August 13, 2019

Dispatches from the 2019 Asian American Literature Festival

Earlier this month, I attended the 2019 Asian American Literature Festival in DC. Though that makes it sound incorrectly clinical or too matter-of-fact—I didn’t just attend this gathering of writers, poets, readers, creators, but rather the speakers took up space in my mind. Their words ricocheted between my ears. I felt seen, I felt understood, I felt inspired, I felt challenged.  

One thing that kept popping up over and over again in the different sessions was the joy and relief of the authors when they described finally encountering a book that was a mirror: a book that finally had an Asian American protagonist in it—not a sidekick—whose life reflected their own. Dr. Sarah Park Dahlen, a professor of Library and Information Science at St. Catherine University and a co-editor of the journal Research on Diversity in Youth Literature, described A Step From Heaven by An Na as the first time she had seen herself in YA literature and that she was in her early 20s when that happened. Along with the joyful recognition, there also seemed to be a bit of exasperation and resentment among the authors and attendees. Why did it have to take so long? 

I think of how different of an experience it must be when you grow up white in America, and you see yourself reflected in so many different ways and in so many different places: TV, books, comic books, movies. I’m reminded of Nicole Chung’s piece in the New York Times Magazine about how much of an impact Kristi Yamaguchi made on her, and how unfortunate it is that so many Asian Americans had the same childhood heroes because they were so limited. The panelists recounted their amazement at encountering Claudia Kishi in The Baby-Sitters’ Club series and reading The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan, just like I did as a kid. 

I was struck by how the authors on the Asian American Children’s Literature Panel described a sense of responsibility and hope that their children and future generations wouldn’t have to grow up in the same kind of book representation desert that they did. That when their kids are asked, “What are your favorite books?” it’s not the same books that we grew up with that are written by beloved and problematic white men like Dr. Seuss and Roald Dahl.

Minh Lê, author of Drawn Together, spoke about how he read the graphic novel American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang after college. He saw himself in the main character and hadn’t realized that this was the book for which he had been waiting the last 20-some years. He said, “You don’t realize what you’re missing until you’re seeing it.” And that was echoed by everyone else on the panel as well, which also included Christina Soontornvat and Rashin Kheiriyeh. How most of them were adults before they saw themselves in books. How Christina Soontornvat was in her 30s before she saw an Asian girl on a cover all by herself. Illustrator and author Rashin Kheiriyeh said she was 30 years old before she saw herself in the graphic novel Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi. 

One topic that came up during the Young Adult literature panel, made up of Ellen Oh, Sona Charaipotra, Misa Sugiura, Caroline Tung, and Ed Lin, was about stories of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color pain vs. stories of joy. When are we allowed to just write about being ourselves versus having it be an expectation that our stories will be filled with trauma? Sure, that can be a part of our experience, but maybe that shouldn’t always be the focus. My own Authors of Color book club had to pause and consciously choose books by people of color that were joyful and fun and silly, and not always focused on pain and suffering and racism. We read Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows by Balli Kaur Jaswal, We Are Never Meeting in Real Life by Samantha Irby, and Pride by Ibi Zoboi. The Wedding Date by Jasmine Guillory is up next and I can’t wait to discuss it. 

Ellen Oh, co-founder of the organization We Need Diverse Books, made a great point about how all kids should read widely and with main characters that don’t look like them. “Asian kids should read books with Black characters. Black kids should read books with Latinx characters. All kids should read books with LGBTQIA+ characters. And when we see works with anti-blackness, we need to speak out; that’s not censorship.”

Dr. Sarah Park Dahlen passed around a notecard she and David Huyck created with some shocking statistics on it. 

Huyck, David and Sarah Park Dahlen. (2019 June 19). Diversity in Children’s Books 2018. blog. Created in consultation with Edith Campbell, Molly Beth Griffin, K. T. Horning, Debbie Reese, Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, and Madeline Tyner, with statistics compiled by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison: Retrieved from

I know that there have been gains made in representation and diversity in publishing, but it was sobering to see how far we still need to go. She pointed out that in the illustration, they made a conscious effort to depict cracked mirrors in front of the children of color, because yes, these books do have diverse representation, but they might not reflect each child’s unique life experience. 

Dr. Sarah Park Dahlen described how there are still white authors who write about Asian American characters and portray Asian cultural tropes. She mentioned Jacqueline Woodson’s essay “Who Can Tell My Story?” and how Woodson asks that if you haven’t come to my dining room and eaten with me, then why are you telling my story? Dahlen also points out the need for diversity within Asian American publishing, that in the survey above, the 7% is dominated by East Asian authors. 

The authors said that there is limited space in a library, in a bookstore, in a classroom. It’s so important to have works that show the full humanity of children of color. That when there is a child of color on the cover of a book, it is saying to the world, “This person is worthy. Their story is worthy.” 


Recommendations for Asian American children’s books from the panel:
Unidentified Suburban Object by Mike Jung
A Big Mooncake for Little Star by Grace Lin
Pie in the Sky by Remy Lai
The Sound of Silence by Katrina Goldsaito

Recommendations for Asian American YA novels:
Internment by Samira Ahmed
Frankly in Love by David Yoon
Wicked Fox by Kat Cho
I Believe in a Thing Called Love by Maurene Goo
Everything Asian by Sung J. Woo
The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee
Outrun the Moon by Stacey Lee
Patron Saints of Nothing by Randy Ribay


Jessica Lin is a Technical Support Representative at NoveList. She is currently reading Good Talk by Mira Jacob. 


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