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Words Matter

Words Matter: Conversations with Asian American Writers

Edited by King-Kok Cheung
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt6wqrqj
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    Words Matter
    Book Description:

    In this age of rapid transition, Asian American studies and American studies in general are being reconfigured to reflect global migrations and the diverse populations of the United States. Asian American literature, in particular, has embodied the crisis of identity that is at the heart of larger academic and political debates surrounding diversity and the inclusion and exclusion of immigrant and refugee groups. These issues underlie the very principles on which literature, culture, and art are produced, preserved, taught, and critiqued. Words Matter is the first collection of interviews with 20th-century Asian American writers. The conversations that have been gathered here—interviews with twenty writers possessing unique backgrounds, perspectives, thematic concerns, and artistic priorities—effectively dispel any easy categorizations of people of Asian descent. These writers comment on their own work and speak frankly about aesthetics, politics, and the challenges they have encountered in pursuing a writing career. They address, among other issues, the expectations attached to the label "Asian American," the burden of representation shouldered by ethnic artists, and the different demands of "mainstream" and ethnic audiences.

    eISBN: 978-0-8248-6564-1
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[iv])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [v]-[vi])
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 1-18)
    KING-KOK CHEUNG

    What does it mean to be an Asian American writer? Is it the same as being a writer of Asian descent? Or just a writer? As the epigraphs to this introduction demonstrate, the authors interviewed in this collection have remarkably different literary compulsions. Even more varied are their styles, their sensibilities, and the settings of their stories, which include Burma, Brazil, England, India, Japan, Korea, the Philippines, Sudan, Thailand, and Vietnam as well as California, Hawai‘i, Kansas, and New York. Yet in this country these authors are all designated asAsian American writersby academics, publishers, the media—and in...

  4. “Where do we live now—here or there?”

    • 1 Jessica Hagedorn
      (pp. 21-39)
      EMILY PORCINCULA LAWSIN and Jessica Hagedorn

      I met Jessica Hagedorn for the first time when I was in elementary school. I met her, not in the physical sense, but in a way that an impressionable young Filipina could never forget: in the Seattle Public Library. Every day after school, my parents used to force my brother and me to go to the library near our home until one of them could return from work. I hated reading back then because of this routine. One day, I browsed down an aisle of poetry collections and came across a simple black cloth-bound book with a black-and-white photograph of...

    • 2 Paul Stephen Lim
      (pp. 40-57)
      KING-KOK CHEUNG and Paul Stephen Lim

      I saw Paul Stephen Lim’s playMother Tonguewhen it was staged by the East West Players in 1988. I was so impressed by its use of English composition lessons to introduce flashbacks and to advance the plot, its suspenseful revelation of the mother’s tragic story, and its bold treatment of homoerotic material that I wrote the playwright to express my admiration. Rereading the play recently, I was also struck by how much it resonates with current debates in Asian American literary circles over claiming an “American” or a “diasporic” identity. The protagonist, David Lee, was born in Manila but...

    • 3 S. P. Somtow
      (pp. 58-68)
      RAHPEE THONGTHIRAJ and S. P. Somtow

      A Thai European American writer, S. P. Somtow was born in Thailand in 1952. He has written books ranging from science fiction to fantasy and horror novels. He grew up in various European countries and was educated at Eton and Cambridge, where he received his M.A. in English and music. Somtow first made his name as a postserialist composer; his work has been performed, broadcast, and televised on four continents.

      In the late seventies, he began to write speculative fiction and won the 1981 John W. Campbell Award for best new writer as well as the Locus Award for his...

    • 4 Meena Alexander
      (pp. 69-91)
      ZAINAB ALI, DHARINI RASIAH and Meena Alexander

      Born in India, raised in India and North Africa, educated in England, and now living in New York, Meena Alexander has clearly lived the Indian diasporic experience. As this interview reveals, her work parallels the transitory nature of her life, moving from poetry to prose, fiction to memoirs, essays to testimonials, and consistently infused with politically charged issues, ranging from a rape in Hyderabad, to love during the Gulf War, to racism in the United States. Labels defy her experience. She draws strength from her multiple identities and writes from the borders of a number of communities. As she notes...

    • 5 Myung Mi Kim
      (pp. 92-104)
      JAMES KYUNG-JIN LEE and Myung Mi Kim

      Myung Mi Kim was an hour late to an early evening poetry reading in February 1996, one that celebrated the release ofThe Bounty.She was held up in the infamous Los Angeles rush-hour traffic. When she finally arrived, a few in the audience had gone home, but a good twenty or so remained—some avid readers of Kim from the beginning of her published career, others listening to her poetry for the first time. Kim read from bothThe Bountyand her forthcoming book,DURA;it was a performance that was guided by the reign of silence, punctuated by...

    • 6 Le Ly Hayslip
      (pp. 105-120)
      KHANH HO and Le Ly Hayslip

      Le Ly Hayslip’s house is a mess. A jumble of brochures, books, and videotapes lies strewn across her coffee table. A map of Vietnam dangles precariously from the Navajo-white wall. A scribbled thank-you note from Oliver Stone floats among old newspapers and fading photographs. Red ants scramble across the tile of her linoleum kitchen counter toward the dried remains of a half-eaten orange.

      Hayslip shuffles into the living room wearing a fuchsia satin pajama top and frayed, fuzzy slippers. She self-consciously touches her bushy hair, apologizes for the untamable mess, and slides onto the leather couch. She has only recently...

  5. “We came into the circle of recovery”

    • 7 Janice Mirikitani
      (pp. 123-139)
      GRACE KYUNGWON HONG and Janice Mirikitani

      I first met Janice Mirikitani fifteen minutes before one of Glide Church’s Sunday Celebrations. Earlier that morning, the church’s choir director, who had been a close friend of Mirikitani and her husband, the Reverend Cecil Williams, had died of a sudden heart attack. Despite the terrible loss, Mirikitani graciously consented to do the interview as planned. She spoke candidly about her poetry, her activism, and how both contribute to her coming to terms with the sexual abuse she experienced as a child.

      An acclaimed poet, activist, and choreographer, president of the Glide Foundation and the director of programs at Glide...

    • 8 Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
      (pp. 140-153)
      DHARINI RASIAH and Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

      Chitra Divakaruni and I met five years ago when we were both involved in organizations that addressed the concerns of South Asian American and South Asian immigrant women. She contributed to an anthology I coedited,Our Feet Walk the Sky,and we were both involved in Maitri and Narika, domestic violence help lines for South Asian women in the Bay Area. As cofounder and current president of Maitri, Divakaruni often re-creates many of the powerful testimonials of the women she encounters. Her earlier work is primarily poetry, and her first three books,Dark like the River, The Reason for Nasturtiums,...

    • 9 Al Robles
      (pp. 154-172)
      DARLENE RODRIGUES and Al Robles

      Nothing escapes Al Robles, neither the mundane nor the banal, neither the poor nor the rich. Not even nature. Robles’ first published collection of poetry,Rappin’ with Ten Thousand Carabaos in the Dark(1996), is the result of a life effused with this gift of observation and sensitivity to the surrounding world. Consequently, Robles’ poetry not only reflects the diversity of the people, cultures, and religious influences found in the Fillmore district of San Francisco, his neighborhood since childhood, but also includes a spiritual connection to the environment. Manongs and other Asian immigrants, prostitutes, and the homeless emerge from his...

    • 10 Philip Kan Gotanda
      (pp. 173-186)
      ROBERT B. ITO and Philip Kan Gotanda

      Philip Kan Gotanda began his career as a playwright in 1979 withThe Avocado Kid,a rock musical adaptation of the Japanese fairy taleMomotaro.Since then he has written numerous plays dealing with the Japanese American experience, includingA Song for a Nisei Fisherman, The Dream of Kitamura, Yankee Dawg You Die,andThe Wash.He has received a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, three Rockefeller Playwriting Awards, a McKnight Fellowship, and the 1989 Will Glickman Playwriting Award. In addition to his busy schedule as a playwright and director, Gotanda also wrote, directed, and starred in the short...

  6. “It’s like putting us in the Chinese laundries”

    • 11 David Wong Louie
      (pp. 189-214)
      STACEY YUKARI HIROSE and David Wong Louie

      Taking a sip of water from a plastic bottle, David Wong Louie watched patiently as I set up my tape recording equipment in his office for the third time. My first two interviews with him—together over three hours long—were rendered virtually unusable owing to technical difficulties with the recorder. On hearing the news of the lost interviews, Louie good-naturedly joked with me about my recording equipment blues and, despite his busy schedule, agreed to sit with me for yet another interview.

      Raised in New York, Louie is the eldest son of Toisanese immigrant parents. He received his B.A....

    • 12 Gish Jen
      (pp. 215-232)
      RACHEL LEE and Gish Jen

      Gish Jen won the respect of a wide audience with her first novel,Typical American(1991), which was shortlisted for the National Book Critics’ Circle Award. In this novel, as in her published short stories, Jen broadens the definition of Asian American literature by writing beyond its “typical” themes of cultural dislocation, generational conflict, and immigrant success. For instance, her short story “The Water-Faucet Vision”—reprinted inBest American Short Stories, 1988—probes the nuances of religious awakening. Though not strictly about race, it features Asian American protagonists whose ethnicity remains integral to the author’s long-term project of rendering Asian...

    • 13 Russel Leong
      (pp. 233-251)
      ROBERT B. ITO and Russell Leong

      Russell Leong was born in San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1950. He began his writing career with “Threads,” in Kai-yu Hsu’sAsian-American Authors(1972), and “Rough Notes for Mantos,” inAiiieeeee! An Anthology of Asian-American Writers(1974). Since then, his criticism, fiction, and poetry have appeared in numerous anthologies and journals, includingTricycle: The Buddhist Review,theSeattle Review, The Open Boat, Zyzzyva,theNew England Review,theLos Angeles Times, Charlie Chan Is Dead: An Anthology of Contemporary Asian American Fiction,andPositions: East Asia Cultures Critique.Leong has been the editor of UCLA’sAmerasia Journalsince 1977, and he...

    • 14 Amy Uyematsu
      (pp. 252-269)
      SCOTT KURASHIGE and Amy Uyematsu

      Amy Uyematsu’s genesis as a writer can be traced to the early days of the Asian American movement. In the late sixties and early seventies, this Sansei author became widely known among activists for her biting polemic “The Emergence of Yellow Power in America.” Drawing on both her experience with racism as a youth and the inspiration of the black power movement, Uyematsu produced a fiery, programmatic statement that crystallized simultaneously the anger and the aspiration of her generation. Her scathing indictment of systematic oppression in America and the psychological scars it left on Asian Americans quickly became a manifesto...

    • 15 Li-Young Lee
      (pp. 270-280)
      JAMES KYUNG-JIN LEE and Li-Young Lee

      Li-Young Lee grasps for what is seemingly palpable yet ultimately elusive—to “speak” to another. This struggle to communicate first begins with a conscious effort to listen. Lee hears the voice of memory, a past that fuses the familial with the political. His biography has become almost folkloric: son of Chinese parents who lived through the political turmoil of Sukarno’s Indonesia, exiled to several other Asian countries before arriving in the United States, where his father became an evangelical minister for a small community in western Pennsylvania. We see moments of this rich narrative of history in both his books...

  7. “I’m on the side of literature”

    • 16 Wendy Law-Yone
      (pp. 283-302)
      NANCY YOO, TAMARA HO and Wendy Law-Yone

      Born in Burma (now called Myanmar) at the end of almost a century of British colonialism, Wendy Law-Yone is an American author of Asian descent who conveys a particularly postcolonial and polyglot sensibility in her writing. Her father, Edward M. Law-Yone, was a notable figure of Burmese politics and letters who founded and publishedThe Nation,the premier English-language newspaper of fifties Burma. He was later imprisoned by the government and eventually exiled for his political views and affiliations. His passions for writing, political critique, and resistance to the repressive, postcolonial Burmese regime find new form in Law-Yone’s writing. At...

    • 17 Gary Pak
      (pp. 303-319)
      BRENDA KWON and Gary Pak

      Growing up in Hawai‘i is an experience that is often difficult to explain, although Gary Pak does a pretty good job. The way he sees it, there are racial divisions there like anywhere else, but you don’t have to go around with your ethnicity “on a picket sign.” InThe Watcher of Waipuna,you see Rosita, a Hawaiianmahu(homosexual) descended fromali‘is(Hawaiian royalty); Tats Sugimura, a Japanese potato farmer; and Marianne DeSilva, a Portuguese teenager who gives birth to a child surrounded by suspicions of God and the devil. But Pak’s stories aren’t aboutpākēs(Chinese),yobos(Korean),...

    • 18 Karen Tei Yamashita
      (pp. 320-342)
      MICHAEL S. MURASHIGE and Karen Tei Yamashita

      From the time I was young, Gardena, California, has been associated with Japanese Americans. I can recall weekend trips to my cousins’ house, set midway down a cul-de-sac inhabited almost exclusively by JA folk. The markets in town actually had Japanese food—ochazuke nori,big white bags of Japanese rice,kakiin the right season—not just the “Oriental” section I was used to, stocked with bright orange cans of Chun King’s “delicacies from the Far East.” In the neighborhood, younger kids were playing pickup basketball or kick the can until dark, the older ones congregating around somebody’s lowered Celica...

    • 19 Hisaye Yamamoto and Wakako Yamauchi
      (pp. 343-382)
      KING-KOK CHEUNG, Hisaye Yamamoto and Wakako Yamauchi

      A lasting friendship between two acclaimed Nisei writers, Hisaye Yamamoto and Wakako Yamauchi, blossomed in the desert of Poston, Arizona, where the two women were interned during World War II. Yamamoto, author ofSeventeen Syllables and Other Stories(1988), received the American Book Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Before Columbus Foundation in 1986. Yamauchi’sSongs My Mother Taught Me: Stories, Plays, and Memoir(1994) received the Association for Asian American Studies’ 1995 National Book Award in literature. But Yamauchi is best known as a playwright. Her plays includeThe Music Lessons, 12-1-A, The Chairman’s Wife,andAnd the Soul...

  8. Contributors
    (pp. 383-386)
  9. Index
    (pp. 387-402)