Although immigrants from Asia and Americans of Asian descent have been writing in the United States since the 19th century, Asian American literature as a category of writing only came into existence in the early 1970s. Perhaps the earliest references to “Asian American literature” appeared with David Hsin-fu Wand’s Asian American Heritage: An Anthology of Prose and Poetry, published in 1974, and Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Asian-American Writers, edited by Frank Chin, Jeffery Paul Chan, Lawson Fusao Inada, and Shawn Wong, also published in 1974. Elaine Kim’s seminal book of criticism, Asian American Literature: An Introduction to the Writings and Their Social Context, was published in 1982 and was the first critical book on the topic.
Since then, the field of Asian American literature and of Asian American literary criticism has grown remarkably. But defining “Asian American literature” remains a troublesome task. Most critics who have written about Asian American literature implicitly or explicitly define it as being written by Asian Americans, and usually about Asian Americans. This definition poses a number of problems that are an ongoing source of discussion for Asian American literary critics: who is an Asian American? Is “America” only the United States, or does it include the rest of the Americas? If an Asian American writes about characters who are not Asian American, is this Asian American literature? If someone who is not Asian American writes about Asian Americans, is this Asian American literature?
The challenges around defining Asian American literature are not unique to it and indicate difficulties not so much with the field of Asian American literature but with issues of race, culture, and national identity that are endemic to United States history and culture.
Were there Asian people living in America during the 1950’s or even earlier? Were they also victims of racism just like the blacks in American history? Was the racism against Asians more abusive than to blacks?
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