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Are Asian and Asian American men getting the shaft so to speak from our own writers? This isn’t a new question, Asian American writers like Maxine Hong Kingston and Amy Tan have received their fair share of criticism from some in the community for their “negative” portrayals of Asian men in books like The Woman Warrior and The Joy Luck Club. But is “racist love” still alive and well among our writers especially when it comes to the characterization of Asian males? Chinky or not chinky?

The always-provocative MaSir Jones over at his Destroy and Rebuild blog recently posted this entry entitled “Asian-American men get shafted even in literature.” He focuses on a list compiled by a commenter over at BigWoWo (my pick for the most literate Asian American blog) of novels from Amazon’s Meet the Asian American Authors book list. As he explains, the commenter’s purpose for exploring this list was “to find literature where the protagonist and love interest of the story is an Asian-American male. His findings are appalling, yet not all that surprising to say the least.

So just how appalling were the findings? Check it out for yourself (note: there are a few books on this list I am not familiar with so I can’t vouch that all the information below is correct):

The Piano Teacher: A Novel by Janice Y. K. Lee
Based in: WWII Hong Kong
Male protagonist: British White Male
Love interest: White female/Euroasian female

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan: A Novel by Lisa See
Based in: Olden days China
Male protagonist: None (Though there are abusive Chinese Husbands)
Female protagonist: Chinese females
Soon to be made to a film directed by Wayne Wang (Joy Luck Club 2)

Pearl of China: A Novel by Anchee Min
Based in: Cultural Revolution China
Two female protagonists
Antagonists are Chinese males

Chinese Cinderella: The True Story of an Unwanted Daughter by Adeline Yen Mah
No male protagonist/love interests?
Mainly about a rough childhood.

Dragon Bones: A Red Princess Mystery (Red Princess Mysteries) by Lisa See
Based in: Modern China
Male Protagonist/love interest: White American Male
Female Protagonist: Chinese Female

Petals From The Sky by Mingmei Ye
Based in: China/US
Male Protagonist/love interest: White American Male
Female Protagonist: Chinese Female

Good Things by Mia King
Male Protagonist/love interest: White American Male
Female Protagonist: White American Female

Only Uni (The Sushi Series, Book 2) by Camy Tang
Based in: US
Male Protagonist/love interest: White American Male?
Antagonist: Creepy Asian American Male (but attractive?)
Female Protagonist: Asian American Female

My Year of Meats by Ruth L. Ozeki
Based in: Japan/US
Male Protagonist/love interest: Older White American Male
Antagonist: Japanese Male
Female Protagonist: Asian American Female, Asian Female

The Bonesetter’s Daughter by Amy Tan
Amy Tan: No need for explanation here.

Sweet Life by Mia King
Male Protagonist/love interest: White American Male
Female Protagonist: White American Female

The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
Amy Tan Classic – The quintessential example of how to throw all Asian-American men under the bus.

Kira-Kira (Newbery Medal Book) by Cynthia Kadohata
Based in: US
Children’s book, sounds quite beautiful though. No Asian guy bashing!!!! (I think)

Wild Ginger: A Novel by Anchee Min
Based in: Cultural Revolution China
Male Protagonist/love interest: Chinese Male who turns Antagonist
Female Protagonist: Euroasian Female

The Last Empress: A Novel by Anchee Min
Based in: Ancient China
Male Protagonist/love interest:: None, but a lot of pathetic Chinese Males
Female Protagonist: Chinese Female (To be fair, Tzu Hsi is probably judged a lot harder by Ancient Chinese historians because she was a woman ruler, the men during those times have probably done a lot worse).

Unaccustomed Earth: Stories (Vintage Contemporaries) by Jhumpa Lahiri
Short stories that deals with a range of issues.
NO white saviors from what I have read.

The Space Between Us: A Novel ( Deckle Edge ) (P.S.) by Thrity Umrigar
Based in India. Indian female/Indian male?

The Namesake (movie tie-in edition) by Jhumpa Lahiri
Male protagonist: Indian American male

One Amazing Thing by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
Various characters, but no Asian Male?

Itsuka by Joy Kogawa
Fight for compensation for Japanese-Canadian internments.

Now if you just go off this list, it would seem that indeed Asian and Asian American men are continuing to be portrayed negatively or are altogether invisible. But before we pass judgment, let me make a few observations.

First, even though the list above comes from Amazon’s Asian American authors list, it isn’t the complete list. It’s omitting books by authors like John Okada and Chang-Rae Lee who are also a part of Amazon’s list and do contain “positive” Asian American male protagonists. I’m not suggesting the commenter deliberately selected mostly those works that would help make his point, but there are indeed additional books represented on Amazon’s list that might paint a more fuller picture that weren’t included above.

But what Amazon’s list does that is problematic is that it ignores a whole range of books that do present Asian American male protagonists as more complex beings. I would include contemporary authors like Leonard Chang, Nam Le and Don Lee in this category as well as old-schoolers like Carlos Bulosan and the aforementioned John Okada. I’m particularly a big fan of Leonard Chang’s neo-noir Allen Choice novels, which kicked off with Over The Shoulder (Lost’s Daniel Dae Kim optioned the film rights some years ago). In Choice, Chang has created an interesting, multi-dimensional Asian American male protagonist who even gets the girl. But I know there are those who would argue that these works don’t get the same level of attention as some of the other titles/authors with more of a perceived anti-Asian male bias.

A couple of other factors to consider in this debate: it seems to me that many of these accusations of an anti-Asian male bias tend to be aimed at successful Asian American female authors (i.e. Kingston, Tan and their literary offspring) by Asian American male authors who may not have enjoyed the same sort of “mainstream” (i.e. white) popularity. How much of this conflict is fueled by this issue of gender disparity–both real and/or perceived? And is there sexism at work here?

Finally, from my unscientific observations, it seems that a good number of the Asian American female authors who are attacked on this point are linked to significant others who are non-Asian and usually white. Which raises the question of how much of the author’s cultural background is a factor in their work? People who pursue a career in the arts tend to be outsiders or have a “rebellious” streak to them. Is it possible that the Asian American women who are more likely to become writers are those who have more overtly felt the need to rebel against or reject what they see as an oppressive Asian cultural patriarchy and that viewpoint is what’s present in their work? I do know a number of Asian American women who’ll only date white or non-Asian men, for example, because they’ve had a bad history with the Asian male figures in their lives. Is a similar perspective simply over-represented in the pages of some of the more successful Asian American novels?

So what do our readers think? Is there a general anti-Asian male bias in Asian American literature? Or do you think it’s just a case of some Asian American men just being whiny? Or do you not even feel this should be an issue anymore and we should just move on already? Chinky or not chinky?

29 Comments

  1. Thats why I only read awesome books like Bird and Fish by Adrienne Leslie

  2. Yes. There is a bias against Asian/Asian-American males in literature. I don’t think we are whiny, but we sure would like a few moments alone in a dark alley with some of these authors.

    Amy Tan ;-p

    Even her PBS kids’ animated series featuring Sagwa the cat was a total affront. At least to me.

    YMMV.
    Good Luck!! 8-D

  3. On the bright side, Amy Tan and Kingston both look painfully perennially constipated.

  4. Hey guys, I’m the original guy who made the list.

    I specificly looked at Female Asian American Authors, that’s why I left out some of the books. The only reason why I did the review was that I wanted to open my wallet to female Asian American authors that actually write about positive Asian American male characters.

    I wasn’t familiar with Asian American authors (apart from, of course, Amy tan) and certainly wasn’t expect this result.

  5. If you’re looking into books by AA female authors, don’t forget Jessica Hagedorn. Min Jin Lee’s FREE FOOD FOR MILLIONAIRES has an Asian male love interest and Maxine Hong Kingston’s CHINA MEN and TRIPMASTER MONKEY have Asian male protagonists. I’m only half-way through Deanna Fei’s A THREAD OF SKY, but am finding her Asian male characters to be complex and nuanced.

  6. May I point you guys to Bone by Fae Myenne Ng – Asian female protagonist, with an Asian male boyfriend/husband who is basically her rock and steady source of comfort? He’s real, strong, and not effeminate. Takes place in 70s/80s and is well-written. The main story is about the devastation caused by the suicide of the protagonist’s sister.

    I’m sure there’s others but it’s really early and I can’t think of anything else right now.

  7. Not a female, but I highly recommend Terry Woo’s Banana Boys, for those who haven’t heard of it. The story of five Asian Canadian dudes and their struggles against, well, more or less everything. Great stuff!

  8. Oh and on a semi-related note, I HIGHLY recommend the work of Ted Chiang. His work has nothing to do with Asian Americanness, as he’s a sci-fi author; he is, simply, a genius, and almost all of his stories have won some sort of major award.

    Also, two fantastic comic writers/artists are Gene Yang and Derek Kirk Kim, who do address Asian Americanness and AA maleness in a healthy and human way.

  9. I would second the Ted Chiang recommendation, but with a twist: even though the short story “Stories of Your Life” may not overtly talk about AA issues, it reads like a quintessential second/third-generation AA viewpoint. I can’t quite explain it.

    Also, pick up Ed Lin’s WAYLAID, THIS IS A BUST and SNAKES CAN’T RUN if you’re looking for rich portrayals of AA men.

  10. checkout how modern liberal whites are catching on:

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/anis-shivani/the-15-most-overrated-con_b_672974.html

    two female Asian writers on there.

    and that goes with why the Asian female writers are more noted than the male ones: white American gives more credence to female writers who stroke the white male egos back in the day.

    and it’s not a coincidence the same images of the Asian man you see in tv and movies are the same ones in books.

  11. @DHHH

    Free food for Millionaires is kind of an inside beside jaehwan and I and he pointed me to a review. It seems that the Asian American Male protagonist was so poorly written and developed, the story didn’t really matter whether he existed or not – and he’s in the “I wouldn’t date him if I was a girl” category.

    And definitely tell me more about A thread of sky after you finish the book. I remember reading an article about it, but it said more about Amy Tan than her own book.

    @Kim
    I’ll definitely check her out, that sounds like exactly what I’ve been looking for!

  12. @ N
    I disagree with the reviewer’s opinion of the AA male character who ends up as the (AA female) protagonist’s love interest in FREE FOOD. True, he’s got a major “bad boy” character flaw, but that makes him more interesting and complex in my reading. Check out the novel and see what you think.

  13. @DHHH

    Thanks for the quick response. The following is the review from one of ther reviewers that confused me, is it actually accurate, or a misrepresentation?

    “Sure, Lee gives more airtime to Asian men than perhaps any other Asian American female author to date. However, the same old tired stereotypes of Asian men and white men poison this book. A quick read should make this obvious. The shameless philanderer Ted who leaves his wife and infant child, the calculating rapist Charles Hong, the old Asian man Joseph who feels threatened and then takes it out physically on his grown daughter, the loser Unu who can’t control his gambling habit, are all Asian. On the other hand, the perfect man with the blue eyes David Greene, the gorgeous and irresistable ladies man Hugh Underhill, the father figures Isaac Gottesman and Joseph McReed, are all white men.”

  14. Yikes, talk about women with issues. lol , I hope you guys didn’t actually read any of this stuff. My current read is blonde lotus by Cecilie Gamst Berg, it’s not friction, but I bet it’s 10 times more interesting then any of this soap-opera crap. As I see it, it’s their issue; not mine.

    Ignore these types of women. Draw a 1000 meter NOGO zone around them wherever you go. It does wonders for your health and happiness.

  15. My vote is for “rebel against or reject what they see as an oppressive Asian cultural patriarchy and that viewpoint is what’s present in their work” and “had a bad history with the Asian male figures in their lives.”

  16. @N
    Wow, it’s actually startling how that reviewer selects only those facts which support his/her point of view. The following is also true of those same characters: Ted who can no longer tolerate his conventional marriage when he and a white woman fall in love, the hypocritically pious choir director Charles Hong, and Unu who ends up as the love of our female protagonist, are all Asian. (OK, the Father, Joseph, does hit his daughter once, I’ll concede that.) On the other hand, the philanderer David Greene, the slick but shallow Hugh Underhill, and the sexually neutered father figure Isaac Gottesman, are all white men.

    It’s a book filled with complex characters. Read it, and see what you think.

  17. @DHH

    Actually, I just listened to Min Jin’s interview with Fallout Central and is literally in tears when she mentioned the ending about the drawing of the tree and the flowers. I was also impressed by her reading of the passage about the confrontation between Ted and his mother after his marriage broke up.

    I have to admit that I have been emotionally scarred by Amy Tan (School text when I was one of the few Asian guys at the school and the subsequent ‘love’ I got from all my female, and male, colleagues), so I’ve avoided Female Asian American Authors like the plague.

    From what I can tell, there’s going to be a lot of “What on hell is she doing this” type of emotion reading through this, but at least, I know it’s going to be a happy ending and I want to find out how they got there.

    So yeah, I’m getting it.

  18. @N
    Thanks for being open-minded, and for sparking this whole discussion. Hope you enjoy the book.

  19. Check out books by Xiaolong Qiu, especially the Inspector Chen books (Red Mandarin Dress is excellent).

  20. Thanks for the props…

    –Leonard

  21. I’m probably a little late, but thanks also for the props!

  22. You can check Marguerite Duras’s The Lover (1984 novel),few book about the romance between an asian man and white woman

  23. I’m sorry but the reason Amy Tan is so obsessed with white men is because, let’s face it, she’s not very attractive. I bet no Asian guys had any interest in dating her. But white dudes with Asian fetishes are always game. So now it’s her mission to “get revenge” on Asian men that wouldn’t give her the time of day. I’ve known several Asian women that fit this exact mold. One was even stalking this good-looking Asian guy during high school and got rejected by him. So now she goes around openly telling people that she finds Asian men unttractive. Asian American women seriously need to wake up…

  24. The asian male as hero of his own life (and his woman’s) was in Bird and Fish and later is Sea and sky. I don’t know if Hyun Jae Won lives in real time–I just wished he did.

  25. Some of you should live in Asia for like 5 years then move back to the States.
    You’d be shocked how desensitized you may have become to asian-american self-hatred, a self-hatred that’s so painfully obvious in both society and in redundant asian american literature.
    also, i love how the lame stereotypes of asian culture ranted by asian americans have nothing to do with the contemporary dynamic culture of asia. it’s like asian-american authors have become the custodians of their own antiquated culture. i get it. you hate your dad. just let it go, really. asian american writers are turning into self-parodies.

    Andy in Seoul

  26. I am not familiar with any of those novels except the Warrior Women, but I think most of these novels were written in perspective of feminism opposed to the patriarchal world. At least that’s how they are taught in the literature courses. Besides, the only impression I got from that the Warrior Women is that the Mom( Moon Orchid?) is really scary and superstitious and so alienated from her Americanized kids. I should definitely check out Bird and Fish though. Sounds awesome.

  27. I’m Asian Asian and I don’t find the males in my community to be abusive or chauvinistic. Most of them respect women. Is this a case of Azn American females selling out or are you just being whiny?

    Btw, who compiled that list? White guys?

  28. Its not a straightforward answer. If you are Indian, you hate Chinese because of Pakistan. But most of the war that was fought was backed by the USSR. And the most recent terrorist surge in the region was a direct consequence of close US and Pakistan tie.

    If you are German, you hate Chinese probably because China is socialist. But you and I both know for a fact that German are the socialist society and China is capitalist. Chinese has to pay for college tuition, while you German pay for everything plus paying the Turkish 🙂

    If you are Japanese, you think you would win the war if it wasn’t for the American, but you ignored the fact that for 8 + years you were not occupying mainland like the Mogol did, you were more brutal, but less effective. Or perhaps you hate Chinese because Chinese are rude, which you think all Gaijin are anyway.

    If you are American you think the Chinese STEAL all your manufacturing job, while you forget the definition of ‘developed’ economy is 10% labor, and 90% service. You always want to roll back to a time where computer was build for 10,000 dollars and no programmers, and you ignore the fact that today when computer cost 800 bucks, you have a service sector. And your job didn’t get stolen, it was switched to something else. Assembling thing and doing service in retail are both low end job but one provide far less taxing health hazard than the other. The reason why your life are not as cool as your dad’s one is because all your money are stolen by your countryman on the East Coast. Chinese don’t own any US debt that are close to the #1 spot on your national debt, your nation are spending your son’s money and they are the main reason why your life suck far greater than your dad’s one.

    If you are from Hong Kong, Taiwan. You think all wealthy Chinese are wealthy because Chinese trade slave. Yet you forget the sweat shop model was started by you.

    For Canadian, you hate Chinese because of the large wealthy influx of immigrant, you can’t voice your frustration because you have to follow your own political correctness that you placed upon your own self due to the multicultural society that you inherited from your colonial master. So instead of being anti-immigrant, you found your calling in defending the indigenous Tibetan, put on some Dali-Lama love, appear being the peaceful lovely nation to the world. Yet you forget your own discrimination against your own kind, Highway of Tears murders. Where serial killer hunt the poor indigenous aboriginal people. They are so poor, can’t even afford a ride into the cities, so they get picked up by highway killer.

    And last but not least, and my personal favorite, the filipino. Your kind adore American, you forget the fact that 400,000 filipino were killed by American in 1910. You hate the Chinese because those live within your country work harder and succeed. You burn Chinese flag because they are building island in South China Sea. Yet, you forget you started the island building trend, putting your own countryman in inhuman condition and towed this Piece of SHIT and call it an Island, this entire island building business was started 10 + years by you, before any other nation even start building a REAL island thru hard work and engineer. vs.

    All the people bitchin on Chinese is simply because it’s a nation where everybody can point their finger instead of at their own prostitute-like shamed eyes and painfully-obvious incompetence.