By Evangeline Cafe
Northwest Asian Weekly
Award-winning author Shawn Wong grew up in an era defined by bellbottom pants, tie-dyed shirts and young revolutionaries screaming the mantra: “Peace, love and rock ‘n’ roll.”
The 1960s were a formative time for the second generation Chinese American. As an undergraduate student at UC Berkeley, he joined the nation in trying to grasp the evolving notion of identity.
Among all of the uncertainties during the time, Wong was sure about one thing — he loved to write. He decided to take up English as his major, hoping it would help him find his place in the world.
“I was trying to make sense of all kinds of things,” said Wong. “I became interested in finding my own history and Asian American history.”
The wide-eyed freshman began focusing his energies on poetry, but soon realized it probably wasn’t his niche. “My poems got to be 20 pages long and I’d have characters and dialogue,” recalled Wong. “I realized right away, maybe I wasn’t a poet,” he said laughingly.
Wong’s marathon poems did not go to waste, however. In graduate school, his composition about a fourth generation Chinese American boy who delved into his past by walking side-by-side with his ancestors eventually became his first novel, but it struggled to make it from the typewriter to the printing press.
“Publishers just weren’t interested in Asian American writing,” said Wong. The literary study of race in America was still in its early stages and the field was hardly the moneymaker of the time.
But Wong didn’t surrender. He rewrote the story nearly a dozen times after graduate school until he found a publisher who would give him a chance.
“Homebase” was published in 1979 and went on to win the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award and the 15th Annual Governor’s Writers Day Award of Washington. Wong believed it was his calling to explore stories often left untold.
“There weren’t really any Chinese American novels in print,” said Wong. “I felt that part of my responsibility was also to legitimize the history of Chinese America.”
Wong also collaborated with other minority authors, co-editing multicultural literary anthologies including “Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Asian American Writers” and “Asian Diasporas: Cultures, Identities, Representations.”
Wong took his passion for writing to the classroom. He taught on several college campuses and is currently a professor of English at the University of Washington, where he chaired several departments over the years.
It was during one UW Asian American literature class in the early ’90s that Wong formulated the new direction his writing would take.
“One day, my students asked, ‘Why is every book we read in this class depressing? Asians have a sense of humor; why don’t we see that on the page?’ I had to agree with them,” laughed Wong. He said his students hungered for more variety. “They wanted to see themselves on the page,” he said.
Wong’s 1995 novel “American Knees” touches upon issues that had been reserved for the confines of Asian American homes and bedrooms. The romantic comedy explores intra-racial and interracial relationships, mail order brides, and even pokes fun at stereotypes that Asian Americans hold of each other.
Wong says the book differs from many Asian American novels in that the main character’s problems aren’t necessarily blamed on his culture. Instead, his bad fortune is ultimately due to his own need to satisfy his ego.
“I wrote about what I thought was missing from Chinese American literature,” said Wong. “I wanted to fill a gap.”
Wong’s novel was recently adapted into an independent feature film called “Americanese,” which has received promising reviews from critics like Roger Ebert. Wong served as an associate producer for the movie and had an important hand in drafting the screenplay. He hopes the film will serve as a catalyst for more discussions on cultural identity.
“America needs to learn to talk about race and it can’t be simplified,” said Wong. It must be on a more sophisticated level, more than black and white, or yellow and white,” he said.
The pioneer of Asian American literature answered the cultural revolution of his time by working to untangle the elusive concept of identity. Now he is calling on the younger generations to follow in his footsteps, and act on the revolution he says is underway right now.
“There are lots of young writers coming up and publishing works — a whole wealth of Asian Americans in all of the arts. I hope we will continue that,” said Wong. “It’s a great time to be involved in that creative self-expression,” he said. ♦
Evangeline Cafe can be reached at email@example.com.