posted by mouza on February 03 2021

Feature: Steven Yeun for The New York Times Magazine

When I was growing up in the ’90s, the only Asian-American writer I knew was Amy Tan. Her thick paperbacks, “The Joy Luck Club” and “The Kitchen God’s Wife,” were on everyone’s bookshelves. I, of course, hated Amy Tan because I considered myself a hard-edged thinker. Her books, which were mostly about industrious, dignified immigrants, embodied a type of minstrelsy in which the Asian-American writer gives the white audience bits of tossed-off Oriental wisdom — “Isn’t hate merely the result of wounded love?” — or a few parables about gold and black tigers or what have you. If I had been asked back then what I planned to write about, I might have gestured toward the Beatniks or cutting down trees in the woods or heroin or jazz, but the only concrete pledge I could have given you was, “I will not write ‘The Joy Luck Club.’”

In graduate school, while in an M.F.A. program, I would walk to the bookstore and wander among the fiction shelves, wondering where my novel would fit. This was embarrassing and vain, and although I was certainly both those things, I stage-managed my reverie with some measure of self-aware detachment, performing at being a broke, unpublished author fantasizing about his bright future. In a similar spirit, I would look around for Asian authors who were not Amy Tan. There were also Maxine Hong Kingston and Chang-Rae Lee, but I saw few others. I knew I was supposed to have some feelings about the dearth of published Asian authors, but nothing really came to me. Maybe there just weren’t many Asian people trying to write novels, or maybe they were bad at it. The tug-of-war between my intellect, which was telling me that I might be in for some rough times in publishing, and my American ambition, which was feeding me some version of a sneaker ad — Just Do It — was never much of a contest. The world would yield to me.

I was 23 and typing out a novel about a young Korean man who had a brother with Down syndrome whom he cast in various public-service announcements about tolerance. There were parts that were supposed to be a direct parody of “Life Goes On,” the ABC drama that starred Chris Burke as Corky Thatcher. I thought this was very edgy and funny, but I also mixed in occasional ruminations about Koreanness and the burdens of an immigrant childhood. My workshop professor at the time was known as a leader in the field of experimental fiction. One day, he said something about my work that has stuck with me. “This novel will almost certainly be published because it’s about a life we don’t hear about too often,” I recall him saying. “But what we need to do is figure out a way to elevate it so that it’s not just a telling of the way things are for a certain type of person.”

Declarations like these were quite common in the workshop. Delivered with great gravity, they drew a line between those of us who had serious literary ambitions and those who just wanted to tell our life stories to the world for a six-figure advance and readings at the 92nd Street Y. [More at Source]

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