- Editors’ Introduction:Critical Perspectives on Asian American Children’s Literature
This personal essay describes Yep’s fascination with dreams and illustrates how the symbolic aspects of dreams mark the Chinese American experience, as well as his own trajectory as a writer. Noting that dreaming is characteristic of the human condition, Yep traces the ways in which visions of America have defined the history of the Chinese in the United States and have shaped his own writing. He then describes in detail the genesis of many of his work—fantasy and science fiction, realist stories and historical novels—linking them to his own experiences. By writing these texts, he explains, he discovered a mirror for his dreams of finding a niche in which he could fit.
Once when our group [of Girl Reserves] was to be photographed for the local newspaper . . . the photographer casually tried to ease me out of the picture. I knew why, and so did Sylvia. "Come on, Yoshi," she said, grabbing my arm. "Stand next to me." We linked arms and stood firm. "Smile," the photographer said with a dour look. And standing together in our white middies and skirts and our blue Girl Reserves ties, Sylvia and I smiled.—(Yoshiko Uchida, The Invisible Thread 55)
This incident from Yoshiko Uchida's girlhood, described in her memoir for children, The Invisible Thread, is emblematic of her own experience as a writer and of other Asian American children's writers. To a large extent, they have been so eased out of the canonical picture that it is a surprise to hear that their work was first published over one hundred years ago, starting with Sui Sin Far's "Tales of Chinese Children," and that Dhan Gopal Mukerji, the first Asian American to win the Newbery Medal, did so in 1928. These overlooked or forgotten writers continually show us how the story of Asian American writers has been marked by various forms of marginalization and erasure, and reshaped by their attempts to make themselves visible. The Newbery Medal winners for 2002 and 2005 respectively, Linda Sue Park's A Single Shard, set in the medieval Korea of her ancestors, and Cynthia Kadohata's Kira-Kira, taking place in a Japanese American family in the 1950s, are harbingers of a fuller acceptance of the Asian and Asian American presence in American children's literature, but the struggles that have brought about the change in the cultural landscape are still ongoing. A look at the presence of Asia and Asian America in the Newbery awards is instructive: Mukerji's 1928 winner, Gay-Neck: The Story of a Pigeon, featuring an Indian carrier pigeon used in World War [End Page v] I, had a decidedly Orientalist flavor, as did a string of Medal and Honor winners from the 1920s and 1930s written by non-Asian writers focusing on the exotic East, like Pigtail of Ah Lee Ben Loo by John Bennett (1929), Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze by Elizabeth Foreman Lewis (1933), and Pageant of Chinese History by Elizabeth Seeger (1935). The first work to present a significant portrayal of the Asian American presence, dealing with Asians and their lives in America, was Laurence Yep's Dragonwings, Newbery Honor winner for 1976.1 Another of Yep's works, Dragon's Gate, was a Newbery Honor winner in 1994. The Newbery experience is just one way of seeing how these writers are still engaged in constructing their place in a picture that, in spite of schools' vaunted embrace of multicultural education, in spite of what has been called "the ongoing multiculturalization of children's literature" (Bader 275), can still look discouragingly monocultural.
Asian American children's literature, far more than a "lite," miniaturized version of the larger issues in ethnic literature, must be read as a multilayered and nuanced attempt to establish the place of Asian American writers for children in American culture, and to creatively engage their marginal positioning.2 These writers have grown up in a world that has long deemed them inassimilable aliens who have no place in the master narratives of American history. In the face of...