The “Asian Literary Caravan” rolled into Cornell this Saturday, bringing with it three authors who discussed their identities as writers, as Asian Americans, and as Asian American writers. The Caravan consisted of Ed Lin, Helen Yum, and Bushra Rehman, who read selections from their works and fielded questions from the audience about their experiences.
Co-sponsored by the Cornell Chinese Students Association (CSA), the Korean Students Association (KSA) and the Han Korean student newsletter, the event was held in the Robert Purcell Community Center Auditorium. Members of these organizations made up much of the audience that had several dozen people.
The co-sponsors worked together with the New York City based Asian American Writers Workshop (AAWW) — a research center for readers and writers of Asian American literature — to bring the panel of writers to Cornell.
Each panelist focused on the manifestations of Asian American culture in the written and spoken word. They discussed issues such as feminism, sexual abuse, prejudice and community within an Asian American context.
“I’m interested in testing boundaries,” said Lin, a Chinese American, explaining his attitude towards conforming to Asian American stereotypes of conservatism.
Lin’s excerpt from his newly released book, Waylaid, showed Lin’s attempts to overcome these boundaries through the use of the written word.
“I was about 12 years old when I knew I had to get laid soon,” Lin said as he began reading the excerpt.
Rehman spoke about her contributions to the debunking of Asian American stereotypes.
“There are a lot of Asians who live radical lives. [I’m trying to] give an example of another way you can live,” Rehman said.
She also talked about the racism that faces many Asian Americans today, especially Pakistani Americans like herself.
“You take racism in, and you start to feel that way about yourself,” Rehman said.
Co-editor of Colonize This, a book in which women of color write about feminism, Rehman expresses the importance of people of color uniting and becoming empowered through the acceptance of their own identity.
Adrian Leung, representative of the AAWW, added his own opinion on the creation of the Asian American “identity.”
“We all experience the same things — the way non-Asians treat us. [They] see you just as another Asian person,” Leung said.
He also summarized many of the audiences’ contributions concerning the different aspects of the Asian American identity:
“We control Asian American identity. We don’t have to conform to it, we are it,” Leung said.
A common sentiment expressed by both panelists and audience members was feeling pressure to conform to the identities imposed upon this generation of Asian Americans by outside stereotypes and by the expectations of their parents.
Yum, a Korean American social worker who writes poetry, explained how the very act of becoming a social worker went against her parents’ expectations. Her work with, and writings about, sexually abused children was disconcerting, perhaps even embarrassing to her parents, she said.
She added, however, that, “I wouldn’t speak about problems if I didn’t think the community could deal with it.”
Many audience members questioned the nature of the Asian American community.
In response to this query, Rehman said, “Community is just about one person at a time.”
One person can also be a member of a number of different communities, Yum said. The important thing is that “you find your own identity,” and balance the time devoted to friends in each of the communities to which you belong, Yum added.
The ability to find individual identity among the oppressive pressures that create certain expectations for Asian Americans, however, seems to be no easy task according to many Asian American students.
“I see them [the panelists] as being harbingers, in the sense that I was taught to make money, and they’re following their true passion,” KSA President Dan Keh ’03 said.
Confirming Keh’s ideas, Rehman explained the difficulties she had in telling her parents that she did not want to become a doctor. But “you can be an artist and be successful,” she said.
Event organizer and CSA political chair Juliana Au ’04 reflected on the dialogues exchanged throughout the event.
“I’m really glad this event happened. [The authors] addressed things not in the comfort zone,” Au said.
In her closing remarks, Yum spoke of her overall mentality of approaching writing as an Asian American.
“I just try to write and I trust that it is Asian American because I am,” she said.
Archived article by Liz Goulding