When Kendrick Lamar won the Pulitzer Prize for his album Damn. this year in April, I was shocked yet also filled with amazement that something like that can happen. This was the first time a Pulitzer prize was given to a recording artist who isn't classified as Jazz or Classical. It is astounding to me for an uncompromising album about his African-American experience in our current time to be acknowledged by the Pulitzer prize board to win Best in Music 2018. There’s a righteous feeling of poetic justice for Kendrick to have his work go from being criticized with a quick dismissive scoff “Oh please, ugh, I don't like it” from Fox News (He samples this sound clip in the first opening track "Blood" on DAMN.) to have the presenter at his Pulitzer Prize acceptance event call the album as a “virtuosic song collection unified by its vernacular authenticity that offers affecting vignettes capturing the complexity of modern African American life.”
I sat with that feeling over time, letting my thoughts linger and contemplate why his win was so important. The last time I was inspired by this kind of artistic accomplishment was when Viet Thanh Nguyen’s book, The Sympathizer, got the 2016 Pulitzer Prize win. The Pulitzer committee praised The Sympathizer as "a layered immigrant tale told in the wry, confessional voice of a 'man of two minds' -- and two countries, Vietnam and the United States." Rarely I can come across someone's work that not only resonated with me but also represented me. To see that work praised on such a high regard, was icing on the cake.
When Viet became a MacArthur Fellow winner, he didn’t take kindly to being called a “Genius.” In his opinion piece “Don’t Call Me a Genius,” written for the New York Times, he pays respects to writers Sui Sin Far, Carlos Bulosan and John Okada that have written Asian-American literature way before his time. He reflects,
“I don’t think that lonely work would have been successful without my genealogy and my communities. The Asian-American community, with its field of Asian-American studies and its lineage of Asian-American writers, was one of the most important for me.”
He’s a man that practices what he preaches. I sat in the audience during Viet's visit to Berkeley to talk art and politics at the Bay Area Book Festival and I watched Viet turn the tables around and ask the presenter Karen Tei Yamashita about her career and her previous works like her novel Tropic of Orange, which explored race and space in Los Angeles. There was an earnest attempt on Viet’s behalf that he truly wants to share the stage with other fantastic Asian American writers. The exact thought that I had when I saw this was “Yo, game recognize game right there.”
The theme of authenticity and community has been going through my mind as of late. I look at both Kendrick Lamar and Viet Thanh Nguyen as Pulitzer Prize winners and wonder if an Asian American can reach that caliber while telling their unique story whether it be acting or music. I currently watch Viet educate the public on Asian American writers who wrote their story before the discussion "Diversity" existed. So the question I ask myself: Can Asian American literature help impact future Asian American artists and performers?
TheMillions.com just listed their semi-annual preview list of books they recommend as must reads in the second half of 2018. Over a dozen of these writers featured are Asian American, some of which are their debut novel. I reached out to a handful of these writers for interviews to discuss API representation, finding authenticity as an Asian American writer, and the question of “Can Asian Americans succeed in Arts and Entertainment with prestige just like our fellow Asian American writers?” The response has been so well received that there will be an interview miniseries featuring these fantastic Asian American writers as well as discussing their upcoming book releases for 2018. To explain how excited I am to work on this series is a feeling I still don't know how to fully comprehend.
Kendrick Lamar didn’t give an acceptance speech for his Pulitzer Prize but says, “It’s an honor … I’ve been writing my whole life, so to get this type of recognition – it’s beautiful.” I hope this discussion of awareness of API representation in media and literature will help more people get recognition for their unique stories. With having more unique stories, comes more empowerment through entertainment.