Thursday, May 17, 2012

May is Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month

Asian-Pacific Heritage Month began in 1977, when Congress declared the first 10 days in May Asian-Pacific Heritage Week. (I know, "week" must have a different meaning in Washington, DC.) President Bush then extended the week to a month-long celebration in 1990. May was chosen because the first Japanese immigrants to the United States arrived on May 7, 1843 and the transcontinental railroad—which was built mainly by Chinese laborers—was completed on May 10, 1869. This emphasis on Chinese and Japanese immigration is rooted in history. Asian immigrants to the US came almost exclusively from Japan and China before the immigration reforms of the mid-1960s did away with stringent quotas and the Vietnam War unleashed a flood of refugees from all across Southeast Asia.

Asian-American literature mirrors this historical break. Most of the Asian-American writing published through the 1970s and '80s came from authors of Japanese and Chinese descent, and it looked a lot like the rest of American fiction but with a distinctive emphasis on family and social issues. Since the commercial and critical success of Amy Tan's Joy Luck Club in 1989, Asian-American fiction has exploded into the mainstream even as it has grown increasingly diverse. Today's Asian-American writers are as likely to be of Hmong, Indian, Korean, Pakistani, Thai or Vietnamese descent as Chinese or Japanese.

Jhumpa Lahiri and Chang-rae Lee are among America's most consistently excellent writers. If you haven't read anything by them, let Asian-Pacific Heritage Month be the excuse to treat yourself to a great new read. Lahiri is of Bengali descent, born in London but raised from age three in the US. She has published two award-winning short story collections, Interpreter of Maladies (1999) and Unaccustomed Earth (2008), and a novel, The Namesake (2003), which was made into a film in 2007. Unaccustomed Earth is a very novel-like collection of short stories filled with recurring themes and characters and a narrative arc that swings inexorably toward a heartbreaking climax in the literal wake of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. As great as her subsequent books have been, Interpreter of Maladies remains Lahiri's masterpiece.

Lee is Korean, born in Seoul but—like Lahiri—raised in the US from age three. He has published four novels, Native Speaker (1995), A Gesture Life (1999), Aloft (2004) and The Surrendered (2010). Native Speaker is my favorite of his books, a sustained meditation on family, identity and loyalty disguised as a page-turning political espionage thriller. If you liked Ethan Canin's America America, Native Speaker is for you. A Gesture Life may be easier to find and may hold broader appeal, telling as it does the story of a retired Japanese-American pharmacist.

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