Where are all the Asian-American novelists?

Before I address the subject of this blog, I just want to say that some people have pointed out to me that writing and oral storytelling are not the same thing.  And they’re absolutely right.  I know some great writers who are horrible at telling a story face to face.  They get nervous in front of an audience, or they can’t collect their thoughts on the spot, so they ramble.  My last blog title should have read, “Are novelists born or are they made?”  Because writing a novel is a much more deliberate process than just getting behind a microphone and speaking off the cuff.  A novelist has the time to consider where her story is going, and if she has “the writer’s knack”, she’ll instinctively know which plot choices will lead to the most dramatic or interesting outcomes.

That’s what boring writers lack, that instinct for the dramatic.

My last blog also brought in this comment: “Why do you crediit only the Irish for storytelling talent?  What about the Chinese?  Surely they have just as much talent?”

And yes, I deserve to be taken to task for this.  It’s true that China has a rich literary history, going back thousands of years.  My mother’s grandfather was a respected poet in China, and among my most treasured possessions are very old bound copies of his poems.  My own philosophy of storytelling parallels that of a 9th century Chinese literary figure, Han Yu, who believed that telling a story in a clean straightforward manner was the most elegant way to write.  He thought that writing which was overly flowery and too stylized was dishonest –  and his beliefs reflected ancient China’s Classical Prose Movement. 

So yes, China does indeed have a long literary tradition.

But for a long time, I’ve been aware of a dearth of Chinese-American novelists.  Once you get past Amy Tan and Maxine Hong-Kingston, how many bestselling Asian American writers can you name?  Asian Americans make up about four percent of the population, but we don’t take up four percent of the bestseller slots. 

I distinctly recall a moment years ago, when I attended my first Romance Writers of America convention.  I looked around the room, where a thousand writers had gathered, and did my usual “race check.”  It may sound weird to some people, but it’s automatic for me (and I suspect it’s true for other minorities as well) to scope out how many non-whites are around.  That night, I counted exactly three Asians, including me.  In a room of 1,000 writers.

So where are we?

Part of the answer can be found in an email I received some months back from an Asian-American man who enjoys my books.  He told me that he works in computer engineering and even though he’s making a great living at it, he hates his job.  He only went into engineering because his parents pushed him into it.  He didn’t want to be an engineer!  His dream as a young man — and it’s still his most heartfelt dream – was to become a fashion designer.  But his parents told him he was nuts, that he’d starve, and that he should choose a career that would pay the bills. 

You know what?  My dad told me essentially the same thing.  “Writing’s a nice hobby,” he said when I told him that what I really, really wanted to do was study journalism.  “But you’ll never make a good living at it.”  Like countless other Asian American parents, he told his kids that science was the way to go. “Choose medicine or engineering and you’ll never starve.”  Not starving is a really big deal among immigrant families.

So I became a doctor.  And so did my brother.

I think of all the budding Asian-American novelists and artists and movie directors and fashion designers who are now toiling unhappily in hospitals or in front of computers.  How many of them would have gone on to win Pulitzer prizes or Academy Awards, had they stuck with their dreams?  How many were forced to shove those dreams aside out of fear that they’d someday starve?

There’s a lot to praise about immigrant values.  My parents taught me the importance of hard work and a top-notch education.  They paid for piano and violin lessons, they filled the house with books, and they instilled in me a love of learning.  But I feel incredibly fortunate that in the end, I listened to my own creative yearnings.  I’m lucky, of course, that my two kids gave me an excuse to finally write my first novel while I was on maternity leave.  But I also made sure I carved out writing time even while I was working as a doctor. I scribbled in the on-call room and on my lunch break.  I stayed up late, after the kids were in bed, to scribble some more.  That’s what you have to do when you first start out writing — you find the time, despite your other jobs, your other responsibilities.  Luckily, I could do it.

I think about that guy who wanted to be a fashion designer, and I don’t see how he can do that now, while holding down an engineering job.  His chance is probably gone forever.  His parents talked him out of it, and I feel sorry for him. 

Maybe in another generation or two, we’ll see more Asian-Americans in the arts.  We just have to stop listening to our parents.



29 replies
  1. Debbie
    Debbie says:

    I cant say Ive ever noticed the ratio of which cultures make up the most of our literary world. I only relish the thought of so many cultures expressing themselves in their own way.
    Ive always had a passion for writing.
    Funny how every job Ive had was math related.
    I never considered finance and accounting my forte..but it started with working in Investments at a bank (an exciting job at an exciting time) and from there led to more accounting related jobs.
    Working those math related jobs helped me to come to terms with my early hatred of math/ finance.
    Over time, I became more “left brain” when my right brain world had me so unstructured.
    I too, was always told, not by my parents, but by my older sister…”an artist must have a real job to fall back on.”
    For me then, it was truly a matter of survival.
    (My parents were so caught up in their irreconcirable differences, the last thing on their minds were the directions their children’s futures were heading. They, in fact, were caught up in where they were heading. ie divorce)
    Maybe that’s what made me the queen of “What if’s”
    (I’d be walking home from school thinking to myself….”What if I dont have a home to come home to?”)
    Years passed, I married and was at home (9 yrs) raising my two girls.
    Along with motherly duties, I became the cook, landscaper, gardner, seamstress, decorator…well…you get the picture.
    I worked on my writing when I could…but never gave it the honest focus it deserved.
    Now that my current work is ending, and my girls are 14 and 16…I’m looking forward to this time I might actually get the chance to realize my dream.
    Becoming a novelist.

  2. Mikal
    Mikal says:

    I have to whole-heartedly agree with this post. Hopefully in the future, Asian parents will come to realize that American-born Asians (Korean-American here) will undoubtedly lead different lives than their immigrant parents. And hopefully, that will allow more Asians to pursue their dreams.

  3. sabrinawstan
    sabrinawstan says:

    Well, sadly, most Asian migrants around the world are too busy making more money or trying hard not to starve.
    We’re too pragmatic at times and now we’ve lost the humanity side of it.
    To think that we came from a generation of the Ming, Tang, Chao dynasty where we produced many poets, philosophers like Confucius.
    There are many of us who hate our jobs absolutely, but silently get in touch the arts so that we could get in touch with our human side. And we could only admire people like you, Tess who managed to do it despite it all.
    I hope the next few generations of parents won’t tell their kids to “not do (this career) as it will on starve you and your kids”.

  4. Kristin
    Kristin says:

    I grew up south of San Francisco. Most of my high school was either Asian or hispanic. My good friends were mostly Asian, because I was part of the ‘smart kid’ group.

    One Chinese-American boy I knew was a fantastic artist. Just naturally gifted. He was also a great student in math and science. His father, when it came time to decide where he would go for college, told him he would not pay for his education if he decided to go into any field besides engineering, math, or science.

    So, he entered college as an engineering student, but double-majored in art.

    I always wondered what happened to him.

  5. Amy MacKinnon
    Amy MacKinnon says:

    What about Lan Samantha Chang? A hugely successful novelist and now director of Iowa’s program. Ha Jin? Author of one of the most beautiful novels ever, Waiting. And English is his second language! Paul Yoon? I urge everyone to read his story in Best American Short Stories 2006 and his piece in Post Road. He’s currently at work on his first novel and I can’t wait. Lisa See, too, author of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. Her father is of Chinese descent, her mother the novelist Carolyn See. If you’ve not read Dai Sijie’s Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamtress buy it now. This story will haunt you for years to come.

    There many, many wonderful Asian and Asian-American writers to choose from. Thanks for reminding me to re-read Balzac, Tess.

  6. drosdelnoch
    drosdelnoch says:

    You did say a lot of this in that interview that you graciously gave me Tess. Its always interesting when things go round in the authors head and then eventually find a way to break out again. LOL

    Seriously though I think in this day and age everyone is trying to look at practicality and lets face it for everyone that wants to be an author very few make it and even fewer of those make enough cash to consider it a living. So I can see the reality behind things, Im lucky enough to be able to do what I want in life, whilst IM not raking in “big bucks” Im making enough to survive and do something that I love. Not a bad way to carry on.

  7. Chesya
    Chesya says:

    “I looked around the room, where a thousand writers had gathered, and did my usual “race check.” It may sound weird to some people…”

    This doesn’t sound weird at all. I do it as well.

  8. DanaKaye
    DanaKaye says:

    I completely agree with this post. I’m Jewish and similar emphasis is placed on higher education and “practical” careers. But I think it may not only be an ethnic issue; I think many people from my parents’ and grandparents’ generations feel this way.

  9. GerritsenFever10
    GerritsenFever10 says:

    Woh woh woh! Your brother is a doctor TOO?? That’s awesome! What kind of doctor is he? Not that I’m not interested in your blog b/c I tend to wonder that myself. If you’re so good at writing and you’re not “white” what about all the other non-white folks out there who want to do something in the arts? Anyway, just wondering about your brother now, you know I’m always interested in the medical aspect of your career! (and in this case the medical aspect of your family members haha) Later Dr. G.

  10. tuttle
    tuttle says:

    Excellant thread!
    This could also apply to millions and millions of other people around the world(not just authors) who had a dream of some sort (either as a child or even in adulthood) of what they had always “wanted to be”….or loved to do- and they had to leave it behind because they too, feared that they would not be able to maintain a ceratin standard of living, let alone starve.

  11. Cynthia Reese
    Cynthia Reese says:

    Tess, too funny on the “race check!” Though I am “white,” I tend to do that now because my daughter is Chinese.

    Unfortunately, I’m like a bad Chinese parent myself — my daughter wants to write already at age five and my husband says, “She’ll be a writer like you.” I say, “No, no, no — a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer — ANYTHING but a writer or a journalist — no money in either one!”

    But I do try to encourage her in her writing, and I’ll keep your words in mind.

    BTW, who was it who mentioned Ha Jin? Beautiful novel — I had no idea that English was a second language — puts me to shame.

  12. Tess
    Tess says:

    I loved Ha Jin’s novel as well! And yes, it makes it even doubly impressive that English is his second language.

    Sassy, my dad (who died last month) never got to see me achieve success as a writer because of his Alzheimer’s disease. It’s one of the really sad parts about his illness. But I know he would have been both delighted and proud. (As well as surprised!)

  13. april
    april says:

    I was always scribbling as a child so my parents always hoped I would become a writer. They’re always pestering me about my “book”. As much as I like writing, I never really wanted it to be a job.

    As for Asian writers, I usually look for Asian characters more than writers. There aren’t many. The few I know are of blended nationality, too. Still, I feel like there are more now than 10 years ago so many there’s just slow progress all around.

  14. Gabz
    Gabz says:

    Even though I’m not Asian (my parents are Brazilian),I have a lot of friends who are (including Indian) and I’ve noticed that their majors are all in the science, math, engineering careers (mine is forensic science). I’m sure they want to be a pharmacist or an engineer, but I do believe that their parents sort of “pushed” them in that direction, and I could emphasize with that.
    I live in a lower middle class town near Newark, NJ, and the majority of the population is Hispanic. Since most of the students in my high school (including myself) are first generation Americans, we don’t want to make just ends meet like our parents. Like everyone else we want to live a comfortable life where we don’t have to worry about bills constantly; and so, our goals are high- especially American-Asians (I know the term is switched). Unfortunately, that has a setback.
    I have friends of Chinese descent who has some of the most beautiful artwork imaginable (paintings, poetry, caligraphy, fashion, etc.); however, their parents shun the idea of them becoming an artist or a fashion designer. Like any parent they want them to have a stable, well-paid career and live out the American dream (or should I say the “International” dream), but at what cost?
    A dear friend of mine is majoring in electical engineering; however, his Chinese parents want him to go into accounting because they’re more profitable than electical engineers. WTF??? He’s going into engineering; not becoming the “struggling artist”, but I’m glad that he’s following his dream and, basically, told his parents to go take a hike.
    Some of my other friends are just looking at dollar signs, but they’re not listening to their heart. A classmate of mine (she’s of Brazilian descent)works part-time at a local daycare center, and absolutely loves the environment, but when I asked her about becoming a pre-school teacher or an owner of a daycare center she said,”And what, struggle and be poor my whole life?” She’s becoming a dentist.
    The fear of failure is, indeed, a large contributor to this but I think being unhappy the rest of your adulthood is worse.
    All parents, no matter what race or culture, should just support their kid. No excuses. If their going to college and have the drive to do what they desire, what’s the problem? Sure becoming an artist is risky, but isn’t life one big, warning label?

  15. struggler
    struggler says:

    Tess, maybe you have a view on the American ‘right to bear arms’ and the ease with which American people can legally obtain a gun and ammunition, in the light of the nightmare at Virginia Tech University today.

    Surely the buck stops HERE, it’s time to take drastic action.

    Hy heart goes out to all those affected by the loss of so many innocent lives.

  16. Ali M
    Ali M says:

    I think perhaps Immigrants are afraid of seeing their children spending their lives struggling like they themselves had to. The purpose of any parent is to aid their children to get on better in life than themselves, unfortunately that is often misguided. I don’t think Asians are alone in this. I was an A student in art and chemistry in school. So came my choice between the two. Guess which one I was influenced to chose?!

    As for the comment above^ by struggler. I agree. As an outsider looking in, I cannot understand the country’s fascination with guns. At all.

  17. struggler
    struggler says:

    And apparently, the Virginia Tech killer was an Asian-American…. (I am not 100% sure that this has been confirmed yet)

  18. Craig
    Craig says:

    Well, Ali M, I live in Oklahoma City, the heart of gun country and I’ve never understood the fascination with guns either. Personally, I don’t even like the feel of them. That being said we have certain organizations in this country with mega bucks who have their members convinced that the federal government storm troopers are going to come to their doors in the middle of the night and confiscate all of their guns.
    Yes the killer was Asian-American–so what? [By the way, Struggler, what drastic action would you take. It’s easy enough for an outsider to say something like that. How about some suggestions that haven’t been tried.] The latest I’ve heard is that he was also a student there.
    For a partial explanation of how America’s fascination with guns began, I would refer you to Michael Wallis’ fabulous new book, “Bill The Kid, The Long Hard Ride.” I was at his book signing last week at our National Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Museum and he referred to this.

  19. Tess
    Tess says:

    Struggler, I’m already thinking about blogging re: the VT massacre, and primarily because of the very issue you brought up: the alleged killer’s race. The concept of “shame” runs very deeply among Asians, and I can tell you that Asian-American families across this country are right now feeling a collective sense of it because of reports it was an Asian male who did the killings.

  20. Karen Olson
    Karen Olson says:

    I was more surprised that the Va Tech killer was an English major, not sure why, maybe because I was an English major, too.

    Also as a white parent of a Chinese daughter, I do “race checks.” I wish there were more Asians in film and TV, but there are Asian authors like yourself, Amy Tan, Ha Jin and Da Chen to look to. My husband and I are both writers, and while our daughter is a big reader, she is very strong in music and science and math, and we’re not pushing her in any direction, just watching to see where the chips will fall.

  21. struggler
    struggler says:

    Craig, I don’t have any brainwaves regarding a solution, but tbh I’d rather wait for Tess to invite comment specific to the topic as I fear I have sent things off at a tangent in this particular thread, which of course is about Asian-American novelists, not murderers. I’m happy to join in any debate at Tess’ invitation.

  22. SassyDevil
    SassyDevil says:

    Oh, yes, I’m sorry, I forgot so soon about your loss. My mind has been preoccupied lately, and that was really insensitive of me. I truly apologize.

  23. Mia_King
    Mia_King says:

    Aloha Tess!

    Okay, one more Asian-American author right here – you can add me to the list! And my husband, Darrin Gee (but he does nonfiction but still — every Asian American person counts inthis business!)

    Other news: Berkley just made an offer on my second novel, THE ALOHA DIARIES. So we’re out there!

    All best,

    Mia King

  24. maatlockk
    maatlockk says:

    i agree – my parents told me to get a degree which i can find a job later on in Malaysia. in my case, it’s english (at first it was biology, but then i failed because of boy problems – my ex distracted me from it and I flunked with flying colours…)

    the demand for english teachers and english-speaking persons in the education department is high, and its a good thing that i enjoy doing english. I would love to become a writer, but my dad told me the same thing – study to get a job which will support you.

    i’m just lucky that i can do english. maybe after everything is going well, i might just write something.

  25. gdtownshende
    gdtownshende says:

    I do something of a ‘race check’ myself, although for me it’s more an audible thing than a visual. I’ve a British mother and an American father (I’m an Air Force brat). By blood, I’m more than half-Brit. Every time I hear anyone with even a faint accent, I feel compelled to approach them and ask them where they’re from. (The ones from London are always taken by surprise when I inquire further, “Where in London?” My high school years were spent in England, but closer to Oxford than to London.)

    I’ve not yet figured out what it was about growing up an Air Force brat, but something about it drew me to love writing. My parents did the same, and I ended up in telecom, following in my father’s footsteps, even to the degree of joining the Air Force and pursuing my education in telecom there. Nonetheless, I refuse to give up my dream of becoming published.

  26. writergal8
    writergal8 says:

    I think Asian parents just have issues with their children doing anything that isn’t “useful.” Many had to struggle to be successful and to see that their kids lead a happy, comfortable childhood. For those who were solidly middle or upper-middle class, it’s all about having the “right package,” similar to what Old Money men and women of past generations were expected to do (sent to the appropriate schools so that the boys can eventually take over Dad and girls were prepared well, be wives of these types of men).

    I was a history/drama major. I had fights with my parents because I told them that I didn’t want to take any FOB major (maths and sciences) and had no interest in finance/business (a good mix of Asian and non-Asian). I told them that by majoring in history and drama, that I’d go to law school (they were okay with that 🙂 What I never understand is why Asian parents don’t really encourage studying law. It’s always math, science, tech, etc. A lawyer can make very, very good money.) However, I knew that the LSATs would scare me and that I’d never get into law school despite a reasonable GPA.

    I work in finance now, but I write on the side. I’ve recently published my first novel, Aspirations (http://writergal8.blogspot.com), a novel about a college grad trying to find herself. While the central character, Katie, is not Asian, one of her closest friends, Elizabeth is. I purposely made Elizabeth (and the other (white) characters too) come from a privileged background because this is never examined by most Asian writers who live in the west. Maybe because most writers are a little older and came from a generation where Asians lived in Chinatown/Koreatown/Japantown/etc and had to struggle. I also made her rebellious (yes, very typical of a child of immigrants), but not in the “Bend it Like Beckham” kind of way. Instead, she is interested in tradition. Just not Chinese tradition.

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