Skip to main content

Keith Lawrence

Asian American Literature: An Encyclopedia for Students

Asian American Literature: An Encyclopedia for Students

Greenwood, 2021

This volume collects, in one place, a breadth of information about Asian American literary and cultural history as well as the authors and texts that best define it.

A dozen contextual essays introduce fundamental elements or subcategories of Asian American literature, expanding on social and literary concerns or tensions that are familiar and relevant. Essays include the origins and development of the term “Asian American”; overviews of Asian American and Asian Canadian social and literary histories; essays on Asian American identity, gender issues, and sexuality; and discussions of Asian American rhetoric and children’s literature.

More than 120 alphabetical entries round out the volume and cover important Asian North American authors. Historical information is presented in clear and engaging ways, and author entries emphasize biographical or textual details that are significant to contemporary young adults. Special attention has been given to pioneering authors from the late 19th century through the early 1970s and to influential or well-known contemporary authors, especially those likely to be studied in high school or university classrooms.

Faculty Book Review by Emron Esplin

Keith Lawrence’s recent edited book is a massive undertaking. Asian American Literature: An Encyclopedia for Students, as its subtitle suggests, is aimed at student readers, and it seeks to introduce them to “broad elements of Asian North American literature” (xi) through seven overview essays and to over one hundred Asian North American authors through individual author entries. Along with the editing, Lawrence is the author of the book’s introductory materials, the co-author of four of the overview essays, and an author or co-author of several of the entries on individual writers. I appreciate Lawrence and his contributors’ early efforts to clearly define their terms—beginning with “Asian North American”—to demonstrate that the book includes authors of Asian origins and ancestry in both the US and Canada. I also appreciate their ability to succinctly differentiate between various regional and national histories and identities from Asia. Doing so in the overview pieces provides a few pages to which students and other non-experts (like myself) can return while reading the author entries if we forget, for example, the differences between Southeast Asia, South Asia, and East Asia, and it also makes it clear to the readers that the term “Asian” does a massive amount of work—in the book and in its usage as a term to describe a branch of “American” literature and/or identity.

Encyclopedias, like all types of anthological texts, are simultaneously inclusive and exclusive. The author section of this encyclopedia offers entries on well-known writers and entries on writers whom the anthologizers think their readers should know but probably do not. In other words, the book both reifies some long-held opinions among scholars of Asian North American literature while recovering some writers from oblivion. This type of book, especially when read by students, begins to create a canon, even though Lawrence and his contributors resist this claim (xi). Their open acknowledgment, however, that this encyclopedia is not complete and that their readers will probably both find authors they do not know and see that a name they hope to find is not included provides a type of transparency that many anthologies and encyclopedias do not.

Finally, I would like to mention how Lawrence’s introduction offers nuanced readings of various writers and of Asian North American literary history that foreshadow the complexity of the coverage offered in the author entries when taken as a whole. As one example, the story of sisters Edith Maude Eaton and Lily Winnifred Eaton—“the first North American women writers of Chinese ancestry” (xx)—cuts across multiple racial and national identities. The daughters of an English father and a Chinese mother, the two authors could both have “easily passed as white,” but decided not to do so. The former held on to her Chinese identity while the latter appropriated and curated a Japanese identity, and they both lived long enough in the US and in Canada to be claimed by both literary traditions (xx). Capturing these multiple identities via the typical vocabulary of current identity politics would certainly take more than one hyphen. As another example, heated debates about whether the most popular Asian North American writers are “real” or “fake” (xxviii) demonstrate the difficulties faced by minority writers who find success in the majority’s literary marketplace and the trials of minority writers who do not conform to the conventions of that marketplace and thus, may have a hard time selling their books. The former may be called to task for selling out while the latter may have to find other ways to pay their bills. Lawrence maps out these and other complexities within the field in his introduction, and he and his colleagues continue to tell this intricate literary history in both the overview essays and the author entries. In short, this encyclopedia gives students key names and concepts, but it also narrativizes and historicizes Asian North American literature in a way that feels more like literary criticism and literary history. It will be a valuable teaching tool for years to come.