In the early nineties, when I was an English major at the University of Texas, I was reading more than ever but nothing that could be called Asian American literature. Whether or not I was writing it depends mostly on how you define the term. There certainly weren’t any Asian American characters in the drafts I brought into my creative writing classes—plain, anodyne dramas indebted to the style of Raymond Carver.
It was the heyday of minimalism. Anyone could be in a story, it seemed. The characters were all regular people—divorced fathers and closet addicts, sometimes both at once. I loved how their bare stories left you so much to do as the reader. Their travails were nothing like those of my immigrant parents, I felt, which struck me as anything but literary. I was twenty. I hadn’t yet read Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior, though it was one of the most widely taught books by a living author in American colleges and universities at the time.
People liked my writing as far as I could tell. In my senior year, I wrote a short story that won first prize and fifty dollars in an English department contest. It was about a middle-aged white man who goes fishing with the son of a woman he’s started to date, also white. I placed it in a pop-up zine that I think lasted only a single issue. Outside of class, I was an editor for the official student literary journal, a handsome, perfect-bound affair called Analecta that published a couple of unknowns that year named Colum McCann and Wes Anderson.
All of my writing teachers were white, which may have had something to do with the stories I wrote. And didn’t. Maybe they deemed it too risky to introduce race into our workshops when it was clear that even I wasn’t going to do so. Or maybe they thought talking about race had less to do with writing and the humanities than with social science, which no doubt had its uses, but, in the end, simply wasn’t their job. In any event, it never occurred to me that what I wrote might be worth reading because there was someone like me in it.
I hadn’t read Amy Tan’s runaway bestseller The Joy Luck Club, published the previous year, despite seeing massive stacks of it at the Bookstop superstore in North Austin. Its ornate cover design was unmistakable—all primary colors, it seems to me now. It surprised me how often I was asked if I had read it, however, usually by white people, some I barely knew. Even then I could tell it was because they had loved it and, for some reason, expected that I would too.
Later I discovered that some Asian Americans faulted the book for its take on Chinese culture and how that portrayal might matter in real life. Approaching The Joy Luck Club this way was new to me. I had sniffed at it at the Bookstop because I assumed it was popular fiction, which I didn’t associate with serious literature. Or else because it was about Chinese people, also not serious. But it was something else to judge a work by holding it to a standard of truth other than the set of principles I had dutifully learned to call “craft.”
Asian American critics of The Joy Luck Club—from the writer Frank Chin to a new generation of literary scholars—all made the same point: that a novel ostensibly about Chinese people was really about its white readers, or at least about their sensibilities. In the introduction to 1974’s Aiiieeeee!: An Anthology of Asian American Writers, Chin, along with Jeffery Paul Chan, Lawson Inada, and Shawn Wong, called out earlier Asian American titles as formulaic tales of assimilation to white supremacy.
It turned out I could center whiteness by not writing about Chinese people or by writing about them but in an assimilated way. The latter meant making being Chinese in America what assimilated readers already expected it to be—a drama about differences in culture, not race. I liked reading The Joy Luck Club. I also liked reading about it. From this discussion I learned another truth about what made for good writing. It was that race had never been a biological identity and should never be confused with a cultural one. Race was a political identity, one that made you or that you made your own.
My creative writing classes had introduced me to the notion of “reading like a writer,” which, among other things, involved paying attention to the gaps in a story, to what wasn’t visible. We pored over Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants,” whose dialogue tracked the spoiling relationship between a grown man and his girlfriend. By the end, you could see they were doomed. This was because you were supposed to fill in the gaps in their conversation with what you knew about how people in love did or didn’t talk to each other. What you took from the story depended on the experience you brought to it, itself a function of your place in the world.
My first book comes relatively late in my career. I needed to be sure about things, I suppose, sure about the stories Asian Americans told and sure about those told about us.
It turned out that reading like an Asian American also meant knowing what to do with what was left unspoken, this time about race, again a function of your place in the world. Bad readers filled in the gaps in stories about Asians with Orientalist tropes and Occidentalist self-congratulation. (“Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”) As a young man, I didn’t grasp what was at stake for Hemingway’s couple, but I know now that the answer isn’t an abortion. Like love, race has never been a fact of nature, but a way of looking at a relationship, usually between unequals.
The only MFA program in creative writing I had heard of as an undergraduate was the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Today it’s directed by an Asian American writer, Lan Samantha Chang, but back then it was the concern of Frank Conroy, whose writing I admired—up to and including his signature at the bottom of a rejection letter that I’ve stashed in a banker’s box somewhere. It was pure luck that led me to apply to the program at the University of Oregon. Its director, the Japanese American poet Garrett Hongo, gave me a chance to write—and to read—like an Asian American.
I started with Hisaye Yamamoto, the acclaimed Nisei writer incarcerated during World War II. Her story “Seventeen Syllables” is about the troubled relationship between working-class immigrant parents from Japan and their native-born child. At a crucial moment, the character of the mother, who wrote haiku as an escape from her loveless marriage and a hard life in America, pleads with her adolescent daughter to understand her sorrow, to fill in the gaps between her words. The daughter, tragically, could not. I did.
It was also in graduate school that I finally read The Woman Warrior—not well, to be honest. But I wasn’t as bad as the reviewers whose misreadings led Kingston to publish an essay that systematically quoted and corrected them. They had filled in the gaps of the story with stereotypical notions of Chinese exoticism, ignoring the protagonist Maxine’s Chinese American bona fides, as well as those of her family. In a 1980 interview, Kingston described how she plotted her next book, China Men, to prevent those misreadings. “So all of a sudden, right in the middle of the stories, plunk—there is an eight-page section of pure history… It really affects the shape of the book, and it might look quite clumsy,” she admitted. “Now maybe another Chinese-American writer won’t have to write that history.”
After my father died, and I set out to write Chinese Prodigal to deal with that loss, I considered just how much Asian American history has been made since that interview. Vincent Chin was still alive in 1980. I couldn’t depend on readers to know his story, not even Asian American readers. But how do you tell your story as a Chinese American man like me without telling his? And how do you keep from becoming the Asian stereotype that a reader or reviewer may need you to be?
One way is to make your history their own. But to do that, you have to tell as well as show, because our places in the world aren’t the same. I wrote about my life this way to make a point about the state of our lives together. I had to fill in what was missing with the history we all need—because who we are to others should never be the lies that live in the gaps between words.
My first book comes relatively late in my career. I needed to be sure about things, I suppose, sure about the stories Asian Americans told and sure about those told about us. And then I needed to be sure about the stories told by Indigenous and Black people and sure about those told about them, which, in retrospect, I should have started with, as race itself did. All of this meant going to college for a very long time and then teaching at one for even longer. None of it is necessary to tell the truth about yourself, of course, but it was for me.
In my book, I was lucky to find a way back to my own, to my people and to my words, to those I can see and to those I can’t but know are there.
Chinese Prodigal: A Memoir in Eight Arguments by David Shih is available now via Atlantic Monthly Press.