The Subversive New Generation of Asian American Writers

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Real talk between writers Jenny Zhang, Tanwi Nandini Islam, and Karan Mahajan on race, writing, parents, sex, and the ongoing creation of the Asian American canon.

 

Asian American writers occupy a weirdly marginal space in American letters: a few successes, like Jhumpa Lahiri or Amy Tan, go mainstream, but otherwise these are authors you read if you are interested in the “Asian American experience”; they haven’t achieved the universality, say, of Jewish American writing. Asian American writers are in a position analogous to that of Asian Americans themselves: salubrious but maybe inessential.

A new generation is challenging that. In 2008, Wesley Yang published an essay inn+1 about the Virginia Tech mass shooter; fierce, analytical, and dangerously confessional, it had a testy Naipaulian energy. Other nonfiction writers have come up concurrently or followed suit: Jay Caspian Kang, Hua Hsu, even provocateurs like Eddie Huang and Amy Chua. In fiction, Hanya Yanagihara, Ed Park, Jenny Zhang, Tao Lin, Tanwi Nandini Islam, Alice Sola Kim, Alexander Chee, and Tony Tulathimutte are renovating an ossified genre with outrageous and sometimes hypersexual scenarios. (Kang is a correspondent for VICE on HBO; Huang is the host of the VICELAND show Huang’s WorldLinIslamPark, and Tulathimutte are all occasional contributors to this website.) Zhang and Islam also exemplify a style of online confessional essay-writing that draws blood—and thousands of politicized readers.

To talk about all this, I Google-hanged with Zhang and Islam. They were in Williamsburg, and I was in Bangalore. Zhang, the author of the acclaimed poetry collections Dear Jenny, We Are All Find and HAGS, had just sold her first collection of stories to Random House (she’s a friend of mine from college). Islam’s debut novel, Bright Lines, was about to be the inaugural pick for the NYC Mayor’s Book Club. This being an Asian American story, parents were never far from the picture: Islam’s Bangladeshi American family weaved in and out of the background. “My mom keeps wanting to take a selfie with me,” she wrote at one point. The three of us talked about families, politics, and the cringes that come when your story is workshopped by a room of white writers.

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