The Subversive New Generation of Asian American Writers
Real talk between writers Jenny Zhang, Tanwi Nandini Islam, and Karan Mahajan on race, writing, parents, sex, and the ongoing creation of the Asian American canon.
Jenny Zhang, Karan Mahajan, and Tanwi Nandini Islam. Illustration by Alex Cook. Photos courtesy of Zhang, Mahajan, and Islam
Asian American writers occupy a weirdly marginal space in American letters: a few successes, like Jhumpa Lahiri or Amy Tan, go mainstream, but otherwise these are authors you read if you are interested in the "Asian American experience"; they haven't achieved the universality, say, of Jewish American writing. Asian American writers are in a position analogous to that of Asian Americans themselves: salubrious but maybe inessential.
A new generation is challenging that. In 2008, Wesley Yang published an essay in n+1 about the Virginia Tech mass shooter; fierce, analytical, and dangerously confessional, it had a testy Naipaulian energy. Other nonfiction writers have come up concurrently or followed suit: Jay Caspian Kang, Hua Hsu, even provocateurs like Eddie Huang and Amy Chua. In fiction, Hanya Yanagihara, Ed Park, Jenny Zhang, Tao Lin, Tanwi Nandini Islam, Alice Sola Kim, Alexander Chee, and Tony Tulathimutte are renovating an ossified genre with outrageous and sometimes hypersexual scenarios. (Kang is a correspondent for VICE on HBO; Huang is the host of the VICELAND show Huang's World; Lin, Islam, Park, and Tulathimutte are all occasional contributors to this website.) Zhang and Islam also exemplify a style of online confessional essay-writing that draws blood—and thousands of politicized readers.
To talk about all this, I Google-hanged with Zhang and Islam. They were in Williamsburg, and I was in Bangalore. Zhang, the author of the acclaimed poetry collections Dear Jenny, We Are All Find and HAGS, had just sold her first collection of stories to Random House (she's a friend of mine from college). Islam's debut novel, Bright Lines, was about to be the inaugural pick for the NYC Mayor's Book Club. This being an Asian American story, parents were never far from the picture: Islam's Bangladeshi American family weaved in and out of the background. "My mom keeps wanting to take a selfie with me," she wrote at one point. The three of us talked about families, politics, and the cringes that come when your story is workshopped by a room of white writers.
VICE: Can you describe the paths you took to becoming published writers?
Tanwi Nandini Islam: I worked in the nonprofit sector for ten years—as a teaching artist, a youth organizer. I began the novel in its most raw form when I lived in India, while traveling in Kashmir. I applied to three MFA programs on a whim, and when I got into Brooklyn College, I got to really get into the novel. After I graduated in 2009, I went right back into nonprofit. Finding an agent [and selling the book] happened a couple of years later. [Islam runs the perfume line Hi Wildflower.]
Jenny Zhang: I was interested in writing from a young age and pursued it single-mindedly, to the detriment of being a well-rounded person. I took too many creative writing classes at Stanford, graduated, moved to San Francisco, worked as a union organizer and youth organizer while writing on the side, got into [the Iowa Writer's Workshop] for fiction, stayed there for three years and wrote stories and a book of poetry, submitted my poems to a contest because I was dating a poet at the time and kind of just did whatever he did, moved to the south of France to teach high school, found out when I came back to New York that I won the poetry contest, published my first full-length poetry collection, Dear Jenny, We Are All Find , began writing essays for Rookie, all the while secretly revising my collection of short stories, and also working on a novel at the same time. I sold my collection to Random House right before 2015 ended, and since the first story in that collection was written when I was a sophomore in college, I guess it's taken me thirteen years to find a home for it?
"There isn't really a canon, which means if you are Asian American and writing, you're automatically adding to it. Once I realized this, I became extremely protective of my writing." —Jenny Zhang
Who did you read and identify with most growing up? Was there an Asian American canon you connected with? Coming of age in India I consumed a colonial mix of Enid Blytons, Agatha Christies, and P. G. Wodehouses, but I didn't get into Indian literature till I came to college in the States.
Islam: God, I love me some Asian and Asian American writers. But it was Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Bolaño, and Borges who made me want to be a writer for real. Arundhati Roy laced politics into tragic dysfunctionality, Amitav Ghosh's In an Antique Land made the real and anthropological feel almost surreal. I love Salman Rushdie—he's a genius with an infectious voice.
Zhang: Growing up, I had to cobble together a scarecrow of things I loved from various different writers. Like, Let me take some inspiration from Roth's obsession with poo and masturbation and secretions and overbearing families, but I'll pass on the misogyny and weird racist shit about black people, and then let me take the simplicity and tenderness and lushness from Jhumpa Lahiri's stories but pass on the times when she's borderline sentimental . There isn't really a canon, which means if you are Asian American and writing, you're automatically adding to it. Once I realized this, I became extremely protective of my writing—like literally zoning out whenever white people were talking about it. I didn't want to clutter my head with ideas and advice from people whose only interactions with Asian American writing were limited to, say, Amy Tan and Jhumpa Lahiri.
"I wanted brown people to fuck one another and for that to be a hot, wondrous thing." —Tanwi Nandini Islam
I'm interested in whether one underlying theme of Asian American writing is guilt—guilt about becoming writers, and whether this is manifested either in content or in an urge to do other things besides writing. Does this ring true for you? Do you think this is changing for younger Asian American writers?
Islam: It's increasingly more annoying to me to think about what I write as falling into "Asian American" lit. I'm writing worlds in which people of color are just living, plain and simple. I think I've always known I wouldn't fall into the professional doctor-engineer-lawyer trap.
Zhang: On a personal level, having immigrant parents, who were traumatized first by living through the Cultural Revolution in China and then again by immigrating to the United States, drilled it in me: IF YOU CHOOSE TO FOLLOW THIS HIGHLY UNSTABLE CAREER, YOU WILL SUFFER AND HAVE TO CLAW YOUR WAY OUT OF A HELLHOLE OF MISERY FOR WHAT COULD VERY LIKELY BE THE ENTIRE REST OF YOUR LIFE. So in my mind, I was like, If I'm going to end up in the gutter, then I might as well be the best writer I can be and go on every adventure.
But on a macro level, a lot of Asian Americans who want to pursue a creative field don't have the same security blanket that an upper middle-class white kid who comes from generations of wealth and college degrees might have, and because of that financial and psychic insecurity, Asian Americans might be more likely to make sure they have a backup in case "being a writer" doesn't work out.
Do you think Asian American writing can break out of the box that Jewish American writing broke out of? Where it's now considered universal while holding on to its ethnic markers if it needs to?
Zhang: In grad school, I submitted a story for workshop that had character who is a Chinese American and immigrated to the US when she was four and so speaks conversational Chinese but with plenty of gaps. There's a line where the girl speaks to her grandmother in Chinese, but she doesn't know the word for stickers, and there was this long debate in my workshop about whether or not a second-generation Chinese American immigrant would really not know the word for "sticker." The absurdity of a room full of white, native speakers debating this was painful and hilarious. It's a real detriment to the quality of these spaces when they end up being dominated by white folks. I WANT QUALITY. The way is to PUBLISH MORE ASIAN AMERICAN WRITERS. South Asians, East Asians, Southeast Asians, first-generation immigrants, second generation, people who have been here for over a century, Asian Americans of every socioeconomic background, those who write about their identity in obvious ways and those who do not. Bill Cheng wrote about the blues in the South instead of about being Taiwanese American in Queens and everyone gasped. It's like, "Get over it."
Why does the "ethnic" novel (to use a highly imprecise phrase) seem obligatory?
Zhang: Somehow when we get into the realm of invented world—as in fiction—I think we are still resistant to the idea that any kind of specificity can still be compliant and even complimentary to the notion of "universal" (which is often code for the white experience).
There's also a sense, I suspect, when people pick up a book written by an Asian American writer, they want it to be useful in some way. I'm testing out this idea, guys, and don't know if it's right, but I think that's why someone like Amy Tan was embraced in the 90s—it wasn't just a novel; it was also treated like a textbook.
Islam: Girl, if you knew how many times people have said, "How are you writing anything different from other Indian writers."
Zhang: Yeah, I wrote about this in my BuzzFeed essay [on racism in the literary world], but I want to be afforded the right to be carefree, I want freedom, at the very least for my imagination. I don't want to be burdened with the responsibility of thinking: How can this be instructive or valuable? I try to go into writing already believing anything I have to say, no matter how small or petty or weird, is already valuable.
Islam: Well, I do think a lot about history, at least for Bright Lines and how to break that from a textbookish vibe was important to me. But I had to handle a lot of historical shit people are sensitive about. [At the same time] there's so much sex in my book, like, I wanted brown people to fuck one another and that be a hot, wondrous thing.
"Anything I've confessed, I think my mom advised me not to." —Tanwi Nandini Islam
I'm fascinated by a thing both of you do very well which seems to be changing how people connect with "Asian American" writing, and that's the confessional essay. Who reads these essays? What is the audience?
Islam: It depends. When I write for a site read by "women"—their main demographic is white women in their twenties through forties.
Zhang: Right, well the confessional essay has historically been associated with women, and I think more and more now with women of color, trans women of color, people who have long been considered subaltern, alien, other. Part of this is because people who have historically been neglected, erased, and ignored wanna speak!
But the problem of being an invisible minority in America is when you publicly say anything AT ALL about yourself, people are like, "WOW, I NEVER KNEW."
And it's like, Calm down. I just told you my parents don't use a fork to eat steak.
I'm not trying to paint curiosity as inherently stupid. There's also a real hunger to know, because Asian American lives are not often given a spotlight.
One point about confessional essays is that they seem "cool" or "youthful" in a way that ethnically marketed books just don't.
Zhang: That's an interesting point. I think it's also because confessional writing seems foolish, like only a dumb narcissistic self-obsessed girl would spew and reveal all this shit about her life. The flip side is that it does end up having a kind of "cool" cache to it.
Islam: Anything I've confessed I think my mom advised me not to.
Are you apprehensive wading into the issue of race? It seems like it's crucial to talk about but can put us in a box. How do you balance this?
Zhang: Because of BuzzFeed, I get a lot of really nice notes from young Asian Americans who seem to be coming into some kind of realization about their identity, often Asian Americans who grew up in predominantly white spaces, and that's always cool.
Islam: I mean—at this very moment—we are writing about race. We cannot avoid it. When Jenny and I walk through our neighborhood, observe the blatant forms of white supremacy being unleashed in every interaction—it's about race.
How do we balance a need to speak out against racism without descending into Tea Party–style policing and shaming?
Islam: I don't troll people on their beliefs—God knows, I do not want to be trolled. I will sure as hell check myself: A) Is this offensive to anyone? B) Is this necessary? It's important to me to be on the right side of things.
Zhang: I do believe one thing people who want to have any kind of public life—and that includes writing things on the internet—have to just accept is that at some point they might be called out, blamed, shamed, or whatever.
I try to remember the very fact that I have a platform, that I get to say something in BuzzFeed or publish this conversation we're having right now in VICE, that I know editors who will routinely ask me if I want to comment on something and if I say yes, that means I can get paid to say what I want to say and have it be on a site read by many—well that is power. That is power I have even as I'm writing about feeling powerless. This is the essential contradiction of writing about race.