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CULTURE

That was 'Joy Luck,' this is now

Anger, realism and irreverence distinguish the 'second generation' of Asian American novelists.

June 29, 2003|Susan Salter Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

When Julie Shigekuni, author of the upcoming "Invisible Gardens," was interviewing to teach a first-time course in Asian American literature at the University of New Mexico near her home, she says this is how she was asked about the insights she would bring to the class: "Amy Tan has already written the Asian American experience. Why should we hire you?"

Tan also haunts Mako Yoshikawa, author of the June release "Once Removed" (Bantam), an explosive novel about two estranged sisters, a Japanese American and her American stepsister, who find each other after 17 years. "I feel uncomfortable with the Amy Tan legacy," Yoshikawa says almost reluctantly, like countless young women who say, yeah, I'm grateful to Betty Friedan and all, but jeez, isn't it time to move on?

Tan's 1989 novel, "The Joy Luck Club," presented a heartwarming picture of Chinese American life that enjoyed wide mainstream acclaim, but that many younger Asians felt was overly romanticized, even "whitewashed." Before Tan, the 1976 Maxine Hong Kingston novel, "The Woman Warrior," faced similar criticism, although her works contained more anger than Tan's. There were other writers of the 1970s and '80s -- Chang-rae Lee, Jessica Hagedorn, Ha Jin, Frank Chin and Garrett Hongo -- who also brought fame and credibility to Asian American writing.

Now, whether a result of that legacy or the nuisance of persisting stereotypes that insist Asians are quiet, studious and obedient, the bulwark of "immigrant fiction" has burst. A flood of vital, angry, sometimes violent and even sardonic new fiction from young Asian American novelists is being released this year.

The new works present Asian Americans in a more realistic light, the writers say, including characters not always sympathetic and likable, and puts them into mainstream, current-day settings.

It is an approach perhaps pioneered by Sandra Tsing Loh, the self-deprecating NPR commentator and humor writer. It is now being explored in other venues as well, such as director Justin Lin's "Better Luck Tomorrow," released this spring.

The movie begins with a stereotypical set of Asian American characters: good students from upper-middle-class backgrounds. But their social lives are filled with petty crime, drugs and gang activities. The new film "Charlotte Sometimes" also features an Asian American cast and explores some of the more common Asian stereotypes.

"What we're witnessing is not that different from the coming of age of the Jewish writers in the 1960s," says Sandy Dijkstra, a San Diego-based literary agent whose client list includes Tan, Kingston, Lisa See, Anchee Min and such new authors as Carolyn Hwang. "They finally have the education and the financial security to write," Dijkstra says.

"There's also a return to story. The more homogenized a culture gets, the further a writer gets from family and story, they lose the connection to the old culture and the possibility of witnessing its transformation," she says. "The young writers I'm seeing are still reaching back for stories but are proud to have the distance that allows them to laugh and experiment."

So is this post-immigrant fiction? Some Korean American writers call it "second-generation fiction."

"Maybe there won't be so many Hollywood endings," says Suki Kim, author of this year's "The Interpreter" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). "Amy Tan and Maxine Hong Kingston ... paved the way for a new kind of writing. They did that whole immigrant thing. I no longer have to explain that Koreans are not the same as Japanese," Kim says gratefully.

The 29-year-old protagonist of her novel has affairs with two married men, and comes from a severely dysfunctional New York family. A Publishers Weekly critic called it "an intriguing, tortured portrait of a second-generation Korean American by a promising young writer."

"I was trying to burst open the stereotype that the Asian family is always a bonding experience. Just because you're Asian doesn't mean you have to love your family," Kim says. "Any anger my characters feel is not hidden.

"A lot of the Chinese American and Japanese American writers are fourth generation. Their stories go back to the 1800s. But my immigrant experience is brand-new," she adds. "Every day there is some new difficulty in my non-English speaking parents' lives that I have to deal with. I am very close to them. They feel that I've made it all worthwhile for them. But a lot of my anger comes from the fact that the experience is so raw."

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