Can I Call Myself an Asian American Writer?

I didn’t consider myself an Asian American writer until someone called me one.

JoAnna Schindler
The Startup
7 min readJul 2, 2020


I walked side by side with my classmate, who I’ll call Nick, through the valley of brick buildings at the center of campus. We’d just discovered that we were the co-winners of a major creative writing prize, judged by a panel of professors.

I could tell that the co part bothered Nick.

As we traversed the campus, he babbled his way through justifications for the judges’ decision to split the prize (to appease himself, it seemed). I’d made the mistake of telling him that one of our professors urged me to submit my novella manuscript just hours before the deadline. He let out a grumbly “humph” in response. I could hear the voice in his head shout, the selection process must’ve been rigged!

“Well, look at us.” He stopped walking, for emphasis. “Two Asian American writers won this prestigious prize. That’s significant.”

I didn’t hear anything else he said after that. Asian American writer. Nick had said it so matter-of-factly — a shock for someone like me, who has always had to justify their belonging in the Asian community.

I’d been called a hapa. Mixed. Half-Japanese. Sort of Asian. Fake Asian.

But I’d never been directly referred to as Asian American by anyone else before, and I’d certainly never considered myself an Asian American writer.

I’d written the novella that I submitted to the creative writing competition for my senior thesis.

I took a preparation course before commencing work on my thesis, in which we were asked to identify the theme of our project. In my proposal, I said something to the effect of, I want to explore the culture that families create for themselves, out of the cultures they’ve inherited. What I really meant was, I want to explore the beauty and crisis that comes with growing up biracial, with dual identities, always too much or too little. But that’s not the idea I ultimately pursued.

Rather, I wrote a fictional novella about a white middle class family of intellectuals living in Santa Monica. The story explored mental health and generational trauma, but not once did I mention the whiteness of the family. (Though somehow, the absence of race in the text made the whiteness of the characters, and my very own whiteness, even more obvious.) All the while, I borrowed tone and style from the New Yorker stories our professors assigned as reading, as aspirational, as educational — white writers, mostly, who with a trademark cynicism explored the melancholy of affluent suburbia. The kind of literary fiction that workshop professors and journal editors gobble up.

I could’ve written a novella that explored my family history and identity, one that could’ve helped me make better sense of my place in this world. Instead, I chose the story I thought my advisor would approve of. I chose the story that sounded “literary.” I chose whiteness.

Back then, I justified this decision (to others, to myself) by saying, “The characters just called to me.”

The truth? It was more comfortable.

“Two Asian American writers won this prize,” Nick said. In that moment, I questioned whether I deserved this prize after all. To clarify, I’m proud of the writing I produced — the complexity of the characters, the understated but lyrical prose, the maturity in its voice and tone. Overall, I look back on my thesis as a major milestone in my development as a writer.

I can’t help but wonder, however, if the novella that won me this prize was, in fact, a copout.

The 2015 edition of The Best American Poetry, edited by Sherman Alexie, features a poem by someone named Yi-Fen Chou, titled, “The Bees, the Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve.” Looking at his name alone, you may assume the poet is of Asian descent. Wrong. Turns out, Chou is the nom de plume of Michael Derrick Hudson, a middle-aged white man from Indiana. In his author bio for the collection, he admits to using a Chinese-sounding name to see if it increases his chances of getting published.

In a statement explaining his decision to publish the poem despite the controversy, Alexie writes, “I was more amenable to the poem because I thought the author was Chinese American.”

Hudson blatantly abused yellowface, no doubt about it, and his choice unveils both his privilege and his complete misunderstanding of it. I would say “ignorance,” but his actions were oh so calculated. Amazing yet predictable, how a white man from the midwest can claim Asianness with no hesitation, but I, with Japanese ancestry, contemplate whether I have a right to claim my own heritage. That said, the case of Yi-Fen Chou raises questions for me and my own categorization as a writer.

Are we, as writers, classified and judged by the words we put on the page, or by our own identities as authors of the work? English teachers warn us against conflating author and narrator, fact and fiction, but we do it so often. We obsess over reputation, persona, and credibility, and we want so badly to see ourselves and to be seen in everything we read. And so, we seek out writers who look and sound like us.

Do I look and sound like an Asian American — with my brown curls and green eyes, my German surname, and my white privilege? Do I really have a right to call myself an Asian American (writer), when I could pass as a white American (writer)?

Most people don’t say “white American”; they just say “American,” no hyphens or qualifiers, signs of differentiation and otherness. No conditions for belonging.

My tongue trips over the few Japanese words I can recite, including my own middle name, which carries the legacy of an aunt I never knew.

My maternal grandparents left this earth before I could know them. Fortunately, my late aunt shared their story with the editors of Nisei Voices, from which I pulled the quoted text.

As young adults, my mother’s American-born parents moved to Japan, respectively, because they couldn’t find work in the U.S. — even my grandpa, educated in commerce at UC Berkeley. The year was 1940, World War II.

1945, the year the Japanese surrendered, marked not the end, but the beginning of my grandparents’ harrowing story overseas. The Russians took Grandpa, a civilian translator for the Japanese army, as a prisoner of war in Siberia for four years. He worked in the coal mines. My aunt recalls, “It struck him as ironic that he — American-born and a graduate of a top American university — was a prisoner of the Allied forces.”

Meanwhile, Grandma struggled to get by in Harbin, living in military housing— all while caring for their infant firstborn, my namesake, Miyoko. She’d prop the doors at night, hide in darkness to protect herself and her six-month-old from the Red Army. In a letter to a friend, dated 1997, my grandma writes: “And to this day, I hate to go out at night after that one year of darkness!”

One week following Grandma’s return to Japan (after being evacuated by the Red Cross), Miyoko died of malnutrition. My grandparents had two more daughters before they returned as a family to the States in the late 1950s. My aunt says:

“When my sister and I knew our father, he was USA all the way. […] He was very patriotic, and he was very critical of those who did not appreciate the rights, privileges, and opportunities enjoyed by Americans.”

People ask me why I have such weak ties to the language, the food, the song and dance of Japan, as if it is a shame, a failure, a deficit.

Sometimes, I wonder: in an alternate reality, if my grandparents hadn’t been rejected by their birth country because of their heritage — if they didn’t have to work so hard to prove their Americanness, didn’t have to endure so much trauma because they were seen as not American enough— would I speak the language of my middle name today?

Again, I believe families create cultures out of the ones they’ve inherited.

The dilemma of being too much or too little is not unique to my mixedness. In my case, it’s frustratingly ironic and hauntingly familiar.

Can I call myself an Asian American writer? Even after all these words I’ve just written, I don’t really have an answer to the question. The reality is, there will always be someone who will say no and another who will say yes. My Asian Americanness will look and sound different than this or that person’s, and there will be those who only notice the difference.

You may be thinking, but why must it be a binary? Why can’t you identify as a mixed writer, a biracial writer? Well, I do, as I identify as a mixed person in general. But would you, dear reader, see my writing in this way if I hadn’t made it so apparent to you in this essay? If I hadn’t demanded you pay attention to nuance, to assumptions, to the categories I defy without evening trying?

Why must your race matter as a writer? you may wonder. I’m not so sure we can separate the writer from the written word, as our English teachers advised, and I’m not so sure we should. Race matters, because it may influence the point of view through which a writer tells a story; it may influence the subject matter of the story itself; it may influence how you, as a reader, interpret a work; it may even influence your choice to read a work; it may influence an editor’s decision to publish a work.

For me to be at a crossroads — between the hyphenated Asian American identity and the white American identity–is a privilege, as it implies a choice, where so many others do not have such a choice. For me to intellectualize racial identity in this way, to ponder classification and belonging while my whiteness guards me from racism, is a privilege too.

And yet, the fluidity and conflict I find in my identity unveils how the criteria that divide us are at times superficial yet deeply internalized and perpetuated. Take a closer look at the categories you fit into (and the ones you don’t), at the titles you brandish (and the ones you reject), at the stories you tell (and the ones you hide). Duality lives in all of us.



JoAnna Schindler
The Startup

Writer & technology professional, based in Los Angeles | I also write at