Talking To Joel Bangilan

Joel Bangilan is currently a Branch Services Coordinator for San Antonio Public Library. He started his career as a children’s librarian in Houston. His experience as a public librarian in parts of Houston that are predominantly Asian and Asian American and his own Filipino heritage provides him with an insight to the issues. He advocates for libraries to collect quality books that feature and involve the Asian American community. His collaboration with the Chinese Community Center in Houston created the first Chinese language story time in the city. He developed the collection for the Walter branch library and earned several grants to buy children’ books for early readers, translations, and dual language texts of Asian languages. He serves on the Asian and Pacific American Library Association’s Award for Literature Committee. Libraries are warehouses of knowledge where all perspectives are represented and respected.

Joel Bangilan spoke with YA author Paula Yoo (Good Enough) in a recent interview.

YOO: Asian American "immigrant"-themed novels were quite "in vogue" in the 1980s and 90s thanks to the popularity of Amy Tan's "The Joy Luck Club." Now that trend has spilled into the world of young adult/middle grade novels. Why is this such a hunger and interest for these types of books, especially for young people?

BANGILAN: A friend of mine said that it is cool to be Asian these days. Lots of trends in pop culture and lifestyle seem to draw upon Asian cultures recently. Just look at the rising popularity of sushi restaurants that are inspired by Japanese menus or vegetarian places that are based on Indian cuisine. What does it mean that you can buy sushi or saag paneer in the grocery store? Pop music samples from Bollywood tracks and even more musicians and artists claim an Asian heritage. Manga and anime is an exploding phenomenon. And a number of movies have brought back the coolness of Hong Kong fight scenes or ancient mystical China. Pop culture trend setters like the Black Eyed Peas, Ang Lee, Amerie, Kimura Lee, and Lucy Liu have mainstreamed elements drawn from our cultures. Asian and Asian American actors are being cast in more mainstream roles so we see our own faces in movies and television. With this boost of coolness from pop culture, Asian American young people and their friends are encouraged to seek our experiences and faces in the literature.

YOO: Some critics feel that there needs to be more broad-based novels featuring Asian American characters in "mainstream" roles where they are not always dealing with the classic issues of immigration/language barriers/racism. How do you feel about that? Are there any new books, especially for teens, that you feel are good examples of this new trend?

BANGILAN: Sure there is a need for literature like that. Not all Asian American teens are recent immigrants. Many have acculturated or assimilated into mainstream culture successfully. A teen’s issues tend to be about self identity. I do feel that those issues are hard to avoid when dealing with the Asian American experience. I have to wonder what Asian American young person does not deal with those issues ever. The United States still has a long way to go in race relations and no matter how much a child has acculturated; there are still people who define others by physical features. So a main character has to go to cheer competition, and is not liked by the other girls on her squad. Certainly this is a mainstream situation, but when the author writes that she has straight black hair and almond eyes, and her grandmother packed her lunch with a lychee snack, the author then has to deal with why even bring that up. An author has to deal with what makes this character Asian; and as a writer does the Asian-ness of the character then progress the story or is it gratuitous. I felt that Project Mulberry, by Linda Sue Park, did this very well. Life of Pi dealt with themes beyond Pi’s heritage, but by knowing his heritage we understood his world view. Black Mirror dealt with a biracial girls self identity. I would also recommend Nothing But the Truth (and a Few White Lies). So many times I hear the phrase “Love is color blind”; that the United States needs to be “color blind”; or that children should be “color blind”. I think the point is not to move to being “color blind”, but seeing “color” and loving it. Instead of ignoring our heritages, embracing our heritage and part of our identity and realizing that it is a treasure.

YOO: Publishers now realize the importance of diversity in children's literature, particularly for teenagers who are often searching for their identity and place in society. Why do you think it's important - and perhaps necessary - for diversity in teen fiction, especially for Asian American readers?

BANGILAN: As a librarian I depend on authors who create or reflect experiences that broaden a child’s vision. Not only are there children who want to see their own faces or see that they are not alone in a set of circumstances, there are children who need to see how the other side feels. Books are shared experiences. Literature opens understanding as those ideas and experiences are made common between us. Just as I encourage Asian and Asian American children to read books from European, African, and Latino Diasporas, I recommend books of the Asian cultures to those children of non-Asian heritages.

YOO: Many Asian American authors (both veteran and up-n-coming) express frustration at being pigeon-holed or labeled as ONLY Asian American fiction when they feel their books feature universal themes. Why do you think Asian American teen fiction is important for readers of different backgrounds/ethnicities to read? In other words, why is multicultural fiction important for today's teenagers?

BANGILAN: Teens of other cultures need to see how the other side lives. Like I was saying earlier literature offers shared experiences. These shared experiences give people common ground, common terms, and common references to then exchange ideas for understanding. I think reading Asian and Asian American literature brings to the table concepts and ideas that Westerners and some others might not be used to. I believe that there is a distinction between Asian literature and Asian American genres. First and foremost is that Asian American literature is American literature. Americans with Asian heritage have a completely different experience, outlook, perspective, and conditioning than the families we left either recently or even generations ago and is different from the cultures we are entering. The Asian American experience is blended and often has a pan-Asian mentality. Millennials tend to exhibit this perspective the most in that they don’t necessarily see themselves as one ethnicity, but that they see themselves as Asian and have a camaraderie with South Asians, Central Asians, and Pacific Islanders. There are now bicultural Asians who are writing and creating books. Theses authors who might be of Chinese and Vietnamese ethnicities or Filipino and Japanese parents tend to exhibit a pan-Asian mentality. The Asian American experience also has hapas in the mix. These are the individuals who are biracial. The Tiger Woods, Apolo Onos, and Kimura Lees of the world are just as Asian and American as those of us with both parents of one ethnicity. Theirs is a growing voice

YOO: Do you have any favorite books or books you think are groundbreaking/important that were written by or about Asian American young adults? Why do you think these particular books are important?

BANGILAN: I think the flood of Manga is a significant milestone in the evolution of Asian American fiction. Although not necessarily by or about Asian Americans, the whole genre of books hit mainstream culture with a big splash. This is a genre that appeals to both boys and girls. The stories are exciting and the themes are universally human that they reach a broad spectrum. 

YOO: Where do you see Asian American fiction going in the future? Do you think it will reach the same level of mainstream acceptance as African American literature has today (witness the mainstream popularity of writers from adult novelist Toni Morrison to children's novelist Julius Lester?

BANGILAN: I think the trend is actually evolving and moving away from the immigrant experience to that of the Asian American experience and the hapa experience. I think teens and children are beginning to identify more as Americans of Asian heritage with a “Pan-Asian” mentality. But their challenges and angst comes from their desire to be seen and be accepted as Americans. Their stories are of a self identity of an American colliding with their roots, heritage, and parents who don’t understand. The United States has often defined itself in terms of Black and White, but Asians are emerging into the conversation. I believe mainstream acceptance is the goal. I think writers like Amy Tan, Ha Jin, Chang Rae Lee, Maxine Hong Kingston, Chitra Divakaruni, Janet Wong, An Na and others are blazing trails for others to follow. Just as with African American fiction these few have planted a seed in readers who will be inspired by these first books. There will be some influences from the mother countries by way of new immigrants, but I see Asian American fiction really embracing our heritages both as Asians and as Americans.