As an undergraduate at UC Berkeley in 1969, Shawn Wong noticed there were no Asian American works" taught in his" English classes. There seemed to be no Asian American literary tradition on which an aspiring writer such as Wong could draw. Wong entered graduate school in creative writing at San Francisco State University in 1971, during which time he worked with Frank Chin, Jeffery Paul Chan, and Lawson Fusao Inada to produce a groundbreaking anthology of Asian American literature. Parodying the dying cry of many an Asian actor on Hollywood's silver screen, they titled the anthology Aiiieeeee!
Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Asian American Writers, published by Howard University Press in 1974, did what actors forced to toe the color line in Hollywood could not hope to do: it turned a dying cry into a shout of resistance and triumph. Since then, some critics have objected to the editors' contentious remarks and their narrow definition of Asian American literature. (1) Even their critics, however, recognize that the anthology and its introductions were instrumental in sparking the Asian American literary movement. (2)
The Asian American literary movement (3) is one of the most remarkable in American literary history. In the span of just three decades, Asian American literature has risen from obscurity to acclaim, boasting critical and popular successes such as The Woman Warrior and The Joy Luck Club, and garnering numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award. (4) Besides his pioneering editing and "recovery" work (5) in this burgeoning field, Shawn Wong has also contributed significantly as a novelist. Homebase was published by I. Reed Books in 1979, and American Knees by Simon and Schuster in 1995. The latter is to be co-produced as a film by Liberating Films and Starz Productions. In the following conversation, Wong brings us back to the beginnings of this Asian American literary movement and traces his own literary development.
The interview was conducted on September 8, 2001, at the National University of Singapore's conference on Asian Diasporas. Shawn Wong currently serves as Director of the University Honors Program and Professor of English at the University of Washington.
JP: When you began your writing career at Berkeley, what was your sense of your place as an Asian American writer?
SW: I was 19 or 20 years old and I was writing pretty bad poetry. I thought it was good poetry, but as with a lot of beginning poets it was very abstract and highly sentimental. I was experimenting. This was around 1969, at Berkeley, during all the riots and the beginnings of ethnic studies. I realized one day that I was the only Asian American writer I knew in the world. It just dawned on me one day: "I'm trying to be a writer--why is it I don't know any other Asian American writers? Why hasn't a teacher ever assigned an Asian American book, or even mentioned one?" So I went to my professors at Berkeley and asked them, and they couldn't name anyone. One professor said, "Well you know there are these Tang Dynasty poets." I looked up their work. I read Li Po and Du Fu. They wrote about drinking wine by the river and writing poetry to the moon and the willow trees and falling drunk in the water. It was the 1960s. I'd already done all of that. So I looked in the card catalogue. There was no subject for Asian American authors. "Asian American" was a brand new term anyway. There were only Asian authors. I looked under American authors and there was nothing there. I knew there had to be books out there. Somebody in the generation before me must have written something--anything.
In the meantime, I met Jeff Chan. He was at San Francisco State and was studying with Kay Boyle. (6) He said to me, "There's a guy who lives two blocks away from you. His name is Frank Chin and he's published a short story." So I called him up. I said, "My name is Shawn Wong, I'm Chinese, I write--and I heard you published a short story. …