When I was younger I did a lot of reading, including whole novels during my more boring high school classes, but I didn’t read much Asian and Asian American literature until I reached college. While it is impossible to pick five novels that would encompass all of the rich literature out there as part of Asian and Pacific Islander heritage, I let others help choose in some cases.
The Novel Everyone Should Read: The Tale of Genji
By everyone, I mean I don’t care what race or country they belong to because we should all be aware of literary firsts. Yes, I understand that this book wasn’t written by an Asian American, but the study of literature in public schools is filled with classics translated from their original languages such as the Ancient Greek epic poems by Homer: “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey.” We also don’t expect to understand Shakespeare without some knowledge of classic literature and myths and legends.
Likewise, can one really understand Asian American literature without knowing something about Asia. In addition, we need to free ourselves of our colonized minds that tell us that European literature is superior to Asian literature. During the Meiji era, intellectuals suffer great angst as they attempted to learn the “I- novel.” Further, in today’s world where pop culture is influenced by anime, Chinese martial arts films and K-pop, we need to look deeper and “The Tale of Genji” is only a starting point.
Murasaki Shikibu’s “The Tale of Genji” is considered the first novel and was written during the 11th century, Japan’s Heian era. (Sir Thomas Malory’s “Le Morte d’Arthur” wasn’t published until 1485.) The novel deals with the titular character, Genji, but then follows his son in the closing chapters and there’s the essence of karmic retribution in this psychological novel.
Preferably, try the Edward Seidensticker translation over the Waley, although I know there’s a new translation out.
Watching Japanese anime, you probably need to know Japanese and Chinese legends and myths like the folktale of “The Cowherd and the Weaver Maid.” Other literary works important to other cultures should also be sought out such as the Ancient Indian epics: “Mahābhārata” and the “Rāmāyaṇa.”
What’s All the Fuss About? The Big Aiiieeeee!
If you’ve heard of “The Joy Luck Club,” then you need to read this anthology, “The Big Aiiieeeee!” The expanded version was published in 1991, but the first version, “Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Asian-American Writers” was published by Howard University Press in 1974, edited by Jeffery Paul Chan, Lawson Fusao Inada, Shawn Wong and the infamous Frank Chin. The 1991 version “The Big Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Chinese American and Japanese American Literature” includes Chin’s introductory essay, “Come All Ye Asian American Writers of the Real and the Fake,” in which he denounces Amy Tan, Maxine Hong Kingston and the first Asian American to win a Tony Award, David Henry Hwang. “A!” includes an introduction to Filipino American literature and an excerpt from Carlos Bulosan’s “America is in the Heart” is the first work present in that anthology. The title derives from the stereotypical cry used for Asian characters in old movies, comics and TV shows.
Are You Living in a Historic anti-Chinese Town? Driven Out: The Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans
For a while, I was living in Pasadena. I knew that the federal government had invited Japanese nationals and Japanese Americans to spend time living in the nearby Santa Anita Racetrack horse stalls before relocating them to deserts and deserted locations from as close as Manzanar to as far as two camps in Arkansas. But I didn’t know that in 1885, around 60 to 100 Chinese were driven out of Pasadena and fire was set to some of the businesses. That’s over a decade after the Chinese Massacre of 1871 in downtown Los Angeles.
Jean Pfaelzer’s 2007 book, “Driven Out: The Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans,” looks at what was happening on the West Coast during and after the South was dealing with Restoration. In the West, where lynchings targeted Latinos, Native Americans and Asians, waves of mayhem, massacres and mobs dealt with the other race issue, washing away Chinese homes and businesses with a violent sea of hate.
Dispel the Timid Awkward Asian Image with Bold Words: A Century of Asian American Writing
The two editors (Rajini Srikanth and Esther Y. Iwanaga) of this 2001 anthology, “Bold Words: A Century of Asian American Writing,” published by Rutgers University Press, hunted me down because of a short story I had written for “On a Bed of Rice.” Be kind to your editors because mine put with these two and as a result my first published short story is included in this anthology of sixty authors of Chinese (11), Filipino (12), Japanese (14), Korean (8), South Asian (11), and Southeast Asian (9) American origin with an even split between male and female writers. Los Angelenos who I personally know such as Vietnamese Chinese Alex Luu who came to the US as one of the last refugees out of Saigon and whose work I’ve seen such as Bombay-born, Kenya-raised playwright and theatrical director Shishir Kurup of the LA Cornerstone Theater. Missing are people like performance artist Dan Kwong whose performance workshop “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Asian Men…” spawned numerous similar groups that explored the Asian American experience as well as Viet Thanh Nguyen whose first book, “They Sympathizer” won a Pulitzer and Indian American Rajiv Joseph whose 2009 “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” came out too late for inclusion but was a Pulitzer Prize finalist and on Broadway starred the late Robin Williams and got three Tony nominations. There is, as one might expect, some overlap between “Bold Words” and “A!” (e.g. John Okada and Carlos Bulosan), but both anthologies are worth having.
You Know Madame Butterfly and Miss Saigon, But What About M. Butterfly?
The Tony Award voters chose this one for us because David Henry Hwang’s deconstruction of Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly” hit Broadway in 1988 and won three Tony Awards, including Best Play, Best Performance by a Leading Actor (BD Wong) and Best Direction of a Play (John Dexter). “Madame Butterfly” was partially based on Pierre Loti’s 1887 novel “Madame Chrysantheme.” Before he wrote about Japan, Loti wrote about the other side of the so-called Orient, a semi-autobiographical book (Aziyadé) about a 27-year-old French Navel officer’s affair with an 18-year-old harem girl. Loti may have started the genre of the Orient as an erotic destination for White men to conquer and enjoy although he isn’t mentioned in Edward Said’s “Orientalism.” Said discusses French novelist Gustave Flaubert (1821–1880 ) instead. Yet in “M. Butterfly,” Hwang takes on that Orientalism. Just as Said’s book “Orientalism” can be applied to East Asia, much of what Hwang discusses in “M. Butterfly” applies to the other side of the Orient. Hwang was the first Asian American playwright to win a Tony and Wong became the only actor to earn a Tony Award, Drama Desk Award, Outer Critics Circle Award, Clarence Derwent Award and Theatre World Award for the same role. Wong was the first Asian American to win Best Performance for a Featured Actor in a Play for this role. Ironically, the first Asian American to win Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical was Lea Salonga in 1991 for her performance in the modern version of the Madame Butterfly story, “Miss Saigon.”
For the 2017 Broadway revival directed by Julie Taymor, Hwang did some re-writes and the show changed from a three-act to a two-act structure. While technically not a book, the play is the thing. We read Shakespearean plays for our literature classes so why not read this play which tackles the East-West conflict.