Kaya Press Pushes Expectations for API Literature

By Gina Hotta

An Asian American, Vietnam Veteran cop walking a Chinatown beat in the 1970s was a good enough story for Sunyoung Lee. So was one about an un-finished tattoo by a Samoan author whose works challenge Margaret Mead’s version of island life. Leave the Chinese American mother-daughter relationship stories for the big publishers, let them have the Asian food books. Sunyoung Lee might be interested in these offerings if, and only if, there’s a twist to them. Lee is the managing editor of Kaya Press, a publisher of Asian American and Pacific Islander writings from the diaspora. She also does just about everything else for Kaya to keep it going. Yet, for a small press there’s an admirable list of awards given to its authors including the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize for “Where We Once Belonged” by Samoan author Sia Figiel as well as Pen and American Book Award winners. And, with Lee’s recent move to Berkeley from New York, there’s the new challenge of being farther from the center of the US publishing world along with the old challenges that still remain.

Lee says that the themes found in Kaya’s books are too far outside the parameters of what large publishers think will sell as Asian American writing. “We want to push the expectations of the reader,” says Lee. “We’ve published poetry by Koon Woon who writes about being homeless in Seattle. That’s certainly not the immigrant success story that the big publishing houses look for. Ishle Park writes about the hardship of working class life and hip-hop influences.” Although it’s been hard to keep going, it’s not the first time that Kaya has risen to a challenge. Back in 1998, the Asian financial crisis kicked off a major one for Kaya. The founder of Kaya was from Korea and wanted to publish primarily works from that country. When the financial crash dried up her funding, Lee and former managing editor Julie Ku laid themselves off and went on un-employment. Later, a re-focus on Asian Pacific/ diasporic literature and culture emerged. Lee and Ku continued to work as volunteers. Ku eventually had to leave Kaya. Lee continued to forge on.

“My parents ask me ‘What are you doing working for no money?’ But I firmly believes there’s a tangible benefit to what I’m doing.” In New York, Lee was constantly on the go as a media and community activist. “I asked myself how many more seven hour meetings, five days a week can I go to?” With a degree in literature, Lee decided to make Kaya Press her political work, her focus. Lee leans forward, a tension and tremor in her voice. “People live and die based on a metaphor from something they read. It has the power to change the way people think and to change lives. The dirt and grit and reality of it all.”

Kaya’s logo mirrors its sensibility. The disembodied tiger head looks as if it could have come from a Korean brush painting–but not the smoking cigar that hangs from the big cat’s mouth. Kaya’s aesthetic also bursts through the cover of Ed Lin’s “This Is A Bust”, their latest offering. Bold letters announce the title. It sits over a shot of Chinatown by noted photographer Corkey Lee taken “back in the day”. Storefronts populate the picture: a theater marquee displays “The Story Of A Refugee” and next to it is the Cuban Chinese Benevolent Association.

The quality of writing also rises to the top of what Lee looks for. She talks about Ed Lin’s recent reading at Eastwind Books. “People have a very positive response to Ed because he’s able to articulate this experience that the audience hasn’t heard before, or doesn’t expect to hear.” Even though Lin’s characters might not speak English–like restaurant owner Willie Gee in “This Is A Bust”–they aren’t hindered by singsong dialog, a style Lin believes reflects an outsider’s view of a character’s reality. When Lin reads from “This Is A Bust”, his voice turns to a hiss as Willie Gee spills out words of disdain for his striking employees who have disgraced him. It’s all in fluent English and leaves no doubt that Gee’s a buffoon, but one driven by the all too human weakness of ego and greed. It’s this kind of writing and presentation that have created a loyal following for Kaya Press over the years.

As Lee acclimates herself to the Bay Area, she also looks for grants and donors while working a part-time job in order to support Kaya. But for Lee, “the drive, the reason for Kaya to exist is to inspire, to bring out other peoples’ existence completely–in the totality of it–and to make sure that opportunity always exists.”

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