Over the past two years, the United States has experienced an enormous surge of anti-Asian violence. According to a new report from the Brookings Institute, 1 in 6 Asian Americans reported personally experiencing a hate crime in 2021. In the first half of 2022, 1 in 3 Asian Americans have been told to “go back to your country.” As a result, the Pew Research Center reports, 1 in 5 Asian Americans now fear for their safety so severely that they have made substantial changes to their daily routines.
In her new book, Asian American Histories of the United States (Beacon, Aug. 2), scholar Catherine Ceniza Choy argues that this surge in violence derives from the erasure of Asian American lives over centuries. This erasure has resulted, according to the Brookings report, in over half of the American population being unable to name a single “prominent” Asian American and in Asian American history being unavailable to students in 48 states. Choy’s text addresses this gap in a comprehensive and conversational manner. Covering topics as diverse as the role of Chinese workers in the construction of the Western railroads; the leadership of Filipinos in the Delano, California, grape strike (1965-1970); and the gendered nature of anti-Asian immigration legislation, Choy’s work treats history not as an artifact of the past but as an urgent source of knowledge—and empathy—for the present.
Choy, who is a professor in the department of ethnic studies at UC Berkeley, answered our questions by email; the exchange has been edited for length and clarity.
Your first book was a history of Filipino American nurses, while this book covers a much larger population. What was it like to go from writing about a specific history to a much broader one?
One of the major challenges of writing an overview of nearly 200 years of Asian American experience is that Asian Americans are such a large, growing, and heterogeneous group with many distinctive as well as shared histories. (This is why the book’s title emphasizes the multiplicity of “Asian American histories.”) How does one write such an overview and include every Asian American group and their experiences? It’s a problem that I tried to confront with honesty and humility in the book’s preface, in which I acknowledge the impossibility of this task and the problems of marginalization in a broader history. In the face of these challenges, I seized the opportunity to feature less well-known and less well-integrated histories of mixed-race, South Asian, and Southeast Asian Americans and to tell the more familiar narratives—for example, of Japanese American internment during World War II—in new ways that relate to the existential crises of the present moment.
Rather than write this book chronologically, you wrote about events thematically, always connecting them to the present. How and why did you decide to use this structure?
The book’s thematic and nonlinear structure highlights specific years that serve as touchstones for many histories, including histories of the present day, that overlap and intersect in unforeseen ways. For example, Chapter 3 features 1968 and the history of how the name Asian American came to be and why it was meaningful for different groups of Asian Americans at that moment to embrace a panethnic identity. That history is an outcome of Asian American solidarity with the Third World Liberation Front and Black, Chicanx, and American Indian student movements. However, the year 1968 did not mark the first expression of Black and Asian American solidarity: That history is over a century long, going as far back as Frederick Douglass’ 1869 lecture in support of Chinese immigration. It’s important for us to remember and reflect upon these histories in the present moment, because Black and Asian Americans continue to be pitted against one another.
This structure gave me the opportunity to document what Asian Americans, including my family and I, have been experiencing since 2020: racial stereotyping as forever foreigners, medical scapegoating as disease carriers, and [acts] of anti-Asian hate. Anti-Asian hate is so omnipresent that it can numb and terrify us to the point that we try to forget what is happening in order to survive. But what kind of life will we have if we don’t confront our fear and grief? Our shared Asian American histories illuminate that we are not alone. The history of anti-Asian violence is a long-standing one, but so too are histories of Asian American reckoning and resistance.
In your introduction, you say you wrote this book as an attempt to combat the dehumanization of Asian Americans. Was this always your goal with this project? How, if at all, did your goal change over time?
Major themes in Asian American history include racism, imperialism, labor exploitation, and sexual objectification, which contribute to the dehumanization of Asian Americans. So, yes, trying to combat dehumanization by portraying the Asian American experience with more complexity and nuance was always my goal. However, the questions that haunted me about this project since 2020, were: Why is anti-Asian hate on the rise? And how is it that Asian Americans continue to be racialized as non-Americans, disease carriers, and objects of fantasy in the 21st century despite their multigenerational presence in the United States and their contributions to virtually every industry, from agriculture to health care? So, my approach to my writing changed over time. I wrote with personal urgency because I am deeply concerned about what kind of world we are leaving future generations.
The book is full of information that will be new even to Asian American history buffs. What were some of the most exciting pieces of history you uncovered? What would you like to see explored further?
One of the most exciting and meaningful aspects of writing this book was to include many stories of Asian American women, from Filipino nurses who have been serving on the front lines of U.S. hospitals during this Covid-19 pandemic to Asian American Rosie the Riveters who worked in San Francisco Bay Area shipyards during World War II to Korean independence activists in Hawaii and California who organized against early-20th-century Japanese colonization of Korea. These are histories that have been uncovered not solely by myself, but by a community of Asian American scholars, librarians, archivists, and community organizers. I would love to see every history in the book explored further, especially by K-12 students and their families. One of my greatest hopes is that readers who identify as Asian American will tell and share their stories.
What was the most joyful part of writing this book, and why?
Thank you for asking this question about joy! In my book, it appears in the act of a Filipino nurse instructing a mother to soothe her baby by gently touching the baby’s feet, in a Nepalese immigrant girl’s story of learning English from watching Bob Ross’ The Joy of Painting, in photographer Corky Lee’s re-creation of a historic photograph of the completion of the first transcontinental railroad with the descendants of Chinese railroad workers who had previously been excluded from that celebratory moment. It was emotionally and psychologically difficult for me to research and write this book because its major themes include anti-Asian violence and the erasure of Asian American history. And, yet, in this process, I was also reminded that so many Asian Americans before me have confronted both egregious and mundane acts of hate and omission with courage and grace. In documenting these moments in the book, I learned that joy is an essential part of the Asian American experience.
Mathangi Subramanian’s latest novel, A People’s History of Heaven, was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award and was longlisted for the PEN/Faulkner Award.