Do you like to read Asian American writing? If you do, YES, you are with me now! If you don’t, OK, this booklist will totally change your vision and life. Three red-letter Asian American writers and their books: Ruth Ozeki’s My Year of Meats, Karen Tei Yamashita’s Tropic of Orange, and Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life.
My Year of Meats by Ruth Ozeki
Images via Smith College and Goodreads
Ruth Ozeki is a Canadian-American novelist, filmmaker, and Zen priest. Before her writing career, Ozeki had worked in the TV industry for ten years and produced a documentary Halving the Bones (1995). This working experience as a TV producer/documentarian nourishes her writing style. When reading her novels it can feel as though you are watching a movie or TV series because the way some cinematic techniques, such as montage or multi-narratives, have influenced her reflects on page . Topics of her writing ranges from race, gender, environmental crisis, to the aesthetics of Zen.
My Year of Meats, published in 1998, is Ozkei’s second novel. The story starts with Jane Takagi-Little, a Japanese-American documentarian, who works for BEEF-EX, a Texas-based meat lobbying firm. Her duty is to produce My American Wife! which is a TV reality show featuring American housewives and her authentic American life, food, and belief. Jane is pressured by the company to promote the advantage of eating beef as a wholesome American lifestyle. However, Jane gradually realizes the unspeakable truth hidden within the meat industry. On the other side of the Pacific Ocean, a Japanese housewife Akiko is watching My American Wife! in her Tokyo apartment. She is carefully jotting down the beef diner recipe the TV show introduces because that will also be served as the diner for her husband John Ueno, the executive of BEEF-EX. Akiko has been struggling with infertility however is pressured by John to eat more beef because John believes that “Beef is the Best” and beef can bring them children symboling a traditional American family.
Tropic of Orange by Karen Tei Yamashita
Images via Star Tribune and Amazon
Karen Tei Yamashita is a Japanese-American writer who is a Professor of Literature at University of California, Santa Cruz. Her writing contains huge elements of magical realism and transnational vision. Yamashita’s novels pays attention to the phenomena of polyglot and multicultural communities in an increasingly globalized age. Reading her novels, you may feel like you are cruising a world without boundaries: of race, gender, time, and space.
Published in 1997, Tropic of Orange rewrites how a novel can smash human concepts of geographical, cultural, and temporal limits. The book is set in Los Angels and Mexico with a group of diverse ethnic people dominating each mysterious life. The story covers the span of seven days, with each chapter focusing on specific days and characters. We have Emi, a Japanese-American TV executive, and her lover Gabriel Balboa, a Latino journalist, chasing news in LA. They have a reliable but mysterious source of news: Buzzworm, an African American who roams LA streets offering advice. Gabriel owns a home in Mexico in which a special orange falls from a tree and is picked up by the mystical character Arcangel who carries the fruit across the U.S.- Mexico border and the Tropic of Cancer. With the development of the narratives, we see different lines of story weaving into a unexpected web.
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
Images via The Cut and Amazon
Born in Hawaii, Hanya Yanagihara is considered one of the most talented writers in the publishing industry in the last decade. Working as a chief editor of T: The New York Times Style Magazine, the forty-year-old Yanagihara, without any training in fictional writing, amazed the industry in 2013 with the publication of her first novel The People in the Trees. The novel is based on the real-life case of the virologist Daniel Carleton Gajdusek, was praised as one of the best novels of 2013. Though Yanagihara spent sixteen years completing The People in the Trees, she established A Little Life, a novel with the same depth and effort as the first one, in eighteen months. A Little Life was published in 2015 and received a volcano of favorable reviews.
Praised as the greatest gay novel by The Atlantic, the novel portrays the friendship spanning over thirty years of four men who met each other in college, and their homo/heterosexual romance, lost, and anger they experience throughout their lives. Malcolm is an architect; JB is a portrait artist; Willem is an actor; Jude is a lawyer. The story begins with Willem and Jude, both of whom graduated from distinguished university, co-rent a small apartment in New York City: Malcolm and JB, born in rich families, have huge passion for art but feel uncertain about the future. Willem is a poor guy from a farm in the midwest, insisting in acting life in theatre－he feels responsible for these old friends, especially for Jude; Jude is the most successful one among the four－he has a great career as a attorney but, as if his mysterious crippled leg, Jude himself is mysterious too: no one knows his past. With deeper description of Jude, Yanagihara performs how the past tangles with not only Jude’s life but the other three characters.
Featured Image via Ruth Ozeki, Writing like an Asian, and The Cut