Hua Hsu and Ryan Lee Wong On Writing AAPI Coming of Age Stories

By A4 Staff
November 1, 2022
Interviews

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.

Shannon Lee: How do the two of you know each other?
Ryan Lee Wong: I think we originally met at the launch party for Workshop Magazine back in 2012.
Hua Hsu : Didn’t I meet you through Herb?
RLW: In my memory, you had a t-shirt slung over your shoulder that said “John Jovino Gun Shop” that Herb had just given to you.
HH: That probably is accurate. You know what? It was the launch party for The Margins. I remember it was around my birthday and I implored everyone to go and it’s why Herb gave me that t-shirt. So… a summer during the Obama administration is when Ryan and I met.
RLW: It was the highlight of the Obama era.
HH: I don’t know how relevant this is but Ryan also really reminds me of one of my cousins so I’ve always had a deep fondness for Ryan. You’re much taller than he is but other than that, you’re just like my cousin James. Not to stereotype but…
RLW: Is he in California?
HH: Yes, he’s a California Asian.
SL: This is actually a good segue into talking about West Coast AAPI since both of your books are heavily rooted in that scene. How would you describe West Coast AAPI culture?

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?

RLW: I think similarly. I was very much steeped in a world where, in terms of my peer group and the places we went out to eat, some form of Asian-ness was very much centered and the norm. A trade-off of that was that there wasn’t a lot of self-awareness or language for that experience. It was just there. It was until I left and came to the East Coast where whiteness is so strong and dominant, especially within cultural spheres that I was able to look back and name that experience as an experience and not just the world I lived in. The Asian diaspora and these markers like Honda Civics and boba vs bubble tea give it a very specific material reality.

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: I think that is another major part of the California Asian American experience for me. My mom is an immigrant from Korea but on my dad’s side—if you trace it all the way back, I would be 6th generation Asian American. Especially on the east coast, my dad will get a lot of comments from peers that are like, “Oh, you sound just like Randall Park.” And he doesn’t! But I think what they mean is that he’s a native English speaker and they’ve never met a 60-something Asian man who is a native English speaker. That’s a big shock to them. There is something different with regard to the years and the generations that have been on the West coast.
SL: Both of your books describe diasporic family dynamics in such honest and relatable ways. What does it mean to you both to write about immigrant parent-child relationships?

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.

RLW: There is something that happens between the time one does work when you’re young and the way it’s historicized. I remember reading the biography of Yuri Kochiyama, Heartbeat of Struggle, and on page 5, my aunt’s name is mentioned as part of the David Wong support committee. I went to my aunt and told her she was in this biography and asked if she could tell me about it… and she just kind of looked off into the distance and was like, “Which one was that?” She drew a blank for a minute! And that’s life. She was involved in so many different things and so many different movements. It took her a while to remember that she had even done that but for me, in retrospect, because Yuri Kochiyama has been idealized and historicized, it’s this huge and important thing. Not to say one is right or wrong, but the way the archive happens and the way certain figures get picked up and idolized also has a major effect on how we understand and tell that story.
HH: It’s crazy because I still have these booklets from the David Wong support committee from when I was in college. Critical Resistance was happening at that time so I was writing letters to support folks. It’s crazy that your aunt was directly involved in building that. I was reporting this piece on Vincent Chin recently and everyone that was involved initially had no idea that this was a movement. They were just rallying for Vincent’s mother. It is really fascinating how this question of historical amnesia may evolve or metastasize because there are certain stories that are going to pick up traction. One of the reasons why I love Ryan’s novel so much is because it really captures some of the tensions and moments of ambivalence without losing sight of what needs to be done and that energy. It’s not just a matter of like… the truth will set you free. There’s still so much more conversation and struggle that goes into figuring out a collective way forward.
SL: Given the current cultural moment and where we are in terms of processing identity, do you think there’s something specific about writing AAPI coming-of-age stories right now?
HH: I couldn’t have written this earlier in my life for personal reasons but also because there was very little appetite for and disinterest in first person AAPI stories. It’s sort of this happy accident that this book is entering into a world where there is a range of narratives and an awareness that even that range is limited. Personally, I don’t feel any burden for this to be accountable to anyone beyond myself. That’s not necessarily a point I thought we would arrive at when I was thinking about this in the ‘90s. It’s been very cool to see this range of possibilities continue to grow.
RLW: I’ll echo that. Even ten years ago, there was still a feeling that, if an Asian American film came out, I had to go see it. If an Asian American novel came out, I had to read it.
HH: And you couldn’t say anything bad about it.
RLW: Exactly. Now, thankfully, that is not the case. I don’t feel any pressure to see every film and read every book, which is this incredible permission, then, to just do my little thing within the very broad AAPI diaspora. This book can be very hyper-specific. I started thinking about this book around the time of the Peter Liang / Akai Gurley organizing. Something about what was happening to Asian American politics and the splits within and between communities was deeply unsettling to me. It took all of the time between the first Black Lives Matter movement and the second one for me to metabolize and get the perspective on that story and to allow the narrator to have an internal transformation. I had actually put aside the novel for a little while. It was seeing the protests in 2020 that made me remember why I thought this was important to talk about in the first place and to try to say something particular and new about that moment in 2014 and 2016.
HH: Ryan, how did you arrive on the title for your novel?
RLW: I went through so many different titles. For a while, it was actually a quotation from Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. But there was this big protest in St. Louis after Michael Brown was killed where they sang this song. There was also the scene in Ursula Leung’s documentary about the Peter Liang trial where the protesters in Cadman Plaza standing across the street from the pro-Liang protesters are singing this song. It’s a long-term movement song from the Kentucky coal miner’s strike 80 years ago that Pete Seeger recorded that’s having a second life in Black Lives Matter. There’s this urgency to draw lines at some point and this title kind of prompts you to step back and refrain.
HH: It so cuts to the core of everything and is both an easy question to answer but also an impossible one. For it to be located in the relationship between a mother and a son too… What were the worst titles you came up with?
RLW: Okay. The other title that I actually kind of liked but didn’t make it was “Complicity.”
HH: Hmmm…
RLW: Kind of a similar idea but… it’s a much more cynical novel.
HH: Yeah, no. This is much better. Save that for your next book!

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