is very American. What led me into it was I read a book about the Cherokee Indians, where they were removed from their land in 1829, I believe, and there were a lot of similarities between that and the internment camps.”
Somewhat surprisingly, Uyemoto herself has been the target of criticism from some members of the Japanese-American community.
“There seems to be a strong message of, ‘Who are you to write about this?’ This is not the majority, but it’s strong enough that I do pay attention,” she said.
“I think it has to do with a lot of things. I think it has to do with ‘the nail that sticks out gets hammered down.’ I think it has to do with being an extremely young woman in a profession not commonly associated with Japanese-Americans, much less young women. Japanese-Americans are a very hierarchical lot, and if I were 10 years older, I think it would be taken a lot better. But, I just figure, everybody does their own thing.”
ILLUSTRATION: Staff illustration by A. Heitner