Editor’s note: I asked Jerry Dear, a librarian at San Francisco Public Library and active member of APALA, to reflect on a recent change in 2016 to the criteria for the APALA literature award. This award, along with one or two others that annually highlight the best Asian Pacific Islander American books published, is an important piece of the book publishing, marketing, reviewing, reading, and teaching world. The award helps to make visible the incredible art of APIA writers and to encourage librarians to include significant APIA literary works in their collections. The APALA literature award, like other book awards, makes important political and literary claims in its choice of particular books and its criteria for selection. Since this APIA Writingscape section of Kartika Review serves as a forum for exploring the many dimensions of the writing world, I am delighted that Jerry agreed to share the story of recent changes to the APALA literature award.
A common adage for writers goes something like this—“Write what you know.” Take that idea one step further and you get—“Write who you are.” This recommendation, however, can present challenges for writers of color, and especially Asian Pacific Islander Americans (APIAs). Must APIAs write about topics and themes connected to their ethnic identities and heritage? Do they possess the artistic license to create literary works of art across multiple topics, themes, and genres as assumed of white writers? The answers to these questions may seem simple, but when considered in light of a literature award’s criteria, many issues surface that demand closer scrutiny.
The Asian/Pacific American Librarians Association (APALA) was born in 1980 to serve and address APIA- and library-related issues of information professionals working in all industries. As an affiliate of the national American Library Association (ALA), APALA strives to “create an organization that would address the needs of Asian/Pacific American librarians and those who serve Asian Pacific American communities” (see APALA's About page for more about the organization). One of APALA’s chief goals focuses on the literary scene, highlighting the literary and artistic merits of APIA authors and illustrators. The Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature (APAAL), created in 2002, was designed to honor and recognize individual works related to APIA experiences and cultures, regardless of the author’s ethnicity or background. This award, now conferred at the ALA Annual Conference, consists of awards in five major categories: Adult Fiction, Adult Nonfiction, Young Adult Literature, Children’s Literature, and Picture Books. Committees consisting of roughly four to five APALA members focus on each category to determine outstanding works published each year based on criteria such as solid character development, effective plot construction, narrative flow and writing style, and accurate and authentic representation of cultural details.
As books about APIAs written by non-APIAs increased, members of the APAAL awards committees began discussing who the recipients of the award should be and whether the committee should limit awards to authors of APIA descent. With the success of We Need Diverse Books, #OwnVoices, and other movements to increase visibility of authors of color, and in conjunction with a 2015 blog posting in which a Hyphen magazine editor, in seeking out new literary works by APIAs, learned about APALA’s literature award, the conversation surrounding the APAAL awards and what exactly defined APIA literature needed to be rethought in the context of the criteria we used for the awards. One criterion explicitly states: “Works should be related to Asian/Pacific American experiences (either historical or contemporary) or Asian/Pacific American cultures.” Is it imperative, then, that APIA writers focus exclusively on themes that explore their ethnic identity, culture, and heritage? Who holds the final authority in making these decisions? And how does one account for works written by authors not part of the APIA community? For instance, many historical and biographical works written for young readers about Angel Island and the Japanese American internment camps are by white authors. Do they, then, lack the cultural authenticity to write about such topics?
Given these debates, in 2016, an ad-hoc APALA Literature Award Criteria Task Force deliberated over these issues and decided to update the existing criteria. In our discussions, we strongly reaffirmed the primary criterion for the award, which is to celebrate books about APIA experiences and cultures. A main reason for holding on to this criterion is recognizing how history—and literature for that matter—has always been recorded and documented. Prior to the Asian American Movement in the 1960s and 1970s, few written works existed on Asian American history, especially ones written by APIA historians. Furthermore, American history textbooks in the education system often neglect or give little attention to the contributions of marginalized ethnic communities, especially counternarratives such as that of APIAs that oversimplify narratives of the U.S. nation as a place of freedom and democracy. In particular, the omission of Japanese Americans imprisoned in internment camps, Chinese American laborers who built the Transcontinental Railroad, and Filipinos who perished in the Philippines (Bataan Legacy) during World War II drove early waves of APIA historians to recover and renarrate these histories. Despite their important work, these histories remain suppressed or hidden in many ways, thus reinforcing the invisibility of APIA accomplishments in American history, and by extension, literature.
Perhaps the most significant change resulting from our discussions about the APAAL criteria, however, was not about the content of the books eligible for consideration but about which authors were eligible: Henceforth, only writers and illustrators who identified as APIA would qualify for this award. Not only should works celebrate APIA experiences, but these stories should be told by members of the APIA community—from the primary sources if you will—thereby reinforcing their cultural authenticity. The decision in 2016 to update the criteria to award writers and illustrators of APIA descent actively encourages them to tell stories through their perspectives. In effect, this change also affords APIA writers and illustrators a greater degree of agency and artistic creativity to share a more diverse range of experiences that would otherwise be subsumed by the mainstream media and publishing industry at large. What counts as an APIA experience or story should not be limited just to the immigrant narrative, the intergenerational conflict narrative, the bicultural conflict narrative, and so on. APIA writers and illustrators are best suited to write stories of APIA experiences that are complex and contradictory yet fully embrace the truth of APIA lives.
Furthermore, to address the issue of APIA writers and illustrators who focus their writing on themes and issues aside from their ethnic identity and cultural community, we realized it was time to consider a literary lifetime achievement award, and at the time of this writing, this award is under development. This award would be issued once every several years to coincide with APALA’s anniversaries as a way to honor distinguished APIA writers and illustrators for their contribution and excellence in literature regardless of subject matter.
As APIA literature as a body of work grows and changes over time, APALA will continue to revisit and assess the criteria of the literature awards to best highlight and celebrate the breadth and diversity of this work. Most importantly, we challenge APIAs to share their stories, histories, and experiences from their unique perspectives and in their own voices. For more information, please visit APALA's Literature Awards page.