guest post: roundtable interview on multicultural lit

I'm on vacation! Taking a much-needed break. But don't worry. While I'm away, I've enlisted some great guest bloggers to keep things going around here. Here's Paula Yoo with a roundtable interview on Asian American writers.

As an Asian American YA novelist and children's book writer, I am very interested in multicultural literature and the future of children's books featuring main characters of color. A few years ago, I had the privilege of interviewing some prominent librarians about the state of multicultural children's literature, especially for Asian American readers and writers.

The librarians who participated in our roundtable discussion:

Joel Bangilan is currently a Branch Services Coordinator for San Antonio Public Library. His experience as a public librarian in parts of Houston that are predominantly Asian and Asian American and his own Filipino heritage provides him with an insight to the issues.

Dr. Sylvia Vardell, Ph.D, is a professor at the School of Library and Information Studies at Texas Woman's University. A Fulbright Scholar, Dr. Vardell graduated with a B.S. in Elementary Education at the University of Texas and a Ph.D in Children's Literature/Language Arts at the University of Minnesota. She has taught graduate-level courses in literature for children and young adults as well as multicultural literature.

Sarah Park is a Ph.D candidate at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She graduated from UCLA with B.A. in history. She earned her M.A. in Asian American Studies, focusing on Korean American children's literature.

Dora Ho has been a Young Adult Librarian at the Los Angeles Public Library (California) since 1995. She is the current president of the Chinese American Librarians Association (CALA). She is also a member of the Asian/Pacific American Librarians Association (APALA) and serves as chair of the Literature Award Committee of APALA.

Below are the highlights of that roundtable discussion (originally posted at fusionstories.blogspot.com/):

YOO: Asian American "immigrant"-themed novels were quite "in vogue" in the 1980s and 90s thanks to the popularity of Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club. Now that trend has spilled into the world of young adult/middle grade novels. Why is this such a hunger and interest for these types of books, especially for young people?

BANGILAN: A friend of mine said that it is cool to be Asian these days. Lots of trends in pop culture and lifestyle seem to draw upon Asian cultures recently. Just look at the rising popularity of sushi restaurants that are inspired by Japanese menus or vegetarian places that are based on Indian cuisine. What does it mean that you can buy sushi or saag paneer in the grocery store? Pop music samples from Bollywood tracks and even more musicians and artists claim an Asian heritage. Manga and anime is an exploding phenomenon. And a number of movies have brought back the coolness of Hong Kong fight scenes or ancient mystical China. Pop culture trend setters like the Black Eyed Peas, Ang Lee, Amerie, Kimora Lee, and Lucy Liu have mainstreamed elements drawn from our cultures. Asian and Asian American actors are being cast in more mainstream roles so we see our own faces in movies and television. With this boost of coolness from pop culture, Asian American young people and their friends are encouraged to seek our experiences and faces in the literature.

PARK: Early Asian American children's literature was mostly in the form of folktales and stories about children in Asia, for example, Frances Carpenter's Tales of a Korean Grandmother, which mixes the two genres together. Since the 1950s and 1960s, with more and more critical scholarship on African American children's books, Asian Americans began to look critically at the way Asians are portrayed in children's books and decided that these folktales and stories about Asians in Asia did not provide a holistic or diverse - portrayal of the Asian diaspora. Authors such as Lawrence Yep began to write historical and contemporary fiction as a way to reinsert our place in American history.

YOO: Some critics feel that there needs to be more broad-based novels featuring Asian American characters in "mainstream" roles where they are not always dealing with the classic issues of immigration/language barriers/racism. How do you feel about that? Are there any new books, especially for teens, that you feel are good examples of this new trend?

BANGILAN: Sure there is a need for literature like that. Not all Asian American teens are recent immigrants. Many have acculturated or assimilated into mainstream culture successfully. A teen's issues tend to be about self-identity. I do feel that those issues are hard to avoid when dealing with the Asian American experience. I have to wonder what Asian American young person does not deal with those issues ever. The United States still has a long way to go in race relations and no matter how much a child has acculturated; there are still people who define others by physical features. So a main character has to go to cheer competition, and is not liked by the other girls on her squad. Certainly this is a mainstream situation, but when the author writes that she has straight black hair and almond eyes, and her grandmother packed her lunch with a lychee snack, the author then has to deal with why even bring that up. An author has to deal with what makes this character Asian; and as a writer does the Asian-ness of the character then progress the story or is it gratuitous. I felt that Project Mulberry by Linda Sue Park, did this very well. Life of Pi dealt with themes beyond Pi's heritage, but by knowing his heritage we understood his world view. Black Mirror dealt with a biracial girls self identity. I would also recommend Nothing But the Truth (and a Few White Lies). So many times I hear the phrase, "Love is color blind‚" that the United States needs to be "color blind," or that children should be "color blind." I think the point is not to move to being "color blind," but seeing "color" and loving it. Instead of ignoring our heritages, embracing our heritage and part of our identity and realizing that it is a treasure.

PARK: Immigration from Asia has been slowing down in the past couple of decades and more and more Asians are born in the US, so we see much more diversity across all ethnic Asian groups in the United States. Thus we need books dealing with issues related to immigration, language barriers and racism, as well as books informed by but not driven by those issues. Rudine Sims Bishop has a wonderful model of "culturally conscious" stories that are informed but not driven by issues of race and tend to be written by insiders from that community. To have a children's book where an Asian character's Asian heritage does not at least inform the story would be strange and quickly criticized as what Rudine Sims Bishop calls a "melting pot" story, where the ethnic background of the character has absolutely nothing to do with the story. Yangsook Choi's New Cat is a good example of a picture book where Mr. Kim's Korean origin is not the focus but somewhat informs the story. It's a little more difficult to find that type of book for older readers because there's so much more space to explore issues related to race.

HO: Sometimes, the theme of immigration/language barriers/racism is not necessary in a good Asian American literature. Readers want to be able to identify with the characters in the books and many of them may not face that kind of discrimination. Rather, I feel that readers want to read about life in America and issues that all teens have to face such as drugs, pregnancy, identify, peer pressure, etc.

QUESTION: Many Asian American authors (both veteran and up-n-coming) express frustration at being pigeon-holed or labeled as ONLY Asian American fiction when they feel their books feature universal themes. Why do you think Asian American teen fiction is important for readers of different backgrounds/ethnicities to read? In other words, why is multicultural fiction important for today's teenagers?

BANGILAN: Teens of other cultures need to see how the other side lives. Like I was saying earlier literature offers shared experiences. These shared experiences give people common ground, common terms, and common references to then exchange ideas for understanding. I think reading Asian and Asian American literature brings to the table concepts and ideas that Westerners and some others might not be used to. I believe that there is a distinction between Asian literature and Asian American genres. First and foremost is that Asian American literature is American literature. Americans with Asian heritage have a completely different experience, outlook, perspective, and conditioning than the families we left either recently or even generations ago and is different from the cultures we are entering. The Asian American experience is blended and often has a pan-Asian mentality. Millennials tend to exhibit this perspective the most in that they don't necessarily see themselves as one ethnicity, but that they see themselves as Asian and have a camaraderie with South Asians, Central Asians, and Pacific Islanders. There are now bicultural Asians who are writing and creating books. Theses authors who might be of Chinese and Vietnamese ethnicities or Filipino and Japanese parents tend to exhibit a pan-Asian mentality. The Asian American experience also has hapas in the mix. These are the individuals who are biracial. The Tiger Woods, Apolo Onos, and Kimura Lees of the world are just as Asian and American as those of us with both parents of one ethnicity. Theirs is a growing voice.

HO: Nowadays, teenagers will read good literature regardless of the author and intended audience. They want to read books that are of interest to them and issues they can relate to. For example, teens interested in vampires will read books by Stephenie Meyer, L.J. Smith, and Annette Curtis Klause. Asian American authors should focus on writing good literature rather than focus on writing only to target the Asian American audience. If it is a good read it will be picked up by teens.

QUESTION: Do you have any favorite books or books you think are groundbreaking/important that were written by or about Asian American young adults? Why do you think these particular books are important?

BANGILAN: I think the flood of Manga is a significant milestone in the evolution of Asian American fiction. Although not necessarily by or about Asian Americans, the whole genre of books hit mainstream culture with a big splash. This is a genre that appeals to both boys and girls. The stories are exciting and the themes are universally human that they reach a broad spectrum.

VARDELL: Although there was good work by Asian American authors being published for some time (by Yoshiko Uchida and Taro Yashima, for example), Laurence Yep is a key figure winning Newbery honor distinctions in 1976 and 1994. (He went on to win the 2005 Wilder Award for his entire body of work.) [Ed Young won the Caldecott award in 1990 and Allen Say won it in 1994, but I'm focusing my responses on novels, not picture books.] The year 2002 was a breakthrough year, in my opinion, because Linda Sue Park won the Newbery for A Single Shard, plus An Na won the Printz award for Step from Heaven. That singled a big shift, I think, with a wider acceptance and even appetite for works that reflect Asian American experiences. Park's acceptance speech at the Newbery banquet brought us all to tears as she invited her dad to the podium and shared her medal with him for taking her to the library all those years and guiding her to read the "best books" from lists from the American Library Association. Although Park's historical novel and Na's compelling contemporary story were distinctively different, they both reflected powerful writing and raised important universal questions‚ both in richly described cultural contexts.

HO: As the chair of the Asian/Pacific American Librarian Association - Literature Award Committee, I come across a lot of books dealing with Asian cultures. The amount and quality of these titles has increased tremendously in the last 10 years. I am truly impressed with the many authors that bring their characters to life and touch our heart. These books are part of the American culture and reflect our way of life. They are important because they feature characters that are Asian American and they reflect genuine American culture. I have many favorites; it will be too long a list to list everything. Recently I published an article in the Asian/Pacific American Librarians Association (APALA) newsletter on Asian/Pacific American literature listing a number of titles that can be used in a core collection on Asian American literature. Several authors that I have read recently have also became my favorites: Justina Chen Headley, Cynthia Kadohata, Grace Lin, An Na, Linda Sue Park, and Lisa Yee.

PARK: Marie Lee's Saying Goodbye, Finding My Voice and Necessary Roughness and Sooknyul Choi's Gathering of Pearls are groundbreaking because they were among the first novels about Koreans in the United States. Personally, I really identified with An Na's A Step from Heaven and Paula Yoo's Good Enough. The trauma and drama of Young Ju and Patti resonated with me in different ways, especially regarding my relationship with my parents and academic expectations. I'm sure they resonate with many Korean American girls. I laugh every time I read David Yoo's Girls for Breakfast because it's just so funny and shows an athletic Korean American, even if Nick's totally awkward in other ways. Tanuja Desai Hidier's Born Confused is an excellent novel about an Indian American teen. Gaskins, Pearl Fuyo's What Are You? Voices of Mixed-Race Young People is also an important work because it brings together the raw and articulate voices of many mixed-race young adults. Multicultural literature is important for all teenagers because no one lives in a bubble. Reading about other people's experiences helps develop our empathetic sensibilities and broadens our worldview. That's sorely lacking in our world today.

Paula Yoo is a children's book author and YA novelist. Her books include the IRA Notable Sixteen Years in Sixteen Seconds: The Sammy Lee Story (Lee & Low Books '05) and the YA novel Good Enough (HarperCollins '08). Her latest children's book, Shining Star: The Anna May Wong Story (Lee & Low '09) won the Carger G. Woodson Award from the National Council for the Social Studies for "the most distinguished social science books depicting ethnicity in the United States for young readers." Her website is paulayoo.com.

angry archive