Earlier this year, Bay Area author Aimee Phan (We Should Never Meet, The Reeducation of Cherry Truong) penned an essay entitled, “Why Mainstream Critics Fail Writers of Color,” in which she bemoans the fact that mainstream critics give short shrift or even ignore covering books by writers of color. Here are some quotes from that essay.
Phan wrote: “According to rough counts from 2011 to 2012 compiled by writer and teacher Roxane Gay and a graduate student, 90 percent of the books reviewed by the New York Times during that time period were by white writers, leaving a 20 percent sliver for writers of color. These depressing estimates, first published in the Rumpus in 2012, confirm what many writers of color like me have always feared: that the words over which we’ve labored and sacrificed ourselves for years—the books we’ve written, revised, edited, and finally published in order to contribute to the literary landscape that’s inspired us—don’t matter to the influential gatekeepers of the reading population.”
And in case you wondered, things are no better in children’s books when it comes publishing, let alone coverage of those few books that do get published. Noted Black American writer of children’s books, Walter Dean Myers, would note in “Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?” (New York Times, March 15, 2014) that “of 3,200 children’s books published in 2013, just 93 were about black people,” according to a study by Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin.
Lee & Low Books, a multi-cultural children’s book publisher would also note the same pattern in 2013 in their open letter entitled, “Why Hasn’t The Number of Multicultural Books Increased in Eighteen Years?”
Phan’s essay originally appeared on the website talkingwriting.com (to read the complete essay, visit http://talkingwriting.com/why-mainstream-critics-fail-writers-color).
Intrigued by the points Phan makes in this essay, I asked some writers, scholars, and people in the book field for their feedback. In this issue, you’ll read what they had to say.
—Alan Chong Lau
IE Arts Editor and Pacific Reader coordinator
Aimee Phan’s article calls attention for the need of Asian Pacific American (APA) literature and poetry to be placed front and center rather than at the marginsof discussions and work by critics and reviewers of all cultural backgrounds. The steady proliferation of work by APA writers and growing discourse about this literature—at conferences, in journals—show we are moving forward in positive ways. We can take a significant step in this direction through education of the current generation and through consciously creating a space for APA texts to be read not only by students in APA Studies but in other humanities departments.
In my experience, the reasons that non-APA readers are hesitant to analyze such work are often well-founded: They wish to be culturally sensitive and informed rather than engage in ignorant interpretations.
About a year ago, I made this discovery when I taught an advanced APA literature and poetry course at the University of San Francisco to a group of thoughtful, intelligent, and enthusiastic students—primarily upper-division English majors—the majority of whom were European Americans. While the APA students immediately felt comfortable embracing the literature as a means of self-growth and cultural/historical understanding, some of the European American students expressed anxiety about analyzing literatures from cultures and histories of which they were not a part.
I attempted to reshape student perceptions in various ways: 1) I encouraged students to see the course materials as part of American literature rather than as a subset and reinforced this message throughout the semester. 2) Our vibrant and honest class discussions allowed these students to see the ways in which APA writers wrote about universal themes applicable to any culture, including the complexities of love, the desire for upward mobility, familial conflict, intergenerational difference, and gender roles. While honoring the unique nature of APA experience, students also made connections—in our class discourse, presentations, and essays—between the readings and their own identities, family and cultural histories, and challenges with gender and sexuality.
Moreover, students, while engaging in research, saw how certain APA writers and poets, such as Garrett Hongo and Li-Young Lee, were a larger part of critical discourse than others. Students were excited to both add to this ongoing conversation and to be groundbreakers in creating this discourse for other writers who they admired yet had received less attention.
Ultimately, the experience in this class for students was transformative. The APA students felt validated by a course that centralized their experiences and histories through a variety of literary texts. Through gaining a deeper level of understanding of the literature, non-APA students gained confidence, and anxieties dissolved. In fact, two of the students wrote exceptional critical essays that were selected for publication in our highly competitive department journal, Writing for a Real World. Thus, I remain optimistic about the current generation’s ability and willingness to carry the torch of APA literature; we just need to create such opportunities for this to happen.
—Brian Komei Dempster
Brian Komei Dempster’s debut book of poetry “Topaz” was published in 2013. He teaches at the University of San Francisco.
I think Aimee Phan writes her complaint as if they were new, but it’s been that way for a long time. As a writer you’ll go crazy if you think too much about the market and reviewers and what people aren’t doing for you and the literary novel. The bottom line is you have to write for yourself. I’ve written and published two novels. The first, Homebase, was for my parents and the second, American Knees, was for my wife, which means I wrote two novels for three people. They were my market, my reviewers, my readers.
Shawn Wong is an author and Professor of English at the University of Washington. He is the co-editor of six multicultural literary anthologies including the groundbreaking ‘Aiieeeee: An Anthology of Asian American Writers.’
Aimee Phan’s article about the paucity of book reviews writers of color receive from “mainstream reviewers” raises an understandable concern. Citing Roxanne Gay’s statistic that literature written by writers of color received only 10 percent of 2011 and 2012 book reviews by New York Times critics, Phan suggests this leads to “literary racial inequality.” She posits that the lack of reviews “minimizes access” to mainstream audiences for these writers.
Phan may or may not be correct. Reviews or lack of them are a writer’s angst I haven’t previously concerned myself with or wrung my hands over. It’s incredibly difficult for most writers to be published, acquire audience, or be recognized. Competition is fierce, talent abundant, and funding support often marginal. Attend any book festival or conference, you’ll find yourself literally swamped in a sea of books.
Using New York Times as a standard raises a question about whether this pattern is endemic to all or some major papers and media outlets? Does it vary by region or cities of the nation? Do papers, such as, The Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Examiner, The Seattle Times or Chicago News Tribune ignore or include writers of color in their reviews? Do book reviews on Amazon, Pinterest, or Good Reads also provide or limited access to these writers for mainstream readers?
Phan proposes that writers of color and literary organizations band together to “systemize a count,” essentially elevating dissent that forces a response from editors and reviewers. Social media and demographic reconfiguration foster new opportunities. Literary organizations, such as Kundiman, Latino Book Awards or Black Review on Line along with communities of color could develop a shared book review system competing with mainstream media. They could assert control where little currently exists and raise the stakes for editors and reviewers by competing for attention to market demand.
Bob Flor is a poet, playwright, and co-founder and director of Pinoy Words Expressed Kultura Arts.
When my agent was trying to sell my novel, we were encouraged by the early responses from editors. Though they rejected the manuscript, they admired the writing. Soon though, the reason for rejection was repeated by multiple editors: they or, more specifically, their sales team didn’t know how to market the book. I didn’t know exactly what that meant. I didn’t really question it at the time. I didn’t really want to face what was most likely the answer. That they didn’t know who would want to read a book about a Filipino-American family. Did they think only Filipino-Americans were likely to read it? If so, how did one reach this audience? Several of the editors said they wanted to wait to see my next manuscript. In other words, they wanted to see if someone else could figure out the “marketing issue” they believed existed for this book.
Donna Miscolta’s debut novel ‘When the de la Cruz Family Danced’ was published to strong reviews. Her short story collection, ‘Natalie Wood’s Fake Puerto Rican Accent,’ was a runner-up for the 2012 Flannery O’Connor Short Fiction Award.
There is a lot of truth in Aimee Phan’s thoughtful essay. Yes, some editors and reviewers, whether consciously or subconsciously, filter out worthy titles with ethnic themes and settings.
But there’s another part of the problem as well. Take my group, for example: Filipinos, or to be more specific, Filipino Americans. As a whole, they tend not to read literary fiction, which is a shame for any Filipino fiction writer since the population (a staggering 3.4 million as of 2010) and the number of potential book buyers are enough to make even the most narrow-minded publisher take a broader view of what titles are worthy of publication—and of equal import, aggressive promotion.
Peter Bacho is a writer and teacher. His novel ‘Cebu’ won the American Book award. His collection of stories, ‘Dark Blue Suit,’ received the Washington Governor’s Writers Award. He teaches at The Evergreen State College, Tacoma campus.
Aimee Phan’s essay points to the uncomfortable truth not only about the lack of diverse voices being reviewed by the New York Times Book Review, but also about the smaller pool of writers of color being published and recognized as significant literary authors in their own right.
As a poet who published a first collection with Kaya Press, which focuses on publishing emerging and established writers from the Asian diaspora, I was happy to find a home for my work but at the same time, it has also created an irresolvable tension around the reception of my work as a Korean-American adoptee: identity politics can overdetermine the other themes and tropes that go beyond niche “ethnic literature.” While I write intimately from my experiences, I also imagine other situations that go beyond these perimeters.
When Phan says, “I argue that it’s through critical analyses that Asian American literature—and any literature of color—can create understanding and empathy across ethnic lines,” I agree wholeheartedly that we need to push against these old-fashioned confines that narrowly define human experiences that the publishing industry still invests in out of fear of confronting race and otherness.
—Nicky Sa-eun Schildkrout
Nicky Sa-eun Schildkraut is a poet and literary critic. Her debut book of poetry ‘Magnetic Rainbow’ was published by Kaya Books in 2013. She is working on a second book of poems and a non-fiction collection of essays about transracial adoption narratives.
Aimee Phan’s discussion of reviews—or lack of serious reviews—of many examples of Asian American fiction of the 2000s–2010s covers an unprecedented variety of subjects and settings. The works themselves are various, whereas in earlier generations of Asian American fiction, the works that we still read and study became established in America’s literature of immigration. It took years of work by authors and scholars of these works before mainstream American reviewers took notice. Here are some notes on backgrounds for this establishment.
“Reviews” of literature in English I think became established in the late-19th century. Matthew Arnold wrote essays not only on the “function of poetry” (i .e. literature) but also on the “function of criticism” in his time. He’s the authority who proposed the “touchstone” method for judging the worth of a piece of literature. The lowest way of judging a piece, he writes, is by a “personal estimate,” meaning a judgment based on a reviewer’s personal experience.
If I were this kind of reviewer, then I’d have to deal with a perception that anything I review from Hawai‘i is personal to me, and if that’s all it’s worth, then neither the work nor my review are worth anything.
The next higher kind of judgment is a “historical estimate,” Arnold explains. A work is judged by its importance—or not—in a literary tradition or a national history. I happen to like and respect Shelley Ota’s novel, Upon Their Shoulders (1951), which appears to be the first Japanese American immigrant historical novel, this one set in Japan and Hawai‘i from the 1880s to the late-1940s.
The Matthew Arnolds of American literature in the 1980s no doubt dismissed Upon Their Shoulders and my reading of it as second-class (at best) not only because Ota and I are “personally” related to the subject, of Japanese Americans of Hawai‘i, but also because the Matthew Arnolds judging us think that the novel, being the “first” of its kind, is important only for “historical” and not “literary” reasons.
Arnold’s highest estimate is what he calls the “real” one: not personal, not for historical value alone. He doesn’t explain much but chooses to give examples of the best literature of the Western world, in a selection of one or two lines of poetry of each. These lines he calls the “touchstones.” Compare any piece of writing against a “touchstone,” and the “real” value of the piece will be revealed. It happens that the touchstones Arnold selects are each and all deeply resonant expressions of heavy thoughts and feelings.
The only one I remember offhand is from Dante’s Divine Comedy:
In la sua volontade [In His will
E nostra pace. Is our peace.]
(I’ve thought of touchstones in Asian/Pacific American literature, for example:
“We are born, Tadao, to different times, and so our lives are different—have to be different if we are to survive”—Masu to his his son Tadao, in Momoko Iko’s ;
“How can I stand in awe of men who will die just like me?”—Masu again, in Iko’s Gold Watch, a line so strong, with Masu railing against people’s saying “shikata ga nai” about the “evacuation” orders, that the line is deleted from the publication of the play in Roberta Uno, ed. The Unbroken Thread;
Ua mau ke ea o ka ‘āina i ka pono—said by Kamehameha III, Kauikeaouli, in 1843 upon the return of Hawai‘i to the people and the monarch when the British Queen Victoria ordered a naval officer to restore the islands he had taken without authorization; the sentence means, “the life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness [or balance],” not “preserved,” not dead.
And that, my friends, is it, what this dialogue with Matthew Arnold comes down to. Anyone dealing with Aimee Phan’s concerns about lack of serious reviews today would be badly mistaken if she or he thought that the so-called critical standards that Arnold set down more than a century ago weren’t still current and influential. The reviews that Phan cites and critiques all reveal underlying anxieties about “personal,” “historical,” and “real” estimates as applied to author and reviewer alike.
In Arnold’s time the idea that there’s such a thing as an “American” literature, in English, was still just becoming established, and this of course required distinguishing “American” from “English.”
By the 1950s, during the Cold War and the era of American Exceptionalism (America as a unique nation in world history), a Yale scholar of American literature, Richard Chase, judged that the true American novel is based on “individualism,” with an “individual hero” or “heroic individual,” not on social class differences as predominated in Old World British literature and culture. Huck Finn was already considered an individual hero. And now the critics could pick up Moby Dick and judge it to be another great American novel because of its tragic, megalomaniac individual heroism in Captain Ahab. Chase criticized novels of manners for being second-rate American works. One he singles out and gives a grade of B+ is The Great Gatsby. By this grading he also implicitly includes women writers such as Kate Chopin and Edith Wharton—because Chase’s heroic American individuals are assumed to be men. Novels of manners, like George Bernard Shaw’s comedy of manners, Pygmalion, reflect British cultural values, to Chase, never mind that the Rodgers and Hammerstein adaptation of Shaw’s play, My Fair Lady, was and is a huge hit in America.
The activist research and study of women’s and ethnic literatures in the ’60s to the ’90s motivated the rediscovery, reapplication, and new development of other literary theories than the ones assumed by those earlier authorities. The social dimensions explored in literary works obviously became prominent in studies. But criticism and book reviews took a while to catch up with the new study of literature.
Phan cites No-No Boy as a novel she teaches about. I can imagine how readers and reviewers of 1957 to the mid-’70s may have been affected still by the influences of the Matthew Arnolds and the Richard Chases. (Readers of the novel today are still following Chase.) The expectation would have been for an individual hero.
So in Okada’s novel Ichiro Yamada fits that role, except that he’s an anti-hero because he has done something wrong and is struggling throughout the novel to redeem himself. In this reading, his mother would be his antagonist, dragging him down from redemption by her insistence that he, because of her, is “Japanese,” not American.
But a different reading of the novel and its historical contexts was developing in the 1970s. Questions arose: If Okada meant Ichiro’s mother to be such a villainous “Jap,” wouldn’t that suggest that it was right to lock her and her progeny the Nisei up in concentration camps? But does Okada approve of the incarceration? Isn’t mother, Kin Yamada, too, a victim of injustice, and wouldn’t blaming her be an act of blaming the victim? Then aren’t all the Nikkei in No-No Boy victims of injustice, whether they are men or women, Issei or Nisei, veteran or no-no boy?
In a new reading of No-No Boy and many other works of Asian American literature stemming from immigrant history and subsequent generations, we began to understand that there are sometimes collective, not individual, protagonists and antagonists: The protagonist of Okada’s novel is the Nikkei community, disintegrating but still surviving; the antagonist is the society that put and kept them in American concentration camps from 1942 to 1945 and 1946.
It may be that many writers of Asian American novels up to the 1990s felt supported in the thought that their stories do “represent” the experiences and, collectively, the “histories” of an entire social group. The literature just doesn’t fit the “individual,” not “social,” hero that the mainstream writer could be “true” to.
I notice that Phan cites no examples of Asian American literature of Hawai‘i. It saddens me that this lack is quite like the lack she herself is speaking about, of reviews of Asian American literature of North America. Whether she personally or others who influence her are to blame, she probably doesn’t have a handle on Hawai‘i’s literature.
Even without Hawai‘i to jam things up, the proliferation of underlying paradigms for the contemporary writing of Asian North American literary works and for reviewing them may be forcing mainstream reviewers to consider having to do serious study again. The moment we became comfortable with the immigration paradigm and its theoretical and critical complications, we called for anything else, as in Phan’s article: paradigms of diaspora, mixed race, seemingly unusual settings (such as in Mississippi), refugee issues, deracinated subjects.
In reviews Phan critiques, we have something like the stance that reviewers took approaching earlier works: Show me the writing, and I’ll review it whether I know anything about the subject or not. It used to be that, say, a mainstream reviewer of cook books would have to be an expert about French cooking to review a new cookbook of French cuisine. But that same reviewer, assigned to review an interesting new Thai cookbook, wouldn’t have to study Thai anything to do so but just learn a bit from skimming the book. The review would lack something by being based on what the reviewer knows of foods of anywhere else in the world but Thailand.
When Wayne Wang’s film adaptation of The Joy Luck Club was a hit, any number of people told me that they don’t know anything about Chinese or Chinese Americans, but they cried and cried through the whole movie, it was so good.
In other words, the film (and I would say Tan’s novel) played on what the audiences did already know—prejudices, stereotypes, and presumed “universal feelings” among them—to make them cry.
When I think along these lines, I wonder how scared reviewers must be to touch any works by writers of color. I know the length of my response above disturbs you. As two grad students put it in a seminar on Asian American literature, two who had be devoted students of creative writing, if it takes two hours to study even just the historical contexts in order to understand Louis Chu’s Eat a Bowl of Tea, then no wonder nobody wants to read the damn thing. It must be junk! And these were two grad students seriously wanting to study Asian American literature, in a time when some of us had the immigration paradigm of Chu’s novel down pretty well. What do people who aren’t even our friends think?
Professor Stephen Sumida teaches in the American Ethnic Studies Department at the University of Washington. ‘His And the View from the Shore: Literary Traditions of Hawai’i’ has just been re-published by the University of Washington Press.