With the publication of two autobiographical works by Asian-American immigrant women this fall, two literary presses are at the leading edge of a demographic trend, while challenging stereotypes about the Midwest as the white-bread enclave of Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon tales. And while the authors and their publishers—Coffee House Press and Minnesota Historical Society Press (MHSP)—all reside in Minnesota, both books are resonating with readers far beyond the region.
Breakout from Borealis
Jane Jeong Trenka's searing memoir, The Language of Blood (MHSP/Borealis Books, $23.95), describes her experiences as an international adoptee who left Korea in 1975 at six months old, with her four-and-a-half-year-old sister. The two grew up in rural Minnesota with conservative, German-American, Lutheran parents who never directly addressed their Korean identity. Through one-act plays, crossword puzzles, myths, poems and dream sequences, Trenka weaves a language-rich account of how a letter from her birth mother and, later, a frightening male stalker who fetishized her as an Asian woman forced her to confront her divided identity. "It's a fine literary memoir—not just a book about Koreans or about adoption," said MHSP marketing manager Kevin Morrissey. "We're targeting general, literate readers who are open to new things. Her writing deserves that."
The book received an early vote of confidence when Barnes & Noble chose it for the highly competitive Discover Great New Writers program this fall. "You'd have to be heartless not to love this book. It's Amy Tan's fiction come to life," said Jill Lamar, the manager and editor of the program, which also featured another MHSP title last spring, Joel Turnipseed's Gulf War memoir, Baghdad Express (Mar.). At the chain, Trenka's book has received front-of-the-store placement with shelf talkers and is featured in an in-store promotional brochure. "The potential for this book is huge," said Lamar. On hearing of B&N's enthusiasm, the press pushed up the pub date to August, to take full advantage of B&N's promotion, and went to press for 6,000 hardcovers—a big initial printing for MHSP. Since then, the book has returned to press twice, bringing the total in print to 8,000.
Admiring pre-pub reviews in PW and Booklist have also given the book a lift. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune recently ran a review and a feature story on Trenka, while the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel will run an excerpt, and the Los Angeles Times has scheduled a review for early November. Trenka has appeared on major broadcast media in the Twin Cities, and will soon be interviewed on the nationally syndicated Voice of America and on NPR affiliates in Boston and New York, where she will also promote the book in bookstores and literary centers. Korean Quarterly and Asian Pages, both national publications, have also scheduled author interviews.
Coffee House Whips It Up
In contrast to MHSP, Coffee House has a long and proud tradition of publishing work by Asian-American writers. The press has already published three critically acclaimed prose and poetry works by Shanghai native Wang Ping, including the poetry collection Flesh & Spirit (1998), a novel called Foreign Devil (1996) and the story collection American Visa (1994). Though Ping's latest poetry collection, The Magic Whip (Oct., $15) is intensely autobiographical, with a strong sense of places as diverse as New York City, Hong Kong and St. Paul, Minn., Coffee House is emphasizing its larger social and cultural context. Marketing manager Molly Mikolowski regards it as a poetic companion to Ping's academic study of Chinese foot-binding rituals, Aching for Beauty: Footbinding in China (Univ. of Minnesota Press, 2000).
Bookseller interest in The Magic Whip has been strong. "It was our hottest galley at BEA," said Mikolowski. "Wang Ping made a splash with Aching for Beauty. Many booksellers and librarians all over the country know her."
So far, The Magic Whip has received strong pre-pub reviews in PW, Booklist and Library Journal, while interviews or reviews have been scheduled in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, American Poet, Minnesota Monthly and alternative weeklies in Michigan and Colorado. And this fall and winter, Ping will embark on a six-city tour of bookstores, libraries and universities.
According to Sandy Torkildson, owner of A Room of One's Own in Madison, Wis., the emergence of Trenka and Ping is a reflection of recent demographic patterns. "There's been an influx of immigrants to the Midwest, ever since the wars in southeast Asia," she said. "Now, these immigrants have come of age and are telling their stories. The Midwest is no longer predominantly Scandinavian or German, and the diversity in books from literary presses reflects this shift."