Asian American Literature Essay Topics

I find it useful to begin my Introduction to Asian American literature classes with a discussion of terminology. First, I deconstruct the term oriental, explaining that as a signifier of someone or something of Asian origin it is no longer viable since it is burdened with all the negative connotations of inferiority, irrationality, and exoticism that Edward Said clearly delineated in his groundbreaking cultural history Orientalism. (NY: 1978) By contrast, the term Asian is a neutral geographical designation and therefore more acceptable.

Next, I explore the rather fluid boundaries of the terms Asian, American, and literature. Asia, as the world's largest continent, stretches from what used to be the U.S.S.R, west of the Ural Mountains, as far east as the Bering Strait, and as far south as the Indian Ocean; it is separated from Africa by the Suez Canal, includes all of the Middle East as well as the islands of the South Pacific. However, the boundaries of Asia as employed by scholars of Asian American literature have been much more limited, focused primarily on writers of so-called East Asian origins. [East Asia is only east in relation to Europe, of course; from an American perspective, China, Japan, and Korea are the Near West.] Kai-yu Hsu and Helen Palubinskas, editors of the first anthology in the field, AsianAmericanAuthors (1972) brought to light two generations of American writers from three Asian traditions: Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino, giving priority to American-born authors. Frank Chin, Jeffery Paul Chan, Lawson Fusao Inada, and Shawn Wong, editors of Aiiieeeee!.AnAnthologyofAsianAmericanWriters (1974) included the same three groups and selected on the basis of what they claimed to be an authentic but undefined Asian American sensibility. David Hsin-fu Wand, editor of another anthology AsianAmericanHeritage (1974), extended the field to include Koreans, South Pacific islanders, and writers whose sensibilities had been formed in Asia. As South Asians and Southeast Asians are beginning to be recognized as writers, the boundary of Asian American literature is stretching.

The term American has been defined by Elaine Kim, author of the first book-length scholarly study, AsianAmericanLiterature:AnIntroductiontotheWritingsandTheirSocialContext (1982) as the requisite setting of an Asian American text. Writers of Asian ancestry living in the United States, like Richard Kim and Sook Nyul Choi, but writing books set in Asian countries would be excluded by her definition. This seems to me an unfortunate exclusion that cuts off important sources of history, culture and memory. Since Asia is an inherent part of an Asian American's past, whether distant or more immediate, it should be acknowledged. Writers whose sensibilities were shaped in Asia, those who write of American experiences in Asian languages or of Asian experiences in English have been designated immigrant or emigré writers, but should also be included under the rubric Asian American.

There is always a surplus of humanness, as Bakhtin says, (DialogicImagination, 37) and several questions tease us as we try to put people into categories. At what point does an immigrant become an American? Should American citizenship be the sole criterion? Can't a lengthy residency Americanize an immigrant even if his/her citizenship has remained unchanged? Where do mixed-race people fit into these designations and how much Asian ancestry is necessary for the Asian American appellation? What about an author who is racially Asian and nationally American but who chooses not to write of his/her own ethnicity? Is Asian American literature defined by the ethnicity of the author or by its subject matter? These questions seem answerable only on a case by case basis, depending on the scholar or critic tackling them. In brief, for me the ethnicity of an author should be Asian and the subject matter Asian or Asian American to fit my definition of an Asian American text.

Finally, what is literature? By what criteria do we decide which texts are works of art and which are not? Feminists and ethnic scholars have been calling into question singular points of view that claim universality and putting in their stead alternate versions of history, of beauty and truth. We have begun to ask whose criteria we are using for inclusion into the canon and for what purposes. We are looking at autobiography, work songs, and diaries as literary texts worthy of study. We are urging everyone to admit to a perspective and to grant the validity of other perspectives. We are realizing that there are large gaps in history, many stories which have never before been heard by the populace at large, stories by those who are powerless, working class, and peoples of color.

Thus, Asian American literature has several purposes: to remember the past, to give voice to a hitherto silent people with an ignored and therefore unknown history, to correct stereotypes of an exotic or foreign experience and thus, as Hong Kingston says, to claim America for the thousands of Americans whose Asian faces too frequently deny them a legitimate place in this country of their birth. This literature cannot be read without some grounding in the historical and cultural contexts of Asians in the United States. Nor can the term Asian American be understood as a monolithic unity, for it contains hosts of nationalities and languages, dozens of religions, and a multitude of races as originating sources.

Though the Heath Anthology includes only ten Asian American authors out of several possible hundreds, it does present a chronological and a somewhat representative sample from a field growing in two directions as new writers become published and as scholars uncover writers of the past. Edith Maud Eaton (Sui Sin Far) ( 2, 884-901) is one of these discoveries. Like Harriet Jacobs, she has the distinction of being a pioneer, the first Asian American writer of short fiction; her younger sister Winnifred Eaton (who used a Japanese pseudonym, Onoto Watanna, and is not included in the Anthology) was the first Asian American novelist.

As contemporary reviewers wrote of Edith Eaton's work, Leaves from the Mental Portfolio of an Eurasian, her autobiographical essay sounded a new note in American literature, spotlighting the between-worlds plight of Chinese Eurasians during a period of virulent sinophobia.

Sinophobia, which extended to all Asians, remained strong for nearly a century from the completion of the transcontinental railroad in the 1870s until the immigration reform act of 1965, which ended discriminatory quotas favoring Europeans and equalized quotas worldwide. Consequently, much of the Asian immigrant experience has been a painful one. Sui Sin Far's short story In the Land of the Free recounts the high cost paid in anguish when unjust immigration restrictions are enforced without regard to human feelings. The events in the story emphasize the irony of its title, and the estrangement of the child from his mother at the story's end foreshadows his future assimilation into the dominant culture and the attendant loss of his motherland and mothertongue. The selection from Younghill Kang's autobiography EastGoesWest (2, 1747-1754), recounts the comic mishaps when a newly arrived Korean student of Shakespeare attempts the work of domestic servant in an American home, but the subtext exposes the limited choices open to an Asian immigrant in a land which prides itself on being a haven for the persecuted and a land of opportunity. Still another subtextual layer is the feminization of alien young men who themselves express male chauvinist views of their own women at home.

Carved on the Walls: Poetry by Early Chinese Immigrants (2, 1755-1762) and Silence by Filipino-American Carlos Bulosan (2, 1840-1843) continue to iterate the gulf between the rhetoric of America and the reality of living here. Having saved for the passage across the Pacific Ocean, would-be Chinese immigrants dream of entering the Gold Mountain but find themselves imprisoned on an island, for weeks, months, even years, tantalizingly within sight of the buildings of San Francisco. Instead of golden opportunities, they sleep in three tiered bunks two hundred in a room and wait for the interrogations which will determine their fate: permission to enter the U.S.A. or an ignominious return to China. Or, like the protagonist in Bulosan's poignant story, they dream in lonely rooms of warm human contacts which evaporate like mist.

In the latter half of this century, Asian American writing hasachieved new levels of maturity, artistry and emotional depth. Hisaye Yamamoto's beautifully achieved story Seventeen Syllables, (2, 1871-1882) written from the perspective of an adolescent and thus told obliquely, delineates the tensions in a Japanese American

family where each of the three family members' life trajectories lead them painfully in opposing directions. The traumatic Relocation experience, attendant upon Executive Order 9066 which uprooted 110,000 Japanese Americans from their west coast homes and sent them to live behind barbed wire in inland desert camps, has much of the writing from this group. John Okada's No-NoBoy (2, 1900-1912) traces the the psychological scars of the war at home in the efforts of a draft resister, Ichiro, to come to terms with his decision and contrasts his tension-filled home with the love-filled family of Kenji, a Japanese American veteran who returns from war with a gangrenous wound that continues to take inches off his leg and eventually takes his life. What price glory, the text seems to be asking, and what land is this where everyone seems to be filled with hatred for someone else?

The work of Maxine Hong Kingston (2, 2094-2115) and Janice Mirikitani (2, 2501-2509) reflect the ramifications of the Civil Rights and Women's Liberation Movements of the 1960s and 1970s: affirmation and assertion of the self as an amalgam of the specificities of race, culture, gender and class. Kingston in TheWomanWarrior finds a meaningful model in a classical Chinese heroine, Fa Mulan, the woman warrior, whose story she embroiders on, while Mirikitani gives voice to the unvoiced struggle of her parents to survive in a hostile environment and to her silent daughter who denies she is like her mother. Both writers speak of the gulfs of silence and incomprehension between generations of mothers and daughters, gulfs that cry out to be bridged.

Finally, Garrett Hongo (2, 2550-2562) and Cathy Song (2, 2585-2593), two accomplished and acclaimed Hawaiian-born poets, through the use of striking, sensuous details render beautiful and extraordinary such everyday incidents as coming home from work, cooking, and bathing.

Students who have had no previous contact with Asian Americans, who know only the model minority stories in the media and the distorted Hollywood images of orientals, are generally surprised to learn, after reading Asian American literature, that Asians are just people after all. If they have come to this realization, as small a step as it may seem to some of us, they have made a giant leap towards greater understanding. And perhaps, one day, authors like Hong Kingston and English professors with Asian features in the United States will no longer be complimented on their good English but will be accepted without raised eyebrows as belonging here.

Resources for Teaching Asian Pacific American Heritage Month

Date: April 23, 2011

Summary: May is Asian Pacific American Heritage month, so NWP has collected these resources and lesson plans from NWP teacher-consultants and other sources to support learning about Asian Pacific American history and current issues.


Listen and watch this multimedia presentation by a fourth-grade class about the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. More ›

The month of May was chosen for Asian Pacific American Heritage Month to commemorate the immigration of the first Japanese to the United States in May 1843 and to mark the anniversary of the transcontinental railroad, completed on May 10, 1869. The majority of workers who laid the tracks were Chinese immigrants.

In 1992 the official designation of May as Asian Pacific American Heritage Month was signed into law.

NWP teacher-consultants have written about Asian Pacific American students and taught Asian American history in innovative ways. Below are some resources in which they share their insights.

Also listed are numerous resources to help plan lessons and find essay contests for students. If you have other resources to share, please send suggestions to

NWP Resources

Why Are the Asian American Kids Silent in Class?
Author Carol Tateishi, co-director of the Bay Area Writing Project, probes into why Asian American kids are silent—a difficult question that dates back several generations. The answers are complex, but the recommendations Tateishi puts forth are more than possible.

Time is Not on our Side: Literacy and Literature for High School Language Learners
Given that teachers often have too much to teach, and too little time, Dana Dusbiber suggests an alternative approach to teaching literature for secondary English language learning students. "In my classroom were Mien and Hmong students from Laos and Thailand," she writes. "As I learned about their lives—what their travels and family relationships and cultural practices had taught them about life, literacy and learning—I knew that I needed this background knowledge if I was to be their teacher."

Nerds, Normal People, and Homeboys: Asian American Students and the Language of School Success
Stanford Goto examines how a group of high-achieving Chinese American high school freshmen perceive themselves as learners and group members and how these perceptions relate to existing research on Asian American success.

Creating Intentional Communities to Support English Language Learners in the Classroom
Judith Rance-Roney, who is with the Hudson Valley Writing Project, advocates for inclusion of ELL students in English classrooms by proposing strategies that encourage interaction between native English-speaking and ELL students in ways that benefit both groups.

VoiceThread Ties Together Voices, Images, and Writing
Elementary school students use a new technology to interview Japanese American internees about their experiences during World War II, eventually producing a multimedia presentation called "Letters from the Internment Camps."

Bringing Hard Talk to Your Writing Project Site—with the Theatre of the Oppressed
Consider the following scenario: An Asian American teacher has just had a long day at school. As she walks in front of the school, a car pulls up, and an African American student calls out, "Do you speak English? I need some directions."

"Otherness" and Other Imponderables: Teaching Hmong Students Academic Writing
The authors describe a tutoring program targeted at Hmong college students, examining the personal characteristics and tutorial strategies that work most successfully in advancing the learning of this student population.

Searching for Excellence in Education
Catherine Crystal, a Bay Area Writing Project teacher-researcher who spent a five-month sabbatical teaching in Hanoi, Vietnam, shares what she learned about the educational system in Vietnam and how it fuels a drive for excellence in students.

Book Review: The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir, by Kao Kalia Yang
Lynn Jacobs, a teacher-consultant with the Northern California Writing Project, finds this account of Hmong history and culture to be special because of the vivid and personal picture it presents of the Hmong people to outsiders.

Wikis Foster Scaffolded Collaboration When Teaching Farewell to Manzanar
Sarah Hunt-Barron, a South Carolina teacher-consultant, documents the use of wikis to foster collaborative, project-based learning about Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston's Farewell to Manzanar, a memoir about the Japanese American internment during World War II.

Our Writing and Learning Connect Us: Chris Tsang
Chris Tsang of the Boston Writing Project had his students take on a major project interviewing refugees from Laos and creating narratives of their lives. These narratives are being added to a national traveling exhibit. "I want my students to see themselves in the curriculum, in the literature they read and the history they study," Tsang says.

Preliterate English Learners: Refugee Camp to the U.S. Classroom
Despite high motivation to learn English, Hmong students, like all new arrivals, present educators with unique challenges. How can teachers begin to understand these students, their backgrounds, and their needs?

Other Resources

Center for Asian American Media
The Educational Distribution service of the Center for Asian American Media offers a lengthy list of high-quality works by and about Asian Pacific Americans, for use by colleges, universities, and K–12 schools. Accompanying study guides and websites are available.

Asian American History Websites and Resources
Resources from the Center for Educational Telecommunications, a nonprofit organization devoted to producing, publishing, and consulting in the area of multiculturalism, with a special interest in Asian and Asian American concerns.

Densho: The Japanese American Legacy Project
Densho's mission is to preserve the testimonies of Japanese Americans who were unjustly incarcerated during World War II before their memories are extinguished. The website offers irreplaceable firsthand accounts, coupled with historical images and teacher resources, to explore principles of democracy and promote equal justice for all.

Thematic lessons and teaching ideas support the study of how Asian Pacific influence travels oceans to influence and define American culture today.

Asian Pacific American Heritage Teaching Resources, Smithsonian Education
Smithsonian Education offers lesson plans, music, activities, and other resources for the study of the Asian Pacific American experience.

National Park Service
The National Park Service points out historic places central to the Asian and Pacific experience in America, and provides some lesson plans.

Asian Pacific American Heritage Month 
Educational resources provided jointly by the Library of Congress, National Archives and Records Administration, National Endowment for the Humanities, National Gallery of Art, National Park Service, Smithsonian Institution, and United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Presidential Proclamation of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month
"I call upon the people of the United States to learn more about the history of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and to observe this month with appropriate programs and activities."

Asian Pacific American Writers and Book Lists

The Asian American Writers' Workshop
The Asian American Writers' Workshop is a national nonprofit arts organization devoted to the creating, publishing, developing, and disseminating of creative writing by Asian Americans.

Pacific Rim Voices
Pacific Rim Voices consists of a series of projects—the Kiriyama Prize, the young readers' website PaperTigers, and an online literary magazine, WaterBridge Review—centered on books and reading as a means to encourage greater understanding of and among the peoples and nations of the Pacific Rim and South Asia.

Notable Asian American Blogs
From Angry Asian Man to Hyphen Magazine, these blogs offer the most up-to-date announcements and opinions on Asian Pacific American news and events.

High School Recommended Reading List (PDF)
Recommended for high school students and older, this list includes important books about Asian Pacific American history and identity.

Asian American Curriculum Project
The Asian American Curriculum Project's mission is to educate the public about the great diversity of the Asian American experience through the books they distribute and to foster cultural awareness.

Eastwind Books of Berkeley hosts this extensive catalog of Asian American literature, Asian studies, ethnic studies, language learning, traditional Chinese medicine, and martial arts books.

Writing Contests

Growing Up Asian in America
Annual competition open to Bay Area students. The theme for the 2011 Growing Up Asian in America art and essay contest was "Lost and Found."

2011 Asian American Short Story Contest
Hyphen and The Asian American Writers' Workshop proudly present the 2011 Asian American Short Story Contest. We're teaming up again to put on this national, pan-Asian American writing competition—the only one of its kind. Grand Prize: $1,000, publication in Hyphen magazine.

2011 Asian American Essay Contest
For college-bound high school seniors of Asian American descent in New Jersey, the topic of this contest is paying tribute to the generations of Asian Americans / Pacific Islanders who have enriched America's history.

2011 Chinese American Citizens Alliance National Essay Contest
This essay contest is intended to foster creative thinking and self-expression and encourage an awareness of current local and world events. Top placing finishers receive cash scholarship towards their education endeavors.

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