angry reader of the week: ken chen

Time for another edition of Angry Reader of the Week, spotlighting you, the very special readers of this website. Over the years, I've been able to connect with a lot of cool folks, and this is a way of showing some appreciation and attention to the people who help make this blog what it is. This week's Angry Reader is Ken Chen, Executive Director of the Asian American Writers' Workshop.

Who are you?
I'm Ken Chen (often pronounced as one word). One of my interns once told me that I reminded her of Abe Vigoda, Tom Cruise, and Frankenstein. My poetry book Juvenilia is coming out next April. You should buy it if your parents are immigrants. Or if you have broken up recently. Or if your parents have broken up lately.

I run The Asian American Writers' Workshop, where we're trying to build a national home for Asian American literature -- and where you can see me doing my poor man's Conan O'Brien impression. Every week, we throw literary events. This means everything from hanging out with Ha Jin or nerding it up at the Asian American ComiCon, which we helped organize (We actually had a panel called NERDPOP: The RISE OF THE NERD). Which is of course another answer to this question. Did I mention we serve booze at all our events?

What are you?
So, I'm Chinese American, but (to use my Paul Harvey voice) here's the rest of the story: I have divorced parents and was partially raised by my dad's girlfriend, a Korean American anesthesiologist, and mom's boyfriend, who later moved to Chicago to give up his life to Transcendental Meditation. After they broke up, my mom married a white guy from Denver -- without him, I probably would've ended up majoring in Computer Science rather than English Lit; he was also a chiropractor, which meant that we had a device in our living room called The Spinalator. My dad remains married to my stepmom, who is an engineer at Oracle and possesses specialized Cantonese eating skills that pertain to fish deboning. I guess you can say I've had a globalized childhood.

Where are you?
I live in Brooklyn, but I grew up in the Bay Area. California has better Chinese food and a more developed sense of Asian American identity, but many of the decisions regarding the books and magazines you read, the music you listen to, and the TV and movies you watch are made in New York, where, unfortunately, it is not uncommon for people to think that Asian Americans (1) live in Asia; (2) are wealthy, personality-free drones; or (3) are ready to sell you a 100% genuine all-leather Louis Vuitton handbag if you just follow me to this illegally parked minivan. My friend Phu said I should just answer all these questions as seriously as possible.

Where are you from?
This question is, of course, a rite of passage for many Asian Americans. A funny story: one time I was walking down the street and a guy walked by and, in a voice that seemed to emanate the vibrations of a gong, said "Ni Hao Ma!?" I walked on for another block but got so infuriated that I walk back and asked him why he said that. It was his way of making friends, he said, adding that he hoped I could introduce him to hot Asian chicks. I asked him why he'd even assume I'd know Chinese -- to which he asked the magical question: "Where are you from?" After I told him I was born in San Diego, he said, "No, where are you really from?" I turned it around and asked him where he was from. He said, "I'm from here. I grew up here." Feeling like I had the perfect set-up, I reeled in for the kill and said: "No, where are you really from? Where are your parents from?" He looked at me. "I don't know," he said. "I'm an orphan."

What do you do?
When I became Executive Director of The Workshop, the previous director told me that it would be the best job of my life. My job description is basically everything: huckster idealist, bipolar scholar, problem-solving zealot. Here's what I've done in, like, the last two days: Tofu lunch with CUNY's Aoibheann Sweeney (author of Among Other Things I've Taken Up Smoking) and professor Kyoo Lee to plan an exciting Asian American identity seminar that'll combine academics with creative writers; sent a million emails and prepared for grants due in the next two weeks; had a phone meeting with my board chairs (HarperCollins Editor Sally Kim and Verso Editor Andy Hsiao) concerning the Literary Festival we're planning for November; discussed new bookkeeping system with my administrative director Jeannie; marathon meeting with my programmer Nina in which we blocked out Fall programming and created a new programming record system; talked about poetry and grants with Barbra, a volunteer; talked about marketing (and the MOMA exhibit that compiles a Chinese family's trash) with board member Andrea Louie (author of Mooncakes); split a mixed berry tart with Manijeh Nasrabadi, head of the Association of Iranian American Writers. You get the idea.

What are you all about?
My two talents in life are Street Fighter II and disemboweling steamed crab. I know more than I should about comic books and less than I should about everything else. The last few books I read are: the last two parts of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials Trilogy (which you should read if you like Harry Potter but hate God), Zizek's The Sublime Object of Ideology (it's all jokes), and (a reread) Jennifer 8. Lee's The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, for an interview with her at Bryant Park where we discussed American Chinese food, human smuggling, and, inexplicably, artificial insemination. My favorite film/TV show is The Singing Detective, the greatest TV show of all time about sentimental love songs, not loving yourself, and skin disease. I'm working on a novel about people who are in love and have super powers.

More seriously, for three years, I'd been an attorney at a Wall Street law firm and although we won some incredible cases (like this one), I quit to join the Workshop. It's been an eye-opening experience. I think that without realizing it, I was like a lot of Asian Americans who often believe that they have no ethnicity -- or that, if they do, it's one that's connected with Hong Kong cinema or, say, Korean pop music, rather than anything that's happening here. From a very pragmatic standpoint, this job has taught me how invisible Asian Americans are in most people's minds, and how important it is to engage with people who, whether they realize it or not, don't consider Asian Americans (or what they write) as important.

What makes you angry?
People don't read -- and they especially don't read Asian Americans. 12% of New Yorkers are Asian American -- and nearly 1 in 20 Americans. And yet the Workshop estimates, based on our Literary Award submissions, that less than .01% of books published in the U.S. are written by Asian Americans. This isn't because Asian Americans aren't writing good novels. In fact, two of the Booker Prize Finalists last year were by members of the South Asian diaspora: Amitav Ghosh's Sea of Poppies and Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger, which won. Every few months, a writer tells me that their manuscript has been rejected by an agent or editor who has told them that they've "already published their Asian book this year."

A less angry way of framing this is to say that literature is a way for people to imagine what it's like to be someone other than themselves, and it's a shame when they pass up the opportunity. This is why, at the Workshop, we believe that Asian American literature is for everyone, not just Asian Americans. And we believe that the stories of Asian Americans (presumably the story of many people reading this blog) is not just a small, niche genre, but an important story that all Americans should hear. Check out our website the next time you're looking for a book recommendation. It could be the first time you recognize yourself in something you read.

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