This past Sunday in Arlington, Virginia (which is a stone’s throw away from DC), I attended APALA‘s 30th Anniversary Gala dinner, where I received the 2010 Asian/Pacific American Award For Literature in the Youth Category. It was a fantastic event, filled with singing, dancing, and killer, authentic Chinese food (you know it’s authentic when there’s a whole fish, from head to tail, involved). I was asked to write a short speech, and the following is what I delivered.
There are a lot of needy people in this world, but I’m not sure if there’s anyone needier than writers. As you probably already know, most of us do our work in a vacuum, so there’s nobody else to blame if we fail at our job (though if you ask my patient and loving wife, she may tell you differently – so do me a favor and don’t ask her). And conversely, when things are going well, we don’t hear about that, either. Unless we get, say, some sort of an award for some sort of a literary achievement. This is where you come in, the Asian/Pacific American Librarians Association. You have chosen to honor my book for your award, and I couldn’t be happier. To have an organization like this, an organization that promotes Asian/Pacific American culture and heritage to pick my book – it means the world to me.
The APALA was established a year earlier than my arrival to the States. Back in the winter of 1981, I was a ten-year old boy, and the only English I knew were the alphabet and counting from one to ten. And now here I am, a novelist. I have many people to thank for this transformation, first and foremost my two ESL teachers, Suzan Cole and Susan Jarosiewicz. With their dedication, perseverance, and enormous stack of flash cards, they taught me the nuts and bolts of the English language. I also need to pay tribute to Stephen King, because it was his novel The Dead Zone that made me realize the power of fiction, its ability to submerge a reader entirely into another world. It goes without saying that I owe my family in a big way, since those weekends and summer vacations I spent at our gift shop in Manasquan, New Jersey formed the basis for my novel. I still marvel at my parents, not only for making a life for us in a foreign country, but for their collective calm when their son called them in the second semester of his freshman year at college to inform them that he was switching out of his safe engineering major and into the uncertain jaws of English Literature.
At Cornell University, I became a writer, thanks to teachers like Stewart O’Nan and Michael Koch. They introduced me to the works of Denis Johnson, Raymond Carver, Susan Minot, Richard Yates – the list goes on. And at NYU’s MFA program, a fellow Korean-American writer urged me to read the works of Don Lee, whose story collection Yellow still startles me with the beauty of its language.
The greatest gift of having published a novel is that I get to partake in the current burgeoning of Asian-American literature. For the longest time, it seemed as if Amy Tan was the only game in town, but now look at us. From Anchee Min to Min Jin Lee to Li Young-Lee to Yiyun Li and everyone in between, I feel incredibly blessed and privileged to be a little sapling in this growing forest of our literature. Without you, the librarians who bring our books to the public, we would have a much more difficult time reaching our readers. You’re doing your job, which makes it that much more rewarding to do mine. The best way for me to demonstrate my appreciation for this wonderful award is to finish the first draft of my second novel. Which is coming, slowly but surely, one word at a time. I don’t have a title for it yet, but once I do, you’ll all be one of the first to know. Thank you.
And to top it off, when I returned from the event, the trade paperback edition of Everything Asian was waiting for me! It doesn’t get any better than that.