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Building Asian Canadian Literary Studies

Summary and Keywords

Asian Canadian Literary Studies is a relatively new field of study which began in the mid to late 1990s. Even though literature written by Chinese, Japanese, and South Asian Canadians had been published in literary magazines and anthologies since the 1970s, the identification of a distinct body of works called “Asian Canadian literature,” as Donald Goellnicht has noted (in “A Long Labour”), began only when there was a sociopolitical movement focused on identity politics. The literature includes early experiences of Chinese in Gum San or “gold mountain”; Japanese Canadian internment during the Second World War; South Asian Canadians diasporic writing from former British colonies like India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Trinidad, Guyana, Tanzania, and Kenya; feminist experimental and genre writing; and writing from the post-1975 wave of first- and 1.5-generation immigrants and refugees. Early 21st-century works have moved from mainly autoethnographic stories to those that include larger sociocultural concerns, such as poverty, domestic violence, the environment, lesbian, queer, and transgender issues, and other intersectional systems of oppression that face Asian Canadians and other marginalized groups. Genres include memoirs, films, short stories, autobiographies, realist novels, science fiction, graphic novels, poetry, plays, and historical novels.

In the past, without naming the field “Asian Canadians,” many critics have engaged with Asian Canadian literary texts. For example, articles and chapters about Joy Kogawa’s Obasan can be found in journals and books on Canadian, postcolonial, ethnic, and Asian American literature. South Asian Canadian literature also has strong links with postcolonial studies and institutions, such as the book publisher TSAR Publications, which began as the literary journal, The Toronto South Asian Review. In Canadian English usage, Asian usually refers to people from East and Southeast Asian while the term South Asian Canadian is a subgroup of Asian Canadian, according to Statistics Canada. In literary studies, it has only been in the past ten or fifteen years that the term “Asian Canadian” is used as a pan-ethnic term for all peoples who are originally from or have roots in Asia.

Keywords: Asian Canadian, immigrant literature, Chinese Canadian, Filipino Canadian, Japanese Canadian, South Asian Canadian literature, Korean Canadian, refugee literature

Canadians celebrated Canada 150 in 2017, marking the 1867 Confederation of four provinces that composed the Dominion of Canada. The year-long celebration encouraged Canadians from across the country to remember and highlight achievements, and prompted the telling of stories, both jubilant and painful. While there were many activities exhibiting Canada’s cultural, regional, and ethnic diversity, it also provided a time to reflect on the “untold stories,” especially of indigenous people.1 The occasion provided an opportunity to look retrospectively at the place of Asian people in Canada, and in particular, at their bourgeoning literary productions. Asian Canadians initially started from a group of mainly laborers from the Pearl River Delta who moved to British Columbia in the 1850s. Though they have been in Canada for over one hundred years, until recently, they remain an “invisible” visible minority group in the realms of politics and arts.2 Asian Canadians are a heterogeneous mix of professional workers, business entrepreneurs, artists, health care workers, restaurant owners, shopkeepers, politicians, teachers, students, and so on, who now number more than five million (15 percent of the population) people from Hong Kong, Taiwan, China, Japan, Singapore, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Korea, the Caribbean, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and other countries. The Chinese are the largest group of Asian Canadians, except in the provinces of Saskatchewan and Manitoba, where there are more Filipinos. South Asians are the second largest ethnic group after East Asians.3 In his seminal article, “A Long Labour,” Don Goellnicht explains the slow development of Asian Canadian literature from the mid-20th century to the late 1990s.4 This article continues the work began by Goellnicht and focuses mainly on texts after the 1990s. In the past thirty years, Asian Canadian literature, like Asian Canadian history, has been developing both in the academic world as well as in the larger community, contributing to a stronger sense of national identity for Asians in Canada. Asian Canadian literature in English can be divided roughly into five categories: (1) breaking the silence; (2) between old and new worlds; (3) beyond autoethnography; (4) unfastened; and (5) new independent voices. Immigration patterns as well as sociocultural and literary movements in the United States and Canada have influenced the development of Asian Canadian literature over the years. In Canada, a larger South Asian rather than African American population, the support of creative artists by federal and provincial granting agencies, and the grouping of people from Asia as “visible minorities” have meant that Asian Canadian literature has been read and classified as “multicultural” literature rather than Asian Canadian until the late 1990s.5

Breaking the Silence

In 1997, Lien Chao published Beyond Silence, which was the first book-length study of Chinese Canadian literature in English. Chao’s theme was very much about the silence of the “Chinese Canadian community in mainstream Canadian society” and the efforts to discover “the history of Gold Mountain.”6 Her work and the literature that she studied marks the first category of Chinese Canadian literature. In the first category, Chinese Canadian authors followed the example of feminist scholars and writers of the 1970s and 1980s who urged women to tell their unwritten stories. Tillie Olsen recounts her attempt to break free of the male literary canon by discovering the works of women and working-class people. Feminist writers such as Adrienne Rich were speaking out against the culture of passivity taught to women and were attempting to raise feminist consciousness. Similarly, Lien Chao’s book highlights the literary anthologies, collection of stories, novels, and memoirs written about the lives of early Asian Canadian settlers and the communities during the Exclusion Era. Important aims of anthologies such as Inalienable Rice and Many Mouthed Birds were to “rewrite existing Canadian history in order to right the wrongs,” and “to reclaim community heroes and heroines from the existing racial stereotypes.”7

In the 1980s and 1990s, a number of works set out to tell previously unknown history about the hard lives of Chinese railroad workers and early settlers. Sky Lee’s historical novel, Disappearing Moon Cafe, one of the few works set in railroad camps to depict the relationship between First Nations and early Chinese immigrants, traces the fraught family history of the Chang family from the late 19th century to 1939. The tragic consequences of racism and the Exclusion Act included adultery, incest, anti-miscegenation movements, and abandonment. In film, the 20th-century protagonist of video artist Richard Fung’s Dirty Laundry discovers a photograph from the 19th century that reveals the homosocial world of bachelors, challenging dominant accounts of the history of Chinese laborers in Canada and supplementing what is documented. Similarly, Winston Christopher Kam’s play, Bachelor Man, which is set in a cafe on Dundas Street in Toronto’s Chinatown on Dominion Day in 1923, features six men who discuss their frustration and desperation as they have to live without Chinese women in Canada. Escape to Gold Mountain, a graphic novel for young readers by David H. T. Wong, is based on interviews with ten elders and also represents the struggle of the early Chinese. These works document the experiences of families that were impacted by what Lisa Lowe calls “immigrant acts,” which regulated the settlement of Asians in Canada and the United States. The acts separated families and led to the skewed ration of men to women, creating bachelor societies that often relied on gambling and prostitution for entertainment.

Two of the best-known works about the early part of the 20th century are Denise Chong’s The Concubine’s Children and Wayson Choy’s The Jade Peony. Chong’s family memoir is not only a biography of her grandmother, Leong May-Ying, who became the third wife to Chan Sam and also a prostitute in Vancouver, but also a story about her divided families in Canada and China. Wayson Choy’s short story cycle, featuring stories from three perspectives about growing up in the 1930s and 1940s, reveals immigrant children’s experience of nonbelonging because of being female and useless, being homosexual, and being sickly. These narratives are mainly realist, and, like Judy Fong Bates’ stories about growing up in a small town in Ontario in the 1950s in her China Dog and Other Tales and Midnight at the Dragon Cafe, they provide accounts of the confusion of children who learn Confucian values at home and Western, liberal values at school and in town. Bates’ stories contain moving accounts of Chinese men who have never had to perform women’s work in China but now have to run laundry businesses or wash dishes in restaurants in order to make a living. Discriminatory hiring practices led to the ubiquitous presence of Chinese restaurants all over the country, as noted by scholar Lily Cho in Eating Chinese.

It was, in part, due to the efforts of Japanese Canadian poet, scholar, and activist Roy Miki and the Japanese Canadian redress movement, as well as Joy Kogawa’s Obasan that that government of Canada under Prime Minister Brian Mulroney offered Japanese Canadians an apology and redress in the form of a compensation package in 1988. Kogawa’s novel, which appeared in 1981, was the first novel on the internment of Japanese residents in Canada during the Second World War. Set in a small town in Alberta in the 1970s, the novel uses poetry, biblical and literary allusions, dreams, and a variety of images, including stone, water, disease, and chickens, to tell the awakening to consciousness of Naomi, who was a child of five when Canadians of Japanese heritage were removed from their homes and businesses and sent to camps in the interior of British Columbia, to farms, and to internment camps across Canada. Having grown up with her uncle and aunt (Obasan) who live in silence, Naomi does not really know what happened to Japanese Canadians and to her mother, who disappeared. Her two aunts, Obasan, who is an Issei (Canadian resident born or raised in Japan), and Aunt Emily, a Nisei (a person of Japanese origin born and raised in Canada), represent two ways of dealing with the internment: “One lives in sound, the other in stone. Obasan’s language remains deeply underground but Aunt Emily, BA, MA, is a word warrior.”8 As critic Gary Willis notes, “the aim of the narrator—and, presumably, of her creator, Kogawa—is to combine speech and silence, or to articulate the silence” to free the speech that comes from the “amniotic deep.”9, The novel uses what Manina Jones calls a “documentary collage,” focusing on “the material documentation of history and story” by references to actual government documents, newspaper clippings, letters, journal entries and historical events to enable Naomi and the novel’s readers to piece together the injustices perpetrated on Naomi’s family and the Japanese Canadian community.10

Between Old and New Worlds

The second category of Asian Canadian literature features a number of works that articulate the discomfort of being an outsider in one’s adopted country. Poet Fred Wah, whose father was half Chinese and half Scots-Irish and whose mother was a Swedish-born Canadian, talks about poetry and “hybridity” in Faking It. He says: “Everything that surrounds our thinking about the hyphen seems suited to my interest in composing language. Its marginalized position (and I don't mean only racially), its noisy—sometimes transparent, sometimes opaque—space feels nurturing. Its coalitional and mediating potentiality offers real engagement, not as a centre but as a provocateur of flux, floating, fleeting.”11 Terms such as hyphen and hybridity, which, according to Homi Bhabha, is a space “in-between the designations of identity,” an “interstitial passage between fixed identifications,” provided critics and writers with a way to approach Asian Canadian subjects in the 1990s. Instead of seeing Asian as separate from being European Canadian, hybridity offered a way to describe a condition where boundaries of identity are crossed.12 Hybridity replaces the derogatory terms, such as half-breed and mongrel, and for Bhabha, indicated the process of the emergence of a culture in which its elements are being continually transformed or translated through irrepressible encounters.

The condition of being a hyphen, however, is not always as positive as Bhabha makes it sound. It becomes a source of frustration and also wry humor for Terry Woo in his novel Banana Boys (1999), which was adapted for the stage in 2005. Woo’s novel follows the lives five twenty-something-year-old men who went to school together at the University of Waterloo and who all have issues with their racial and masculine identity, with girls, with parental expectations, and with feelings of inadequacy. The death of one of the five reunites them at age twenty-six and becomes the reason for the flashbacks that comprise most of the novel. They call themselves Banana Boys because they “didn't really seem Chinese. At least they didn't act like it mostly. They were all CBC, Canadian-born Chinese, ‘Bananas’—yellow on the outside and white on the inside. Jook-sing.”13

Perhaps the most entertaining depiction of intergenerational conflict and being in-between words is the film Double Happiness, by Mina Shum. Starring Sandra Oh, the film depicts the trials and tribulations of twenty-two-year-old Jade who wants to become an actress and who disappoints her traditional Chinese parents who believe she ought to be starting a family and embarking on a professional career instead of going to auditions. Jade’s difficulty in getting a part reveals the stereotypical expectations our culture still has of Asian women and the “complications of trying to maintain an essentialist Chinese identity in the diaspora.”14 There are limited roles for Asian women in mainstream films, and when producers want an Asian woman, they expect her to be exotic and fluent in Chinese. Evelyn Lau also rebels against her parents, and at 14, runs away from home to live in the streets of Vancouver for several years, engaging in drugs and prostitution. Her Runaway: Diary of a Street Kid, which recounted her relationships with older men, her abuse of drugs, and her prostitution experiences, was a critical and commercial success. Scholar erin Khuê Ninh argues that second-generation Asian children have become “viable capital investments, raised to enter the lucrative math- and science-based professional fields now open to them in order to repay their parents’ suffering with prestigious consumer goods.”15 Both Jade and Evelyn are “debt bound daughters” and “punished unreasonably” when they fail to live up to the expectations of their family and the model minority.16

Japanese Canadian author Hiromi Goto has also written about the conflict between generations, also figured as the struggle between authority and freedom, using elements of magic realism and folk tales. Chorus of Mushrooms is a novel that “celebrates women’s voices, storytelling, and female creativity” through its “fragmentary structure, its narrative voices, and its recurring motifs.”17 It follows the narratives of three generations of Japanese Canadian women living in Alberta: eighty-five-year-old Obachan Naoe who decides to leave her home to go ride in the Calgary rodeo; mother Keiko or Kay who has fully assimilated into Canadian culture, “converted from rice and daikon to weiners and beans;” and thirty-year-old Murasaki who, like the cicada insect, has to come out of her “years of silence and darkness” to embrace her Japanese Canadian identity.18 In one of the best feminist rewritings of the figure of the old hag, Goto’s Obachan rejuvenates her body in the family’s mushroom farm, hitches a ride with a man in a pickup truck, and enjoys great food and sex with him. Similarly, Murasaki learns the origins of her Japanese name, how to make tonkatsu, and finds sexual and gastronomical pleasure with her boyfriend. Goto builds upon and rewrites the figure of the repressed Obachan from Joy Kogawa’s novel by making the figure of the grandmother break out of silence and act upon her bodily desires.

Beyond Autoethnography

At the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century, a number of Asian Canadian authors published fiction which Eleanor Ty and Christl Verduyn characterized as “beyond ethnography,” where texts refused “to be contained simply by their ethnic markers.”19 In the introduction to Asian Canadian Writing Beyond Ethnography, Ty and Verduyn suggested in 2008 that there were “new possibilities in creative expression and writing by Asian Canadians” that were “not necessarily predicated on the exposition of one’s ethnic identity,” and that moved “away from questions of authenticity, essentialist identity politics, and a view of a cultural group that is static, rather than evolving.”20

Some of the artists studied in the collection experimented with form and genre, time and space, including Larissa Lai and Shani Mootoo, who use elements of science fiction, fantasy, and folk tales in their novels. Shani Mootoo’s Cereus Blooms at Night (1996), set in a mythical island in the Caribbean, a place likely modelled on Trinidad where Mootoo lived as a child, is a novel that combines the history of colonialization, of indentured Indo-Caribbean laborers, a fantasy about gender fluidity, and a dark tale about sexual abuse. The paradise with exotic plants like the cereus, parrots, crickets, and other tropical creatures provides a backdrop and a model of the “heterogeneity found in nature” for families and individuals with secret passions, interracial desires, and lesbian and homosocial intimacies.21 Mootoo creates a complex postcolonial story of the violator and violated in the figure of Chandin Ramchandin, whose wife left him for another woman, and who subsequently spirals downward into drink, childhood molestation, and tyranny. But, as Mariam Pirbhai notes, Chandin himself was a “casualty of the civilizing mission” by the British.22 The Ramchandin men are “doubly marginalized in their lower-caste status and as subordinate racial ‘others,’” and his “violent sexual predator is implicitly sanctioned by the colonial and Hindu patriarchal authority that affords his privileged status as an Indian male.”23 Chandin Ramchandin has been murdered by his daughter when the novel opens, and it is up to the next generation to regenerate and repair the rifts and exclusions created by the old community.

Larissa Lai’s best known futuristic novel of this period, Salt Fish Girl, set in two time periods of 19th-century China and a futuristic North American west coast in the year 2044, follows the adventures of a girl, Nu Wa and Miranda, as she goes through two different incarnations. The novel shows the way odors evoke memory and suggests discriminatory practices based on olfactory senses. Larissa Lai said that she wrote the book “wanting to think about the whole question of origins. There’s a common racist injunction that gets tossed at people of colour in North America to ‘go back where you came from’. . . So I began to look at mythologies of origin.”24 By calling up such odors as salt fish and durian, Lai says, “I want to question the disgust we feel for those who are afflicted by history, those who carry the memories we were meant to forget at the moment of assimilation.”25 Lai critiques various kinds of corporations that take advantage of low wages, including toy factories, hotels, and telemarketers through Nu Wa’s story, and also, science, cloning, and technology in Miranda’s story. Tara Lee writes, “Science not only aids capitalism in regulating disruptive bodies, but it also provides the technology to enable the disassembly and the subsequent reassembly of these deviant bodies into a semblance of unity. Thus, the body becomes a cyborg, part machine, part animal, and part human until it is so implicated in capitalist workings that it cannot recognize its hybrid state.”26

Another author who has used a dual time setting is Lydia Kwa, who in her historical novel, This Place Called Absence, imagines the possibility of lesbian lives in early 20th-century Singapore and late 20th-century Vancouver. Kwa’s novel features a modern-day psychologist, Wu Lan, who is feeling guilty about her father’s suicide in Singapore because it occurs shortly after she comes out to her parents. She comes across a book about Chinese women in the late 19th and early 20th centuries who were recruited to become sex workers in Singapore. As the novel progresses, the subjectivity of Wu Lan slowly merges with that of the two Ah-Ku (prostitutes) who, like her, have left home and family and are unable to fulfill women’s expected roles as wives and mothers. Through her detailed recreation of the prostitutes’ daily lives, Wu Lan “preserves them from obscurity and rescues them from the seeming purposelessness of their lives as noted in the short entries on official documents.”27

Going beyond autoethnography for Madeleine Thien in her first novel, Certainty, meant linking stories of loss experienced by people living in various parts of the world: in Vancouver, Canada, in British North Borneo, and in Holland. Grieving for her own mother who had died, she was writing the novel, Thien poetically weaves the lives of those who are suffering from loss and trauma, including a doctor in Vancouver who is mourning the sudden death of his young wife, Gail; Gail’s father, Matthew, who is suffering from trauma experienced in his childhood in North Borneo; and a Dutch photographer, Sipke, whose partner has died. Reviewer Bronwyn Drainie writes, “Wiping out the past, then rediscovering it and making sense of it, is what Certainty is all about. . . Family members, communities, and whole countries disappear. Life goes on.”28 Yet, Certainty does not end on a depressing note. Thien provides a number of hints throughout the novel which suggest that there is a pattern in the world that not everyone can see. One character tells Gail that just as birds flying in a V formation cannot see the “vast pattern of migration,” one cannot see and has no knowledge of the pattern around him or her.29 One can only “glimpse a part of the puzzle and intimate, however vaguely, an answer,” but the implication is that one is part of a larger picture.30 One “will find something that abides, even now, in the indefinite, the uncertain hereafter.”31

In drama, there are similar attempts to go beyond autoethnography. The Carlos Bulosan Theatre (CBT) was established in 1982 to help Filipino Canadians in the greater Toronto area to realize their potential as playwrights, actors, directors, and theater practitioners. It is a community-based professional theater company initially linked to the North America Coalition against the Marcos Dictatorship, founded by Martha Ocampo and Fely Villasin.32 Productions in the past thirty years dealt with various social issues affecting Filipinos in Canada and beyond, including the difficulties faced by the Filipino immigrant in Canada; domestic workers; the life of Carlos Bulosan, the Filipino American laborer and activist; violence against women in the Filipino-Canadian community; the Filipino rebellion against Spanish colonial rule in the Philippines in 1896; and the People Power Revolution of 1986.33 One very successful play dealing with cultural identity in a humorous way is Miss Orient(ed), written by Nina Aquino and Nadine Villasin, which is set in the world of the “Miss Pearl of the Orient” beauty pageant.34 It was first produced in Toronto in 2001, again in 2003, and played again in 2005 in Toronto and in Montreal. As Ty notes, “through songs, exaggeration, camp, and monologues, the play pokes fun at, but at the same time poignantly depicts, the aspirations and often, the misplaced hopes of Filipina mothers and daughters” in North America and in the Philippines.35 Miss Orient(ed) reveals the continuing power of the American dream, Hollywood ideals of beauty, and stereotypes of the Oriental on Filipinas both at home and in the diaspora.


In the second decade of the 21st century, Asian Canadian literature becomes further released from constraints of autoethnography, stories of intergenerational conflicts, issues of assimilation, East–West themes, and the realist documentary mode. Eleanor Ty’s Unfastened: Globablity and Asian North American Narratives looks at a number of works that “consciously explore the impact of globalization on Asian North Americans” and those that showed an attitude of “critical globality.”36 Ty argues that the authors in that study “convey how globalization and travel have changed the particularities of the world we live in by depicting local and quotidian practices, by giving details of the joys, pains, disappointments, and pleasures of the everyday.”37 Ty uses the term “unfastened” to suggest notions of geographical mobility and displacement, in the positive and negative senses.

A way of becoming unfastened is through form. By breaking free of the mainly realist, documentary mode which dominated Asian North American literature and film of the 1980s and early 1990s, some authors reach a larger readership through the use of popular genres, like detective novels. Jen Sookfong Lee’s The Conjoined uses the familiar category of a murder mystery to problematize the myth of the perfect mother and to call attention to issues such as the underfunding of social service agencies, poverty, and women’s limited choices in life. The Conjoined begins with a gruesome scene where the protagonist, Jessica Campbell, a social worker, discovers two dead bodies in her deceased mother’s basement chest freezers. Jessica’s mother, Donna, was believed to be an exemplary wife, mother, and foster mother, but the discovery of the dead Chinese girls who were under her care throws everything into confusion. The plot involves an Asian family, but it is also about the foster care system, about the working poor, and the hardship of immigrants who remain invisible to the public, those who do not fit into the ideals of the model minority Chinese community. Lee uses conventions of the detective novel but also deviates from them by not providing an ending where the murderer is exposed and society is restored to peace and order.

The term “intersectionality” was coined by American civil rights advocate Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw in 1989 to describe the intersection of systems of oppression or discrimination. Forms of identities that can intersect include gender, race, social class, ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation, religion, age, and mental and physical disability. In the second decade of the 21st century, many works by Asian Canadians demonstrate their awareness that systemic injustice and social inequality occur on multiple levels. Kim Fu’s For Today I Am a Boy looks at the ways that ethnicity, social class, gender, and sexuality are mutually constitutive and become oppressive for the protagonist, Peter Huang, the only son of the family. In one way, Fu’s novel replays many of the intergenerational conflicts of the Chinese immigrant family, the first-generation parents’ aspirations, subjugated children, and the failure to conform to the model minority, which were present in earlier writing by Chinese Canadians. Yet, it is also about how difficult it still is to disentangle our subjectivity from our physical bodies, and the complexities, the public and private institutions, the ideologies, and the emotions that are enmeshed in the discursive constructions of the self, for Peter would rather cook and play with his sisters than be tough like his father. He has difficulty identifying with the body into which he was born. Rather than focusing only on the everyday negotiations with ethnic identity, For Today I Am a Boy depicts the failures of Peter and his siblings to conform to the kinds of gender, social, and professional roles expected of them.

Also concerned with intersectional issues is Catherine Hernandez, who was named Carlos Bulosan Theatre’s Ontario Playwright in Residence in 2010–2011. Her work has been produced by Fu-Gen Asian Canadian Theatre Company and by Sulong Theatre Company. An actor, activist, and theater practitioner, Hernandez has recently turned to writing fiction. Her play, Singkil, explores issues pertinent to young people in their twenties, including depression, estrangement from their immigrant parents, and disconnection with their Filipino culture. Her one-woman puppet performance, Eating with Lola, is both a historical play about Filipino underground resistance during the Japanese occupation of the Philippines as much as it is about aging.38 Catherine Hernandez’s debut novel Scarborough, a series of interlinked stories about three children and their families from the low-income and culturally diverse Toronto suburb of Scarborough, was nominated for the 2017 Toronto Book Award. The novel follows Hina, a Muslim literacy center worker, and her efforts to care for poor and marginalized children, including Sylvie, an indigenous girl; Bing, a Filipino boy; and the hungry, neglected Laura over the course of one year.

Founded in 2002, Fu-Gen Theatre Company is devoted to supporting and producing Asian Canadian theater. David Yee’s most recent play, Acquiesce, coproduced by Fu-Gen and Factory Theatre in 2016, is a second-generation immigrant play that incorporates ghosts, folklore, and the fantastic. Yee’s play uses the familiar plot of the return narrative but gives it an unfamiliar twist by adding magic, mystery, and comedy to the journey of self-discovery. He plays with notions of time and space by using lighting, strange objects, and shallow and deep staging. The result is a dreamscape, a “beautiful mix of complex and evocative visual metaphors, strong, strange stage moments, startlingly simple movement transitions,” reviewer Thea Fitz-James notes. The protagonist, Sin Hwang (David Yee), has to travel from his home in Toronto to Hong Kong after the death of his father and is given various mysterious tasks to complete by his cousin, Kai (Richard Lee), in Hong Kong. One of these tasks, according to his father’s will, is to write and deliver the father’s eulogy, to be spoken in Cantonese, which the protagonist does not know how to speak. The need to learn the language of his father leads Sin to speak to and seek help from unusual figures: a Paddington Bear stuffed toy, a Buddhist monk, his gay cousin Kai, and his sometimes girlfriend, Nine. Acquiesce explores the complex intersection of race, masculinity, violence, and failure. Its innovative use of stage space, visual imagery, and the inclusion of magic and the spiritual differentiates it from other intergenerational immigrant stories.

Rita Wong, poet, activist, and critic, is a writer who has been involved in social justice, ecology, decolonization, and indigenous politics for over a decade. Her most recent book of poetry, Undercurrent, with its focus on water, shows the possibilities of ecofeminist poetic praxis in a globalized world. In an essay, “Waters as Potential Paths to Peace,” Wong writes, “participatory water ethics offers an inviting path to peace, a way to rethink and address the conflicts and injustices that logically arise when water is conceptualized as an object and commodity to be transported and sold to whichever customer can afford to pay . . . water scarcity substantially contributes to and exacerbates existing tensions that we might primarily perceive as political or religious from an androcentric lens.”39 Wong is interested in water both as “an opportunity and a requirement for communities to work together to protect, . . . a critical nexus through which to reimagine ourselves and our cultures” (210). In Undercurrent, the focus is on the urgent need to prevent global capitalism from wreaking further havoc on our water and environment. Using a number of strategies and genres, including the personal testament, catalogs, lyric poetry, indigenous knowledge, and feminist ways of being, Wong conveys her anger, her commitment to nature, her ecocritical feminist politics, and her solidarity with the First Nations community.

A piece called “Borrowed Waters: The Sea Around Us, The Sea Within Us” presents a catalog of plastic objects, listed in a furious rush to reflect the throwaway culture of modern life:

the great pacific garbage patch is not just a mass of floating plastic junk the size of ontario jostling about with jellyfish and starving squids in the ocean, but a dead albatross mirrors us back to ourselves. it is a manmade network, toxic magic in the making, branching into your bathroom with its plastic shampoo bottles & toothbrushes, into local plastic factories, into the fast food restaurants that sing the convenient song & inconvenient truth of disposable forks & styrofoam containers, into the plastic beverage bottles belched out by nestle, coca-cola, pepsi, visible tip of the corporate iceberg. it is embedded in mutual funds & stock investments. it is soap dish & lawn chair, eyeglasses & twist ties, hospital food trays & squeezable honey bottles, lighters & lipstick tubes, all bobbing and decomposing in a great big salty home. it is formidable & humble, far away & intimate, outside & inside, all at once.40

Wong’s juxtaposition of man-made objects, shampoo bottles, toothbrushes, forks, and Styrofoam containers with the few animals in the ocean, the jellyfish, and the starving squids suggests a crowding out and killing of nature in the “great big salty home” by the everyday disposable products we thoughtlessly consume. Beauty, suggested by words such as “magic” and “song,” is used ironically to describe poisons and destructive practices, “toxic magic,” and “convenient song . . . of disposable forks and Styrofoam.” Garbage drowns out whatever enchantment we had.

New Independent Voices

Ins Choi’s play, Kim’s Convenience, had a successful stage run in Toronto for a number of years, played briefly on Broadway (July 2017), and was made into a TV sitcom on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). Set in a convenience store run by Mr. Kim or Appa, a patriarchal Korean immigrant, the play’s humor comes from the juxtaposition of Appa’s traditional and blunt opinions and modern-day multicultural values. The store is located in the Regent Park neighborhood of Toronto, an area built in the 1940s as a public housing project. Residents of the area come from a wide variety of cultural backgrounds, including families from Africa, Asia, and Latin America. The play explores interethnic relationships by having customers of all cultural backgrounds interact with the store owners, and by the romance between the daughter of the store owner and an African Canadian police officer. In Kim’s Convenience, the arguments between the college-aged daughter, Janet, and her father, Mr. Kim, about getting time off from the convenience store seems typical father and daughter arguments, but also bespeaks of the condition of Asian North Americans whose success as model minorities is predicated on the unpaid and pooled labor of family members.

The 1.5-generation spoken word poet and artist Rupi Kaur, who writes poetry and posts images on Tumblr and Instagram, has become a New York Times bestselling author in 2017 with her book Milk and Honey. Instapoet Kaur’s photo-essay on menstruation became controversial after Instagram deleted it. Her picture series, a feminist effort to destigmatize menstruation, went viral on Facebook, causing Instagram to apologize to her later. She is an Instagram poet who has “cleverly managed to combine the internet’s love of an inspirational quote with artful typography and immediate shareability.”41 Kaur’s Instagram illustrations and poetry on love, loss, trauma, sexual violence, and womanhood, became so successful that she was able to self-publish a book on Amazon, which was later picked up by Andrews McMeel Publishing. Her success demonstrates how this kind of shareable work on new media can be harnessed by young Asian North American female artists to provoke and challenge representations of women, their bodies, their desires, and their sexuality.

Small, independent, and feminist presses have been supportive of and have published a number of Asian Canadian writers, especially women. These include Lao Canadian poet Souvankham Thammavongsa, whose collections,Found (2007) and Light (2013), about small things and moments, were both published by Pedlar Press.42 Brittany Kraus writes, “Given the recent changes to Canada’s immigration practices and policies, including the significant reduction of the narrative component of a refugee protection claim, the metaphor of smallness becomes a particularly potent site through which to explore the increasingly limited space(s) afforded to asylum seekers.”43 Kim Thúy’s novel, Ru, which draws elements of her Vietnamese refugee past, first appeared in French with Libre Expression and won the 2010 Governor General’s Award. An English translation by Sheila Fischman later won the First Novel Award. Farzana Doctor, an Indo-Canadian novelist and social worker from Zambia, has been awarded the 2011 Dayne Ogilvie Grant for an emerging lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender writer. Stealing Nasreen and Six Metres of Pavement deal with the emotional and physical changes immigrants experience as they deal with unexpected predicaments in multicultural Toronto.44 Singer and poet Vivek Shraya’s novel, She of the Mountains, explores the complexity of gender identity and desire by having a Hindu boy identify as queer, and then later fall in love with a woman.45

A number of authors who were established professionally from Mainland China, such as Yan Li and Zoe S. Roy, have published novels in English that depict Chinese women’s escapes from repressive regimes and subsequent settlements in North American cities. Their novels contrast the rigidity of China with the social freedom found in North America, but also show the difficulties typically encountered by new immigrants. The protagonist of Yan Li’s Lily in the Snow was a journalist in China but finds that she has to take menial jobs in Canada, working as a maid, factory worker, and a secretary.46 Zoe S. Roy’s The Long March Home is a feminist historical novel set against the backdrop of the Chinese cultural revolution (1966–1976).47 It is a family saga about three generations of women who become transnational migrants with experiences living in China, the United States and Canada. Another female writer who has written about journeys home is Mia Herrera, whose debut novel Shade, tells the story of a young Filipina Canadian who goes to visit her relatives in the Philippines and discovers a world of the ultrarich and the working poor.48 Born in Pakistan, Mariam Pirbhai has published her first short story collection, Outside People, which brings together stories of people who are outsiders in Canada, the invisible “visible minority.”49 They include Corazon, a Filipina domestic worker who came to Canada through the Live-In Caregiver’s program; a Jamaican migrant worker who takes care of a sick Peruvian migrant co-worker on a chicken farm in southwestern Ontario; and a couple from Mumbai dealing with a frozen car door during a Halifax winter storm. The book was ranked sixth in “95 Must-Read Books from 2017, as Recommended by You,” compiled by the CBC.50

Asian Canadians have made huge strides in the arts world in the past few years. In 2012, Fred Wah was appointed Poet Laureate. Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing, about three musicians from China whose dreams are thwarted by political events, won the 2016 Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction, as well as the 2016 Scotiabank Giller Prize. Asian Canadian Literary Studies in English continues to expand and diversify in subject matter, critical approaches, and genres.

Discussion of the Literature

A number of scholars have discussed the emergence of the field of Asian Canadian Literary Studies and the reasons why it only began some decades after the establishment of Asian American Studies in the 1960s and 1970s. These include Guy Beauregard, “The Emergence of Asian Canadian Literature: Can Lit’s Obscene Supplement?” (1999), Don Goellnicht, “A Long Labour” (2000), and Christopher Lee, “The Lateness of Asian Canadian Studies” (2007). The special issue of Canadian Literature in 1999, on “Asian Canadian Writing,” guest-edited by Glen Deer, included critical essays on Wayson Choy, Mary Kiyooka, Fred Wah, Roy Kiyooka, Hiromi Goto, Sally Ito, and poetry by Rita Wong, Roy Miki, Terry Watada, Randal Chin, Jean Eng, Jen Lam, Fiona Lam, and others. Another special issue, focussing on “Asian Canadian Studies,” guest-edited by Guy Beauregard, contained essays that further explored the process and development of Asian Canadian Studies, including, Guy Beauregard’s “Asian Canadian Studies: Unfinished Projects,” Christopher Lee’s “Enacting the Asian Canadian,” Donald Goellnicht’s “Asian Kanadian, Eh?,” and Iyko Day’s “Must All Asianness be American? The Census, Racial Classification, and Asian Canadian Emergence.”

Eleanor Ty and Christl Verduyn’s edited volume, Asian Canadian Writing Beyond Autoethnography (2008), was one of the first books wholly devoted to Asian Canadian writers who were experimenting with different forms and themes. Before that, Asian Canadian literature was often studied with other groups: Tseen-Ling Khoo’s Banana Bending (2003) compared Asian Australian and Asian Canadian novels, and Eleanor Ty and Donald Goellnicht’s Asian North American Identities (2004) was one of the first collections to use the term “Asian North American.” Ty’s The Politics of the Visible in Asian North American Narratives (2004) first articulated the problem of Asian Canadians being an invisible “visible minority.” Unfastened: Globality and Asian North American Narratives, by Eleanor Ty, explored globalization and mobility in Asian Canadian and American literature and film.

In the second decade of the 21st century, more scholarly work was published on the now recognized field of “Asian Canadian” literature in various forms. These include Larissa Lai’s retrospective look at literary production of Asian Canadians in the 1980s and 1990s in Slanting I, Imagining We (2014), Donald Goellnicht and Eleanor Ty’s encyclopedic essay, “Asian Canadian,” in The Routledge Companion to Asian American and Pacific Islander Literature, edited by Rachel Lee (2014), Eleanor Ty’s “(East and Southeast) Asian Canadian Literature: The Strange and the Familiar,” and Mariam Pirbhai’s “South Asian Canadian ‘Geographies of Voice’: Flagging New Critical Mappings” in Cynthia Sugars’ Oxford Handbook of Canadian Literature (2016). Canadian Literature published another special issue, “Asian Canadian Critique Beyond the Nation” guest-edited by Christopher Lee and Christine Kim (Winter 2015). Mariam Pirbhai also guest-edited an issue of SCE/ELC: Studies in Canadian Literature called “Introduction South Asian Canadian Literature: A Centennial Journey” in 2015.

Other critical works study specific topics in Asian Canadian literature and culture in the context of North America. These include Christine Kim’s The Minor Intimacies of Race: Asian Publics in North America (2016), Iyko Day’s Alien Capital: Asian Racialization and the Logic of Settler Colonial Capitalism (2016), and Eleanor Ty’s Asianfail: Narratives of Disenchantment and the Model Minority (2017).

Further Reading

Beauregard, Guy. “The Emergence of ‘Asian Canadian Literature’: Can Lit’s Obscene Supplement?” Essays on Canadian Writing 67 (1999): 53–75.Find this resource:

    Beauregard, Guy. “Asian Canadian Studies: Unfinished Projects.” Canadian Literature 199 (Winter 2008): 6–29.Find this resource:

      Chao, Lien. Beyond Silence: Chinese Canadian Literature in English. Toronto: TSAR, 1997.Find this resource:

        Day, Iyko. “Must All Asianness be American? The Census, Racial Classification, and Asian Canadian Emergence.” Canadian Literature 199 (Winter 2008): 45–71.Find this resource:

          Goellnicht, Donald. “A Long Labour: The Protracted Birth of Asian Canadian Literature.” Essays on Canadian Writing 72 (Winter 2000): 1–42.Find this resource:

            Khoo, Tseen-Ling. Banana Bending: Asian-Australian and Asian-Canadian Literatures. Montreal: McGill Queens University Press, 2003.Find this resource:

              Lai, Larissa. Slanting I, Imagining We: Asian Canadian Literature Production in the 1980s and 1990s. Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2014.Find this resource:

                Lee, Christopher. “The Lateness of Asian Canadian Studies.” Amerasia Journal 33, no. 2 (2007): 1–18.Find this resource:

                  Pirbhai, Mariam. “South Asian Canadian ‘Geographies of Voice’: Flagging New Critical Mappings.” In Oxford Handbook of Canadian Literature. Edited by Cynthia Sugars, 583–601. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.Find this resource:

                    Ty, Eleanor. The Politics of the Visible in Asian North American Narratives. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004.Find this resource:

                      Ty, Eleanor. Unfastened: Globality and Asian North American Narratives. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010.Find this resource:

                        Ty, Eleanor. “(East and Southeast) Asian Canadian Literature: The Strange and the Familiar.” In Oxford Handbook of Canadian Literature, 564–582. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.Find this resource:

                          Ty, Eleanor. Asianfail: Narratives of Disenchantment and the Model Minority. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2017.Find this resource:

                            Ty, Eleanor, and Donald C. Goellnicht, eds. Asian North American Identities Beyond the Hyphen. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004.Find this resource:

                              Ty, Eleanor, and Christl Verduyn, eds. Asian Canadian Writing Beyond Autoethnography. Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2008.Find this resource:


                                (1.) Linda Morra, who was the Craig Dobbin Chair in Canadian Studies, organized a conference at the University College Dublin in April 2017 with the title, “Untold Stories of the Past 150 Years,” where a number of indigenous scholars and storytellers presented narratives.

                                (2.) See Eleanor Ty, The Politics of the Visible in Asian North American Narratives (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004), Introduction.

                                (3.) See “Immigration and Ethnocultural Diversity in Canada,” Statistics Canada (2011).

                                (4.) See Donald Goellnicht, “A Long Labour: The Protracted Birth of Asian Canadian Literature,” Essays on Canadian Writing 72 (Winter 2000): 1–41.

                                (5.) Ty, Politics, Introduction.

                                (6.) Chao, Lien, Beyond Silence: Chinese Canadian Literature in English (Toronto: TSAR, 1997), 21, 27.

                                (7.) Chao, Beyond Silence, 36.

                                (8.) Joy Kogawa, Obasan (Toronto: Penguin, 1981), 32.

                                (9.) Gary Willis, “Speaking the Silence: Joy Kogawa’s Obasan,” Studies in Canadian Literature 12, no. 2 (1987); and Kogawa, Obasan, 1.

                                (10.) Manina Jones, That Art of Difference: Documentary Collage and English Canadian Writing (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993), 122.

                                (11.) Fred Wah, Faking It: Poetics and Hybridity (Edmonton, Alberta: NeWest, 2000), 103.

                                (12.) Homi Bhabha, The Location of Culture (New York: Routledge, 1994), 4.

                                (13.) Terry Woo, Banana Boys (Toronto: Cormorant Books, 2000), 11.

                                (14.) Ty, Politics, 71.

                                (15.) erin Khuê Ninh, Ingratitude: The Debt-Bound Daughter in Asian American Literature (New York: New York University Press, 2011), 17.

                                (16.) Ninh, Ingratitude, 2.

                                (17.) Ty, Politics, 152.

                                (18.) Hiromi Goto, Chorus of Mushrooms (Edmonton, Alberta: NeWest Press, 1994), 13, 157

                                (19.) Eleanor Ty and Christl Verduyn, Asian Canadian Writing Beyond Autoethnography (Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2008), 4.

                                (20.) Ty and Verduyn, Asian Canadian, 4–5.

                                (21.) Mariam Pirbhai, “An Ethnos of Difference, a Praxis of Inclusion: The Ethics of Global Citizenship in Shani Mootoo’s Cereus Blooms at Night,” Asian Canadian Writing Beyond Autoethnography, ed. Eleanor Ty and Christl Verduyn (Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2008), 258.

                                (22.) Pirbhai, “Ethnos of Difference,” 252.

                                (23.) Pirbhai, “Ethnos of Difference,” 252.

                                (24.) Larissa Lai, “Future Asians: Migrant Speculations, Repressed History and Cyborg Hope,” West Coast Line 38, no. 2 (Fall 2004): 171.

                                (25.) Lai, “Future Asians,” 173.

                                (26.) Tara Lee, “Mutant Bodies in Larissa Lai’s Salt Fish Girl: Challenging the Alliance Between Science and Capital,” West Coast Line 38, no. 2 (Fall 2004): 94.

                                (27.) Eleanor Ty, Unfastened: Globality and Asian North American Narratives (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010), 28.

                                (28.) Bronwyn Drainie, Review of Certainty by Madeleine Thien, Quill & Quire (2006).

                                (29.) Madeleine Thien, Certainty (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2006), 219.

                                (30.) Thien, Certainty, 219.

                                (31.) Thien, Certainty, 306.

                                (32.) “Carlos Bulosan Theatre,” Canadian Theatre Encyclopedia (Althabasa: Althabasa University), updated March 2012.

                                (33.) See Ric Knowles, “Toward a Filipino Canadian Dramaturgy: The Carlos Bulosan Collective,” Asian Canadian Theatre, vol. I, ed. Nina Lee Aquino and Ric Knowles (Toronto: Playwrights Canada Press, 2011), 131–132.

                                (34.) Ty, Unfastened, 63.

                                (35.) Ty, Unfastened, 64.

                                (36.) Ty, Unfastened, xxx.

                                (37.) Ty, Unfastened, xxx.

                                (38.) See Eleanor Ty, Asianfail: Narratives of Disenchantment and the Model Minority (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2017), chaps. 4 and 5.

                                (39.) Rita Wong, “Water as Potential Paths to Peace,” Material Cultures in Canada, ed. Thomas Allen and Jennifer Blair (Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2015), 210.

                                (40.) Rita Wong, Undercurrent, with drawings by Cindy Mochizuki (Gibsons, British Columbia: Nightwood, 2015).

                                (41.) Michelle Dean, “Instagram Poets Society: Selfie Age Gives New Life and Following Into Poetry,” The Guardian International Edition, Friday 26 February 2016.

                                (42.) Souvankham Thammavongsa, Found (St. John’s, Newfoundland: Pedlar, 2007), and Light (St. John’s, Newfoundland: Pedlar, 2013).

                                (43.) Brittany Kraus, “Unmarked, Undocumented, and Un-Canadian: Examining Space in Souvankham Thammavongsa’s Found,” Postcolonial Text 10, no. 2 (2015): 2.

                                (44.) Farzana Doctor, Stealing Nasreen (Toronto: Inanna, 2007); and Six Metres of Pavement (Toronto: Dundurn, 2011).

                                (45.) Vivek Shraya, She of the Mountains (Vancouver, British Columbia: Arsenal Pulp, 2014).

                                (46.) Yan Li, Lily in the Snow (Toronto: Women’s Press, 2009).

                                (47.) Zoe S. Roy, The Long March Home (Toronto: Inanna, 2011).

                                (48.) Mia Herrera, Shade (Toronto: Inanna, 2016).

                                (49.) Mariam Pirbhai, Outside People (Toronto: Inanna, 2017).

                                (50.) CBC Books, “95 Must-Read Books From 2017, as Recommended by You,” January 5, 2018.