Books about early/midcentury Asian American experience?
May 13, 2020 4:49 PM   Subscribe

I have been watching the really incredible Asian American Experience on PBS and would like to learn more about this section of American history. What can you recommend?

Most of this is stuff I never learned in history class, even though I went to a majority Asian American high school. I'd heard of Anna May Wong (though only as the Dragon Lady stereotype) and knew about the Japanese internment (not part of our curriculum, but it was in the textbook). The rest of this PBS show has been brand new to me.

I would prefer historical fiction and memoir over history texts -- that is, I want to experience this time and space through the eyes of someone living it. One of the things I've really liked about this PBS series is the way they contextualize Big Historical Events -- the Japanese internment is told through the voices of Nisei siblings, one of whom becomes disenchanted with American racism, moves to Japan, builds a life there, and essentially self-exiles from his American family. Meanwhile, two of the other brothers are fighting for the US in WW2, and the rest of the family are put in concentration camps.

I've read some more contemporary books (e.g. The Namesake), but am interested in learning more about experiences of people in the first half of the 20th century. Big sweeping family epics are a plus -- something like Pachinko but in the US, or Middlesex for Asians. And especially something that centers the voice of the Asian American characters.
posted by basalganglia to Writing & Language (16 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
The Nisei author Yoshiko Uchida wrote a number of very good middle-grade novels about the prewar and internment experiences of Japanese-Americans, based closely on her own life; she also wrote at least one adult novel, Picture Bride, and one or two volumes of autobiography.

(Caveat: I'm not Asian-American myself so I hope I am not speaking out of place, and I've mentioned Uchida here once or twice before, but she seems like someone who would suit your requirements and also who deserves to be more widely known.)
posted by huimangm at 5:22 PM on May 13, 2020 [2 favorites]

The (internment camps) classic is No-No Boy (1957) by John Okada.
posted by spamandkimchi at 5:43 PM on May 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

So there's America is In the Heart by Carlos Bulosan (1943), who is a Filipino-American who was a leader and was part of the Filipinx labor strikes that are often overlooked historically when you look at the California labor movement (think Grapes of Wrath). There's also America is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo (2018).
posted by yueliang at 5:47 PM on May 13, 2020 [2 favorites]

Younghill Kang's work is lesser known, but wrote in the interwar period before World War II. I vaguely remember reading The Grass Roof ( 1931) but there's also East Goes West, a memoir disguised as fiction.
posted by spamandkimchi at 5:47 PM on May 13, 2020 [3 favorites]

OMG I forgot about another essential story about the internment camps. Hisaye Yamamoto's Seventeen Syllables.
posted by spamandkimchi at 5:51 PM on May 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

Longtime Californ’: A Documentary Study of an American Chinatown is great. Focuses on SF Chinatown in the 70s, with tons of contemporary interviews with residents, plus primary source excerpts from earlier periods.
posted by scyllary at 6:03 PM on May 13, 2020

I'm white, but I remember being assigned The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston in 7th or 8th grade, and really liking it.
posted by Pallas Athena at 6:30 PM on May 13, 2020

On Gold Mountain: The One-Hundred-Year Odyssey of My Chinese-American Family by Lisa See is really lovely. The memoir is integrated into the history.
posted by frumiousb at 6:43 PM on May 13, 2020 [2 favorites]

George Takei Recalls Time In An American Internment Camp In 'They Called Us Enemy' (NPR link), the illustrated memoir he published last year. NPR: What the government did to Takei and some 120,000 other Japanese Americans can't be undone, no matter how many speeches public officials deliver or how many checks they send. The very structure of Takei's narrative underlines this fact more than a political speech ever could. It's young George's point of view that shapes the story, imbuing it with childlike energy. Even as the Takeis are wrenched from their home, transported hundreds of miles and forced to live in camps, young George's openness and curiosity are unflagging. His outlook provides a striking contrast to government officials' stale attempts to explain, excuse and ultimately seek forgiveness for the evil they've done.
posted by Iris Gambol at 7:23 PM on May 13, 2020

China Boy by Gus Lee is a coming-of-age story set in San Francisco.
posted by dum spiro spero at 8:06 PM on May 13, 2020

Stubborn Twig is nonfiction about three generations of Japanese people in Oregon, and how internment and racism shaped the fruit industry in the Hood River valley.
posted by janell at 9:03 PM on May 13, 2020

I’ll toot my own horn here: I write a blog on Chinese students who studied in US universities between 1900 and 1920. I haven’t written in a while but there are lots of entries, and I hope to start again soon.

Boxer Indemnity Scholars
posted by chainsofreedom at 7:58 AM on May 14, 2020 [1 favorite]

Omg same! I really like this one:

The Strangeness of Beauty
posted by ananci at 8:11 AM on May 14, 2020

My uncle wrote a book that mostly focuses on the New York Chinatown experience during that time - "Tea That Burns." It's a bit wider ranging than what you might be looking for, but it's a "historical memoir" of my family's migration and assimilation in the States; it starts with the Opium Wars and migration for railroad construction (roughly when my ancestors came over) and ends around 1970 when my grandparents were "established" and my dad, uncle, and their other siblings were older children. It's out of print, but last time I checked it wasn't hard to find a used copy.
posted by backseatpilot at 9:56 AM on May 14, 2020

Seconding Lisa See, Shanghai Girls and Dreams of Joy both cover a lot of the same territory as On Gold Mountain, but there is a family drama and romance.
posted by arachnidette at 1:21 PM on May 14, 2020

Can I just say: thank you so much for posting this? I didn't know about the PBS special and am really looking forward to it, as well as all the other references in this thread.
posted by spelunkingplato at 2:32 PM on May 15, 2020 [2 favorites]

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