Shawn Wong is considered a pioneer of Asian American literature. In 1974, he co-edited Aiiieeeee!, a groundbreaking anthology of Asian American Literature. His first novel, HOMEBASE, was published in 1979. At the time, it was the only novel by a Chinese American in print. HOMEBASE would go on to win the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award, and the 15th Annual Governor’s Writers Day Award of Washington.
His latest novel, AMERICAN KNEES, was hailed as “energetic and humorous by Terry McMillan and “one of the most memorable books of the 1990s” by Ishmael Reed. Shawn Wong is currently the Chairman of the English Department at the University of Washington.
Q&A With Shawn Wong
When did you first begin writing?
I was always interested in writing from grammar school on. When I was a sophomore in high school, I had a fabulous English teacher who gave lectures on great literature and they were so fascinating, it made me want to read everything he mentioned from Proust to Thomas Mann to Faulkner. I think an intense interest in reading and literature led to writing. I started writing poetry when I was 18.
Were any authors particularly influential on your writing? Whose work are you currently reading?
When I was in high school and college I devoured everything written by Thomas Wolfe (not Tom Wolfe) and Thomas Hardy. Even though I was writing poetry in college and taking poetry writing classes, I was very interested in the novel as a form and marvelled at the commitment a reader brings to the novel. The most influential writers were my own teachers. My first creative writing teacher was the Irish poet James Liddy, who was teaching at San Francisco State (he now teaches at Univ. of Wisconsin, Milwaukee) and the great American writer Kay Boyle, who became a real mentor to my writing in school and even later.
Who am I reading now? I read all kind of work. Right this minute I’m reading “How the Irish Saved Civilization.” I visited Ireland three times last year, while working for the City of Dublin libraries and fell in love with the country and with a city whose identity is defined by its literary history. While in Ireland, I re-read the “Dubliners” by James Joyce, a book I hadn’t read since I was an undergraduate at Berkeley. It was great to read the stories while living in Dublin. I stayed at the Gresham Hotel where Joyce’s short story, “The Dead,” is set.
I read a lot of women’s writing because as a student of English literature at Berkeley back in the 60’s we only read dead male British authors, so I came out of Berkeley with a desire to read women authors and multicultural writing. I love reading Edna O’Brien, Jane Smiley, Jane Urquhart, Margaret Drabble, and others. I also try and read books written by friends like Fae Ng, Leslie Silko, Frank Chin, Ishmael Reed, Peter Bacho, and others.
When you first published HOMEBASE (at the time, the only novel by a Chinese American in print), there were very few novels by Asian Americans. Today, that amount has greatly increased. What are your views on the current state of Asian American Literature?
Obviously, Asian American literature is much more prominent now than when I first started publishing. I hope, though, that we can get beyond what I call the “grandma’s arrival in America story” and move on to more contemporary stories or the “poor immigrant” story. There’s nothing wrong with those stories, it’s just we have much more to say as a community and as authors.
You are the Director of Creative Writing at the University of Washington. Over the years, have you noticed any changes in the attitudes/perceptions of your students towards their own ethnicities? Is this reflected in their writing?
Actually I’m the Chairman of the English Department now and don’t get to teach that much any more, but I’m always impressed by what my students write. I very impressed by the young Asian American scholars who are developing critical theories about Asian American literature. As my fellow editors of “Aiiieeeee!” and I wrote in an introduction to the revised editor of our anthology, “The health of a literature is measured by the health of its critics.”
In AMERICAN KNEES, you explored some rather sensitive issues concerning Asian Americans and sexuality. In what ways do you see race and sexuality intertwining within the Asian American community?
Racial identity and sexual identity are part of our sense of self. In “American Knees” I tried to move beyond the typical Asian American “grandma’s arrival in America story” and move the story up a few generations to the present. AK is a novel about stereotypes. I felt it was important to not only debunk the stereotype, but also to replace it with a representation that was real. Readers are always coming up to me and telling me how they can relate to AK and much of it articulates what they’ve been thinking about race and sex and identity. That’s very gratifying to hear as an author.
You’ve been involved in several controversies over the nature of “authenticity” in Asian American writing. How would you define “authenticity” today?
I think you have me confused with Frank Chin. He’s the center of the controversies. Seriously, it’s not for me to say what authentic and what’s not. I think my writing is authentic. It’s also informed by my knowledge of Asian American literature. Reader who know Asian American literature can recognize literary references throughout AMERICAN KNEES.
An author was recently quoted as saying, “I don’t even know why people bother to read books anymore.” In this age of television, 12 screen cinemas and the Internet, what role do you see for a writer in today’s society?
My role as a writer is to explore what I think is the truth, to be honest about what I believe in. I think that comes through my writing. Does that come through the television or the internet? I doubt it.
What projects are you currently working on?
Speaking of movies, I’m currently working on the screenplay version of AMERICAN KNEES with Jeffery and Janis Chan. I’m not sure when it’ll be a movie, but an LA Asian American film company, Celestial Pictures, bought the movie rights and are very interested in making the novel into a movie.
I’m also working on a non-fiction book centered on the theme of communication. Can’t say any more about it, because I don’t know much more. Needless to say it’ll deal with the issues I write about, namely Asian America, race, identity politics, etc.
This may be an unanswerable question, but I’ll ask it anyway. Why do you write?
Why do I write? “I don’t know” is a good answer. I always try to “make” something beautiful when I write a novel. I don’t write in order to get published. It’s nice to get published and be recognized, but I get more of a thrill at reading something I’ve created–a page or a chapter of a novel–and realizing that I what’s on the page is EXACTLY what I wanted to convey in both my mind and my heart.