Explicit Assimilation: Gender in Asian American Literature
A teenager exaggerates their disgusted expression. They articulate the trendy sound of a Korean-accented voice saying, “ah disgusting naemse ganayo… disgusting shet.” The video is overlaid with text that reads, “POV: You took a break from Kdramas to watch an American show but this is the first episode and they already have seggs.”
The reel left me with a quick smile, but also a twinge of dissatisfaction. Why have so many Kdrama fans mocked American shows based on sexual content? I don’t think those fans were prudish. Is it just a personal preference? Or a much more romantic plot with a slow burn?
I think what bothered me was that this TikTok supported a particular literature observation that I made. When it comes to writing about sex, Asian writers tend to favor “less is more” description, while American writers tend to be blunt and heavy on innuendo. This TikTok suggested that it was not only about literature, but also other media. But what bothered me the most was this: Asian American writers don’t write sex scenes that mix the subtle and the brutal. Rather, their writing appears to be exaggerated versions of American scenes, written in graphic detail.
I didn’t give it much thought at first. I was just enjoying the book Yellow by Don Lee, a collection of fictional short stories that cover eight Asian American lives in a coastal town. The final story introduces Danny, a Korean-American who hates himself and tries to find solace (and self-esteem) in white women. He loses his virginity to Nancy, from the full pages of 218-219, with Danny reflecting on his manhood until page 220. Then came his affairs with Jenny, which Lee describes from pages 224-225 with sufficient details that made a friend of mine. comment: “What the hell…it’s basically porn.”
My friend’s comment made me do a double take. Porn? I recommended this short story to her because it was one of the best and most realistic race stories I had ever read, and she (perhaps because of her whiteness?) couldn’t see it. On the other hand, I fell in love with Danny, “Yellow”, Lee’s eight stories. How could I not; those stories that portrayed life so well! This book was the first I had read in which so many of the characters were just people, living their mundane, complicated lives, and they all happened to be Asian Americans. Don Lee became my first favorite Asian American author. Yellow has become my Asian American bible.
Then I asked: what defines Asian American literature?
In fact, a teacher asked me first. Should the content be about Asian Americans? Or would any book written by an Asian American be automatically classified as Asian American? A classmate suggested the latter definition, and to my surprise, I felt outraged. Would everything I write automatically be categorized as Asian American Literature? What if a white classmate wrote a novel? Do you call that European American literature? What if you could read my writing without detecting that the author is not (your standard blank slate) white? What if I wrote a geology field guide on igneous rocks? Do you call this enlightened Asian American?
On the other hand, the Asian literary sex scenes (contemporary, translated) are softly written, contrasting with Lee’s graphic nature. For example, in Yōko Ogawa The Memory Police, Ogawa writes, “R took my shoulders in his hands and looked into the space between our bodies…he had covered my lips with his, and I couldn’t say anything more.” What a graceful embodiment of less is more. Meanwhile, at Banana Yoshimoto Food, we don’t get any physical details! The male protagonist’s transgender mother works at the club; her friend openly asks “did you sleep together”, but we never read a single sex scene. And is the plot lacking? No, I’m not arguing at all.
Perhaps that’s why Don Lee chose to describe “his morning erection spreading his distended lips apart”. If Asians are expected to omit graphic details, then I, an Asian American writer, will upset your expectations. I will write in a style that does not reveal my race to the reader. I will show you, explicitly, how my body functions in the same carnal way as yours.
Likewise, On Earth, we are briefly beautiful by the American poet of Vietnamese origin Ocean Vuong spares no detail. The semi-autobiographical novel, as TIME review note, highlights contrasts such as “death and sex, pain and pleasure, excrement and ecstasy, violence and love” through the graphic physical relationship between the protagonist and his lover, Trevor . While most critics praise Vuong’s writing, I wonder what audience he may be addressing, what expectations he might be trying to escape.
I wonder about my concerns about the subconscious thoughts of Asian American writers as they write sex scenes. Have I consumed enough media to make these comparisons, or am I just spouting Gladwellian claims? Yet I cannot dismiss these literary choices as wild attempts at assimilation. To be away from the expectations of Asians who are shy and non-explicit writers, perhaps Lee, Vuong, myself and others feel the need to prove ourselves, dramatize, exaggerate and stand out.
I’m bothered by TikTok because I’m afraid – of being labeled and stereotyped whatever literature I produce – that no matter how hard I try to write brutally honest, bare bones and authentic, I will not be able to produce any work that can simply be considered written by a colleague Human – that anything I produce, even a field guide, will automatically be classified as Asian American Literature, and the reader will think they know my work, style, history, or even rock facts, simply because my writing is wrapped with an extra label.
I’m not ashamed to be Asian, unlike Danny. But I a m a growing person with insecurities about my identity (racial and all) and its connection to my writing. I fear that no matter how I write, readers will never be able to see past my skin, past my body, past their preconceptions of who I am to read the stories I want to share – stories that I hope can make every other human feel seen, understood, and known, in a way that I felt reading Lee and Vuong, Jhumpa Lahiri and Charles Yu, Annie Dillard, Leo Tolstoy, Robin Kimmerer, Chimamanda Adichie… the list is long.
I want to scream: YOU CAN KNOW ME! I CAN GET TO KNOW YOU ! Ultimately, we each live with a beating heart, breathing with two lungs without identity labels or ideas. Just a person trying to get by today, and tomorrow, and the day after. I am not unique. I am nothing more than what I leave on the page. And as my teacher AP Lit said, “Why is every book about death and sex? Because everyone dies and wants to fuck. But when you read my version of death and sex, do you see who i tell you i am, or is it already tinged with who you think i am?
Jocelyn Chin is a second year student at Trinity. His column, Bibliobibuli, is broadcast every other Wednesday. Invented by HL Mencken, bibliobibuli means “to get drunk on books”: from the Greek biblio (books), and from the Latin bibulous, from bibere (to drink).
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter. Cancel anytime.