By Amy Phan
Northwest Asian Weekly
Peruse the shelves a scant 30 years ago and books by Asian Americans would be few and far between. However, times have changed thanks to key individuals who have etched the trails for API writers today.
Influential APIs along with supporters of the Northwest Asian Weekly Foundation gathered together to celebrate and raise funds for the 11th annual Asian American Pioneer Dinner, Saturday Oct. 11. The event not only focused on nine APIs for their trailblazing contributions in the publishing industry but also marked the importance of continuing to strive towards diversity in the publishing industry and beyond.
The event raised around $17,000, with all proceeds going towards the Foundation’s three-week summer youth leadership program.
The Dinner’s theme, “Pioneers in Publishing,” is an important aspect to the community said main organizer, founder of the Foundation and publisher of the Asian Weekly and Seattle Chinese Post, Assunta Ng.
“The subject focused on is not the most appealing to the community, but we like to honor our authors because they are underappreciated, doing important work. Their stories are a voice for the community,” said Ng.
In order to be nominated for the Pioneer award, individuals had to have two qualities: to be the first and only in their field and still live in Washington state. The program included short introductions by longtime friends or associates of the honorees, followed by a short question and answer segment by the Dinner’s emcee, KING 5’s Mimi Jung.
Shawn Wong, one of the first Chinese American published authors, said his students’ unexcited reactions when it came to Asian American literature played a major role in his decision to write his second book, “American Knees.”
“They (his students) said ‘every book is about grandma coming to America or something like that’ and I said, ‘Well, all right, I’ll write you a damn book.’”
Consequently, the detailed examination of cultural and social identity in “American Knees” became more relatable than the stories his students were used to reading.
Much like Wong’s work, each honoree’s efforts served an important contribution to API identity.
“There just aren’t enough books that reflected Asian American and multicultural experiences,” said Philip Lee, one of the nine award recipients and co-founder of Lee & Low Books, the first Asian American children’s books publisher.
Mayumi Tsutakawa, the first Asian American female reporter at a daily newspaper in Seattle. Tsutakawa spoke about how she didn’t feel pressured to achieve, rather it was naturally fostered by her environment, coming from a family where prominent artists regularly visited the house.
Bharti Kirchner, an Indian American published cookbook author, spoke about how food deeply influences her and cited the Dinner as a prime example of food being a great unifier.
When Peter Bacho, a Filipino author, teacher and former lawyer, was asked what set him apart from other lawyer-writers, he cracked a joke. “They make more money than I do.”
Aki Sogabe was the only book illustrator honored that night. She talked about putting her own stamp on an ancient artform.
Naomi Pascal accepted the award on the behalf of the UW Press. Pascal was a longtime editor at the Press. The staff at the press were one of the first and few to commit to publishing works by Asian American authors. Pascal read an emotional letter from a Japanese American writer whose novel about his parents and their internment experience was one the Press published. He said the novel helped them heal and the Press publishing it greatly changed their lives for the better.
Lensey Namioka was also honored as a pioneer in children’s books. Namioka drew lots of laughs when she spoke about her club, “The Rejects,” a group of writers that get together to cry on one another’s shoulders whenever they get a rejection letter.
Gary Luke, who has been the Chinese American publisher of Sasquatch Books since 2006, was saved for last. He spoke of his current challenges as publisher, but spoke optimistically. As to his advice for writers just starting out in the business? Read a lot.
In addition to profit generated from individual registrants, the event had a total of 15 corporate sponsors – whose donation to the Foundation was no less than $17,000 net.
“Because of this event, (the sponsors) and those who came now pay more attention to our authors and publishers,” said Ng. “Mission accomplished.”
In planning the event, Ng said the main aim was to honor publishers and authors, rather than raise a lot of money.
Also present at the dinner was Washington state Commission on Asian American Affairs Director Ellen Abellera, who gave honorees a letter of congratulations for their achievements from Gov. Christine Gregoire.
“Celebrations like this remind us that diversity is one of our state’s greatest strengths,” wrote Gregoire in the letter, “ … highlight(ing) the significant contributions of Asian Americans truly benefits us all.” ♦
“Other groups won’t honor authors, but we will. We believe in their work,” said Ng.
Amy Phan can be reached at email@example.com.