Of Umbrellas and Arrivals

Samina Najmi

Has Asian American literature arrived?

Arrival implies a point of origin, a point of departure, a further destination. It’s that brief moment of stasis when one journey has been completed and another is about to begin. You’d like to hold it, but it’s only a moment, fragile and fleeting.

In 1997, when I received my graduate degree from Tufts University, the faculty did not include a tenured or tenure-track professor who specialized in Asian American literature, though the department had “arrived” at a postcolonial hire. This seems to be the pattern in academic appointments: the world out there gets precedence over the world within our national borders. But more than twenty years later, we can see that Asian American writers’ particular contribution to academia is that they, more so than any other group, have dismantled the time-honored wall between the local and the global. The subversion began with our earliest foremothers, the Eaton sisters, whose writerly identities as Sui Sin Far and Onoto Watanna, then as now, confound categorization as Chinese, Japanese, English, Canadian, and American. And it continues with ever-dynamic interactions among literary groups that seek--and question--the voluminous Asian American umbrella.

As a Pakistani American reader and writer living in Fresno, in California’s Central Valley, I’m aware of the growth as well as the questions within the Asian American literary community.

For one, Fresno is pulsing with Hmong American stories. Academic recognition of their vibrancy is evident in the fact that California State University, Fresno now hosts a Hmong Studies minor--the only such program in the western United States. Yet more exciting for literature, Fresno is home to the Hmong American Writers Circle (HAWC), a literary community founded by Burlee Vang that includes the award-winning poet Soul Vang, the first Hmong American to receive an MFA in creative writing in the United States. To HAWC we owe the 2011 publication of How Do I Begin?: A Hmong American Literary Anthology. Today, a new generation of students and writers has launched HAIS: Hmong American Ink and Stories at Fresno State. An off-shoot of HAWC, it’s poised to publish the inaugural issue of its literary journal this year. 

Most dramatic in reach and impact, Fresno native Mai Der Vang’s debut poetry collection Afterland was awarded the Academy of American Poets’ 2016 Walt Whitman Award. Its publication the following year jolted America with startling images and ruptured lines, a shock of horror and beauty on the page. 

In short, Hmong American writers are beginning to find their footing in Asian American literature as well as shape a vaster literary landscape in America, and Fresno lies at the epicenter of the movement. We see in this development the triumph of words over violence and literary expression over erasure, including the erasure of the Hmong from U.S. histories of the Vietnam War, and, further back in time, the attempted erasure of the Hmong written language itself.

The other pulse I feel, as a South Asian scholar and writer of Asian American literature, is more personally mine. Post-9/11, an area of growth within Asian American literature has been what for simplicity’s sake might be called Muslim American literature. Theoretically, “Muslim American” is not necessarily “Asian,” of course, but inasmuch as we think of the Middle East as West Asia, the umbrella covers a great sweep of Americans who trace their roots to Arab countries, to South Asia, and all the way east to Indonesia. Arab Americans and South Asian Americans have been especially articulate in the post-9/11 era. And again in the tradition of the Eaton sisters, they frequently defy national identification. Mohsin Hamid, author of The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007), is a case in point: a Muslim-identified writer, he is U.S.-educated, writes in English, primarily for an American audience, has dual Pakistani and British citizenship, and divides his time among three continents.

Geographically transcendent though it may be, as a category within Asian American literature, Muslim American literature is born out of a profound sense of isolation. Post-9/11, I am more aware of myself as a secular Muslim than as an Asian American, though I identify as both. (The very term “secular Muslim” would have seemed an oxymoron to me prior to 9/11; we simply didn’t exist as a group back then.) And this is where one must acknowledge the painful reality that almost two decades after the September 11 attacks, few Asian American authors or literary critics besides Arab and South Asian Americans have engaged with the backlash against Muslim or Muslim-looking Americans in their writings. Though more editors have begun to give space to Muslim American writings today, the fact is that even within Asian America Muslims remain, for the most part, the suspicious, unknowable, and unassimilable Other. 

So Muslim and Muslim-looking Americans--by which I mean non-Muslim South Asian Americans--have taken it upon themselves to articulate their own literary realities. I’ve written about a handful of them: Palestinian American poets Naomi Shihab Nye and Suheir Hammad, Iraqi American memoirist Wafaa Bilal, and Pakistani Americanish novelists H.M. Naqvi and Mohsin Hamid. There are very many others, of course. A few, like the prolific Queer Muslim poet Kazim Ali, have taken on the labor of anthologizing lesser known Muslim writers in North America. As we know, it’s the curator who, in gathering us, creates us, and makes us visible--not only to others but to ourselves. Like the work of the Hmong American Writers Circle and the promise of Hmong American Ink and Stories in Fresno, such efforts invested in Muslim American writing are making a distinct contribution to the growth of Asian American literature in the 21st century.

As to the “arrival” of Asian American literature, then: arrival implies not only an immediate destination but also an origin and a further destination. Far from being an end, it is that fleeting point between an end and a new beginning. Asian American literature carries its transnational, multiethnic, multilingual, and multireligious traits in its DNA. I celebrate all that it has acquired as it has journeyed through the past century-and-a-half of its known history. How it gathers itself in 2020 and beyond, an era that will be defined by the coronavirus and its attendant anti-Asian scapegoating--the rhetoric reminiscent of the post-9/11 backlash against Muslim Americans--we shall see. I like to imagine Asian American literature as a field taking stock of itself, squinting into the distance, sizing up the skies, and with an expansive lungful of breath, hoisting its powerful umbrella. As a motley crowd gathers under it, I see it heaving its weighty boots, and, hand over heart, striding steadfastly toward the horizon, where a sunset or a sunrise beckons.

Samina Najmi is professor of English at California State University, Fresno. Her essay “Abdul” won Map Literary’s 2012 nonfiction prize and “Greenford’s Gift” was selected by Roxane Gay for publication in The Rumpus.

This “literary address” is part of a series of 20 addresses commissioned by the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center and the Association for Asian American Studies. Penned by leading Asian American (and in this case, Pacific Islander) poets, writers, playwrights, graphic novelists, and literary scholars, the addresses assess the state and future of Asian American literature and offer a wide-spanning re-imagination of its place and consequence.