Studying Asian American genre fictions

This summer I took an online college course, it was called Asian American Genre Fictions and offered through the Harvard Extension School. It explored different genres—literary fiction, spy/thriller novels, magical realism, sci-fi, and the post-race novel — through the Asian American perspective. So I signed up and it was hard (and expensive!) but also one of the most rewarding educational experiences I’ve had in a long time.

Asian American genre fictions are a nebulous thing to define and study (to literally no one’s surprise.) To quote the syllabus, taught by Dr. Ellen Song, “Asian American literature is often associated with certain themes (inter-generational conflict in families, fraught nature of immigrant identity, etc.), but this course instead emphasizes the formal qualities of contemporary Asian American writing alongside their domestic and global historical contexts.” This class looked at what “defined” both Asian American fiction, genre literature, and the mix of both terms together. Starting with literary fiction and what are the tropes-expectations-of ethnic fiction. Why do we, readers, have certain notions about what to expect when we read a book by a BIPOC author? And what are the specific tropes for Asian American writers? Those are the questions we started with and explored for seven weeks. Along with the market forces that defined which books got bought and sold, we studied the ways all that fed into and boxed in Asian American writers of the 60s, but mostly the books that came out in the 80s and 90s in response to the conventions that started to pop up around Asian American identity.

Dr. Song talked about how the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 laid the foundation for the model minority myth, only allowing skilled laborers from Asia to immigrate to the U.S. So once that stereotype became more commonplace, Asia American writers began to write counter to that narrative. Which, in turn, became its own trope/ trap of Asian American writing. This is a very slap-dash summary of something we studied and discussed for weeks, and it’s just one of the major influences of the literature. We spent the overall class going through different literary genres and movements and reading different Asian American scholars who added more in-depth analysis to the topics. It was tiring, but also the coolest shit I’ve ever studied. I’ve read a lot of books, I’ve read a lot of books by Asian American writers, but I’ve never had the context to really learn or think about them. Reading, talking, and understanding literature on that level added a whole new perspective that I’ve always missed.

Our reading list (excluding articles and short stories):

  • Susan Choi, Trust Exercise
  • Jhumpa Lahiri, Unaccustomed Earth
  • Chang-rae Lee, Native Speaker
  • Suki Kim, The Interpreter
  • Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathizer
  • Karen Tei Yamashita, Through the Arc of the Rainforest

Higher ed is a scam, but this class was affirming in a lot of ways. I’m happy to talk more about it and share the syllabus/ readings. There’s also this scholarly article about what makes up and defines the Asian American literary canon. As-Am lit is cool as hell, please hit me up to talk about it!

PS: I wrote my final paper on Interior Chinatown, which might be my favorite book (at the moment.) This book absolutely slaps, it really goes into the satire of identity and also what Chinatown represents as a symbol in history and media. The paper wasn’t fun to write, but I enjoyed thinking about it. Plus, it inspired a staff rec for it at work too.

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