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Syllabus: On Teaching Asian American Literature
Piyali Bhattacharya, Vanderbilt University

In putting together a syllabus called, “Contemporary Asian America through Novels, Film, and Television,” I cannot divorce the reading list from who I am—which is to say that I cannot think about teaching without acknowledging my space as a woman of color in a university setting. It is specifically important to me to introduce students to writers they may never have had a chance to read before. Because this course is “contemporary,” I look for works published recently, while keeping in mind that the “canon,” as it currently stands, must also be addressed. My classroom is commonly the first and only space in which students systematically engage with writers of color, which  has been thrilling for me. To watch them battle with ideas and delve into stories they would have otherwise not been exposed to is one important objective of this class but hardly the only one.

Since this is also a “W” or writing-intensive course, I have a conversation with my students that I call: “Curiosity, Engagement, and Articulation: Why we Learn to Write.” In this conversation, I ask them to think about where their curiosity comes from: why it is so important to be engaged in the world around them, and why it is crucial that we all constantly hone our skills at articulating our opinions regarding our various engagements. Another exercise we do is something called “Community Response,” a ten-minute freewrite that students engage in every other class period where they srespond to something they have read or heard recently about either their local, state-level, national, or global communities (and therefore have to come to class with some idea of what is happening in the world that day). They must then reflect on what they read for class that day, making sure to note why what we read in this classroom is always connected to what is happening in the world around us.

Although this is a contemporary class, it is critical that the students have a thorough understanding of Asian American history and also Asian geo-spatial and historical relationships. I consistently find that students are stunned that Asian countries have been at war with each other, that Asians can be undocumented in the United States, and even that they surprise themselves when they realize that they cannot properly distinguish between East Asia, South Asia, and Southeast Asia. These are histories we go over quickly in the first few days of class, but form a recurring theme throughout the semester.


In this class, we will interact with work created by contemporary Asian American writers, filmmakers and television producers. Through the lens of these texts, we will examine what it means to develop cultural, social, and political identities; how history, literature, and media shape those identities; and vice versa.

We will examine how class, gender, and immigration status affect the identity politics of various kinds of Asian American communities (in fact, these will be the three themes of our three sequences throughout the semester) and what part art plays in sharpening and minimizing those divides.

It will also be important to examine the literary components of each of these texts, so we will be paying attention to the specific language and phrasing these authors use, doing close readings of certain passages, and thinking about how voice, plot, character development and narrative affect the outcome of a given text.

Finally, we will use these texts as a springboard to examine how these issues play out in our own local communities, and how we can and must contribute to discussions on these topics through continuous and critical awareness of the art, literature and media that is created by, about, and around us.

Sequence 1: The Model Minority Myth Research articles:
“East Asian Immigrants” (Wong)
“Southeast Asian Americans” (Vang)
“South Asian America: Histories, Cultures, Politics” (Maira)
“Continuing Significance of the Model Minority Myth”
“An Introduction to Edward Said’s Orientalism, A Macat Sociology Analysis”
Hasan Minhaj: Homecoming King
“Model Minority Myth Used as Racial Wedge Between Asians and Blacks” (Chow)
“Beyond Apu” (Rastogi)
“Aziz Ansari, Diversity, and Finally Being Able to See Yourself on TV” (Gajjar)
Books: The Namesake (Lahiri)


Sequence 2: Those Left Out of the Model Minority – Religion, Gender, and Sexuality Books: Bright Lines (Islam)
Forgotten Country (Chung)


Sequence 3: Those Left Out of the Model Minority – Documentation Essays:
“My Life As An Undocumented Immigrant” (Vargas)
“For Asian Undocumented Immigrants, A Life of Secrecy” (Lim)
The Danger of a Single Story (Adichie)
Book: The Leavers (Ko)


Sequence 4: Asian Americans and Race Relations Movies: Mississippi Masala (Nair)
“Will Asian Americans Get Behind Black Lives Matter?” (Yang)
“Asian Americans Must Stand Up & Say Black Lives Matter” (Zhu)
“An Open Letter to our Asian American Families about Black Lives Matter”
“Where Things Stand” (Gay)
“On Parsing,” “Writers Shouldn’t Romanticize Rejection” (Das)
“Read Between the Racism” (Masad)


Sequence 5: Visibility and Representation TV: Fresh Off the Boat (Huang): S1E2 (“Home Sweet Home-School), S1E4 (“Success Perm”), S1E13 (“So Chineez”)
Master of None (Ansari): S1E2 (“Parents”), S1E4 (“Indians on T.V.”)
Scrubs, S5E1 (6:07-7:07)
“Aziz Ansari’s Real-Life Dad Is a Hit on Master of None”
“Asian American Actors Are Fighting For Visibility, They Will Not Be Ignored” (Hess)
“We’re the Geeks, the Prostitutes: Asian American Actors on Hollywood’s Barriers” (Levin)
“Alum panelists discuss Asian American representation in popular media” (Mazzucato)
Maybe We Need To Get More Pissed:” John Cho on Asian Americans in Hollywood (Berkowitz)
Constance Wu Slams Matt Damon’s Great Wall Film for Perpetuating a ‘Racist Myth” (Jung)
“Hawaii Five O’s Daniel Dae Kim on His Exit: “The Path to Equality is Rarely Easy” (Bradley)


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