We are quietly witnessing a West Coast renaissance of fearless storytelling by the children of Asian American immigrants. Many of these works are by authors sensitive to being treated as perpetually foreign or different in their own country. Many seek new ways of framing their families’ histories and handling language and craft. Some of them line up not only with Maxine Hong Kingston’s memoir The Woman Warrior, our October California Book Club selection, but also with neuroscientist and biologist Gerald M. Edelman’s observation “Every act of memory is to some degree an act of imagination.”
More than four decades after Kingston wrote of a girlhood in Stockton, Anthony Veasna So’s short story collection, Afterparties, featuring Cambodian American characters in the Central Valley, was published posthumously. The final gut punch of a story “Generational Differences” is set in So’s hometown, Stockton. It’s told by a teacher who survived both the Khmer Rouge and a mass school shooting, motivated by anti–Asian American sentiments, addressed to her son at his request.
In 2020, Charles Yu’s Interior Chinatown won the National Book Award. The novel made ingenious use of the screenplay form to explore the scripted dynamics of being Asian American in an America sharply divided along black and white lines. Some of its most tender and moving scenes are those in which a character, known as “Generic Asian Man” in his bit role in a fictional television show, becomes a father. As it is for many of us, parenthood makes him realize he wants more for his child than to be treated as he is.
Laleh Khadivi’s unforgettable Kurdish Trilogy traces the way actions in each of three generations of a Kurdish family lead to tragedy in the present day. In The Age of Orphans, Reza Khourdi is taken in by the Iranian shah’s army after his Kurdish family is slaughtered, and he must betray his people to survive. The Walking tells of Reza’s two sons, who flee Iran when Ayatollah Khomeini takes over. The trilogy concludes with A Good Country, an unnerving portrayal of the tragic radicalization of Reza’s grandson, who bears the same name but grows up in Orange County.
In contrast to Kingston’s density of imagery and figurative language to fill silences in her family history, Thirii Myo Kyaw Myint’s recent, nonlinear memoir, Names for Light: A Family History, which won the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize, experiments with white space. She imagines into the silences of her Burmese American family’s history. Like Kingston, she retells folklore and innovates “memoir” means. Myint grew up in San Jose, California.
Markedly beautiful films by Asian Americans have been released in the past few years. The Half of It, is, approximately, a retelling of Cyrano de Bergerac. Shy but smart teen Ellie Chu agrees to help a jock get the girl they both desire through ghostwritten correspondence. The film is set in the fictional town of Squahamish, Washington; filmmaker Alice Wu grew up in Los Altos, California.
In Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel of the early aughts, The Namesake, an immigrant father, Ashoke, quotes Dostoyevsky to his second-generation son, Gogol, who hates his name: “We all came out of Gogol’s overcoat.” Ashoke had named his son after the Russian short story “The Overcoat,” which he’d been reading during a life-changing train accident. In the story, a man is mocked by colleagues for his shabby overcoat and saves to buy a new one to gain social status, only to have it stolen. Similarly, Gogol tries to throw off his family and cultural history, only to be haunted by the decision after his father dies.
This week, read Nasim Ghasemiyeh’s thought-provoking list of five experimental memoirs to read after you read Kingston’s. And consider the critical reception The Woman Warrior received, as insightfully explored by Jessica Blough. When Knopf published The Woman Warrior, it might not have realized it was a book that would inspire even more audacious literature. But who knows if we would have any of the other risk-taking works of imagination that have come our way since without it?
So many stories came out of Kingston’s overcoat.•
In the lead-up to our gathering on October 21, when author Maxine Hong Kingston will be in conversation with host John Freeman and a special guest, please join us in Alta Journal’s Clubhouse to discuss your favorite things about The Woman Warrior with your fellow California Book Club members.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAID
In 1976, critics hailed The Woman Warrior as fierce, fascinating, engrossing, vivid, and brilliant. The memoir was not without its detractors and received many racist comments, but Kingston’s memoir stood the test of time. —Alta
FIVE GENRE-BENDING MEMOIRS
Here are five other striking works by women that, just as The Woman Warrior does, ask readers to consider complex identities as well as the self as assemblage, changing our sense of what “memoir” is. —Alta
ENLIGHTENMENT AND ITS DISCONTENTS
Ruth Ozeki’s latest novel, The Book of Form and Emptiness, centers on a boy who joins runaways and the unhoused after his father’s death. Critiquing our culture’s handling of grief, the novel takes a “complex, or expansive, approach to interconnectedness.” —Alta
Maggie Tokuda-Hall takes on rape culture in her graphic novel Squad. Teenage girls transform into werewolves and consume sexually predatory boys. Explaining how her own East Bay adolescence influenced the book, she said, “I don’t feel like a victim, and I wanted to write a story that reflected that as well.” —San Francisco Chronicle
Los Angeles writer Jackie DesForges’s personal essay explores her process of creating a character in her novel that is based on Ana Mendieta, a real-life Cuban performance artist. She decides to “start researching how to build a new person from the ruins of another person.” —Air/Light
In her sci-fi graphic novel Displacement, Kiku Hughes writes a character with her own name who travels through time and place searching for answers about her grandmother’s internment in Japanese American concentration camps in World War II. —Los Angeles Review of Books
Powell’s Books in Portland is teaming up with Ex Novo Brewing to make a limited-edition West Coast IPA that is available for only one day, October 16 from 10 a.m to 4 p.m. at the bookstore’s flagship downtown location. —Portland Monthly
Film critic and professor Joseph McBride’s biography Billy Wilder: Dancing on the Edge aims to expand consideration of the famous Hollywood director. Often his characters were failures with nobility. —San Francisco Chronicle
CAUGHT BETWEEN COUNTRIES
If you missed our November 2020 selection, Reyna Grande’s heartbreaking memoir The Distance Between Us, you’ve been given another chance to catch up. Capturing Grande’s tumultuous childhood, the book is on sale for $1.99 during the month of October. —Simon & Schuster
Alta’s California Book Club email newsletter is published weekly. Sign up for free and you also will receive four custom-designed bookplates.