HL90 EH: Asian American Genre Fictions

We asked lecturers to tell us more about their fall HL90s. Ellen Song shares more about the genesis and goals of her class, “Asian American Genre Fictions.”

What inspired you to teach this class?

I decided to teach Asian American Genre Fictions because there is clearly a demand for ethnic studies courses at Harvard, and I want to help fill this need. Given my training in American literature, and given my own understanding of certain social, raced, lived experiences, it made sense that I would teach a course on Asian American literature. At the same time, I want us to study Asian American literature not simply because for its ability to “represent” certain [Asian American] experiences, but because it encompasses a wide array of genres and styles. This course emphasizes the “genre fictions” part of the title as much as (or perhaps even more than) the “Asian American” part.

What can your class help us better understand about our contemporary moment?

It is extremely important that fictions written by raced authors be read as artistic objects – which are motivated by certain aesthetic goals – and not as sociological treatises about the supposed experiences of entire groups of people. I believe this is salient for us to remember today, more than ever before. With recent political events, especially BLM protests, there seems to be an energetic interest in the public in ways to be an antiracist ally – a quick scroll through your Instagram or Twitter feed will confirm this. I’ve seen many folks circulate “anti-racism reading lists” as a part of this effort. The issue, however, is that these reading lists often lump fiction by black authors (for example, Toni Morrison or Colson Whitehead) in with didactic anti-racism guidebooks. This is a problem, because novels and poetry and literary works are aesthetic objects, created by authors with an eye to language, style, rhythm, character development, and the like; if these works are being mined as pedagogical / anthropological / straightforward representational objects, we are not doing right by their authors.

Is there a book you’re especially excited to teach?

One of the last books we’ll read in our class is the 2019 National Book Award winner, Trust Exercise, by the author Susan Choi. This is an absolutely gripping novel, one which hasn’t been discussed in popular commentary in terms of its handling of race. I’ve recommended it to eight of my friends! I’m excited to tackle this book together with students.

Do you have options for creative assignments?

In my past HL90, I gave students the option to submit a creative project for the final assignment in lieu of a written paper. Students channeled their creative energy to produce all sorts of wonderful and thoughtful assignments. Many students chose to write short stories, but some students submitted other works: a painting (with a special video projected on top of this painting), map, manifesto, stills from a graphic novel-in-progress. In Asian American Genre Fictions, you’ll have the freedom to choose a creative project of your liking, as long as you accompany your project with an “artist’s statement” that includes secondary sources and an analytical explanation of your thought process. You might consider writing a short story in the style of one of the genres we will be reading together, whether noir, spy story, or fantasy!

What texts inspired you most as a student?

I wrote my senior thesis on the notion of “writer-protagonists who write obsessively about their own desire” in Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera (translated by Edith Grossman).

To learn more, you can see the syllabus on Canvas, attend an info session during shopping week on Tuesday, August 18 or Thursday, August 20 from 12-2:45, or email Ellen with any questions.

Published by Hist & Lit

Committee on Degrees in History & Literature at Harvard University

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