Saturday, March 06, 2010

Teens First, Asian Americans Second

What do Asian American teen readers look for today when they read stories? What comes first for them? Here's an article that provides some insight into this question: Teens First, Asian Americans Second. An excerpt:

Forget Amy Tan, today's books for young adults take readers far from Chinatown.

WALK DOWN the young adult fiction section of any sterile, superbookstore and you'll amble through a cross- section of the lives of modern teens and-marketers' category du jour-tweens. Besides the age-old books about crushes and summer camp are books about 21st century love rituals like hooking up and IMing, like I8P. g8R. ttyl, and ttfn. as well as Summer Intern and Tips On Having A Gay (Ex)Boyfriend. So it should be no surprise that, upon closer inspection, one can find booKs for Asian American young readers wedged between those on school drama and staid classics like Bridge to Terabithia.

But this ain't Generation X's Amy Tan. Many of today's books for Asian American young adult readers tackle the issues of the accent-free American-born, raised in white suburbs outside of the ethnic enclaves featured in pre-21st century young adult Asian American novels. In the new generation of Asian American young adult fiction, heralded by writers like Gene Luen Yang, David Yoo, An Na and Tanuja Desai Hidier, the ethnic identity of many protagonists takes a back seat to typical American teen preoccupations such as social cliques, dating and college.

"The protagontist's ethnicity is not what troubles or defines her," said Carrie Rosten, a stylist turned author of the 2005 book Chloe Leiberman (Sometimes Wong) about a fashion obsessed biracial Jewish Chinese teen growing up in the OC. "What troubles Chloe is not that she is biracial-it is the fact that her genuine interests and passions are ursupported and entirely dismissed by most of the adults in her life."

Lisa Yee, author of Millicent Min, Girl Genius (2003). also stressed that her characters are kids above all else. "They happen to be Asian, and that's just part of the fabric of the story," Yee said. "I get a lot of mail from kids saying things like. 'I'm Asian and I've never read about someone like me before-just a regular kid.'"

Likewise, Melissa de la Cruz's 2005 book Fresh Off The Boat is about a normal teen who just happened to be a Filipino immigrant. "Growing up I loved books like Sweet Valley High, and I wanted to write a book that was as much fun as those books, but would feature a girl who looked like me and had a family like mine," de la Cruz said. "In a lot of mainstream books, the characters are uniformly white, and they don't accurately represent the new America."

I think that readers look for stories that speak to them and for them. Amy Tan's stories speak for the type of reader that looks for that, while these other authors tell stories that speak to another segment of readers.

People experience different realities that we, as readers, if we want to benefit from them, should be open to. True, not everything will interest us as much as it will interest others--and frankly, that's the beauty of people's diversity, of plurality, of our differences. It's the different settings, different situations, and different circumstances in both types of books presented in the article that can reach out to all kinds of readers.

And while we're on this topic, the beauty of being readers is that what doesn't interest us now might be of interest to us weeks, months, even years after, once we get some more of life under our belts.

And once we do, we discover that despite the differences, it's the shared human experiences that hold the stories together. If we can identify those shared experiences in the stories we read, well, it's a winning situation for us.

What does this mean for writers? I guess it means that we should write what we know; and what we don't know, we learn so that we will know. Also, don't let anyone tell you what you should or shouldn't read. Or write.* There's bound to be an audience out there, somewhere, as long as there's that shared humanity in the tale.

*Except in the classroom, because the teacher's the boss there. Don't engage him unless he lets you, because he's like a judge holding court in his courtroom. The classroom, like the courtroom, is rarely a full democracy.


Blogger Tarie said...

Hi, Kenneth! I like the points you made here.

About the article: I'm actually beginning to worry about people becoming "color blind." It's one thing to NOT be racist, prejudiced, etc. It's another to not recognize the diversity of races, cultures, religions, etc....

5:39 PM  
Blogger pgenrestories said...

@Tarie: I agree. There's a balance to be struck between wanting to fit in, finding who you are, and choosing who you want to be.

As teens, the major concern seems to be having shared angst, which is part of wanting to fit in. After that--if one hopefully gets through it in one piece :)--the finding who you are and choosing who you want to be can go together. Keeping the balance, of course, is the tough part.

But do you think it's right to say that the books address the reader at the point in life where they stand? So maybe, the teens, at this stage in life, are looking for these type of books, and are bound to look for others once they get more of life under their belts?

In other words, they may revisit Amy Tan to learn more about where they or their parents/grandparents came from? In the same way that teen readers here complain about what they are made to read in school, and thus choose those that fit what they're looking for more, and then find, after they get older, that those old school-texts actually contain a lot of relevance?

I dunno...maybe I'm just talking out of my hat, hehehe. :D

7:26 PM  
Blogger Tarie said...

You're making a lot of sense and I agree with all of your points! :o)

What if those teens grow up and they are still "color blind"? I think that is dangerous. I shudder at the thought of the world, or even just one country, becoming homogeneous. I quite like different races, cultures, and religions. They make the world, and each country, beautiful and exciting.

I believe that teens should have plenty of books that point to and celebrate this diversity. Frankly, I found the article disturbing.

1:00 PM  
Blogger pgenrestories said...

The thing is, I think many teens when they're at that age look to fit in, to blend in. They then choose the groups they can fit in with. Those that can't find any group, choose to shy away from attention.

So, I think that the fact that these Asian-American teens are looking for stories that speak of their experiences means that they want to fit in with the culture they know. They were born in the US, and maybe outside of their homes don't have the full experiences of the culture of where their parents came from. So they seek to fit in with American culture, and would rather have stories that speak to them of that.

But, of course, when they get older, they can't escape the fact that whenever they look into the mirror they'll see an Asian face looking back at them. They'll have to accept that yes, they are Americans, but their history and background is certainly different than what has mostly been presented. Then maybe that's when they'll explore that part of their history. The alternative--denial--might result in very insular thinking (though it has happened, I'm sure).

Hehe. Take it from an old Tsinoy like me, who was born in the RP and tried to fit in like a true Pinoy as a youth, but couldn't escape the fact of his smaller eyes and fairer skin, and so looked and realized that his Chinese heritage is as rich as his exposure to being Pinoy due to his citizenship. Add to that the extra element of the powerful exposure to Western media and culture--an added ingredient into the mix--and you get, well, I got, an appreciation and respect for the diversity and plurality of people. :)

8:42 AM  

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