What, Library of Congress? No Asian or Native American Books Shaped America?

5 years ago

The Library of Congress recently released a list of Books That Shaped America, along with an exhibit of the same name that will be on display in Washington D.C. until September. Out of the 88 books chosen for their influence on our nation’s culture, not a single title was written by an Asian American or Native American. That’s right. Not a single novel, non-fiction account, children’s picture book, or even cookbook (there are a few of them included, too) focuses on the experiences of these often overlooked ethnic groups.

Credit Image: Muffet, via Flickr

But really, Librarians of Congress, couldn’t you have thrown in just one or two titles by an Asian Pacific Islander or Native American author to get the conversation started? The list includes some unexpected entries, such as Goodnight Moon, or Joy of Cooking, or even more confounding – A History of the Roads of the United States of America (written in 1789, talk about a relevant conversation starter!)

This list just feels like another case of how discussions of what constitutes “American” is so not inclusive of all the groups that make up America. The Smithsonian APA website points out the ironies that this list was released during the same month that our country marked several other milestones in Asian Pacific American heritage.

While the list is not intended to be a selection of the best literary works. According to Librarian of Congress James H. Billington in a press release:

"This list of ‘Books That Shaped America’ is a starting point. It is not a register of the ‘best’ American books--although many of them fit that description. Rather, the list is intended to spark a national conversation on books written by Americans that have influenced our lives, whether they appear on this initial list or not."

There are, of course, the Great American Novels that one would expect: The Grapes of Wrath, The Great Gatsby, For Whom the Bell Tolls. And there are non-fiction books that have obviously influenced modern American society: Alcoholics Anonymous, The Feminine Mystique, Sexual Behavior of the Human Male. There is a respectable number of books pertaining to African American history, such as W.E.B. DuBois’ The Souls of Black Folk, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, or Toni Morrison’s Beloved.

While the list includes a history of Native Americans in the West-- Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee – that account was written by the white historian Dee Brown. Only one title, Cesar Chavez’s The Words of Cesar Chavez, was written by a Latino.

What signal is the Library of Congress sending when it includes no accounts of early Chinese railroad workers, the driving out of Asian immigrants and legislation of laws to prevent new immigrants, the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II—or even more recently, the scrutiny experienced by Muslim Americans? The omission of any of these narratives from the list just reinforces the message that American-ness is defined only by a narrow range of experiences.

I contacted Debbie Reese, a Nambe Pueblo Indian and author of the blog American Indians in Children’s Literature, and asked what she thought of this list. She responded with a post in which she says:

"There are some great items on that list, but, there isn't a single title on the "Books that Shaped America" by an American Indian, which makes me wonder about the curators and experts who selected the books. Is there not an American Indian amongst them? Or, perhaps, an expert in American Indian writings? "

Reese recommends Vine Deloria Jr.'s bestseller Custer Died For Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto:

"It led a great many people to think critically about the U.S. government and American Indians. Deloria's ideas shaped a lot of thinkers who were and influential in government policies that shaped and continue to shape America. Custer Died For Your Sins was (and is) very influential in other places, too. It shaped the ways that many American Indian Studies programs at universities are structured, and, it changed the shape of the ways that anthropology departments study American Indians."

How hard would it have been to throw in Amy Tan's Joy Luck Club or Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine? Why cap the list at arbitrary 88?

Even with my disappointment Library of Congress, I’m going to take you up on your offer to suggest other titles.

Asian American Books That Shaped America

Maxine Hong Kingston’sWoman Warrior or China Men, both works that intertwine Chinese folk tales with narratives about harsh conditions faced by early Chinese settlers in California.

Jhumpa Lahiri ‘s The Namesake a novel turned movie which explores the sense of loss and generational misunderstandings within an Indian family that arrives in America following the 1965 Immigration Act, which allowed a wave of scientists and engineers from to enter the country after years of harsh restrictions on immigration from Asia.

Chang-Rae Lee’s Native Speaker. Lee’s writing often features modern-day Korean Americans in the East Coast, trying to navigate life amongst their Irish and Italian neighbors, while trying to make sense of the atrocities which took place during their childhoods.

For more recommendations on pioneering Asian American authors from Smtihsonian Book Dragon blogger Terry Hong, check out the list on the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program website.

To see the full list and to voice your opinon on what titles you think ought to be included in Books That Shaped America, go to the Library of Congress website.

News and Politics Editor Grace Hwang Lynch blogs at HapaMama and A Year (Almost) Without Shopping.

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