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Hot Properties : More Asian Americans Suddenly Are Winning Mainstream Literary Acclaim

September 11, 1989|EDWARD IWATA | Iwata is a free-lance journalist based in San Francisco. and

"I might have been a diva in China. It used to frustrate me that the moment I awakened the language would be lost. Now I see the loss can be taken as a gain. The trick is to render the opera in English when I awake." --Genny Lim, "A Juk-Sing Opera"

In the dawn of the Communist Revolution a generation ago, Mao Tse-tung urged Chinese writers to create dazzling works of art, to "let a hundred flowers bloom."

A generation later in the United States, Asian American writers have spawned their own artistic revolution. From obscure poets to famed novelists, Asian Americans are suddenly hot literary property, according to scholars, writers and publishing industry experts.

"They're defining themselves and making thrilling artistic statements," said Elaine Kim, a dean at UC Berkeley's School of Letters and Sciences and the author of a book on Asian American literature.

"We're claiming our place in America," declared playwright David Henry Hwang. "We're rewriting our histories."

A sampling from the latest literary trend:

* At least seven important novels and short-story books by Asian American writers have been published recently: Amy Tan's best-selling "The Joy Luck Club," "Tripmaster Monkey" by Maxine Hong Kingston, "The Floating World" by Cynthia Kadohata, Frank Chin's "The Chinaman Pacific & Frisco R.R. Co.," "The Coffin Tree" by Wendy Law-Yone, "Seventeen Syllables" by Hisaye Yamamoto and Lowry Pei's "Family Resemblances." Two more will hit the bookstore shelves this fall: Steven Lo's "The Incorporation of Eric Chung" and "Rebel a Without a Clue" by 19-year-old Holly Uyemoto.

* Four Asian American poets have won prestigious national awards, from the Lamont Poetry Prize to the Yale Series of Younger Poets. Two poets on the rise--Garrett Hongo and Li-Young Lee--will be featured on a PBS poetry series hosted by Bill Moyers later this month.

* Big-city theaters are showcasing more works by Asian American playwrights than at any time in history. Much of the interest arose after the success of Hwang's "M. Butterfly," the Broadway hit that won a Tony Award last year. A recent Time magazine profile on the playwright trumpeted that Hwang could become the finest American dramatist since Arthur Miller, and "maybe the best of them all."

* At least four new Asian American literary anthologies are on sale now or in the editing stage. The anthologies--put out by Beacon Press, New American Library, Greenfield Review Press and Calyx Press--focus on writings from unknown college students to famous authors such as Hong Kingston.

"More publishers are willing to take the risk and publish different voices," said fiction writer Tan, speaking from her Victorian home in San Francisco. "There's an awareness growing, and it's just beginning."

Educators point out that Asian American literature began over a century ago--long before Tan's success with "The Joy Luck Club"--with the poems and oral histories of immigrants. The literary tradition was carried on through the 1960s by angry young writers influenced by the civil rights movement and fiery street politics.

But for the first time, a growing number of Asian American writers are gaining a wide mainstream audience. They're earning dazzling commercial success and high marks from tough critics and scholars. A new literati is taking shape.

Diverse Topics

And their new work reflects the richness of Asian America. Literature is springing from authors who live in chic Manhattan, the sweltering Texas prairie, the lush Pacific rain forests. Their characters range from Burmese immigrants to fashion models who die of AIDS. And they write about topics as diverse as religion, pornography and interracial love.

"We're shaping a great democracy--an Asian American literary democracy," said author Hongo, who is writing a memoir about his boyhood in Volcano, Hawaii. "There's no party line."

Many of the writers have passionately read one another for years while studying in cultural isolation among white writers and scholars. In some instances, their emotional meetings resemble a family reunion.

Hongo, whose poetry book, "The River of Heaven," was a Pulitzer Prize finalist this year, laughed like a kid on his first roller-coaster ride as he recalled a literary gathering in New Jersey last spring.

Late for a big dinner, Hongo raced into the hotel ballroom. Before he could grab a seat, a young Chinese man built like a gymnast wrapped the stocky poet in a hug and lifted him off the ground.

"Garrett Hongo!" the stranger cried out. "At last we meet!" The ecstatic man was Li-Young Lee, a young poet at Northwestern University who had admired Hongo's work for a decade.

Publishers Take Notice

The new fervency among Asian American writers is not going unnoticed. Publishers and agents, who spot trends faster than you can say computer magazine , are starting to eye the Pacific Rim market and prowl for fresh writing talent.

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