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Words Matter

King-Kok Cheung (ed.)

Publication Year: 2000

In this age of rapid transition, Asian American studies and American studies in general are being reconfigured to reflect global migrations and the diverse populations of the United States. Asian American literature, in particular, has embodied the crisis of identity that is at the heart of larger academic and political debates surrounding diversity and the inclusion and exclusion of immigrant and refugee groups. These issues underlie the very principles on which literature, culture, and art are produced, preserved, taught, and critiqued. Words Matter is the first collection of interviews with 20th-century Asian American writers. The conversations that have been gathered here—interviews with twenty writers possessing unique backgrounds, perspectives, thematic concerns, and artistic priorities—effectively dispel any easy categorizations of people of Asian descent. These writers comment on their own work and speak frankly about aesthetics, politics, and the challenges they have encountered in pursuing a writing career. They address, among other issues, the expectations attached to the label "Asian American," the burden of representation shouldered by ethnic artists, and the different demands of "mainstream" and ethnic audiences.

Published by: University of Hawai'i Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. v-vi

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pp. 1-18

What does it mean to be an Asian American writer? Is it the same as being a writer of Asian descent? Or just a writer? As the epigraphs to this introduction demonstrate, the authors interviewed in this collection have remarkably different literary compulsions. Even more varied are their styles, their sensibilities, and the settings of their stories, which include...

“Where do we live now—here or there?”

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pp. 19

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Jessica Hagedorn: Interview by Emily Porcincula Lawsin

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pp. 21-39

I met Jessica Hagedorn for the first time when I was in elementary school. I met her, not in the physical sense, but in a way that an impressionable young Filipina could never forget: in the Seattle Public Library. Every day after school, my parents used to force my brother and me to go to the library near...

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Paul Stephen Lim: Interview by King-Kok Cheung

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pp. 40-57

I saw Paul Stephen Lim’s play Mother Tongue when it was staged by the East West Players in 1988. I was so impressed by its use of English composition lessons to introduce flashbacks and to advance the plot, its suspenseful revelation of the mother’s tragic story, and its bold treatment of homoerotic...

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S. P. Somtow: Interview by Rahpee Thongthiraj

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pp. 58-68

A Thai European American writer, S. P. Somtow was born in Thailand in 1952. He has written books ranging from science fiction to fantasy and horror novels. He grew up in various European countries and was educated at Eton and Cambridge, where he received his M.A. in English and music. Somtow first made his name as a postserialist composer; his...

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Meena Alexander: Interview by Zainab Ali and Dharini Rasiah

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pp. 69-91

Born in India, raised in India and North Africa, educated in England, and now living in New York, Meena Alexander has clearly lived the Indian diasporic experience. As this interview reveals, her work parallels the transitory nature of her life, moving from poetry to prose, fiction to memoirs, essays to...

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Myung Mi Kim: Interview by James Kyung-Jin Lee

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pp. 92-104

Myung Mi Kim was an hour late to an early evening poetry reading in February 1996, one that celebrated the release of The Bounty. She was held up in the infamous Los Angeles rush-hour traffic. When she finally arrived, a few in the audience had gone home, but a good twenty or so remained—...

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Le Ly Hayslip: Interview by Khanh Ho

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pp. 105-119

Le Ly Hayslip’s house is a mess. A jumble of brochures, books, and videotapes lies strewn across her coffee table. A map of Vietnam dangles precariously from the Navajo-white wall. A scribbled thank-you note from Oliver Stone floats among old newspapers and fading photographs. Red ants...

“We came into the circle of recovery”

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pp. 121

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Janice Mirikitani: Interview by Grace Kyungwon Hong

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pp. 123-139

I first met Janice Mirikitani fifteen minutes before one of Glide Church’s Sunday Celebrations. Earlier that morning, the church’s choir director, who had been a close friend of Mirikitani and her husband, the Reverend Cecil Williams, had died of a sudden heart attack. Despite the terrible loss,...

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Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni: Interview by Dharini Rasiah

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pp. 140-153

Chitra Divakaruni and I met five years ago when we were both involved in organizations that addressed the concerns of South Asian American and South Asian immigrant women. She contributed to an anthology I coedited, Our Feet Walk the Sky, and we were both involved in Maitri and Narika,...

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Al Robles: Interview by Darlene Rodrigues

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pp. 154-172

Nothing escapes Al Robles, neither the mundane nor the banal, neither the poor nor the rich. Not even nature. Robles’ first published collection of poetry, Rappin’ with Ten Thousand Carabaos in the Dark (1996), is the result of a life effused with this gift of observation and sensitivity to the surrounding...

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Philip Kan Gotanda: Interview by Robert B. Ito

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pp. 173-185

Philip Kan Gotanda began his career as a playwright in 1979 with The Avocado Kid, a rock musical adaptation of the Japanese fairy tale Momotaro. Since then he has written numerous plays dealing with the Japanese American experience, including A Song for a Nisei Fisherman, The Dream of Kitamura,...

“It’s like putting us in the Chinese laundries”

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pp. 187

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David Wong Louie: Interview by Stacey Yukari Hirose

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pp. 189-214

Taking a sip of water from a plastic bottle, David Wong Louie watched patiently as I set up my tape recording equipment in his office for the third time. My first two interviews with him—together over three hours long—were rendered virtually unusable owing to technical difficulties with the recorder....

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Gish Jen: Interview by Rachel Lee

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pp. 215-232

Gish Jen won the respect of a wide audience with her first novel, Typical American (1991), which was shortlisted for the National Book Critics’ Circle Award. In this novel, as in her published short stories, Jen broadens the definition of Asian American literature by writing beyond its “typical” themes of...

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Russell Leong: Interview by Robert B. Ito

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pp. 233-251

Russell Leong was born in San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1950. He began his writing career with “Threads,” in Kai-yu Hsu’s Asian-American Authors (1972), and “Rough Notes for Mantos,” in Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Asian-American Writers (1974). Since then, his criticism, fiction, and poetry...

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Amy Uyematsu: Interview by Scott Kurashige

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pp. 253-269

Amy Uyematsu’s genesis as a writer can be traced to the early days of the Asian American movement. In the late sixties and early seventies, this Sansei author became widely known among activists for her biting polemic “The Emergence of Yellow Power in America.” Drawing on both her experience...

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Li-Young Lee: Interview by James Kyung-Jin Lee

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pp. 270-280

Li-Young Lee grasps for what is seemingly palpable yet ultimately elusive—to “speak” to another. This struggle to communicate first begins with a conscious effort to listen. Lee hears the voice of memory, a past that fuses the familial with the political. His biography has become almost folkloric: son...

“I’m on the side of literature”

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pp. 281

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Wendy Law-Yone: Interview by Nancy Yoo and Tamara Ho

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pp. 283-302

Born in Burma (now called Myanmar) at the end of almost a century of British colonialism, Wendy Law-Yone is an American author of Asian descent who conveys a particularly postcolonial and polyglot sensibility in her writing. Her father, Edward M. Law-Yone, was a notable figure of...

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Gary Pak: Interview by Brenda Kwon

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pp. 303-319

Growing up in Hawai‘i is an experience that is often difficult to explain, although Gary Pak does a pretty good job. The way he sees it, there are racial divisions there like anywhere else, but you don’t have to go around with your ethnicity “on...

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Karen Tei Yamashita: Interview by Michael S. Murashige

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pp. 320-342

From the time I was young, Gardena, California, has been associated with Japanese Americans. I can recall weekend trips to my cousins’ house, set midway down a cul-de-sac inhabited almost exclusively by JA folk. The markets in town actually...

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Hisaye Yamamoto and Wakako Yamauchi: Interview by King-Kok Cheung

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pp. 343-382

A lasting friendship between two acclaimed Nisei writers, Hisaye Yamamoto and Wakako Yamauchi, blossomed in the desert of Poston, Arizona, where the two women were interned during World War II. Yamamoto, author of Seventeen Syllables and Other Stories (1988), received the...


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pp. 383-386


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pp. 387-402

E-ISBN-13: 9780824865641
Print-ISBN-13: 9780824821340

Publication Year: 2000

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Authorship.
  • Authors, American -- 20th century -- Interviews
  • Asian Americans -- Intellectual life.
  • Asian Americans -- Interviews.
  • Asian Americans in literature.
  • American literature -- Asian American authors -- History and criticism -- Theory, etc.
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