While suffering a terrible bout of writer’s block, I thought more on the concept of the “Great Asian American Novel.” Artists don’t strive for “good enough” in their work. They strive for greatness. That doesn’t mean they need to win awards and medals or see their work achieve critical success. We strive to create an expression that captures our essence, that conveys to the minutiae the world filtered through our eyes, minds, through that which we know to be us. The words, pictures, and symbols do not just tell a story, but deliver a single powerful voice.
Few ever achieve the greatness endeavored and we never concretize our voices in the abstraction of art. There’s Ayn Rand and her Atlas Shrugged, a work she claimed herself to be the best she could have done, her greatness, a work that perfectly conveyed her philosophies; but few of us ever write our Atlas Shrugged. Another literary aspiration, equally important, not as large-scale, is writing with a target purpose of saying what we have to say, like Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Changrae Lee’s Native Speaker. These books are like quotable quotes. They convey a universal but specific thought with ingenuity and brilliance. Of course the two literary objectives seem to overlap, but the first is really about us and the second is about our province.
The Great Asian American Novel has to be about both us and our province. It must produce a single compelling voice that haunts the readers, a voice that materializes by our sides like a real life being. It must also depict truisms of Asian Americana, a book that refuses to be colorblind, a book that paints the latticework of a single snowflake to memorialize long after it has melted.
Thinking on Asian American writers and readers, I wonder why so few “Asian American novels” win the approval of Asian American readers. Heck, these authors often fail to gain the approval of mainstream critics as well. It’s because few if any Asian American novels have wholly painted a latticework of that single snowflake, and that is why few of us can name off the top of our heads a Great Asian American novel.
In my New York home, I have a library of Asian-interest books that rivals AAWW’s catalog. In college, privileged with Daddy’s plastic money, I horded every Asian American book publication I heard of, fiction, non-fiction, poetry, essays, anthologies, everything. I own books you can’t even buy anymore, though of course I don’t own everything and there’s lots of holes in my collection. In university bookstores, I’d walk past the required reading lists for my own classes to check out other shelves and toss into my basket anything at all Asian related. The books line two wall-to-wall built in bookcases, lay in stacks on my nightstand while my favorite ones are displayed in the shelves above my old study desk.
Among that collection, I would say only one writer has achieved greatness: Changrae Lee. Native Speaker, A Gesture Life, and Aloft were the closest manifestations of art Asian American literature has come. I appreciate what Theresa Cha’s Dictee tried to accomplish and the prose in all of Maxine Hong Kingston’s books are poetry at its finest, but neither of these two books made me stop dead in my tracks and say, “Wow.” Don Lee’s Yellow made me say “Wow” and convinced me a new turn in trends for AsAm literature had arrived, but his writing is missing something, though I’m not sure what; maybe soul or passion or something like that. There’s no mastery of passion yet to be found in AsAm literature, at least not at the level of Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Jorge Luis Borges.
There’s also the litter of Gen-X Asian American women writers who make me cringe, like that chic (I forget her name) who wrote Eating Chinese Food Nakedor Evelyn Lau, the Canadian ex-prostitute. There’s admittedly a lot ofsoul and passion there, but it’s not really soul or passion, but moreaccurately the by-products and excrement of soul and passion smearedcarelessly across the pages. Passion is the turbulence that great artcontrols. I haven’t yet see any of these AsAm female writers controltheir passions, though admittedly they’ve got plenty of it, which isstill a good thing I suppose. Oh and I’m not even going to talk about Gail Tsukiyama or Adeline Yen Mah or The Dim Sum of All Things. *shudders*
A recent phenomenon, Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum’s Madeleine is Sleeping caused me to take notice, but is she an Asian American writer? I haven’t figured that out yet. There’s no mention of her ethnic descent in any of the articles on her and she certainly does not address it in her fiction. Thus, while a great literary novel and even if she is of Asian descent, Madeleine isn’t a “Great Asian American Novel” because there are no artifacts of Asian Americana in it. Stellar Kim, a frequently anthologized writer shows a lot of promise, but she has yet to produce a novel. Frances Hwang also has what it takes to write the next Great Asian American novel, and yet still nothing on that front either. Samantha Lan Chang, I think thus far the only Asian American female to win the Stegner Fellowship in Fiction, has some serious talent, but for whatever reason that talent wasn’t exercised in Hunger or Inheritance. Disappointing. Instead, writers like Min Jin Lee take center stage with all the attention and it’s no wonder that literary critics don’t take Asian American fiction seriously.
Many books have been touted as a Great American Novel of its time. These books, often found on high school reading lists and introductory English course syllabi, include black writers because nobody feels comfortable with an All-American list that does not include Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, or Ralph Ellison, and even Latin American writers because of our kinship to south of the border neighbors, but Asian American writers? Other than maybe reading Amy Tan’s short story “Rules of the Game” which, whenever presented in a high school English class causes all the Asian American kids in that class to shirk in their seats, nothing at all in school curriculum give students a sense of Asian America. The Great Asian American novel would finally accomplish that goal.
So did Amy Tan write the Great Asian American novel of her time? Probably. Arguably, yes. However, I await the AsAm writer who can show mainstream America that the bar can be set much higher.