Noelle's Ethnicity in American Literature Reading List

This is an annotated sampling of some of my favorites &/or key texts in ethnic American lit. 


If you're interested in Asian American literature try some of the following:

Filipino American lit:
Carlos Bulosan,  America is in the Heart (the autobiography/biography of Pinoy migrant laborers throughout the West during the 1930's)
Bienvenido Santos Scent of Apples (short stories about Filipino Americans in the 30's from a more middle class & East Coast perspective)
Jessica Hagedorn, Dogeaters--set in Manila, examines the complexities of the Marcos era and of the relationship between Filipino identity and Am. pop culture--this novel is as mind-bending (expanding?) as Maxine Hong Kingston's Tripmaster Monkey in both its form and content.
R. Zamora Linmark Rolling the R's (about growing up gay and working class in Hawaii, has some of the wild, postmodern pop culture-laden style of Hagedorn combined with Hawaiian Creole elements that are similar to Darryl Lum or Lois-Ann Yamanaka)

Japanese American lit:
Milton Murayama, All I Asking for is my Body (novel about plantation workers in 1930's Hawaii, captures some of the sounds of the Hawaiian creole language)
Sylvia Watanabe, Talking to the Dead (Short stories about Hawaii)
John Okada, No-No Boy (about a young Japanese American man who had refused to serve in the military while his family was interned and his troubled post-war return to Seattle--an early--1950's--Asian Am classic)
Toshio Mori, Yokohama, California (short stories about Japanese American community in 30's era East S. F. Bay--Mori is another pioneer of Asian Am. lit.)
Lawson Inada, Legends from Camp (Blues and Jazz inspired poet from Fresno, now living in Oregon)
Mine Okubo Citizen 13660- a short autobiography of this artist's time in the internment camps accompanies her detailed drawings documenting her time at both Tanforan and Topaz.  It gives you an idea of what it is like for your country to suddenly be at war and for your ethnic community to be treated as the enemy.  Interesting reading given the recent interest in visual/textual hrybrids like graphic novels and particularly the semi-autobiographical Maus.
Mitsuye Yamada, Desert Run or Camp Notes (Feminist poet, has written of the internment, uses a lot of imagery from nature)
Phillip Gotanda (playwright) The Wash, etc.
Lois-Ann Yamanaka, Saturday Night at the Pahala Theatre (narrative poems) and Wild Meat and Bully Burgers (linked short stories--she's written more but these two may be her best.  She's like Sandra Cisneros in her ability to represent the pain and humor of childhood with a minimum of sentimentality but with a slightly harsher edge and speaking in Hawaiian creole)
Hisaye Yamamoto's Seventeen Syllables. Probably the best living American short story writer.  This book is the 2nd most important reason I became a specialist in Asian American lit.  It has an incredible insight into male/female and parent/child relationships as well as a keen insight into both the beauty and brutality of daily life.
Karen Tei Yamashita Through the Arc of the Rainforest, Tropic of Orange, Circle K Cycles and Brazil Maru.  Playful, thought provoking works most often explore the overlap of Asian and Latin American communities.  She will be speaking at San Jose State in Spring 2005!
Janice Mirikitani, Garret Hongo and David Mura are three more Japanese American poets who are quite enjoyable.  Mirikitani is married to the Rev. Cecil Williams, minister of Glide Memorial church in SF, so she is in the local Bay Area news quite often.

Chinese American lit.:
David Henry Hwang, Playwright of M. Butterfly, Family Devotions, Dance and the Railroad, etc.
Maxine Hong Kingston's Tripmaster Monkey is the single most important reason why I became a specialist in Asian American lit. (about a recent Berkeley grad/playwright in the 1960's)  Her Woman Warrior and China Men are generally more accessible and are probably the best place to start.
Gish Jen, Typical American, Mona in the Promised Land (both novels) and Who's Irish (a great book of short stories--Jen can be incredibly funny but she can also pull at your heart strings in the midst of making you laugh.  I think her first novel and her short stories are my favorite)
Fae Myenne Eng, Bone (1990's novel set in San Francisco's Chinatown, evokes an amazing sense of place)
Lawrence Chiu, Eat a Bowl of Tea (50's era novel about the shift in the Chinese American community from a largely bachelor society to one composed of men and women)--an excellent movie on video too!
Shawn Wong and Frank Chin are both good bets if you want a male perspective to balance Kingston's on the Chinese community.

Other Asian American texts:
Younghill Kang, East Goes West: The Making of An Oriental Yankee Semiautobiographical novel by the first Korean American novelist (also wrote The Grass Roof).  Worth the read not only for the eerie way it seems to predict Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (did Ellison claim Kang as one of his literary ancestors?) but also for the honesty with which it depicts the economic realities of early 20th c America and the struggle to obtain an education in that racial and economic environment.
Jumpa Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies,(2000 Pulitzer prize for fiction).  I like the whole collection (which is unusual).  They're very touching and accessible.
Shauna Singh Baldwin, English Lessons short stories set in the Canadian Sikh community
Watermark is a good anthology of young Vietnamese American writers.
Andrew Pham's Catfish and Mandala  I've started reading this memoir of former SJ man's travels by bike in Vietnam and of his sister/brother's suicide.  It's good so far.
I also want Truong Tran's 2nd book of poetry now that I have Placing the Accents.  He grew up in San Jose too.
Another "local" is T.C. Huo, the Laotian American author who lives in Santa Clara: I just bought Land of Smiles.
Linh Dinh's quirky Fake House: Stories, stories with funky and sometimes twisted perspectives set in both Vietnam and the U.S.
Lan Cao, Monkey Bridge, a Vietnamese American novel, shares some similarities with Kingston's Woman Warrior and Fae Ng's Bone.
Chang Rae-Lee's Native Speaker may be my new favorite book.  It really seems to capture the realities of multicultural America and the difficulties of language/communication between people.  His second novel, Gesture Life, deals with some of the lasting effects of World War II on a Korean/Japanese American veteran.
Cathy Song is a great mixed ethnicity poet of Hawaii.
Heinz Insu Fenkl and Nora Okja Keller are two of the most important Korean American prose writers at the moment.
le thi diem thui The Gangster We are all Waiting For  Lyrical, imprressionistic story of a young Vietnamese American girl growing up in the aftermath of her family's migration to San Diego.
 

SJSU prof. Persis Karim recently published the Iranian American anthology :  A World Between.  It could help to fill in an area that has been neglected in a lot of Ethnic American lit courses: the experiences of Islamic Americans

My favorite Native American fiction writer is probably Louise Erdrich and Tracks and Love Medecine are my favorites.  I plan to read The Last Report at Little No Horse soon which focuses on Father Damien from Tracks.
Leslie Marmon Silko, Ceremony (1977) hailed as the first Native American Woman novelist; although some would give that honor to a 19th c writer, it is a pivotal book in the history of Native American lit.
James Welch, Winter in the Blood is a kind of postmodern novel and very funny as well as touching.  I recently bought his latest, The Heart Song of Charging Elk, about a Native American in a Wild West show that tours Europe who gets sick and is placed in a Paris hospital where he understands no one and no one can understand him.  It's supposed to be partially based on fact.  It's received good reviews but I haven't read it yet.
N. Scott Momaday's House Made of Dawn.  Momaday is a key figure in Native lit. and this particular novel is like an earlier, more macho version of Ceremony. The Way to Rainy Mountain is also good and interesting for its cross-genre experimental form.
Joy Harjo, Wendy Tapahonso, Ray Young Bear, and Simon Ortiz are four great Native poets.
If you like Sherman Alexie, don't forget to rent Smoke Signals (now on video) or Powwow Highway.  The second is not Alexie's work but it has a similar sense of humor.

The African American canon is huge but if you're interested in slave narratives, Frederick Douglass is the man to read.
Ishmael Reed, who will be teaching at SJSU in Spring 2005, may be most famous for the novel Mumbo Jumbo--take on the challenge this novel presents readers and learn why you'll want to sign up for Reed's course in the Spring.
Al Young, the poet, taught at SJSU during Spring 2002.
Sterling Brown, one of the best, most multitalented poets America has produced
W.E.B. Dubois's The Souls of Black Folk (1903) supplies an incredible background to issues still at stake by the time of the Harlem Renaissance and indeed today.  Works as both historical document and literature.
Toni Morrison (you can't go wrong on anything by her but if you're looking for something lighter, Jazz is probably one of her more cheerful and accessible works)
Jean Toomer's Cane as a whole makes a challenging but absorbing read.
Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God is her most famous Harlem Renaissance-era text but she has several good ones that draw on her anthropological work in her home state of Florida.
Alice Walker's Color Purple drew from her reading of Hurston
Nella Larson, Quicksand and Passing (usually bound together, these two short novels of the Harlem Renaissance follow the experiences of very light-skinned African American women and their experiences straddling the color line)
John Edgar Wideman, Hiding Places (or several other great novels focusing largely on the working class life of black Philadelphia, evoking lyricism and beauty from the rhythms of black speech and often harsh realities)
Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (one of the greatest novels of the 20th c).  His Juneteenth has been published posthumously.
Richard Wright, Ellison's realist mentor, Native Son and Black Boy
Audre Lorde,
James Baldwin,
Charles Johnson
Amiri Baraka,
Ntozake Shange....
Octavia Butler writes very good sci fi and her Kindred is an incredibly readable and interesting book imagining time travel and the familial connections between a contemporary African American woman in an interracial relationship and her distant slave-owning ancestor.
Walter Mosely is one to read if you like mystery
There's almost no end.  Get a really good anthology and just keep exploring new authors.

Latino Lit:
This could take another two pages just of my favorites.  Literature Chicana 1965-1995 is a good anthology in 3 languages that will give you a taste of a lot of different Mexican American writers.
Rudolfo Anaya, Bless Me Ultima set in New Mexico, is an important (and generally accessible) text for later writers, such as Castillo who partially shapes So Far From God on this novel
Arturo Islas, Rain God, a somewhat magical-realist family saga set in a town based on El Paso. Migrant Souls is the sequel.
Ana Castillo, Author of So Far From God also wrote Peel My Love Like an Onion and the short story collection, Loverboys. Mixquihuala Letters is short and they're what made her famous.
Sandra Cisneros, House on Mango Street and Woman Hollering Creek
Denise Chavez, Face of an Angel, Last of the Menu Girls
Cherrie Moraga, playwright of powerful, politically charged drama such as Giving Up the Ghost
Helena Viramontes The Moths (stories mostly set in LA) or Under the Feet of Jesus (short novel about immigrant farm laborers) are both good.  Her Under the Feet of Jesus is  a quick read dealing with the life of migrant agricultural workers.
Alejandro Morales, The Bricklayers (fascinating "historiographical metafiction"--a text which offers a mix of history and fiction.  This one is also marked by magical realism).  Try his Rag Doll Plagues if you like sci fi.
Tomas Rivera, And the Earth Did Not Devour Him, is a great collection of linked short stories that focus on the life of a young boy and of migrant laborers in Texas and elsewhere.  This is one of those rare examples of great art that is also highly accessible (a good choice for high school students too).
Luis Valdez, SJSU alum and father of Chicano drama, videos of his Zoot Suit or La Bamba are available from most public libraries.  His Teatro Campesino is in San Juan Bautista.  Most of his major works are available in paperback collections of several plays bound together.
Looking for an earlier text? The Relation of Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca is by the first European to cross the North American continent.  His text describes the first immigrant to assimilate to the American culture...the Native American culture.  It makes you wonder what a different world we would have if all of Cabeza de Vaca's fellow Spaniards had been more like him.  A Mexican director also made this into a film (available at SJ public libraries). Free online now!

Don't forget all of the great texts by people of Caribbean descent:
Rosario Ferre, (Puerto Rican),
Santiago's When I was Puerto Rican,
Julia Alvarez (Dominican author of When The Garcia Girls Lost their Accents and In The Time of the Butterflies).
Ruth Behar is both a poet and anthropologist of Jewish Cuban decent.
Christina Garcia, Dreaming in Cuban & Monkey Hunting, her most recent, on the Chinese community in Cuba.

Jewish American lit.
Art Spiegelman, Maus (a "graphic novel"--cartoonist Spiegelman draws his father's holocaust memoirs with an unflinching, often critical eye.  Not for the faint of heart.)
Abraham Cahan
Bernard Malamud, Isaac Bashevis Singer are two of many award winning Jewish American writers.
American Jewish Fiction: A Century of Stories includes writing from the 1980's to the present and provides head notes introducing each author (23 included).
Anzia Yezierska The Breadgivers (1920's) and more of her short stories and novels are now in print.

Other European Americans who have worked on issues of Ethnicity:
William Faulkner is really interesting on race relations in the south. Absalom, Absalom is my favorite but it's a real challenge and takes a real commitment.  It only became one of my favorites after I read it a second time.
E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime deals with Jewish immigrants, African Americans, Anglo middle-class and their interconnections early in the 20th c.  A great portrait of America in the early 20th c.  The Book of Daniel (about the Rosenberg's execution) is also quite good.
Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes is good for the quality of the narration of his childhood experiences but its probably best not to read McCourt (or anyone) as the last word on what it means to be of a certain ethnicity.  This is one I also recommend on tape as he has a great reading voice (and a great accent).
Martin Scorsese, who is famous for all of his gangster movies, also did a short film of his parents called, I believe, Italian American.  Think of it as a small step in balancing the way Italian Americans are represented in the media.  The Sopranos also has a few scenes where non-criminal Italian Americans lament the representation of Italians as mafiosos.  It's good to see that they are at least self-conscious of this misrepresentation even as they bring the mafioso image to a new generation of viewers too young to have seen The Godfather in theaters.
In Bastard out of Carolina, Dorothy Allison writes about poor rural white America in a way that makes you recognize "white" as a distinct ethnicity: you learn the unique codes of conduct and rituals of this community, and you recognize the characters' need for both sustenance and freedom from the familial/community ties that sometimes bind, and see both victimization and triumph.


This site is maintained by Dr. Noelle Brada-Williams, an associate professor at San Jose State University.  All evaluations are based on her personal tastes and are meant only as suggestions for further readings.
Last updated July 2004.