Hua Hsu and Ryan Lee Wong On Writing AAPI Coming of Age Stories
This past October, New York-based writers Ryan Lee Wong and Hua Hsu each wrote books detailing the specificities of coming-of-age as AAPI. Set in the present day, Wong’s debut novel, Which Side Are You On, follows Reed, a 21-year-old Korean American activist who, after the killing of a Black man by an Asian American NYPD officer, wants to drop out of college to dedicate himself to the Black Lives Matter Movement. Through a series of intimate conversations with his mother, held as they drive around LA’s Koreatown, Wong’s protagonist attempts to answer what we are to do with cycles of history and how we might live with integrity and pleasure in a violent world.
Taking place two decades earlier, Hsu’s memoir, Stay True, also tells the story of a 20-something-year-old AAPI confronting a moment of violence and loss. In it, Hsu recounts the aftermath of the accidental, senseless murder of his close college friend, Ken, and how his death catalyzed a reckoning with identity, and a search for self. Hsu’s elegiac account reflects on their friendship with heart-rending detail, finding meaning and beauty in the little things.
Both novels, while set in grief, are also profoundly funny, celebrating the quotidien-ness of love and the specifics of place and time. Through their works, Wong and Hsu remind us that the big questions in life, while often unanswerable, are still always worth asking. We had a conversation with Hua and Ryan about their books, AAPI identity on the west coast versus the east coast, activism, the model minority myth, and family.
HH: Adidas slides, a lot of time spent in a car, an awareness of these micro-distinctions between different Asian communities and different moments of immigration and acculturation. In retrospect, there’s so much abundance but it’s just not something you’re conditioned to value. There are so many different types of people in the Asian diaspora in places like the Bay or Los Angeles.
For me personally, it was hard to get too caught up in certain questions around representation. I was exposed to so much in my own life and the fact that it wasn’t on TV didn’t bother me that much because there was just this interesting community that I grew up within. My high school had a range of identities. I find my friends who grew up on the East Coast did not have that luxury. I think they feel like everything was a little more black or white. What do you think, Ryan?
HH: One thing I really loved about your book, Ryan, is that it felt completely believable that a kid wouldn’t know what his parents had done just decades earlier but would also draw from the same political touchpoints and inspirations. Going to college in Berkeley, I met so many students whose parents were the people we would learn about in Asian American studies classes but they didn’t really care about that connection. They honored it but they didn’t romanticize it because I think they felt like they were part of this lineage and now it’s their turn to move this thing forward.
That was a very funny part of Ryan’s book. I was like, “Yeah, this kid would think that they’re going to figure out the answers that their forebears didn’t.” That felt very California to me just because of the ways different generations and migratory paths came in… there’s a more discrete historical presence and a kind of self-consciousness within that historical trajectory that is very unique to those places.
RLW: Hua, one of the most touching parts of the memoir, to me, are the fax conversations between you and your dad. The fax as a symbol of a period of time but also a symbol of the awkwardness and gaps of communication between a parent and child. You feel a very sincere effort on both ends to make this relationship work but it’s always going to be imperfect. I just thought it was a beautiful representation of that.
Similarly, my book is literally a novel of conversations. It’s about these two characters that seem to be talking to each other but really aren’t meeting. That is the work. It’s hard to imagine a book from the Asian diaspora that doesn’t address the incredibly vast distance in experience even between one generation. Each generation is so different.
HH: Yeah. I feel that in some ways, in both books, there are these moments where the parent is really trying to impart really useful wisdom to the child but the child is just this typical young person in America who is selectively choosing what is useful. I wrote about my dad’s faxes. I wrote about how much time my mom would spend listening to me talk about things that I found interesting as we would drive to cello lessons.
I teach Asian American literature and there are so many very rigid tropes around intergenerational conflict. I think the “conflict” in our works is very adjacent to that. There are these gaps in communication but then there are always gaps in communication. I’m more interested in what new thing can grow out of that. You’re trying not to reproduce this schism that people have been talking about since the creation of Asian American literature but it’s inevitably there. It’s just about how you represent it in a different way.
RLW: I think a lot of being young is not really understanding that your parents are people. It’s just how we grow. At some point, hopefully, a turn happens where you understand your parents have subjectivity. They’re not just there to provide; they have their own personhood. One of the comments I got when people read my novel was, “Oh, you actually realized that relatively young!” That’s pretty funny to me.
Both of our books deal with characters who think that what they are doing is very different from their parents and then, at some point, realize that their parents had their own really deep political and social engagement when they were younger. I don’t think this is a spoiler but one of the big reveals in Stay True is the narrator realizing his parents were really big in the Tiao-Yu Tai movement. That’s only a movement I know about because my parents were activists and one of the big people in their movement was one of the leaders of Tiao-Yu Tai. It was a big issue in the ‘70s but if you ask most younger Asian Americans about it today, I doubt they’d know about it. And I don’t think it’s a lack of interest. I think there’s a kind of historic erasure that happens because of which stories get picked up in media and which stories get taught in K-through-12. I also think the very idea of Asian American activism is still a little hard for mainstream America to comprehend because of how annoyingly persistent the model minority thing is.
HH: I think in my case, my parents were actively trying to not pass certain things on, whether it was their own sense of disappointment or their wanting to shield me from how long it took my dad to finish grad school because he was so involved in these movements. As a student and young person involved in Asian American studies, I remember going to my dad and thanking him for sacrificing so much for me. He was like, “I didn’t sacrifice for you. We were doing all of this for ourselves and you just happened to be part of that.” I thought that I had already figured my way out of these tropes but he just completely shattered one of them by telling me I should feel no indebtedness to him because he just wanted to come to the US to go to graduate school.
Not to say college is great, but I think the way in which someone would learn about these histories or these movements in 1985 or 1995, or even 2000 was in an institutional setting or from other organizers. You would learn from people passing information on in a more direct setting. This isn’t a criticism per se about learning things on Instagram but at school, you are given and are often within the context. In college, we’d be reading things like Bridge Magazine and someone would be like, “Oh, that’s my mom or my dad.” It was less abstract.
It’s funny because my parents had no idea what Asian American identity was. They would still refer to themselves as Orientals, probably even to this day, because they don’t care that much about that stuff. I’ll find mentions of the Tiao-Yu Tai in these old magazines and my parents will be like, “Oh we had those magazines too.” I wish they would have told me this in 1996! It really could’ve changed a lot of things if they told me that Basement Workshop, Tiao-Yu Tai, etc. were happening back then. So maybe it’s not amnesia in that case. It’s more like the things they chose to remember and pass down are different from the things I want to ask them. They would have never made these connections. It’s up to these later generations to see things that weren’t really front of mind for them.