Asian-American Writers

The United States is made up mostly of people whose ancestors came from other continents. Writers who came here from other countries continue to explore how immigrants become American. I’m Phoebe Zimmermann.

And I’m Steve Ember. We tell about four Asian- American writers this week on THIS IS AMERICA from VOA Special English. Future programs will tell about immigrant writers from South and Central America, the Caribbean Islands, Africa, the Middle East and Europe.

One of the most popular American writers is Amy Tan. Her best-known book is “The Joy Luck Club.” It is based partly on her life in the United States and her mother’s life in China. Amy Tan’s parents left China just before the Communist government took power in nineteen-forty-nine. Mizz Tan’s mother had to leave behind in China daughters from an earlier marriage. The family settled in San Francisco, California. Amy and her two brothers were born there.

A few years later, Mizz Tan’s father and brother died of brain cancer. This affected the family so much that her mother moved the family to Switzerland. Mizz Tan developed a very difficult relationship with her mother. It continued after she returned to the United States.

As an adult, Amy Tan operated a technical writing business for many years. But she says she was not happy. She began writing short stories. Some of them were published. They later became part of her first book, “The Joy Luck Club,” published in nineteen-eighty-nine. The book was a great success. It remained on the New York Times newspaper’s best-seller list longer than any other book that year. A popular film based on the book was also made.

Some of “The Joy Luck Club” takes place in China before the revolution. It also describes the lives of Chinese-Americans in San Francisco who do not get along well with their parents. The older people feel closer to their old country, China. The children want to be more American.

Amy Tan also explores relationships between mothers and daughters. One part of the book says: “And I was born to my mother and I was born a girl. All of us are like stairs, one step after another, going up and down, but all going the same way.” Mizz Tan said it was only after going to China with her mother that her own identity became clear.

Amy Tan’s other books include “The Kitchen God’s Wife,” “The Hundred Secret Senses,” and “The Bonesetter’s Daughter.” She also wrote two books for children. Mizz Tan says many of her readers, especially Chinese-Americans, feel she has presented the truth about their issues and their lives.

Ha Jin is another important Chinese-American writer. His most well-known book is “Waiting.” It is about a doctor at an army hospital in China. It won two main American prizes, the American Book Award and the Pen/Faulkner Award, in nineteen-ninety-nine. Ha Jin lives in Atlanta, Georgia. He teaches English and Creative Writing at Emory University.

Ha Jin was born in nineteen-fifty-six in Liaoning province, in northern China. He grew up during the Cultural Revolution. Ha Jin joined the army at the age of fourteen and served for six years. Colleges in China re-opened at the end of the Cultural Revolution in nineteen-seventy-seven. Ha Jin was made to study English, which had been his last choice. After completing two degrees, he came to the United States in nineteen-eighty-five for more study. He got a Ph.D. in English from Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts and also studied writing.

Ha Jin and his wife had planned to return to China. However, he says they changed their plans after the killings at Tiananmen Square, in Beijing in nineteen-eighty-nine. He says he believed it would be impossible to write honestly in China. He looked for jobs at universities but could not get work, so he decided to write.

Ha Jin said he decided to write in English because he did not think he would have readers in China. He said writing in English was hard work but it also gave him freedom. Critics have praised his language as being clear and powerful. Ha Jin has written two books of poetry, two short story collections, and three novels.

Most of Ha Jin’s books are set in China. He has been called the first Chinese writer in English to write about daily life under Communist Party rule. Ha Jin does not talk directly about political dissent in his work. But his writing is political because it shows how the system affects the daily lives of Chinese people.

You might ask, what makes Ha Jin an American writer? He has chosen the United States as his new home and he has chosen to write in English. He says that he no longer knows what life in China is like now. Ha Jin says the immigrant experience and American life are meaningful to him now. He says he will soon write about this experience.

Bharati Mukherjee has written a lot about the immigrant experience, mainly of people from South Asia. She was born in Calcutta, India, in nineteen-forty. She moved to the United States in nineteen-sixty-one and married a Canadian-American writer. They lived in Canada for fourteen years. Then they moved back to the United States.

Mizz Mukherjee has written thirteen books. Five of them are about true events. She wrote two of these non-fiction books with her husband, Clark Blaise. The first, “Days and Nights in Calcutta,” is said to be Mizz Mukherjee’s attempt to find her identity in her Indian culture. She and her husband wrote it after living in India for a year.

Mizz Mukherjee says during that time she realized that she was no longer Indian in mind or in spirit. She now calls herself an immigrant American writer. She tells about a “new America” made up of people who have left a more traditional society to search for happiness.

Bharati Mukherjee came to North America before there was a large population of South Asian immigrants. She says this made her life difficult. She got advice from professionals who help get a writer’s work published. These agents advised her not to write about the immigrant experience. They said she should write only about India. She strongly rejected this because she considered herself an American writer.

Some South Asian critics disagree with Mizz Mukherjee. They say her books are popular because she writes about South Asian culture. Yet she refuses to take a lead in the community life of South Asian-Americans. However, Bharati Mukherjee says that as an American, she can define herself in whatever way she chooses.

Experts say there is a clash between what the new and old countries expect of immigrants and how they identify themselves. This is important to the work of another South Asian-American writer, Jhumpa Lahiri. But her experiences and opinions are different from those of Bharati Mukherjee.

Mizz Lahiri’s first book, “The Interpreter of Maladies,” won America’s Pulitzer Prize in nineteen-ninety-nine. The writer was only thirty-two years old. “The Interpreter of Maladies” is a collection of short stories about Indian immigrants in America and Indians in their own country.

Jhumpa Lahiri was born in London, England to Indian parents. The family moved to the United States soon after Jhumpa was born. However, they traveled to India many times while she was growing up. Mizz Lahiri says the United States is her home, even though she feels like an outsider. She says she shares some of her parents’ concerns. They consider India to be their home even though they have not lived there for thirty years. These are the issues the writer explores in her stories in clear and beautiful language.

Mizz Lahiri’s first novel, “The Namesake,” was published in the United States in August. Critics say the book is as good as her first collection of stories. It is about an Indian-American boy dealing with his life as a new American.

Experts say the immigrant experience is an adventure that each generation deals with differently. More and more immigrants continue to arrive in America from different parts of the world. They will continue to write about immigrants’ lives in different ways. Experts say this new writing makes American culture richer because it includes influences from around the world.

This program was written by Doreen Baingana who is a prize-winning writer from Uganda. It was produced by Caty Weaver. I’m Phoebe Zimmermann.

And I’m Steve Ember. Join us again next week for more about life in the United States on the VOA Special English program, THIS IS AMERICA.