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Posted on Sun, May 22, 2011 : 6:12 a.m.

Explore the richness of the Asian Pacific American experience with literature and the arts

By Frances Kai-Hwa Wang

Asian American writer Lisa Yee, author of Millicent Min Girl Genius, recently wrote an article for about how her mother instilled in her a love of reading. She opened by recollecting the books she and her mother read together:

“When I was little, my mother and I had a nighttime ritual. After my bath, when I was zipped into my pink footie pajamas, she'd sit on the bed and read to me. Mom's voice wrapped me up in fairy tales about princesses beset by trolls, a monkey named George and the adventures of Madeline who resided in an "old house in Paris that was covered in vines.”

When my daughter Hao Hao read the introduction (over my shoulder, as always), she said, "I know all those books." Then we joked that if she wrote a similar article someday, it would read, "My mom read me Ed Young, Allen Say, Laurence Yep, Grace Lin, Lisa Yee, Linda Sue Park..."

I came to Asian American literature by accident, by moving to the Midwest for graduate school and experiencing for the first time what it was like to be a minority.

Luckily Professor Steve Sumida also moved to the Midwest about that time and introduced me to Asian American literature at University of Michigan’s first Asian American literature course, which really saved me. It was such a relief to read about other people with similar childhoods, families, bilingual background, experiences of being “the only one.”

I remember clearly the scene in Maxine Hong Kingston’s Woman Warrior where she describes how loud Chinese women can be, especially in Chinese restaurants, speaking Cantonese, with dishes clanking, food and spit flying. In a flash, I recognized that like the narrator, I too, had grown up surrounded by many loud Chinese women yet also internalized the stereotype of the quiet Chinese American girl — because I had never before heard anyone challenge the stereotype.

My children have been raised with Asian Pacific American literature, are fluent in many cultural trends, and what a difference that makes. I sometimes think if only Amy Chua or Wesley Yang or even troubled Seung-Hui Cho had read some Asian American literature, they would have known that they are not alone, that others have walked this path before, and perhaps they could have picked up some better strategies or a larger vision for their lives.

I am also impressed by the many interesting projects in which literature, arts, and social justice activism come together.

Detroit Asian Youth (DAY) Project with artist Soh Suzuki works with Hmong youth in Detroit.

At the University of Michigan Asian/Pacific Islander American Out of the Margins Social Activism Conference in March, there was a huge arts component with films, performances, music, dance and spoken word.

The Asian American Writers’ Workshop has organized a writers’ boycott of Arizona: “Wordstrike—Writers Against SB 1070” and HB 2281.

After the tsunami in Japan, UNICEF started sending children’s picture books to the regions hardest hit.

I sometimes wish that I had more folks with whom to discuss this literature. I first read all the “classics” of Asian American literature in graduate school, accompanied by a thick coursepack of literary analysis and historical background. However, since then, more books keep getting written.

Mainstream reviews are no help because they are often so shallow. I do peruse Asian American academic journals, but those are often so thick. (Sorry, academic friends!). I worry about what I am missing.

So for Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, I encourage all to read Asian Pacific American literature. Explore the richness of this experience, challenge your stereotypes.

May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month.

Frances Kai-Hwa Wang is a second-generation Chinese American from California who now divides her time between Ann Arbor and the Big Island of Hawaii. She is an editor of Asian American Village, lead multicultural contributor for and a contributor for New America Media's Ethnoblog. She is on the Advisory Board of American Citizens for Justice. She team-teaches "Asian Pacific American History and the Law" at University of Michigan and University of Michigan Dearborn. She is a popular speaker on Asian Pacific American and multicultural issues. Check out her website at, her blog at, and she can be reached at