To know America, one must appreciate its literature, but to fully grasp it, a knowledge of the Asian-American canon is required, as well. When we speak about the written tradition, we are often referring to writings that have stamped the unique cultural intersections of the East and West in California—especially in the last century.
I developed an affinity for this gorgeous genre when Dana Gioia initiated me into a coterie of authors while he was the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. He is a Catholic Californian of Sicilian and Mexican ancestry, and I am a Protestant Mississippian of Anglo-Irish ancestry. And yet, we each recognized our cultures in Asian-American literature: matriarchal families where the father was only nominally the head of the household; a longing for one’s homeland, and difficulties tolerating separations from it.
When I became the NEH chairman, I visited the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center outside of Cody, Wyoming, where heaps of American families of Japanese descent had been forcefully interned. I traveled there to better understand America’s troubled history with the Asians; along the way, I journeyed to South Korea, Japan, Guam, and Saipan, learning about the legacies of World War II and Vietnam.
Then came the pandemic—and the scapegoating of Asians and Asian-Americans. My NEH colleagues and I funded museums, programs, and scholarly works to counter false narratives. And I returned to the accounts of Asian emigration.
My reading list includes The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts by Maxine Hong Kingston (1976); The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan (1989); Epitaph for a Peach: Four Seasons on My Family Farm by David M. Masumoto (1995); On Gold Mountain: The One Hundred Year Odyssey of My Chinese American Family by Lisa See (1995); A Sense of Duty: My Father, My American Journey by Quang X. Pham (2005); and The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen (2015); poets–Shirley Geok-lin Lim and Victoria Chang; Li-Young Lee and Ocean Voong. Outside of California authors, I read or re-read the memoirs of Kao Kalia Yang; the fiction of Alexander Chee, Gish Jen; and Celeste Ng; The New Yorker articles of Jiayang Fan. I also went back to Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Jhumpa Lahiri, and others who represent that swath of 48 nations.
I recommend—in particular–two novels by Los Angeles author Nina Revoyr: The Age of Dreaming and Wingshooters. (At my invitation, Revoyr wrote the Virginia Quarterly Review essay “Silent Dreams” about the history of Asians in California, including their roles in Hollywood films.) Because hate crimes have advanced during the pandemic, Wingshooters speaks to the moment even more profoundly than it did a decade ago, when it was published to profuse praise. Like Harper Lee’s autobiographical novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, it smoked out endemic racism in a small town, and forced the people to perpetuate their sin—or—scrap it.
Wingshooters’ protagonist, Michelle, was born in Tokyo to a white American father, and a Japanese mother. She is raised by her paternal grandparents in small-town Wisconsin just as the Vietnam War comes to an end. Her blue-collar grandfather Charlie is prejudiced against non-whites, yet he loves Michelle with a depth that he could never find for his wayward son. She returns his love. When an African American teacher joins Michelle’s elementary school staff, and his wife cares for white patients at the local health clinic, the novel heads veers into violence.
How should we judge people like Charlie, who do not do the right thing until it is too late? Are we allowed to have any sympathy–much less respect–for such profoundly flawed human beings? Can they impart ethical life lessons? Is their worst self their true self? Or are they–at their best–not so different from us at our best? Revoyr offers nuanced answers.
In our divisive age, in our beloved nation, we need as many guideposts as we can find, to position us in the right direction. We need to do our part as engaged citizens to ensure that the path is welcoming to all. And we must take our stories with us to find familiarity in the foreign.
Jon Parrish Peede is the former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities.