UW News

September 28, 2020

Book notes: A talk with UW English professor, author Shawn Wong about his UW Press book series for Asian American authors

UW News

Shawn Wong is longtime University of Washington professor of English, but he is also an editor, novelist, screenwriter and activist on behalf of Asian American writers whose voices have been forgotten or marginalized by history.

"Aiiieee!" coedited by UW English professor Shawn Wong gets republished

Shawn Wong

That commitment is also expressed in a book series in his name for University of Washington Press. The Shawn Wong Fund in Asian American Studies got its start in 2019.

“We’re interested in all Asian American authors, particularly classic works that have gone out of print. We are open to anything — fiction, poetry and nonfiction,” Wong said. “But we’re also interested in new works.”

Wong teaches Asian American literature for the English Department and beginning and advanced screenwriting in the Department of Cinema & Media Studies. He is also a founding instructor in the Red Badge Project, which teaches storytelling to veterans with PTSD, depression or anxiety disorders. He is the author of two novels, “Homebase” in 1979 and “American Knees” in 1995, republished by UW Press in 2005. In 2019 he co-edited a third edition of “Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Asian-American Writers,” also published by UW Press.

UW Notebook visited with Wong about this new book series and the process of choosing what to publish — or republish.

What is the mission of the fund, and your work in this area?

Shawn Wong: The short version is I’ve spent 50 years rediscovering and bringing attention to forgotten and neglected works of Asian American literature that should be part of the American literature canon, such as “No-No Boy” by John Okada, and others. My partnership with the UW Press and the book series is a natural outgrowth of my early efforts in the 1970s to help them establish a catalog of Asian American literature classics.

My role is to fund the series with financial support with a simple equation — all the money I make from my own writing and speaking goes into the fund, and I have a very generous anonymous donor who has also stepped up and matched my donations to the fund.

How will you choose new books to publish?

Cover of Eat a Bowl of Tea by Louis Chu. Story is about UW professor Shawn Wong's book series for Asian Americans with UW Press. S.W.: Our first book, “Eat a Bowl of Tea” by Louis Chu, was an easy choice to make since it was reissued by the UW Press many years ago, then the original publisher took the rights back, and then it fell out of print for many, many years until we were able to secure the rights again.  It’s a pioneering work of Chinese American literature (and made into movie by director Wayne Wang). Asian American literature professors have been waiting for a new printing for many years.
Mike Baccam, the Asian American literature acquisitions editor at UW Press, and I consult on all future projects. We consider what’s missing from the Asian American literature series at the UW Press, what might be out of print, what kinds of literature teachers and professors are looking for or rediscovering. We also look at new works or repackaging of two or more works that are out of print by the same author and reshaping the narrative about those works for a new audience of reader and scholars. Final editorial decisions are made by the UW Press.

What can reshaping such a narrative involve? 

S.W.: One example might be that a book written during the 1960s or ’70s that talks about the issues of civil rights, Vietnam War protests, etc., might be relevant to today’s readers and today’s students, bringing the social justice issues from decades ago into the current discussion.

What is the process of bringing back a book long out of print?

S.W.: We have to search for who owns the rights to the book and then seek permission from the author or the publisher or both. In some cases, the publisher has gone out of business, so the search takes longer to find the trail of the rights.

Any thoughts on what the series might publish next, and when?

S.W.: Hopefully, the UW Press and I will find a new project in 2021, most  likely a work that needs to be back in print and would be useful for Asian American literature classes. One of the areas might be the books from the ’60s and early ’70s, at the heyday of the beginning of Asian American studies and social justice issues.

You also have been committed to the Red Badge Project, along with actor Tom Skerritt and others, helping veterans. Where does that project stand?  

S.W.:  The Red Badge Project is now in our seventh year. We began at Joint Base Lewis-McChord with the Warrior Transition Battalion and now have expanded to vet centers around Washington state. Because of the pandemic, most of our workshops with veterans are now online. I’ve also developed a course in the English Department titled “Writing the Writing Prompt: The Critical Economy of Narrative Storytelling” that brings some of that experience with the project into the UW classroom. It’s really been some of the most challenging and rewarding teaching I’ve done in my 48 years of teaching.