Early Asian-American immigration to the United States during the 1800s brought mostly laborers to work in railroads, mining and plantations. Since they were mostly laborers with busy lives and since intellectuals such as scholars, students and diplomats were not allowed to enter the United States, there was not a lot of literature produced at this time.
Early Asian-American literature is characterized by the immigrants' struggle to gap the bridge between the traditional Eastern world they were used to and the modernized Western world where they were trying to survive.
Some of the earliest books to be published by Asian Americans were a series of books by the D. Lothrop Publishing Company. The first of this series was When I Was a Boy in China by Lee Yan Phou in 1887. This book includes his memories of his education in China and Chinese customs such as food, games, clothing and ceremonies. One of the later books of the series, When I Was a Boy in Korea, written by New Il-Han, was published in 1928. This book includes customs of Korea, such as housing, food and sports. Both of these authors arrived in the United States as children, and the struggle to adapt to the new culture can be seen in these books.
In 1940, A Chinese Childhood by Chiang Yee was published, and the author struggles to correct common Western misconceptions about life in China. Other books that include immigrants' memories of their homeland include Our Family (1939) by Adet and Anor Lin and A Thousand Springs (1965) by Anna Channault. In 1925, Japanese immigrant Etsu Sugimoto wrote A Daughter of the Samurai, which depicts American and Japanese cultures. Lin Yutang was the author of many books that tried to show Chinese culture to the Americans, such as My Country and My People (1937) and The Chinese Way of Life (1959). There were also many books written that tried to portray American culture through the eyes of the Asian immigrant, such as America through the Spectacles of an Oriental Diplomat (1914) by Wu Tingfang, a diplomat, and An Oriental View of American Civilization (1934) by Park No-Yong.
Second-generation Asian Americans, specifically Chinese, had a slightly different perspective from the first generation as they struggled to fit in with American culture and make themselves distinct from other Asians such as the Japanese. The most popular books of second-generation Chinese were Father and Glorious Descendant (1943) by Pardee Lowe and Fifth Chinese Daughter (1945 and 1950) by Jade Snow Wong.
Literature from the Japanese population took off during the 1920s and 1930s, and one of the most famous books published by a second-generation Japanese American was Nisei Daughter (1953) by Monica Sone. This book exemplifies Japanese culture and the struggle which the Japanese faced living in America. Many more autobiographies by Japanese Americans were published in the 1960s and 1970s, such as Journey to Washington (1967) by Daniel Inouye and Farewell to Manzanar (1973) by James D. Houston.
Other authors that emerged within Asian-American literature focus on Orientalism and the struggle for immigrants to fit into American society as they look and sound different from other Americans. This type of writing is seen, for example, in Between Worlds: Women Writers of Chinese Ancestry (1990) by Amy Ling and The Chickencoop Chinaman (1972) by Frank Chin.
Later books written by Asian Americans struggle to keep some of the culture of their origin while appealing to an American market. Some examples of books that were popular in the 1970s and 1980s, particularly among feminists, are Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts (1976), Amy Tan's The Kitchen God's Wife (1989) and D. Roberts' Mei Mei: A Daughter's Song (1989).
Tan continued to write novels that became popular such as The Joy Luck Club (1989) and The Hundred Secret Senses (1995). Other famous Asian-American novelists include Jessica Tarahata Hagedorn, who wrote Dogeaters (1990) and The Gangster of Love (1996), and Kyoko Mori, who wrote Shizuko's Daughter (1993) and The Dream of Water and One Bird in 1995.