LITERASIANS 2012: on writing into the foreground

[ Thu May 24 12 ]

When Aimee Phan pointed out that, “When a new immigrant population comes to the United States the first generation can’t write” because they’re too busy adapting and providing for their families, it hit home for me. For decades I watched my Filipino parents as they kept their heads down and worked to build a life for me, my brother and my sister, so that we could one day have a choice to major in Photography, Film or Creative Writing instead of going to med school (or, at least, becoming an accountant!). Toiling away in my creative career, I don’t think nearly enough about what they gave up, or what they could have done or written if they had the luxury…

For many immigrants, the first generation are called “first” because they are the first generation to emigrate rather than the first generation born in America. They are Phan’s Vietnamese parents, my parents and any immigrant parent who sought the practical, financially-solvent lifestyle of good, little immigrants to blow open the doors for the next generation. “It’s that [second] generation,” Phan continued, “that has the opportunity and the privilege of becoming writers.” It was in this second act—of perfected English, American education and choice—that Phan arrived. This second generation came in and discovered the words on the page, in literature and, ultimately, in their own hand.

In celebration of National Asian Pacific Islander Heritage Month Phan joined fellow writers for Literasians 2012: a panel and reading featuring contemporary Asian Pacific Islander writers Lysley Tenorio, Andre Yang, Sandra Park, and Ms. Phan. Co-sponsored by the Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Center and moderated by Kartika Review’s editor-at-large Christine Lee Zilka, the panel went straight into the questions and pressing issues before a full house at the SOMArts gallery. Watch the entire panel discussion in videos #1 and #2 above.

On the topic of confronting and honoring APIA culture and history in one’s work and the “responsibility to represent,” sparks flew. Lysley Tenorio (Monstress) seemed convince that even with exciting, growing numbers of APIA writers there’s still an “unfair expectation” placed on their work to render the collective cultural experience of an entire people. Sandra Park (If You Live in a Small House) referred to this phenomena of expectation as a “confusion between telling a story as a fiction, and cultural studies… every character and every story is supposed to be representative.”

Despite these inescapable tensions, with published story collections, novels, anthologies and numerous awards and fellowships under their belts, not one panelist allowed the challenges to ever move them to put down the pen. Hmong poet Andre Yang flipped the script on the ‘pressure to represent’ when he admitted that the urgency to see himself an his people in writing inspired him to write their 5000 year-old oral history into his work. Even what Aimee Phan called the “Asian American Great Novel Archetype”—the formula-like premise of the struggling immigrant family harboring a never-before-revealed past shaped by oppressive politics—could not stop her from writing The Reeducation of Cherry Truong, a novel that embraces this so-called literary “cliché” yet captures a Vietnamese family across three countries uniquely and universally, their painful histories lyrically intact. “As writers we can’t waste time writing things that aren’t important to us,” she said without shame. Phan reads from her novel in video #6, and you can watch her fellow panelists read recent and new work in videos #3, 4, and 5.

Their last word on the future of APIA literature and the writing process that drives it? The panelists agreed that the best advice is to be patient with your work and to strive for balance. We can’t walk away from the shadows of the past or the realities of war the same way we can’t walk from our faces in the mirror. And, even if shedding the responsibility to represent is (temporarily) possible, blood ties always seem to bring us back into the mix, invested in the forgotten and the overlooked—whether they’re in the past, present, or rising in the future. You might find out that you can’t fight you… you want to tell those stories and reveal those people and write them right there… write into the foreground.


  • Learn more about the Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Center.
  • Explore Kartika Review.
  • Attend an event at SOMArts.

– Evelyn Manangan-Price