John Yau was born on June 5, 1950 in Lynn, Massachusetts, to a father of Chinese English parentage and a mother of Chinese background, and this interracial heritage forms a constant source of thematic inquiry in his literary works. Yau received his B.A. from Bard College and his M.F.A. from Brooklyn College, and many of his short stories echo the details of his development as a young man and an artist in the New York art scene. As an art critic, Yau has written for numerous publications and catalogs, and written monographs on contemporary painters. His awareness of the current debates and concerns in visual poetics strongly influences his literary practices as well. As a creative writer, he has published more than a dozen literary works, and he has taught at various institutions, including Bard College, Brooklyn College, Emerson College, Brown University, University of California (Berkeley) and Hofstra University. He has received fellowships and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Ingram-Merrill Foundation, and the New York Foundation for the Arts; and he has received a General Electric Foundation Award, a Lavan Award (from the Academy of American Poets), and the Jerome Shestack Prize (from American Poetry Review), among many others.
In discussing Yau's short stories, one must first address the fluid interplay between the short story genre and the prose poetry genre in his works. Many of the entries in the short story collections—Hawaiian Cowboys (1995) and My Symptoms (1998)—resemble, in their brevity (some consisting of a few sen-