Monday, April 28, 2008

What does it mean to win an Asian American book award?

So this is the post I really wanted to write about 5 days ago but didn't know how to start to explain all the things I'm wrestling with--my sense of hypocrisy in wanting to de-essentialize race and yet having knee-jerk reactions to expectations of "authenticity" when certain people write/speak, my working through of my own subject position as an Asian American female professor working on mixed-race issues when I am, myself, not mixed-race, and just a host of other philosophical, largely academic (in both senses of the word--related to academia and also not of much practical/applied value) musings. If you really want to re-cap all the long and rambling and semi-coherent thoughts I laid down to get to this long and rambling post, you can click here for the most recent post, and it will lead you down the path of my thoughts to the original post that started this trek.

What is all this fussing about?

The Association for Asian American Studies-THE professional organization of academics, activists, students, and anyone else who wants to be involved with Asian American scholarship, recently awarded it's literature prize for best Asian American work of prose to James Janko's Buffalo Boy and Geronimo (the prizes are for works published in 2006--I think there's a 2 year lag that we're working with because all the book prizes in all categories were for works that came out in 2006).

Here is a link to the publisher's page for James Janko--it also gives a brief bio and a link to an interview with him:

Now, before I go any further, I want to clarify one VERY IMPORTANT thing. It is my belief that when it comes to fiction, a writer has every right to create whatever work and to take on whatever voice he or she chooses. We see instances of men taking on women's voices/stories and women taking on men's voices/stories, and plenty of authors imagine time periods that happened centuries ago and places they've never been and historic events they've never witnessed. In the land of fiction, everything is fair game. And if someone wants to write transracially/transethnically/transculturaly, they have every right to do so.

So my problem isn't that a man who, for all intents and purposes, appears to be a white man has written a novel with a Vietnamese main character's voice and a Chicano main character's voice. Janko gets to write whatever he wants to write.

Publishers, readers, teachers who assign these works in their classrooms, and awards committees--these are the people consuming the works of fiction, and there are different issues raised by these consumers--different amounts of power and politics come into play.

My problem is that when I heard that the award had gone to Janko and his novel (and I hadn't heard of either until learning about the award), my gut level reaction was "HUH??? How could the Association for Asian American Studies (AAAS) give an award for best Asian American prose to a white guy???"

Am I being small minded/essentialist? I haven't even read the novel--it may be a fantastic novel (I just checked it out from the library, so I'll be reporting back on that issue in a few days). But beyond its literary merits, here are a few thoughts that I had:

*How is the AAAS applying the term "Asian American literature" to the book in question? Is it based on the identity of the author (doesn't seem to be, but again, I'm not certain as to how Janko "identifies" or what his background is--I'm only going off of his appearance, although I have to say I was at the Awards banquet and the reaction of the people at my table mirrored my own, ie: we all thought he was white and were shocked at the prize) or is Asian American to be determined by the content, in which case, if the novel is about the war in Viet Nam, set in Viet Nam (ie: not in the U.S.) and features no Asian American characters, but does feature a Chicano U.S. soldier and a Vietnamese man, what exactly is the "Asian American" piece of the book?

*Is AAAS trying to push our boundaries about what we consider to be Asian American literature? What other books were up for possible nomination (I wracked my brain but the only other novel I could think of published in 2006 was Lois-Ann Yamanaka's Behold the Many, which I have to say I thought was a fantastic novel, but she was given the book award a few years ago and more significantly, it's EXTREMELY CONTROVERSIAL to give the award to Yamanaka--details would be too long to repeat here, but suffice it to say, I wasn't surprised she didn't make the short list given the past controversies with AAAS, book awards, and this author).

*Why does this raise so many questions/make me feel uneasy? That probably has to do with all of the previous posts and my trying to work through issues of power and representation and race and racism and the effect of having certain people teach certain material. But it does strike me that this award to Janko raises all sorts of questions about how a definition for Asian American literature is really up for grabs and not well defined.

But maybe that's the point? Maybe we can't really define Asian American literature--and I suppose another question is, should we? Do we need to define it? What is at stake in trying to put boundaries around a term like "Asian American"? What am I afraid of? Appropriation? False or inaccurate representation?

[Aside: I know the members of the award committee. They are my friends-colleagues, and I trust them. I also know many members within the ranks of AAAS and like/trust them. And yet, when I polled my Asian American scholarly colleagues, those at the banquet and not, almost all of them reacted in the exact way I did. So obviously there's a disconnect between thinking about something "in theory" and then the reality of what an award like this conveys about legitimizing what counts as Asian American literature.]

This is the last post on this topic. I welcome comments--and for those of you tired of this thread, rest assured--I've got other things to write about--the ongoing Democratic slug-out between Obama and Clinton, the latest Harold and Kumar film (just saw it this weekend), and one golf friend in particular has asked me to weigh in about Lorena Ochoa versus Michelle Wie.

[Update--June 27, 2008: For my further musings on the novel, see my post "Thoughts on Buffalo Boy and Geronimo"]


Brian Hunt said...

This reminds me of the controversy created back in 1989 when George Michael became the first white man to win an American Music Award for best R&B album. At that moment there was a big paradigm shift that Rhythm & Blues didn't mean "black music." Now it seams that there is some greying of the lines in Asian American Literature.

Jennifer said...

Hi Brian,
I didn't know that there was a controversy about George Michael...maybe if I check my memorybanks something vaguely sounds familiar, but really when I think "scandal" and "George Michaels" what comes to mind is a certain incident in a public bathroom (poor George!)

Anyway, I like the expression you use "greying of the lines"--I think things are getting blurry, and as much as I claim to like ambiguity, I think I'm a bit unsettled by this and need to really think through both why I'm feeling unsettled and what, if any, are the larger ramifications of opening up the category "Asian American literature."

Mike Wong said...

Hi Jennifer,

I'm a Chinese American, my name is Michael Wong. Jim Janko and I have been friends since the first Gulf War, when we were both members of what has now become the San Francisco chapter of the national organization, Veterans for Peace ( He and I also have been in Maxine Hong Kingston's Veterans Writing Group since the beginning. You can see both our works in the group's anthology, "Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace" ( I was surfing the 'Net and came across your post.

I can't say whether Jim should have won this award or not, since I don't know this organization, the criteria for the awards, etc. Jim is Caucasian (I don't like to call people "White" anymore than I like being called "Yellow"), of course, and is not an Asian American. I can tell you a bit more about who he is as a person, then you can decide from there what you think.

Jim is a Viet Nam combat veteran, having served as a U.S. Army medic in the war. His work of fiction reflects his feelings and experiences of his tour of duty in that war, but of course are adapted for the book. Jim also has been back to visit Viet Nam several times, and the last time stayed for over a year, living there, learning the language, and experiencing the life of the people from a very different perspective than he was able to have during the war. He also spent time in Cambodia and married a Cambodian woman, Chanpidor, whose work also appears in our anthology (They are now both in the U.S. and living in Northern California). During his time in Viet Nam and Cambodia, he heard stories of and saw the view of the war from the Asian side, as well as the American side. He wanted to write a work of fiction that told both sides, because he wanted Americans to hear both sides and to see the common humanity of both sides. He also wanted to make a statement about what he didn't do during the war - desert the U.S. Army. That is why his American character does exactly that at the end.

I was a U.S. Army deserter during the war. I refused orders to Viet Nam, and tried to go to jail, and when the Army dropped the charges and tried again to send me to Viet Nam, I escaped and deserted to Canada. I came back after the war and got off my charges. Jim and I have been good friends, and both share the pain of that war, as we all do in the group. Jim, his wife, and I all had very different experiences in that war, but we all share a very deep sense of both pain and humanity common to all.

We both continue to be active in the peace movement, and Veterans for Peace - including Jim and I - work very closely with Iraq Veterans Against the War (, including active duty soldiers. We are teaching peace to a new generation of warriors, who are struggling with the same very painful issues that we struggled with. Many of the Iraq vets and active duty soldiers are now also taking courageous stands against the war, and we are proud to support them.

I guess I rambled a bit, but this at least gives you a better picture of who Jim is.

yours in peace,

Mike Wong

Jennifer said...

Thank you so much for your comment--I really appreciate what you've shared about Jim Janko and about your own experiences, both during the war and afterwards.

I have no doubt that Janko is a wonderful human being. I would have guessed this by his (and your) participation in Kingston's writing class (which is a really excellent group from what I've been told).

And I do appreciate you literally fleshing out Jim Janko for me and for everyone else reading this post.

I will be writing an upcoming blog entry about the book (which I did finish and did enjoy) tomorrow. But I also want to clarify that my concern with the novel (which remains a concern) isn't with the content of it per se or Janko's right to write what he did, it's the award and what the award signifies and the kinds of ruptures this potentially opens up when considering what "counts" as Asian American literature.

It might seem like a trivial thing if you don't work in Asian American studies, but these paradigm shifts can have political significance because of certain power dynamics. Maybe I'm wrong, but I believe that it's really important to think carefully about the ramifications of opening up a racial category like "Asian American" with respect to literature and literary representations.

At any rate, I'll just close by saying I'd welcome your future comments about Janko's novel or any other topics you want to comment on if you do keep reading parts of this blog.

And I on a personal note, I want to thank you for sharing parts of your story (which were very moving) and for your peace efforts--we need more people to support peace in this world and I really want to thank you for your efforts in that arena.

Mike Wong said...

Hi Jennifer,

Thank you for your very kind note.

I do understand your concern about opening up what "counts" as Asian American, be it in literature or elsewhere. The question is not an easy one to answer.

One piece of the puzzle is that, like so much in life, there are gray areas. For example, if a Caucasian (or any other non-Asian) baby were to be adopted at birth by an Asian family and raised as an Asian American, becoming bilingual and bi-cultural, how would they be counted? And if you opened the door to them, where would you draw the line? What of someone who was adopted by an Asian family as a six year old, or a teenager? Or someone who married into the Asian American community and has their primary social ties there?

In Jim's case, he speaks Vietnamese, is married to a Cambodian, and teaches English as a second language to Asian immigrants, so he has definite commitments to the community. Yet he himself would not claim status as an Asian American, and his social ties are many, not just to one community.

The other side of the puzzle is that if you don't have a clear line, then the paradigm shift does indeed have a political power impact, exactly as you point out. The Asian American community (as all minority communities) has to have a voice and be able to politically protect itself, for we unfortunately continue to live in dangerous times. Asian Americans have been physically, verbally, and politically attacked. The risks are very real. So this question is not merely academic.

How to balance these factors? How to protect the community while also being sensitive to and supportive of others?

I'm afraid I don't have answers here, I merely want to acknowledge the very real concern you raise.

My time, thought, and energy have been completely wrapped up in supporting GI resisters and ending the Iraq war. Because of my unique experience, I am needed to fight this battle. So while I have done a few things in Asian American activism, they must remain limited for as long as this war goes on.

However, I have confidence in you and others who carry on work in this field, and I have faith that over time you all will work out reasonable guidelines that will balance the various factors as best they can be balanced. Thank you for your own commitment to peace and justice, and the ongoing work that you do.

yours in peace,

Mike Wong

Mike Wong said...

Hi Jennifer,

Jim Janko asked me to post his comments. He tried but had computer trouble. Here are his comments (below).

yours in peace,

Mike Wong

July 1, 2008
Re: Buffalo Boy and Geronimo
Dear Jennifer,
I much appreciate the questions you raise, and of course I have no answers. I was very surprised and grateful to receive an award for ‘Buffalo Boy’ from the Association for Asian American Studies. I hadn’t even known that the publisher (Curbstone Press) nominated my book for the award.
Below, are comments I’d planned to make at the Awards Ceremony in April. Because buses were waiting, I skipped all of this. I offer it now not to answer questions, but to communicate. One thing for sure: I in no way––small or big––wish to inspire rupture in any community.
With deep respect for you and your colleagues,
James Janko

April 19, 2008
Association for Asian American Studies––Awards Ceremony
I was a medic in the Viet Nam War, which the Vietnamese call the American War. I was not drafted and sent to Viet Nam to get to know anyone or anything, but I did begin to know a kind of beauty which neither the military nor myself could have anticipated.
Ironically, I know the Vietnamese earth more intimately than the earth of my own country. I was a platoon medic for the 25th Infantry Division for around nine months. We operated in the Cu Chi and Tay Ninh areas, and were part of the U.S. invasion of Cambodia in May of 1970. I stumbled through rice paddies, forests, jungles, waded through swamps, and at night I lay down on Vietnamese (or Cambodian) soil ten thousand miles from home. I sometimes felt the land was inside me, that is was growing in me, and this––rather than being a burden––was my one comfort. I was dazed, not quite believing I was in this war, but now and then the beauty of the place was too great to be missed. Lushness is too mild a word to describe the Vietnamese earth and the Cambodian jungles. Even the bombed-out Cu Chi countryside still had a few pockets that blossomed. In these, I took refuge when I could.
So I first came to know the Vietnamese through the land that sustains them. About 30 years after my time in the war, I returned to Viet Nam and made dear friends. The family of Huyen Thieu Qui and Chi Long answered hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of my questions, and I am especially grateful to Anh Qui, Anh Quan, and Chau Gai Minh.
In my novel, there is a character, a mother, named Ma Xuan. She has lost many to the war, and she has an altar with pictures of those who have passed on––her husband, her parents, her husband’s parents. Que huong (ancestral homeland) is home in the deepest sense. The placentas and umbilical cords of Ma Xuan’s two children are buried in the land of the ancestors. Her husband is buried near the field where he worked, as are her parents. The ancestors and the fields they farmed, and the living who continue to work in these fields, are one circle, one web of union. When one lives in this way, and honors the dead in this way, how can one harm the land? It would be like stabbing one’s own flesh.
The U.S. had cobra gun-ships that could “put a bullet in every square inch of a football field in less than a minute.” American planes dropped 7 million tons of bombs on Viet Nam, Cambodia, and Laos, more than double the bombs dropped on Europe and Asia during all of World War II.
The Vietnamese word for human is con nguoi; con mean animal, and nguio means person. The language is old enough to remember a time when human beings did not view themselves as separate from animals. In my novel, certain animals––water buffaloes, a tiger, an elephant––are living beings who struggle alongside humans to survive. In the present time, it seems to me that an awareness of the oneness of life is essential for the survival of many species, including homo sapiens.
I want to thank my mentor, Maxine Hong Kingston, and the Veteran Writers’ Group. And I deeply thank the Association for Asian American Studies for recognizing my book. I dedicate the award to the generosity of my friends in Viet Nam, especially to the family of Huyen Thieu Qui.

Unknown said...

As a person of mixed-race heritage (Chinese and German) who has lived 1/3 of my life in the UK and the other 2/3 in the US, I have to say that I welcome the paradigm shift precipitated by this event.

I think that the human capacity for understanding people and cultures different from one's own is a terribly important one -- and being able to communicate that in a profound way via literature is a rare gift. If Janko manages to do this in his writing, which it sounds like he has done here, then I can only say that this is a wonderful achievement and a great thing for the Asian-American community. I think we do well to honor him with this award.