Forty-five years ago, Aiiieeeee! screamed its way into the literary scene with an ambitious goal. The anthology's editors—Frank Chin, Jeffery Paul Chan, Lawson Fusao Inada, and Shawn Wong—wanted to establish the Asian American literary canon. This canon would amplify the silenced voices of Asian American writers (initially defined only as Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino Americans born in the United States) and reclaim cultural space taken up by yellowface Charlie Chan–type shit as well as assimilationist works from more popular Asian American writers.
In the editors' view, those books—such as Jade Snow Wong's Fifth Chinese Daughter and Pardee Lowe's Father and Glorious Descendant—played into the white myth of a "dual personality... which suggests that the Asian American can be broken down into his American part and his Asian part," the introduction to the first edition reads. The writing in the anthology rejected "Asian Americans as the miracle synthetic white people that America's proprietors of white liberal pop" made them out to be, and pushed back against other stereotypes of Asian Americans. "If the reader is shocked," the editors wrote, "it is due to his own ignorance of Asian America. We're not new here. Aiiieeeee!!"
After years of condescending rejections from big publishers, Howard University Press published the anthology in 1974, and the book blew up. Most major magazine and newspaper reviewers wrote patronizing stuff like "actually pretty literary for an ethnic book!" But at least people were talking about it.
Among the diverse works of fiction, poetry, and drama it introduced to a general readership, the anthology turned John Okada's novel No-No Boy into a classic.
However, the editors' extremely narrow definition of "Asian American" drew criticism, as did the introduction's general machismo, the gender imbalance of the included authors, and its sharp attacks on successful women writers.
One of the editors, novelist and University of Washington professor Shawn Wong, chalks up the combative tone to the spirit of the era (it was the early 1970s) and to his own youth. He was 19 when he wrote the first draft of the foreword.
Wong said the editors tried to correct the narrow definition of "Asian American" in a sequel called The Big Aiiieeeee! That book included writing from first-generation immigrants and a new introduction defending the manliness in the first edition's foreword.
University of Oregon professor Tara Fickle wrestles with this complicated legacy in the new foreword for the third edition of the anthology, published earlier this year by University of Washington Press.
Over the phone, Fickle said it "feels weird" to work on this material "as a woman, and as a mixed-race Asian American scholar whose name doesn't signify," but she thinks its important for Asian Americanists to "deal with what it sees as an embarrassing uncle in the room."
"Is that all this is?" Fickle asked. "I don't see the point of holding this book up as a straw man and burning it down. I mean, even the fact that Aiiieeeee! wasn't pandering to a white audience and yet got that big white audience reaction is something the field hasn't quite grappled with."
Fickle, who's been busy creating a digital archive of the materials surrounding the publication of the anthology, says newly unearthed documents and photos tell a more complicated story about the book's relationship to women artists and activists within the Asian American movement that rose up in the late 1960s. "All of this is happening at one time, and a lot of it gets erased in peoples' efforts to brush Aiiieeeee! out of the way," she said.