As part of this year’s Book Fest @ Bank Street, the panel titled “All American or Forever Foreigner: The Un-easy Balancing Act of Asian American Voices from the Pacific Rim” featured a discussion among Robin Ha (Almost American Girl, HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray), Cynthia Kadohata (A Place to Belong, Atheneum/Dlouhy), Minh Lê (Green Lantern: Legacy, illus. by Andie Tong, DC), Christina Soontornvat (All Thirteen: The Incredible Rescue of the Thai Boys Soccer Team, Candlewick), Abigail Hing Wen (Loveboat Taipei, HarperTeen), and Kao Kalia Yang (A Map into the World, illus. by Seo Kim, Carolrhoda).
After a brief overview of the history behind the term “Asian American” as well as author introductions, moderator Roxanne Hsu Feldman, librarian at the Dalton School in Manhattan, asked, “What inspired or motivated you to write this particular title?”
Soontornvat answered that, growing up, she had “weird mixed feelings” about the musical The King and I, the only time she saw Thai culture in the media. She felt “proud and excited” to see elements of her background on television, while simultaneously feeling shame about how much was portrayed incorrectly. A Wish in the Dark is Soontornvat’s first attempt to incorporate her culture into her work: “I think it took me a while to feel like I had the confidence and the right to tell this type of story—I really struggled with feeling Thai enough to tell it.” The fantastical book is heavily inspired by stories her father told her.
As for Lê, he was invited by DC to pitch a graphic novel for young readers. Considering his grandmother his muse, Lê said she always wore a jade ring and is “one of the strongest people I know—a true-life hero to me” because she was responsible for helping much of his family get out of Vietnam during the war. Lê sought to shine a light on the “real heroes that walk among us and present that in a way that’s fun for kids through the superhero elements.” Growing up, Lê also did not witness much Vietnamese representation; he was used to only seeing “Vietnam and Vietnamese people as the backdrop to American trauma.” Though Lê also grappled with questions of legitimacy, he feels that the fact that Asian-American creators are asking those questions leads them to striving for authenticity.
Yang drew inspiration from her Hmong background, which has a strong oral tradition, and her “own strong hunger” to put books on the shelves for people like her. Born in a refugee camp in Thailand due to war in Laos, Yang said that growing up, she had an “interesting and deep loneliness to be connected to a bigger world and a documented history.”
Meanwhile, Ha had a similar approach to Lê; when she started as a freelance cartoonist, she drew superhero comics, but she didn’t have a strong connection to the genre since she didn’t grow up in the U.S. Searching for a story that would awaken some sort of connection to her work, Ha stumbled across Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese, which resonated with her, and inspired her to fill “the giant, big gaping [Asian American] hole” she perceived in the graphic memoir genre.
Kadohata was inspired by her boyfriend’s father, who renounced his citizenship and was shipped back to Japan with his family. She relayed how the family struggled once they got there. “As he was about to die, he said, ‘All these things are going to be lost now because I’m dying,’” Kadohata recalled, tearing up, “so I just wanted to make sure that this man’s life was not lost.”
Wen said that growing up she enjoyed reading the Little House books, but knew instinctively that Laura’s mother would not have liked her. Loveboat Taipei was inspired by an actual program that Wen attended herself, which allowed her to “connect with my parents’ culture in a way that I’d never had before, as myself, and not necessarily through my parents’ eyes.” She wanted to showcase the diversity and humanity of Asian Americans in her ensemble cast.
“Is there anything that you found surprising during the process?” Feldman asked next.
Lê underwent a “psychological reckoning” as he mulled over what the “pure Vietnamese American experience” meant. “Because the Asian American experience is so diverse and broad, there is no one gold standard to deviate from. I can only write as authentically as I know how, and if some of the details are different from someone else’s experiences, that doesn’t make it any less true.”
Yang said she found it interesting to be many people’s “first introduction to Hmongness.”
Wen called the process of writing her novel “one of the most growing experiences” for her. For many years, she did not know if an Asian American girl could be the protagonist of novels in general. When her book hit the Times bestseller list and was optioned by Hollywood, Wen said it was affirming: “I’m so encouraged.”
“One of the things I’ve learned since A Wish in the Dark came out,” Soontornvat shared, is that children outside of the Asian American community are more than willing to read about characters outside their culture. “I still carried this insecurity from childhood—that [white kids] wouldn’t be able to relate.” When she talks to kids via Zoom school visits, she still feels a bit surprised and delighted, even though she knows that children have innate empathy.
Kadohata revealed how much she cherished books featuring Asian characters from her childhood, noting how important it is to see yourself on the page as a kid.
“I think all the pressure and anxiety we’re feeling is because there’s still not that many books with Asian American representation,” Ha added, “so we feel the pressure to represent correctly.” She considered how growing up in Korea gave her different foundational beliefs about individualism, which she is still reconciling today.
Feldman then speculated on the Western perception of Asian Americans as all the same, asking the authors how they dealt with balancing stereotypes and the portrayals of Asians vs. Asian Americans.
Wen said that having a cast of 30 Asian-American characters allowed her to develop nuance, showcasing “diversity within the community,” as well as depicting Asian Americans interacting with Taiwanese locals.
“The first time I was called an American was when I left America behind,” Yang said, recalling her studies abroad. She speculated on how her parents wanted her to become a doctor or lawyer because “they didn’t know any other possibilities—and [those professions] were so essential to the survival of communities,” but when she confessed her aspiration to be a writer, they embraced her wholeheartedly. “When I write, yes, I know the stereotypes—I don’t care for them. I go in with everything I am, and I infuse it with that, trusting that the truth of the stories will rise up, and they will stand on their own.”
Ha empathized, saying, “I always thought I was Korean, until I went to Korea—and then I was told I was Korean American. ‘You’re too different from us.’ It’s not necessarily bad or good that some character fits into a category or not—I think it’s only problematic when we’re enforcing a negative stereotype on someone based on their ethnicity.”
“In All Thirteen, I got to explicitly push back against stereotypes,” Soontornvat said. “Since it’s a true story, in part of the book, I’m responding to how the Western media interpreted the events and the things they got wrong because they didn’t understand Thai culture. All these ways that Western perspective, judgment, and values gets projected on us, instead of the other way around.”
Wen agreed, adding, “Because we sit at the intersections of multiple cultures, we are able to see that there are different ways of communicating, and that actually makes us really effective.”
“For all of us,” Lê summed up, “whether we’re trying to subvert a stereotype or leaning into it, all of our character development in writing is somehow shaped by stereotype—because we all live these things. From a craft perspective, there’s a big difference between a character engaging in a behavior that is somewhat stereotypical, and one where the stereotype is the totality of the character.”
Kadohata said, “If you’re writing from inside the culture, you’re also showing the context.” She shared a story of speaking to a man who was put into an internment camp, and how his spoken assertion, “It wasn’t that bad,” was juxtaposed with his inadvertent tears. “You can show the pain on the inside.”
Feldman closed with a question about statistics: if 6% of the books published feature Asians or Asian Americans, and that’s consistent with the U.S. population, is the work done?
“No,” Soontornvat immediately jumped in. “I often think about that every time they release those statistics. We all know that when we walk into a bookstore, you’re not just seeing the books that came out that year. You’re seeing the buildup of all the years that came before when we were never represented.”
Lê also posed a question: “What kind of stories are represented within that 6%? Because of the nature of the gatekeeping in publishing, we’re making good progress, but there is still a lot of breadth to go as far as what kind of Asian American stories are out there.”
Ha agreed, speculating on the lack of diversity on the other side of the publishing industry: editors, marketing and publicity professionals, and more.
“We’re not only writing representation novels,” Wen said. “We’re writing novels we hope will have universal appeal and will be relevant for different types of people.”