Dina Shlufman/Sun Assistant News Editor

No. 1 New York Times Bestselling author Rebecca F. Kuang gave the keynote address regarding the challenges of creating art with Asian representation at the 2024 Asian Pacific Islander Desi American Gala.

April 25, 2024

Bestselling Author Rebecca F. Kuang Celebrates Representation at 2024 APIDA Gala

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Rebecca F. Kuang, No. 1 New York Times Bestselling author of The Poppy War trilogy, Babel and Yellowface, gave the keynote address at the 2024 Asian Pacific Islander Desi American Gala on Friday in the Willard Straight Memorial Room. As the APIDA Gala’s first ever keynote speaker, she discussed the challenges of creating art with Asian representation.

Hosted by Cornell’s Asian & Asian American Center during APIDA Heritage Month, the Gala recognizes student leaders and organizations who have made positive impacts on Cornell and beyond.

A3C’s Assistant Director Shannon Sy and Intern Jason Xiong ’25 gave opening remarks before playing a slideshow highlighting Cornell APIDA-affiliated organizations.

Kuang, whose father received his doctorate from Cornell, began her speech by reminiscing about her fond memories of coming to Ithaca as a child, which included eating at Purity Ice Cream Co. and traversing Cornell’s hilly campus. 

She then posed questions about the responsibilities Asian writers have regarding representation. 

“I’m wondering what obligations Asian writers have towards depicting experiences that will resonate [with] or are inspired by their community, or to depict their communities in a positive light,” Kuang said. “How does the expectation of representation limit our artistic freedom? Is representation a fair burden to begin with?”

Kuang discussed her love for Amy Tan, the Chinese-American author of The Joy Luck Club. She spoke of how this book made her feel seen as a Chinese American woman. However, although the story has inspired her and many other Asian writers, for a period of time, she felt as though the story was overdone due to its stereotypical representation of the Asian American experience.

“At some point for me The Joy Luck Club came to symbolize not creative freedom but the pigeonholing standard, the template of immigrant trauma [and] racial suffering,” Kuang said.

Kuang explained that it is hard to find a balance between representation that is stereotypical and no representation at all.

“Representation has always been a double-edged sword for Asian creatives,” Kuang said.

In terms of her own experience as a Chinese American, Kuang explained how she takes on the burden of representation. 

“I have tried to temper the representativeness assigned to me with nuance and attention to the limits of my experiences and expertise,” Kuang said. 

To conclude her address, Kuang spoke about how reading literature enables people to connect with a wide range of cultures through diverse characters and storytelling, an idea through which she found a new appreciation for authors like Tan.

“We find those small shards that we resonate with, and everything else we approach with curiosity and wonder. We either recognize the other, or we take the leap to learn more about them,” Kuang said. 

A reception took place following the event, featuring Asian, Pacific Islander and Desi cuisine as well as a book signing with Kuang.

Allie Pallotta ’27, a Chinese American student and member of the APPA and the A3C, spoke on the importance of the event.

“We’re celebrating people across the Asian American Pacific Islander identity spectrum, and I think it’s really important to come together as a community in order to continue fostering that solidarity with one another,” Pallotta said.

Allison Keenan grad, a half-Chinese American student, resonated with Kuang’s messages about representation.

“Growing up there wasn’t a lot of representation in the media, and so I think growing up in a very white area and [with a very] white-centered culture was something I struggled with because I was othered,” Keenan said. “Seeing other people that are like me is really valuable.”

Keenan also wants other students to recognize that representation is not monolithic.

“There are such vast different experiences that everyone has within the [Asian] community, and so I hope people take away that we can all come together as a community and find commonalities but also … recognize that our experience isn’t the same as someone else’s and to really dive into those differences as well,” Keenan said.

Stephanie Nguyen grad, a Vietnamese American student, being involved in an Asian-centric organization as an undergrad, Nguyen enjoyed coming to the event to see what other APIDA organizations were currently doing.

“[It’s] important to uplift our community here, and so having a time to recognize people’s contributions and share the good work that everyone’s doing is what brings awareness and also gives credit when it’s due,” Nguyen said.

With regard to Kuang’s speech, Nguyen mentioned how representation has come a long way, but there is still more work to be done.

“What I really took away [from her speech] is that I think right now we see a lot more people being recognized in the Asian space, but I think it’s also important to remember that with that success [we] also identify where we can improve,” Nguyen said.

Kuang’s address left listeners with encouragement and eagerness for future representative stories.

“Continue to fill the world with the stories that no one has heard yet, the stories in which the next generation after you will find those shards, the small shining shards of recognition,” Kuang said. “Because I know we have only just gotten started.”