Much like many Western perspectives of history, my shared history regarding India’s Independence was not reflected in The Crown. This perspective overlooked the struggles, atrocities against, and actions of the Indians preceding 1947. The lack of representation that occurs in curriculum is deliberate and othering. While the YA and Children’s Literature communities have committed to encouraging representation and honoring equity and inclusivity through a variety of awards, curriculum (and instructional resources) continue to lag behind. I offer approaches to considering immigrant stories through YA literature to incorporate multiple historical perspectives in the classroom, and provide a global and comprehensive lens to United States History.
In light of the increased awareness of Anti-Asian violence and increased attention to curricular implementation of Asian Americans in United States History such as Illinois, New Jersey, and (soon, I hope) Connecticut, this section serves to introduce resources for teachers who are uncertain how to begin an exploration of Asian American history. The Asian Diaspora is complex and expansive. Often, people are misplaced and misunderstood within the Diaspora. Moreover, there are subsections within the diaspora (East Asian, South Asian, Southeast Asian).
Importance of Oral Histories
Predating the written word, oral history is a complex and engaging field of study and “a method of gathering, preserving, and interpreting the voices and memories of people, communities, and participants in past events” (Oral History Association, 2022). One of the powers of oral history is that it is “uniquely positioned to recover a history that conventional sources find difficult to access…” (De Roche, 1996, p. 46).The practice of oral history requires extensive training and processes required for authentic recordings. While YA literature does not require the extensive data gathering of trained oral historians, the significance of authentic voices come from the authors’ gathering of data from the oral histories handed down within their families.
Stories Our Hands Tell: Spaces Beyond the Kitchen Table
I humbly borrow from the foresight of Barbara Smith and Audre Lorde in their history making Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press. As Smith (1989) writes, “We were saying that as women, feminists, and lesbians of color we had experiences and wok to do in common, although we also had our differences,” (p. 11). This encapsulates the purpose of exploring immigrant stories in YA literature-there are common historical events that shaped many Asian and Asian American experiences.
Chicano historian Gilbert G. Gonzalez highlights the enlightenment that comes from connecting to families’ histories and students' own lived experiences within a larger context: Their [students’] experiences are valid learning experiences that need to be incorporated. My first lessons in Chicano history were held at the kitchen table…My fist classes in Chicano history took place listening to my extended family (Ochoa, 2008, p. 153).
The kitchen table was a grassroots organization, and is honored through those who have continued to support the efforts of Smith and Lorde, such as the Black Girls’ Literacies Collective (BGLC) and the co-editors of Equity and Excellence in Education (2021). By understanding and honoring the kitchen table, I look to the stories our [immigrant families’ and first-generation Americans’] hands tell. In the following sections, I offer examples and approaches to provide a space for the stories from the hands of your students’ families in the classroom. These approaches honor the diversity among the similar histories, but varied stories, and validate the agency and voice of students-who tend to not see themselves-in the classroom.
Hands that Share Stories
As a first generation South Asian American, I chose to include YA literature that emerged from similar shared stories. I highlight the role of the characters’ hands in historical fiction, and draw from the back matter of the books. Each author included below highlights the historical context that inspired them, and relates how oral histories evolved into engaging literature and resources for instruction.
In Climbing the Stairs, Vidya's hands turn the pages of the books hidden in her only safe space-her grandfather's upstairs library. The library is forbidden to women. Set during World War II, Vidhya’s progressive father suffers a horrible injury as a result of fighting between the British government and freedom fighters. Vidhya’s perspective provides an alternative lens of the events leading up to the Partition, and provides context for India’s Independence. In her Author’s Note, Padma Venkatraman describes how Vidhya’s personality and story was “undoubtedly owe[d] something to the few women I knew who grew up in the 1940s.
In Ahimsa, Anjali’s hands create clothes from homespun cotton as a part of the freedom struggle. Ahimsa, or non-violent resistance, required Indians to renounce their heavily tailored foreign-made clothes by spinning their khadi cloth. In 1942 India, ten-year-old Anjali’s mother joins the freedom struggle as a result of Mahatma Gandhi’s call to action. Her mother resists the oppressive system that denigrates the Dalit community, the “untouchables” of society. Anjali is forced to get over her past prejudices as her family becomes increasingly involved in the movement. In her Author’s Note, Supriya Kelkar notes that her story takes place in a fiction town outside of Mumbai, she notes, “The character of Shailaja (Anjali’s mom) is inspired by my great-grandmother, Anasuyabai Kale.”
In Amal Unbound, Amal’s hands are busy in forced and indentured servitude as she works for the son of her village’s corrupt landlord. Amal's Pakistani village is quiet and she hopes to become a teacher one day. Unfortunately, she is forced to stay home from school to take care of her siblings because she is the eldest daughter. Though Amal tries to keep learning, an unfortunate encounter changes the course of her future. Amal’s story demonstrates the power of resistance in difficult political and social climates. In her Author’s Note, Aisha Saeed highlights how the story of Malala Yousafzai inspired her to create Amal and represent “countless other girls in Pakistan and around the world who take a stand against inequality and fight for justice”.
In Step Up to the Plate, Maria Singh, Maria Singh’s hands toss a softball and hold her bat. In the spring of 1945, in Yuba City, California, nine-year-old Maria Singh longs to play softball in the first-ever girls' team. During World War II, Maria’s family, especially Maria's parents-Papi (from India) and Mamá (from Mexico) experience prejudice and discrimination through the United States and California laws. Uma Krishnaswami provides The History Behind Maria’s Story to highlight the little-known history of Mexican-Hindu families. She acknowledges that she was inspired by the shared stories of Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni and Majumdar Hart.
In Front Desk, Mia Tang has captured the hearts of so many. While her immigrant parents clean the rooms and ten-year-old Mia manages the front desk of the Calivista Motel, her parents also hide immigrants. The history and obstacles of Immigration to America is juxtaposed with cultural expectations of Mia from her Chinese parents. In her Author’s Note, Kelly Yang states, “Many of the events in Front Desk are based on reality”. She highlights the documented history with the stories of her hands working the Front Desk while her parents managed several motels.
In Finding Junie Kim, Junie Kim’s hands clench in response to the continued racism she experiences in her middle school She wants to fit in, but her middle school is vandalized with racist graffiti appears and Junie needs to decide how to respond. Junie’s history teacher assigns a project and Junie decides to interview her grandparents, learning about their unbelievable experiences as kids during the Korean War. As a budding oral historian, Junie’s gathering of her grandparents’ histories help her confront the growing racism at her school. In her Author’s Note, Ellen Oh writes, “When I was young, my mom would always tell me this story about how she and her siblings were separated from their parents during the Korean War”.
Practical Applications for YA Immigrant Stories in the Classroom
- Diversify Historical Perspectives Use the back matter (i.e. Author’s Notes, Glossary, Further Reading, etc.) to provide a context. Supplement YA with historical accuracy and the simple facts of historical events, people, movements.
- Examining Artifacts Using hands as the tool to tell stories emerged from my parents sharing historical artifacts and photographs with me during our oral histories. Including artifacts not only leads to a broader understanding of historical discussions, but more important discussions of power. For instance, why are many artifacts from other countries (many countries of color) currently housed in the British Museum, instead of their home countries.
- Provide Journal Prompts or Turn and Talk During this activity, students will explore aspects of identity that can reflect immigrant cultures. (i.e. How do you enter your house? What is the history of your name? Tell me about a time when you visited family that did not live with you, or when family came to visit.)
- Invite Guest Speakers-Families and Historical Societies Find representatives from various cultures highlighted in YA literature. More and more research for the Asian and Asian American community continues to emerge as our stories become more commonplace in curriculum and instruction, and society.
- Utilize Authentic Resources This list is not exhaustive, but offers resources for educators as they search for deeper understanding of Asian and Asian American histories.
b) Asian American Education Project
c) Asian Pacific Heritage Month
d) I Am An Asian American Toolkit
e) Shake Up Your Shelves: Why An Inclusive Bookshelf is Important and How to Make That Happen
f) Shake Up Your Shelves: Rethink, Remix, & Diversify Your Book Collection
g) South Asian American Digital Archives (SAADA)
h) We Need Diverse Books
This is just a snapshot of immigrant stories and opportunities for the classroom. My goal with this snapshot was to highlight books that have evolved as a result of the authors’ recollections around oral histories. When examining Asian American Literature, Linda Sue Park cautions against focusing on the 5 Fs: Fashion, Food, Famous People, Folklore, Festivals. The stories included in this piece introduce the complexities of identity and the nuances of historical context. Truthfully, the Fs are a part of any Asian culture and invoke pride and a sense of belonging. However, to focus only on these aspects is to continue to “other” our communities. Exploring YA literature offers an opportunity to understand: who we are, where we came from, why we’re here, and where we are going. While I focused on the Asian diaspora, educators should find YA literature featuring other immigrant communities, as well as including and differentiating refugee stories. We are a part of United States History.
DeRoche, C. (1996). “I learned things today that I never knew before”: Oral history at the kitchen table. The Oral History Review, 23(2) 45-61.
Haddix, M., McArthur, S.A., Muhammad, G.E., Price-Dennis, D., and Sealey-Ruiz, Y. (2016). At the kitchen table: Black women English educators speaking our truths. English Education, July 2016.
Lyiscott, J., Green, K.L., Ohito, E.O., and Coles, J.A. (2021). Call us by our names: A kitchen-table dialogue on doin’ it for the culture. Equity & Excellence in Education, 54(1) 1-18.
Ochoa, G. L. (2008). “My first lessons in Chicano history were heard at the kitchen table”: An interview with Gilbert G. Gonzalez. Radical History Review, 102, doi: 10.1215/01636545-2008-019
Oral History Association. (2022). Oral history: Defined. Retrieved from: https://www.oralhistory.org/about/do-oral-history/
Smith, B. (1989). A press of our own kitchen table: Women of Color Press. Frontiers, X(3), 11-13.
 It is important to note that Pacific Islanders are represented in the AAPI community. For the purposes of examining immigrant stories, I focus on Asians and Asian Americans.
 In 1980, Audre Lorde and Barbara Smith began a publishing press for women of color, Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press. The goal of creating a publishing press was to honor and feature books (stories) aimed at promoting the writing of women of color of all racial/ethnic heritages, national origins, ages, socioeconomic classes, and sexual orientations.