Chinese History Books on Display. [Image: Kamodayz / Pixabay]

Tracing the Roots and Growing Recognition of Asian and Asian American Literature in the United States


Who might have guessed one of the most prolific publishers of English-language books about Asia in the United States, Tuttle Publishing, started in the small New England town of Rutland, Vermont. Tuttle Publishing goes back to a printing shop established by Charles. E. Tuttle Sr in 1823. During the mid-19th to early 20th century, Tuttle published African American literature and dealt with rare books. It was not until 1948, when Charles E. Tuttle Jr founded the outpost of Tuttle Publishing in Tokyo, Japan, that Tuttle focused on English-language books about arts, languages, and cultures of Asia, particularly Japan.

Charles E. Tuttle Jr’s passion for Asian books started when he enlisted in the US Army after World War II. General Douglas MacArthur tasked Tuttle Jr to revive the Japanese publishing industry that had been devastated by the war. Shortly after, Tuttle befriended antique book dealers in Tokyo and began supplying rare Japanese books to American libraries and importing American books to Japan. In 1949, Tuttle Jr opened Tokyo’s first English language bookstore in Nihonbashi. Seeing a surge in American interest towards Japan after World War II, Tuttle Jr began publishing Japanese books in the English language in 1951.

Since 1951, Tuttle Publishing has published more than 6,000 books and maintains an active backlist of around 1,600 titles, including Japanese Children’s Favorite Stories, Karate: The Art of “Empty-Hand” Fighting, and Zen Flesh Zen Bones. Tuttle still actively publishes around 100 new titles each year, with focus on Asian languages, Asian food and cooking, gardening, crafts and Origami, and Asian history.

In the past decade, renewed interest in Asian American writers in the United States has drawn mainstream and independent publishers such as Penguin Random House, Grove Atlantic, Macmillan, and Kaya Press to promote Asian and Asian American works. Some of the notable original works by Asian writers which have been translated to English are:

Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem, a Chinese science fiction masterpiece soon to be adapted to a Netflix Original Series that combines the story of an alien invasion with the history of the Chinese cultural revolution.

Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s This Earth of Mankind, a classic piece of Indonesian literature, which describes love affairs and social conflict of young Javanese nobility during the Dutch colonial period.

Ae-ran Kim’s My Brilliant Life, a heartwarming Korean novel, which tells the story of a dying 16-year-old’s relationship with his parents and the life they shared.

Besides Asian writers, Asian American writers have also produced some masterpieces, among which are:

Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer, which touches on love and betrayal from the perspective of a half-Vietnamese, half-French undercover communist agent. The book has won several awards: Pulitzer in 2016, Edgar Award 2016, and Andrew Carnegie Medal, and will soon be adapted to a HBO’s TV series under the same name.

Celeste Ng’s blockbuster novel Everything I Never Told You, which tells the story of a Chinese American family and their struggles following the death of Lydia, the middle child.

Koon Woon’s Water Chasing Water, an award-winning poetry collection that also includes Woon’s first collection, The Truth in Rented Room.

One of the early publishers of English-language books about Asia might have started in a small New England town, however, today Asian and Asian American writers have penetrated mainstream literature, cementing their cultural influence in the US.

Natasia Engeline is a participant in the Young Professionals Program at the East-West Center in Washington. She is a graduate student at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy. Her research interests include monetary and fiscal policy as well as ASEAN–US relations.