Correction Appended: This story originally misidentified Chou’s mother as Chinese. She is Taiwanese.
The classic names of English literature may still be Donne, Shakespeare and Milton. But look at contemporary bookshelves and booklists and you’ll find that names of some of the best English-language authors today sound much less Anglo-Saxon and, perhaps, much more like your own.
Dìaz, Jin, Hamid and Lahiri are being read – and taught – with increasing fervor, reflecting an evolution of what one of my professors calls “the phenomenon when the empire starts writing back.” Let’s say the first response was post-colonial literature, often tied to so-called Third World literature, with much of the Third World having been taken over by the First. Now, decades after most of the colonial and imperial powers have let go the jewels in their crowns (with varying degrees of unrest as a result), powerful writers have emerged who have either grown up in societies with the fading influence of the old empire, or who have become first- and second-generation emigrants and expatriates. In any case, these writers (as well as those outside the traditional colonial sphere of South America and south Asia) are all dealing with a softer, but more far-reaching power – globalization. This time American movies and Starbucks have replaced viceroys and Macaulay education plans. Compared to the days of Shakespeare, there’s a much larger population from which the next great English-language writers may spring.
But to make these associations is to raise even more questions. Must writers living in a country still feeling the effects of the now-defunct empire – or even those whose parents or who themselves have immigrated to some Western, white-normative state – always be tied to their country of origin? Are we in some period of post-post-colonialism? And as a non-white writer, do you have a responsibility to write about issues associated with your ethnic identity? You can only write about double-consciousness and crisis of identity (“I’m Asian. But I’m American. I’m American. But I’m Asian!”) in so many ways, after all.
I’d like to answer “no” to all the above. What true individuality is there if there are requirements? (Although, those considered the Other or the formerly conquered often write better, with influences, experiences and outlook that the ex-conqueror has no match for. And then they sometimes win Pulitzers.)
But to focus on the last question, let’s word it in a better way: Will people expect “the ethnic author” to address and acknowledge the Dominican-American, or British-born Chinese or English-boarding-school-raised-Indian experience? Of course, and it’s the potential readership (re: those buying your novels so that HarperCollins will renew your book deal) that counts.
As humans, we respond to labels. We like to classify and categorize, and marking ethnicity and nationality is one of our favorite methods of stratifying each other, be it on census cards or at the bookstore – I’ve always wondered why there’s a specific “African-American literature” section at Borders.
While it may not be necessary to scream out your background on every page you write, as a minority writer I think there’s a sense that if you’re putting a product in the public sphere and it’s going to have your headshot printed in the book jacket (or above a column), you represent the people you look like whether you like it or not. So you better do it well – whether actually writing about related issues (aren’t all novels semi-autobiographical anyway?) or as a public figure.
In terms of subject matter, stories on the immigrant experience resound cross-culturally – and sell well. (My Taiwanese mom loves “The Namesake.”) Even if readers aren’t first- or second-generation immigrants, they’ve surely felt like an outsider at some point. One could even argue that the success of outsiders in English literature started long before the empires ended: Another professor recently pointed out that the legendary authors of early modernism were all technically outsiders. Joyce and Yeats were from Ireland. Eliot and Pound were Americans. Conrad was Polish, but while serving in the French and British merchant navies he learned French and then English. But this wasn’t until his early twenties, and this man is considered one of the greatest of his era.
E-mail Chou the expatriate at firstname.lastname@example.org.