Before Twitter, the most intense literary battles took place in the introductions of anthologies. Editors would clump writers together, or writers would clump themselves together, and then write big, splashy manifestos pitching the work as truly revolutionary.
Forty-five years ago, the editors of Aiiieeeee!—Frank Chin, Jeffery Paul Chan, Lawson Fusao Inada, and Shawn Wong—came out screaming with a combative introduction that sought to establish the definitive Asian American canon.
Alive with the fire of 1970s protest culture, the editors railed against yellowface Charlie Chan-type shit from white writers who perpetuated stereotypes of Asians as mythical “Oriental” creatures and feminized men. But the editors reserved some of their harshest criticism for Asian American writers who wrote immigrant stories that portrayed assimilation as self-actualization. Those writers—such as Jade Snow Wong and Pardee Lowe—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,” and basically sold out to white people for profit, they argued.
In the editors’ view, those two forces working together silenced Asian American writers who “got their China and Japan off the radio, off the silver screen, from television.” And the works they selected for their anthology—drawn exclusively from Chinese American, Japanese American, and Filipino American writers—would finally amplify those voices.
The claims these editors made were controversial then, and they’re controversial now. The editors were accused of all sorts of stuff: promoting misogynistic views, not including enough women writers, and excluding Asian American voices with roots in places such as Korea and Vietnam. When I first came across the anthology in grad school, my professor presented the it as an important but extremely flawed work, and then essentially taught an entire course refuting the introduction’s premise.
In the forward for the third edition of this contemporary classic, published recently by University of Washington Press, professor Tara Fickle, who teaches English at the University of Oregon, takes another look at the anthology and the controversy surrounding it, and makes a compelling case for not dismissing it as the “embarrassing uncle of Asian American literature.” I spoke with her about her work over the phone a few weeks ago. I also spoke with one of the anthology’s editors, novelist and UW professor Shawn Wong. Below are my edited conversations with both of them, which offer more depth than I was able to provide in the preview I published in the last issue of The Stranger. On January 9 at Elliott Bay Book Company, both Wong and Fickle will present the new edition and offer even more context for this rich, seminal text.
Conversation with Shawn Wong
So, where did this all begin?
When I was 19 I decided I wanted to be a novelist. On the same day I realized I was the only Asian American writer I knew in the entire world.
So I went to my teacher and said I wanted to read Asian American literature. He said there wasn’t any. Another professor pointed me to Mao’s little red book, and I said, “He’s not even Asian American.” I thought, “Oh my god, where am I? These people are stupid.” Then I thought, "Wait a minute, I know the Chinese have been in this country for 150 years. Somebody had to have written a poem, and I’m going to find that person and prove this English professor wrong."
As it turned out, Asian American literature was not hard to find—it wasn’t hiding. Even an undergrad English major could find it. The real truth was nobody was looking. Nobody even asked the question—is there Asian American literature? If someone had asked that question, they would have found it. I did.
Who helped you find it?
After that conversation with my professors I met Jeff Chan. He was a grad student at San Francisco State University. He was unpublished at that time, but he was a writer. He introduced me to Frank Chin, who had published one short story. Frank introduced me to Ishmael Reed. Reed introduced me to Alex Haley. The African American writers took me in. They made me part of their writers group. I went from studying dead British writers to hanging out with writers who were living and writing about things that were relevant.
Were there other Asian American anthologies out at the time?
One book was called Asian American Authors. That was done by Kai-Yu Hsu [and also Helen Palubinskas]. His was a textbook, though. It had selected writings but also questions at the end of each entry. The other was Asian American Heritage, and it was edited by a very, very strange man. His name is David Hsin-fu Wand, and that was a pseudonym for David Rafael Wang. I was supposed to be in his anthology, and Inada was supposed to be in it, but we all dropped out because he was so strange. His philosophical beliefs are grounded in the idea that male chauvinism is good. He didn’t understand the difference between Asians and Asian Americans, so he threw them all together. He also had this thing for young, bare-chested boys. He put pictures of bare-chested Polynesian boys all over his books. It was strange.
How did your collection end up getting published?
We’d been shopping around the manuscript starting around 1971. We kept getting turned down by Random House, Double Day, all these big publishers. After I won this short story contest from the Council on Interactive Books for Children, an editor from Howard University, Roberta Palm, asked if I had a book manuscript for the children’s story. I said no, but I have this other manuscript. I sent it along and Charles Harris, the chief executive of Howard University Press, decided to publish it. They hadn’t published a book yet, but they wanted our book to be among their first 10. Ours was the only one not African American-focused. They were very forward-looking. They were the first to legitimate the Asian American literary voice. When it came out in 1974, it ended up being reviewed everywhere—The New Yorker, the New York Times, Rolling Stone.
Why was the book getting rejected so often?
They were looking at these Asian American stories not as artistic literary works but as social history only. They thought its only value was as a case study in being Asian in America, or just social science content. The kind of thing I called “grandma arriving in America stories.” But what we tried to show in Aiiieeeee! was that it was more than that story, and that some of these authors used things like literary devices, and that there was some artistic value to them.
What’s your sense of the book’s impact?
Most scholars credit us with naming the Asian American canon, and essentially defining Asian American literary history. Many scholars take exception to our particular point of view, but the gratifying thing is that we started that discussion. We started that debate. And as long as we were mentioned, even if it was critical, that was good. We wanted that discussion to be on the table. We never thought of ourselves as scholars, we were just writers. But we knew we couldn't just publish our own books. We had to be responsible for educating our audience in something called "Asian American literature," because we wanted our creative work to be considered in the context of our own literary history, not somebody else’s literary history.
Where did the introduction’s combative tone come from?
It was very typical of my particular generation in general. We were protesting the Vietnam War, we were agitating for civil rights. I was an undergraduate at this time. I was protesting for the establishment of ethnic studies. So the tone of my generation seeped into the anthology’s introduction. Also, I would say being under 21 when I started writing the first draft of the intro was part of it. It was more a matter of being that age and knowing everything, of course, and less about taking a particular philosophical position.
I think the only regret we had, and which we corrected in a sequel called The Big Aiiieeeee!, was that our definition of Asian American was too narrow, too political. But the term is political—it was a political invention, anyway. There is no such nationality or race called Asian. Our definition was a political one that was defined by the era in which we grew up. But in The Big Aiiieeeee!, we included writing by first-generation immigrants, and even some works that were in translation because they described an Asian American experience, like being on Angel Island, or being Japanese Americans interned in concentration camps.
And what’s unknown is that we organized the first Asian American writer’s conference at the Oakland Museum. We invited dozens of writers, including all the ones in the anthology. We even invited writers we didn’t like. And they came! Everybody came, and nobody got their expenses paid. Even Jade Snow Wong, who we don’t write about very lovingly in our introduction, came to our conference. We gave her the stage. Her voice deserved to be heard. She didn’t like what we said, but we include her as an Asian American writer. And when UW asked if they should publish Fifth Chinese Daughter, I said yes you should, as it’s a part of Asian American history.
Conversation with Tara Fickle
A while back Wong gave Fickle the Aiiieeeee! archive, which she’s been digitizing and using in her classes. The treasure trove includes rejection slips, correspondences between editors and writers, photos, and reviews all piled up on each other. She’s been working to create resources for interpreting and contextualizing these texts, while navigating the tricky world of actually creating an archive—the endless requests for permissions, ethical issues that pop up, etc. I spoke with her about the anthology, the problems of anthologizing anything in the first place, and the critical reception of the book.
Given the feminist critiques of the anthology, does it feel weird to be working on the project?
Working on it as a woman and as a mixed-race Asian American scholar whose name doesn’t signify is strange. But I’m interested in the larger question of how a field deals with its origins, how it deals with what it sees as an embarrassing uncle in the room. Is that all this is? I don’t see the point of holding this book up as a straw man and burning it down. For better or worse, it is this anthology that paved the way for the fact that we have such a vibrant Asian American studies field now.
Could you say more about the strangeness you feel?
When I tell people about this project, many of my original mentors are women or people who work on South Asian or Filipino writing, and they’re kind of ambivalent about it at first. They’re like “Oh, why would you want to do that?” And there’s a sense in which they haven’t read the literature in it either, which is kind of horrifying.
There is some uneven quality in that anthology, unquestionably. In terms of genres, it’s really diverse. But it’s weird that by not reading those literary pieces, the whole conversation becomes about the prefaces, intros, forwards, and the surprising mainstream reaction. I mean, what Asian American anthology since then has interviewed in Rolling Stone? It’s just not there.
So there’s a sense of ambivalence for Aiiieeeee! having mainstream appeal in that way. There is naturally a suspicion about work that gets real attention, this anxiety about the “Amy Tan phenomenon,” about pandering to a white audience. The fact that Aiiieeeee! wasn’t pandering to a white audience and yet got that same white audience reaction is something the field hasn’t quite grappled with.
In grad school the book was pitched to me as important but flawed, and then they started going through all the flaws and it was kind of shocking. What made you want to dive back into this work and think about it?
It was honestly the interaction I had with Shawn. I was expecting a really cantankerous and Frank Chin-like person, but here was this very nice and solicitous person who was more than aware of the limitations of the anthology-making process, and I thought, “Wait a minute, maybe my thoughts about this anthology are not in line with reality,” which is to say—I think was just confused.
Could you say more about the way the anthology was received?
It’s read alone as the only Asian American anthology at the time when it wasn’t, which put so much responsibility on it to do the kind of work it wasn’t supposed to do. [Aiiieeeee!] is not the Norton Anthology of Asian American Literature, whose goal would be representation in some way, whose selection decisions would be in the hands of a large, faceless publishing house. The very fact of who chooses what in an anthology is contextually based, and that also gets lost in these conversations.
Anthologizing can become tokenizing, too. If you have 16 different ethnic groups you’re listing, and you include one from each, isn’t that itself problematic because you’re suggesting a kind of representativeness? The one Indian American writer now speaks for all, which reproduces the whole critique readers have taken with the [Amy] Tans or [Maxine Hong] Kingstons of the world being wholly representative of Asian Americanness, imbuing the writer with a kind of authority that she doesn’t even assume for herself.
That this one anthology [Aiiieeeee!] has stuck makes it feel like it’s freighted with meaning it could never satisfy. That’s disappointing because it obscures the work of Bridge, Aion, and other Asian American literary magazines coming out at the time. Their story and the wider Asian American political movement gets kind of sidelined as a result.
Do you see this issue in other literary movements?
I’m not sure other literary movements have to deal with this. I also worked on 20th century American literature, but nobody ever says "this is the book" that started 20th-century American literature, that gave it its legitimacy and validation, because it didn’t need to be validated and legitimized.
There is something about that anthology form that has been especially seductive to Asian American writing, though. You can see it in the anthologies responding to Aiiieeeee! It's sort of like, “Hey, you didn’t include this particular group, so here’s a whole anthology on Asian American women’s writing, and here’s one on Asian American LGBTQ writing,” etcetera.
What else are you finding out about the archive?
The archive itself shows a much more nuanced and layered conversation about what was happening at the time. [The editors of Aiiieeeee!] are not the "four horsemen" in the way that they intentionally styled themselves.
And I am just now starting to work through and grapple with the status of Asian American women’s movements during this time, and particularly Asian American women in their 20s in the late 1960s and early 1970s, who are most actively excluded from the anthology and from its reception. Nancy Wong, for example, documented the scene. She took the picture of those three people reading Aiiieeeee! on the flyleaf of the new edition. She also took photos of the International Hotel protest in San Francisco, pictures of Shawn writing…so it’s like all of this is happening at one time, and the activism and the art scene are all part of it, and a lot of it gets erased in people's efforts to brush Aiiieeeee! out of the way.