Our traditional Western reading list has disturbing gaps — as an exercise like Electric Literature’s “Fire the Canon” illustrates — that could easily be filled with vital, contemporary literature written by women. A recent turning point for me was listening to Filipino-American author Elaine Castillo at a reading. The immediacy of her prose held the room in a captivated silence. She reopened wounds for us by telling stories about first- and second-generation Filipino immigrant women, straight and queer. Hers is literature that speaks to our historical moment while it searches for a clearer retelling of the past. Not long after, I attended readings by Chinese-American author Vanessa Hua, Korean-American author R. O. Kwon, and Singaporean-American author Kirstin Chen. There is something happening here: the defiant voices of these Asian-American women are reshaping the stories of immigrant communities. They’re offering us a clearer picture of who they are.
Castillo’s America Is Not the Heart (2018) is a wink at Carlos Bulosan’s America Is in the Heart (1946), a semi-autobiographical tale of the immigrant experience in the rural West, but it paves a new path. Her novel thrusts the reader into today’s suburban, Filipino immigrant community. It examines a kind of gender reversal where laconic women work long hours to provide for their families while wrestling with dark memories of the years they spent as guerilla fighters. Hero, the protagonist, arrives in the United States without papers, which is a looming threat to her aunt, Paz, and uncle. She can only work as a cashier at a Filipino barbeque restaurant because she can’t hold a knife or carry plates. When her gnarled fingers spark questions from a colleague, she responds: “I was part of the New People’s Army for around ten years. I got captured. I was in a prison camp for two years. It happened there.”
It happened there. Not yet able to name her violent trauma, Hero hides her pain behind vague language, pronouns acting as a protective shield, while she keeps her memories locked inside. Flashbacks, on the other hand, become the battleground where she relives her paramilitary experience during Ferdinand Marcos’s rule in the 1970s. As readers, we respect her silence and keep her secrets safe until she’s ready to reveal them.
Hero’s inner battles connect her to Paz, whose interior monologue constitutes the first chapter of the book. It’s one of the few moments that we hear Paz speak, and it’s written in the second person to invite the reader to accompany the character in her private moment: “You already know that the first thing that makes you foreign to a place is to be born poor in it […] You’ve been foreign all your life.”
Paz was born poor in the Philippines and arrived poor in California. She works extra shifts as a nurse to supplement her husband’s menial wages. He works as a nightshift security guard, his Filipino medical license nontransferable. Paz watches as every time he passes through airport security to head home his shoulders rise an inch. But it’s more than nostalgia that draws him back. A medical position awaits him there, too. When he leaves permanently, taking their daughter with him, it devastates Paz. In Castillo’s story, men retreat to their traditional gender role — a breadwinning father in a culturally familiar environment — while women stay to fight and evolve in an unfamiliar place.
While Castillo writes about the resilience of women, R. O. Kwon studies the obliteration of them in The Incendiaries (2018). In its opening pages, Phoebe, a Korean-American college student mourning her mother’s death, is connected to a terrorist explosion. As the remainder of the novel unfolds through flashbacks that lead to this event, violence enacted by men builds around and against Phoebe. Kwon illustrates this by placing Phoebe’s point-of-view chapters between those of two men, Will and John Leal. This structural approach gives the text a claustrophobic quality, as the men’s POVs constantly intrude on the woman’s. Where Castillo’s female characters move freely throughout the page, Kwon’s Phoebe is pushed, pulled, and reconfigured by Will’s boyish memories and Leal’s religious cult. The former offers friendship and love, the latter a way to process her mourning.
It’s not a love triangle, though Will sees it as such. It’s a tug-of-war between self-serving men that exploit a young woman’s identity, voice, and body. For example, Phoebe flogs herself as a rite of passage into Leal’s cult, Jejah, which is Korean for “prophet.” He encourages her to absolve her sins and grief through physical self-flagellation. Will flinches at the aftermath — “in the space where the knit dress gaped open, she had a back crisscrossed with welts, bruises. In spots, the skin had broken” — but he’s the one who, unable to bear that he’s “lost” her and her body to John, rapes Phoebe.
Once Phoebe runs from Will for good, her POV chapters become shorter, sharper. They take the reader to an unspecified future where she recalls her mother’s death and touches the divine. She rises above the narrative to a liminal space beyond the grasp of Will, Leal, and the FBI investigation that results from the explosion, which becomes a metaphor for her terrestrial erasure. Kwon forces the reader to grapple with the congruence between violence against women and terrorist violence, much like Phoebe must reckon with two violent men in her life, neither viable.
In A River of Stars (2018), Vanessa Hua delivers a road novel she calls a “pregnant Thelma & Louise.” Two unwed, pregnant women who have been hidden away by their Chinese immigrant families in an illegal Los Angeles maternity hotel escape and head for San Francisco’s Chinatown. Scarlett is an undocumented Chinese immigrant with a married lover, and Daisy is an unemancipated Chinese-American teenager in search of her boyfriend, who is the father of her unborn child. They begin their journey destabilized and uncertain without the support of the men in their lives, but they grow stronger with the birth of their children. As they share an apartment, the trials of first-time motherhood make them resilient: they survive by bartering found items on the street and selling food Scarlett cooks in a cart.
Where Kwon plumbs violence against women, Hua celebrates the rise of independent single mothers. Both are urgent, necessary tales. Scarlett’s character, especially, underlines the experience of Chinese immigrant women who escape the sociopolitical and legal forces that limit their rights, including that of sex identification in utero. It takes isolation and desperation for her to recognize that her lover, Boss Yeung, hid her not just in Los Angeles but in China, too — he tucked her away to protect his family from shame and to keep track of his male heir.
In San Francisco’s Chinatown, Scarlett finds her way to an immigrant community that provides a network of support the men in her life did not. Hua describes the fish and food markets, schools, public mahjong matches, and dim sum restaurants in Chinatown as “cultural centers” that attempt to “remake, remember, and reclaim” elements of their former communities in China. This immigrant stronghold protects Scarlett and Daisy long enough for them to build up the courage to leave its familiar confines, learn as new mothers, and make brave decisions that eventually set them free.
Kirstin Chen’s Bury What We Cannot Take (2018) tells of the Ong family, which is forced to flee Communist China. With Chairman Mao’s political influence engulfing their tight-knit community, the mother lies about her husband’s illness to get temporary visas and escape. But she is faced with an unbearable decision when the government gives her only three: she must leave one of her two children behind. She chooses to take her son Ah Liam and leave her nine-year-old daughter, San San. As the local government uncovers the family’s visa scheme, San San narrowly escapes capture and execution while her mother tries to smuggle her into Hong Kong. With an ocean between them, they fight against political oppression together. Throughout, Chen depicts the bravery of women in the face of cruel authorities and mortal danger.
While mother and daughter risk their lives, father and son struggle to abandon the cultural pressures and political influences that have reinforced their privilege. Ah Liam is lured by the nationalist message of the Communist Party at school, and his teacher encourages him to join the Youth League. As a result, he reports his grandmother when he witnesses her breaking Mao’s portrait at home, and the family has another reason to flee. Once in Hong Kong, Ah Liam plots a return to Mao-controlled territory with his newfound communist friends. Meanwhile, San San and Ah Liam’s father keeps a mistress hidden in plain view, and the family accepts this as endemic to his patriarchal power even as they try to rescue San San.
In discussing her novel, Chen has acknowledged that she worried about producing a caricature of male-dominated Maoist China because she didn’t experience it firsthand. Far from crafting two-dimensional characterization, she excels in showing Ah Liam’s desire to be like his father and the father’s dread of subverting the patriarchal system that protects both his family’s social status and his affair.
I picked up Graham Greene’s 1955 Vietnam novel, The Quiet American, after reading these four books. It seemed useful to contrast Greene’s male, Western perspective with the immersive viewpoints of these Asian-American women. Though Greene’s political satire of naïve American interventionism during the Cold War grounds the work, his Vietnamese characters — from the well-intentioned prostitute who prepares countless opium pipes for her clients to the faceless soldiers and commoners that fill out the margins — suffer from the kind of reductionism Chen feared.
It’s important to contextualize Greene’s work as a political commentary first and character study second, and it’s also true that the demands on literature have changed since then. But it’s notable that these four novels offer the interiority of their female characters first, as a way of driving toward the political. When they do reveal broken women, they also reveal the patriarchy and the political systems that do the breaking.
Born and raised in Guatemala, Michael Adam Carroll earned his PhD from the University of Colorado, Boulder. His essays and reviews have appeared in Ploughshares online, The Millions, and Romance Quarterly.