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Professor paved way for novels like his to thrive

February 7, 2005

Image of the front cover of "Eat Everything Before You Die""Today, you can't go into a bookstore without seeing titles by Asian or Asian-American authors," says Jeffery Paul Chan, SFSU Asian Studies and English professor. His new book, "Eat Everything Before You Die," is in bookstore windows all over the country.

Things were different when Chan entered college in the early '60s. Works by Asian authors were not included in literature curriculums. When he became a part-time English instructor at San Francisco State in 1967, however, he and his colleagues had an opportunity to change the situation.

"The University was really welcoming to our suggestion that works by Asian writers be added to the curriculum." says Chan. But published materials with which to build a reading list were very hard to come by. "I wanted to use Louis Chu's 'Eat a Bowl of Tea' in my class, but it was out of print," Chan recalls. "I had to make copies of my copy for the students to read."

Nonetheless, within just a few years Chan was able to introduce a brand new body of work to his literature students. In fact, in 1969 when SFSU created the first College of Ethnic Studies in the country, Chan became the first chair of its Asian American Studies department.

The limited amount of available material by Asian-American authors also propelled Chan's career as a writer. "The impetus to write was pure agit-prop," Chan says. "We could do [write] anything we wanted." Chan pursued and received a master's degree in creative writing at SFSU in 1973. His early work includes short stories, criticism and two produced plays.

In 1974, Chan teamed up with other Asian-American writers to produce an anthology of Asian authored works called "Aiiieeee! An Introduction to Chinese-American and Japanese-American Literatures." Co-editing the publication were two other SFSU alumni, playwright Frank Chin and novelist and essayist Shawn Wong, as well as Japanese-American memoirist and poet Lawson Fusao Inada. The team followed up in 1991 with a second anthology, "The Big Aiiieeee!" Chan's criticism and short fiction appear in these anthologies.

Although the cadre of in-print Asian-American writers has grown and continues to grow, Chan says he still includes "Eat a Bowl of Tea" in his class syllabuses. Long-time colleague and fellow author Shawn Wong says that Chan's new book actually pays homage to several pioneering works of Asian-American literature, including Louis Chu's 1961 novel.

"Eat Everything Before You Die" picks up where the Chinese-American bachelor society of Chu's novel leaves off. Uncle Lincoln, a remnant of the society created by the American government's prejudice towards Chinese immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, is dying. His young nephew, Christopher Columbus Wong, comes to visit and the novel takes off as Christopher begins to recall what he knows of his uncle's life while searching for ways to reinvent his own. Throughout the book, Christopher's dizzying stream-of-conscious journey through the 1960s and '70s is colored by a cacophony of characters led by Christopher's gay brother and an ex-wife, who winds up preventing Lincoln from dying a bachelor. Wedged between the Chinese-American Diaspora and the growing international power of 21st century China, the novel's timeline parallels the recognition and growth of such popular Chinese-American writers as playwright David Henry Hwang and novelist Amy Tan.

Creative fervor is a hallmark of the Chan family. Chan's brother, Michael Paul Chan (also an SFSU alum), is appearing on the TV hit "Arrested Development" and has starred in a number of plays and films, including "The Joy Luck Club." The universal theme of longing for identity is one also explored by Chan's wife, Janis, in her book, "Inventing Ourselves Again: Women Face Middle Age."

Chan is taking the spring semester off to promote his novel on both coasts. Of course he hopes that "Eat Everything Before You Die" will be read by both Asian and non-Asian readers. But a recent trip to Boston gives Chan pause. "I was standing outside a bookstore that had my book in the window and was having a conversation about books with a stranger," Chan says. "After awhile he pointed to my book and asked, 'feng shui?'"

Chan has a number of Bay Area readings coming up. For more information or to read excerpts from the book, see "Eat Everything Before You Die".

-- Denize Springer


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Last modified February 7, 2005 by University Communications