After years on the peripheries of US fiction and poetry, Asian American authors have stepped into the spotlight during 2017. Books by writers of east and south-east Asian heritage are one of the hottest trends this year. Led by Viet Thanh Nguyen, Jenny Zhang and the poet Ocean Vuong, it marks the emergence into the centre of the US literary world of a previously marginalised group.
Transcultural writers, born to immigrant parents in the US or immigrants themselves as children, they are channelling their experiences into writing that, with perfect historical timing, challenges readers to resist attacks on immigrants’ rights and to see refugees as individuals with unique stories.
The experiences of displaced people are central to the work of this new generation of Asian Americans, and their books cross genres and forms. Vuong, who recently won the Forward prize for best first collection, arrived in the US as a refugee from Vietnam in 1990. His poems in Night Sky With Exit Wounds mix migration with myth and eroticism. Early in the collection, the narrator of Telemachus pulls his father from the sea, dragging him “through white sand, his knuckles carving a trail / the waves rush in to erase”. Such images stick in the reader’s mind and, though it is never said explicitly, feel as if they are etched in the memory of the young gay Asian man navigating the 21st-century US in subsequent poems.