A year of breakthroughs in the Asian American narrative | Inquirer

The best way to lose weight in 2024

2023 was a year of breakthroughs in the Asian American narrative
/ 05:30 PM January 02, 2024

Take advice about losing weight from a vegan? Sure, but this isn’t really about that nor about Ozempic (BTW, best sauteed). No, I’m talking about losing the weight one carries from past actions, good and bad. Beefs, personal and public. The best way to lose that weight? Apologize. And tell the story.

I know this because in 2023 I have witnessed the end of a war.

Not one of the two major geo-political flashpoints of the day, but rather the end of a significant AAPI culture war – the end of a feud, essentially a “lit war,” over the question, “What is an authentic Asian American story?”


Or at least, ”What’s our story? when it comes to the first generation in 20th century Asian American literature.

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And that includes us, pare.

I know this because I talked to Prof. Daniel Phil Gonzales, the professor emeritus in Asian American Studies/Filipino American Studies at San Francisco State University, who was there when the beef started.

That the beef ends this year is significant because 2023 shall be known as the year the Asian American story continues to evolve in fiction and non-fiction across all media platforms.

Worth noting: We aren’t really as quiet or invisible as thought.

But let’s begin with the Asian American Lit War I.

It involves the decades-old fight between famed “Women Warrior” author Maxine Hong Kingston and the group of male Asian American writers, led by authors Frank Chin and Shawn Wong, who published the trailblazing Asian American fictional anthology “Aiiieeeee!” in the 1970s.


“Aiiieeeee!” was like our community’s anguished cry for artistic expression. When I read it as a teenager, it made me want to be a writer. From “Aiiieeeee!” came the inspiration for that sense of “amok” that I used in my work.

Book cover with title, AIIIEEEEE! and illustration of Asian man's face

Authors Frank Chin and Shawn Wong published the trailblazing Asian American fictional anthology “Aiiieeeee!” in the 1970s. Image: Wikipedia

Kingston actually read my journalistic essays and wrote a back-cover blurb for my “Amok” collection in 2000. At the time, I didn’t understand the feud.

To me, Kingston’s “Warrior” always represented the historical breakout for Asian American writers. The book busted through all the artistic and commercial barriers that kept Asian American voices at bay. But that led to the disagreement started by the “Aiiieeeee!” guys as to what an Asian American story was and who had the right to tell these stories, perhaps a slightly sexist literary tiff that existed until just last October at the American Book Awards in San Francisco.

Enter the aforementioned Professor Gonzalez. I asked him what it was about. And he told me it began with a translation by Kingston of a Chinese term in reference to white males as devils. That dispute led to a criticism about authenticity that spun out of control into a patriarchal response by the male writers.

Gonzalez got the inside because he was buddies with both Chin and Wong, the latter who was set to be at the ceremony to introduce Kingston as the winner of the American Book Awards Lifetime Achievement honor.

At the last minute, Wong was too ill to be in San Francisco. Instead, a letter was read to the awards crowd where Wong acknowledged Kingston’s work, notably her lesser known “Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book.” It is a lyrical novel about a fictional writer named Witman Ah Sing, a character that is an amalgam of Asian American writers, but most would say is in fact Chin. Wong called “Tripmaster” the novel about literary Asian America.

“Had Kingston published a novel about literary New York, critics would have lauded its publication,” Wong said in his letter. “It would have confirmed what everyone perceived as the literary canon that didn’t include us.”

With those words, Wong finally came clean. It was the recognition that Kingston’s work indeed put Asian Americans on the map, and it is the reason many refer to her as the godmother of Asian American literature.

“So true,” wrote Wong in his letter. “Thank you, Maxine, for giving us a seat at the table of American literature.”

As the emcee of the event, I introduced Kingston, who was soft-spoken and gracious in her acceptance of the American Book Awards Lifetime Achievement honor.

But she was still a bit stunned and amazed since it came with words from Wong.

“This award means a lot to me, especially that it was presented by Shawn Wong,” Kingston told the crowd. “This means that there is some rapprochement coming among writers who were arguing, ‘Who do those stories belong to and who is authentic? In other words, who is true and, on this level, who is Chinese, and who is Chinese American? Shawn and I were on opposite sides of this argument and so his words today mean that there is rapprochement if not reconciliation.”

It received the heartiest applause of the ceremony.

When it comes to OG Asian American lit culture, this is a big deal that lays the literary foundation for all Asian American stories.

That it comes in 2023 is significant, because this may be the year that broad acceptance was given to the modern Asian American story well beyond the novel in TV and film.

Oscars to ‘Everything Everywhere All at Once’

As we put 2023 into the dustbin and enter the dreaded beginning of an existential election year, let’s stay positive and take stock in the ways 24 million Asian American and Pacific Islanders (including  4 million-plus Filipino Americans) are showing up in ways we’d never imagined.

Since 1995, I’ve been writing my “Emil Amok” columns and observations each week on race, media and politics from a Filipino Asian American perspective, and 2023 seems to be an extra special year for further breakthroughs in the modern Asian American narrative.

It’s immigrant, it’s native born. It’s the top three ethnicities, Chinese, Indian and Filipino, but so much more. It’s Korean, Hmong, Bangladeshi, Japanese. An AAPI umbrella hardly covers us and all our stories.

And we’re all telling them, stories that is.

2023 saw Asian America turned inside out with stories about us in different platforms, from fiction to non-fiction, where we could see ourselves in new ways.

In general, AAPIs went from being the most reviled and hated pandemic scapegoats in 2023 America to among the most storied. People were discovering us without our masks in modern ways.

We’re not talking Fu Manchu meets Pearl Buck derivatives. The world was exposed to modern stories of Asian America, in projects that likely would have been shelved or cast white a generation or two earlier.

This year we saw how far we’ve come from 2018’s “Crazy Rich Asians,” to the just plain crazy. It’s more than OK to tell the Chinese wash-and-fold story in an epic, multi-verse hot dog finger fantasy like “Everything Everywhere All at Once.”

For putting us in a different light, the film was deservedly multi-awarded, honored and Oscar-ed.

It even made space for more borderline dysfunctional Asian American stories in all platforms, giving us characters like Sabrina Wu as Deadeye in the groundbreaking raunchy AAPI chick flick, “Joy Ride,” where four Asian Americans, one a transnational adoptee, take a visit to the ancestral home.

Meeting Wu was one of my year’s highlights. Wu self describes herself as oscillating between “transmasc and nonbinary gender non-conforming.” Turns out we had something in common – a college connection.

I was in Cambridge to compete in an alumni story slam about a trans episode of my own. Meeting Wu was as much a highlight for me as seeing Maxine Hong Kingston say rapprochement.

Those were the moments in 2023 that were unique for me. I even took my own stories to the stage at the New York City Fringe, where I will return in 2024 in April and to the Orlando Fringe in May. New stories about love and being Asian and American. Our stories, our Asian American stories are transforming the view of us and are being told to audiences big and small.

I don’t want to leave off the movie, “1521,” the dream of Filipino American Francis B. Lara-Ho, which tells the historical story of Lapu-Lapu’s defeat of Magellan.

I must also mention “Here Lies Love,” the musical about the Marcos dictatorship which was funded by Filipino American producers. Why it failed to make it to 2024 is more about accounting than being a riveting and compelling musical. I loved the show and it drew crowds but not enough to offset its massive costs. A lesson in capitalism, not art.

Word, Salamat, on stage. ‘Here Lies Love’ ranks 5th among Entertainment Weekly’s best Broadway shows of 2023

Why “Here Lies Love” failed to make it to 2024 is more about accounting than being a riveting and compelling musical. Image: herelieslovebway/IG

But the trend is our stories are being told. By all of us, and far beyond the novel. Will it reverse the feeling that most Asian Americans still have? Recent polls show that the sting of discrimination, of not being heard, of feeling invisible is still very real amongst us – in spite of showing up in narratives throughout our culture.

That’s the hope of the breakthroughs of 2023 for 2024. The tales we tell make a difference because we aren’t just talking to ourselves.

But the news will still dominate 2024

That’s the reality. It always does. That’s why in surveying the columns I wrote this year, I thought to dwell on the arts. Those breakthroughs were among the most positive things I wrote or witnessed in 2023.

But scroll through the collected columns and you’ll see much more. Do people really know us? The Asian American narrative in 2023 started with mass shootings in Monterey Park and Half Moon Bay and never really let up. From Oxford, Michigan to North Carolina to Las Vegas, where Asian Americans were perps or victims, the curse of gun violence was with us throughout the year.

There was also the agony of the Harvard/SCOTUS case, with the repercussions still to be felt in 2024. When the case first began, I called it our Asian American civil war. Did the SCOTUS decision really solve anything? Or did banning consideration of race in the admissions process just institutionalize our invisibility?

And then there are the four Trump indictments, one with an AAPI co-conspirator. Let’s see what happens to Walt Nauta, the Guamanian who looks like us. I don’t worry about Trump as much as I worry about our democracy.

Three actors in movie, Everything Everywhere All at Once

For putting Asian Americans in a different light, “Everything Everywhere All at Once” was deservedly multi-awarded, honored and Oscar-ed. Image: A24 Films

More on all that next time.

So let’s celebrate the Oscars for the Everything Everywhere crowd, and cheer for Maxine and Sabrina, and all our stories that were told in 2023 that are up for major awards in 2024. (Here’s to you, Ali Wong and Steven Yeun, for “Beef,” and I’m vegan.)

For 2024, we really need all the joy we can muster in these new stories of Asian America. They show the resilience of imagination that presents to all a modern understanding of who we are in an ever changing and diverse America  of which we are a part.

NOTE: I will talk about this column and other matters on “Emil Amok’s Takeout,” my AAPI micro-talk show. Live @2pm Pacific. Livestream on Facebook, my YouTube channel and X. Catch the recordings on www.amok.com.

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TAGS: Asian Americans, books, literature
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