|photo of Julie Otsuka by Robert Bessoi|
It's a mouthful, the above is. It's not quite a tongue-twister, but nor does it roll off the tongue like Mother's Day or Memorial Day, those better-known days in May. But May is and has been Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month since 1992, when that designation was officially signed into law. The choice of the month of May was not random. It was selected for two reasons: the first Japanese came to the United States on May 7, 1843, and the transcontinental railroad was completed on May 10th, 1869. (Chinese immigrants composed the majority of workers who built the railroad tracks.) Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month is a reminder to honor the contributions of Asian-Americans and Pacific Islander-Americans, many of whose contributions to our country were overlooked for years.
But I'd also like to use it as an opportunity to spotlight two contemporary fiction writers of Asian descent--the sort of writers who will be lauded in years to come for their contributions to American literature.
One of these writers is Julie Otsuka, already winning accolades for her abundant literary gifts, which she has used to illuminate the lives of Japanese-Americans like her mother, who was sent to an internment camp at the age of ten during World War II. Her second novel, The Buddha in the Attic, recipient of the 2012 Pen/Faulkner Award for Fiction, tells the stories of the Japanese "picture brides," women who arrived in the U.S. in the early 1900s to marry men from their native Japan. After struggling to find their way in an unfamiliar country and language, many of them gave birth to American children, only to be forced to leave their homes alongside those children during World War II, when the U.S. government considered them potential traitors. Otsuka writes of a Japanese-American husband who "left on crutches with an American legion cap pulled down low over his head" and "college girls . . . who left wearing American flag pins on their sweaters and Phi Beta Kappa keys dangling from gold chains around their necks."
The characters in Gish Jen's first novel, Typical American, who come to the U.S. from China, also struggle to achieve the American dream, this time in New York City, while grappling with family loyalty, the nature of success, and what it means to be an American. I'm tempted to call Jen a comic novelist since her books are incredibly funny, but that doesn't do her justice: she's also wise, insightful and approaches her characters and stories from slightly skewed, fresh angles. In her follow-up to Typical American, Mona in the Promised Land, the daughter of one of the former's main characters grows up in 1960s suburbia, rankling her more traditional parents by, among other acts, converting to Judaism.
Below are a few books by authors of Asian descent on my to-read list:
The Namesake by Pulitzer Prize winner Jhumpa Lahiri
Ms. Hempel Chronicles by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum (I enjoyed a chapter of this that appeared in the Best American Short Stories anthology)
Native Speaker by Chang Rae-Lee
A Good Fall by Ha Jin, author of the wonderful National Book Award winner, Waiting
Do you have any favorites to recommend or titles on your to-read list?