How To Be an Asian American Writer
Yongsoo Park

Notes on a Good Beginning:

First, and foremost, pepper your writing, whatever genre or subject matter, especially at the sijak with words transcribed phonetically from whatever Asian language you or your family can lay claim to. These words are often nouns, but if you’re clever enough, verbs, adjectives, or even pronouns may be enlisted for the task. The words you choose, however, must not be common ones that have already gone mainstream. For instance, kimchi or sashimi might have made good candidates twenty or thirty years ago. But to highlight them today grossly underestimates the cultural literacy of your readers who are all cosmopolitan and hip.

Note on Food:

Describing random Asian dishes when food or cooking has nothing to do with the rest of your writing may seem gratuitous and could turn some readers off, but there are plenty of others who appreciate such decadent digressions. When in doubt, error on the side of exotic spices. If you do mention a dish in your writing the way I do now for I just happen to be snacking on spicy grilled ojinguh as I write this sentence, feel free to include a recipe at the end of your writing for absolutely no reason at all. Just make sure to label it an authentic family recipe that’s been passed down from at least your grandmother’s generation. Don’t worry whether the recipe is actually any good. Asian foodies will not use your recipe. And the minuscule portion of your non-Asian readers who will actually follow through and test out your recipe will naturally assume that they are somehow responsible should the dish turn out bad. For extra insurance, be sure to mention that the success of your grandmother’s recipe hinges on an impossible-to-procure ingredient that can only be found in some remote corner of Asia.

Notes on Asianness and Depicting Racism :

No matter what your own interests and obsessions may happen to be, you’ll be expected to write primarily about Asian characters and Asian issues as if you were some sort of spokesperson for all or part of the Asian diaspora. Whether you embrace this or feel it a burden is entirely up to you. Just know that your writing will also ultimately be dismissed for having solely been about only Asian people as if you had much of a choice.

Whatever you do, avoid describing or depicting race-fueled confrontation head-on in your writing. People of Asian descent may be accosted, threatened, attacked and killed in real life because of their race. But in the world of literature, it’s a faux-pas to depict or address this kind of racism. For instance, don’t ever expect to impress the reading public by writing about being harassed by the police even if you have experienced such a thing. I have been harassed by cops many times in my life. . . See? Already, you are thinking that this can’t be true and I made it up just to make a point.

If for some bizarre reason you’re fixated on writing about racism due to some perverse character flaw, do set your critique outside the U.S. or in the distant past. Readers will see oppression perpetrated on Koreans by the Japanese, for instance, and cry foul. Ditto for Tibetans in China or lynchings of Muslims by Hindus, and vice versa.

It follows that your writing cannot have a tone that is angry and/or accusatory. Never sound angry. If your writing strays into that zip code, immediately diffuse tension via a non sequitur or a humorous tidbit. This reminds me of the time my bumbling parents took me to a rated-R movie when I was just a wee boy.

Notes on Promoting Your Work:

Despite the handful of prominent Asian American writers, being a writer is still a novelty career for people of the Asian diaspora in North America. That you are a writer is of far greater interest than whatever it is that you’re trying to communicate in your writing.

So prepare a half dozen anecdotes about your childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood, and dole them out freely. Just make sure that these tales are brief, poignant, and humorous. Some possible topics include, among others, how strict your parents were when you were a child, how your parents didn’t approve of your wanting to become a writer, how much your stint in the professional and/or corporate world didn’t suit you and how writing was your true calling. That last bit will serve to reassure the public that you’re indeed a capable person who followed society’s edicts and not a revolutionary or a self-absorbed artist.

Of course, be sure to preface all this by mentioning that there is a wide diversity among the Asian diaspora and that you aren’t seeking to be a spokesperson of any one group. But then, turn right around and feel free to joke about “Asian parents” and/or “Asian families.” You need not explain what that term means in detail. People will readily fill them in with a slew of traits.

In Closing:

These pointers are mere guideposts. Each writer is on her own journey. When I was a corporate number cruncher in my early 20s, I didn’t think I’d ever be a real writer. But I wrote at night. First short stories. Then my first novel. Even then, my parents didn’t fully support my career decision. I persevered because writing is a calling.

That said, I am but one writer. I don’t dare claim to represent the experiences of the vast Asian diaspora. We are a diverse people, all with unique and important experiences. But I am proud to say that we’re at a historic moment that has been made possible by earlier pioneers such as Amy Tan, Carlos Bulosan, Richard Kim, and Maxine Hong Kingston, among others. I am honored to be following in their footsteps. We are, indeed, witnessing a sea change in publishing. . .

Authentic Park Family Recipe for Spicy Grilled o-jing-uh (handed down my family for 888 years):
    Cut up a pound of frozen or fresh squid. Fry with sesame oil in high heat with diced onions and peppers. Add gochujang mixed with sugar to spiciness of your choice. Brown and serve hot. For optimal taste, use gochujang that has been fermented for 38 years on the southeastern tip of Jeju Island that has received only morning sun and afternoon wind.

illustration: from Erbario’s 15th Century Herbal