Asian American Writers Are Finally Breaking Out on Their Own Terms
These writers have always been doing the work. It’s the publishing industry that’s finally caught up with them.
In the summer of 2000, Alexander Chee, then a burgeoning writer struggling to get his first book published, boarded a train to the Upper West Side of Manhattan. On the ride, he pulled out the manuscript that would eventually become his debut novel, Edinburgh, and decided to make an unflinching assessment.
“I’m just going to read it, and if I really think I should stop trying to find a publisher, I will stop,” he says, recalling that day now, 20 years later. Chee, a gay Korean American writer, was being persistently rejected by publishers at a time when the very concept of diverse voices was largely superficial in the industry. “But I was reading it and I was like, I’m my favorite debut author.”
It was a moment of hubris that still makes Chee bowl over in laughter, but his conviction was a crucial matter of self-assertion. “I wrote a book I wanted to read,” he says. “I wrote a book that I wanted to see in the world.” Yet it was a book — a shattering novel about wading through the trauma of sexual abuse — that much of the industry failed to appreciate. “They couldn’t figure out if it was an Asian American novel or what they call a gay novel,” Chee says. His protagonist was a gay Korean American, but “there wasn’t a coming out story, it wasn’t about immigrant struggles per se.”
Two decades later, the literary landscape looks vastly different and more Asian American than ever. In the eyes of the literary mainstream, the last few years have witnessed a swell of Asian American voices that has generally moved with a great creative freedom — one Chee was fighting to carve out for himself — and in turn produced some of the most exciting and beloved work in recent memory. Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer took home the Pulitzer in 2016; Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise won last year’s National Book Award; Min Jin Lee, Lisa Ko, Karan Mahajan, and Hanya Yanagihara became finalists for the National Book Award in recent years; and Celeste Ng and Kevin Kwan have redefined the bounds of the literary blockbuster.