A writer-at-large for The New York Times Magazine explores what he identifies as an existential loneliness in himself and in other Asian Americans who try to locate themselves in the country's racial binary, drawing on his own family history as well as the stories of other Asians and Asian Americans.
The subject of The Loneliest Americans is the broad incoherence of Asian American identity, but what Kang writes about most lucidly is the way that upwardly mobile Asians like him—the ones who were raised and educated in the U.S., and are now queasily enjoying the lives that their parents always wanted for them—have made it so ...something of a circular project—a book by an Asian writer about how the Asians who write books should cede control of the story—and Kang is its reluctant protagonist ... There’s a friction between Kang’s vision of solidarity and his seemingly fatal allergy to connection ... throughout the book, Kang displays a certain paranoia about fraudulence, and voices his skepticism of the élite Asians who presume to share a bond with people unlike them ... [a] moment of recognition—with one of the book’s least sympathetic characters, no less—is moving, especially because Kang spends so much of the book strenuously distancing himself from the people he describes. His emotional pitch scarcely modulates. It’s animated by nothing as straightforward as anger or sadness but by their sideways cousins: embarrassment, annoyance, suspicion, disdain ... But Kang is as skeptical of himself as he is of others, and his perpetual self-doubt makes the book crackle with life. He preëmptively swipes at his own realizations; he walks to the precipice of epiphany and backs away. This defensive posture can become a full-body cringe ... The lasting achievement of The Loneliest Americans is that it prompts Asian Americans to think about identity in a framework other than likeness. It asks us to make meaning in ways beyond looking out for our own.
If the past 18 pandemic months have offered an intravenous drip of hate crimes against Asians, Kang’s book titrates those events into a potent mix of memoir, cultural criticism, and deep reporting. The ingredients are volatile, the book, hot to the touch ... It’s a book whose lacerating observations about the discontents of the Asian American experience are offset by cauterizing ironies ... Kang...delivers an incendiary message about Asian Americans that curls in on itself, flames licking at the middle-class vessel in which it arrives ... Ultimately, what he’s after is the start of a new dialogue that shakes off hand-me-down homilies. His book is an invitation to think harder and move beyond the existing racial taxonomies that have become distended to the point of futility and that can feel specifically designed to exclude as much as include.
Although Kang does not deny his personal relationship to the stories he is telling, he does make clear, particularly in the book’s introduction where he talks about his family, that he is wary of how his biography might be weaponized to authenticate his point of view and elicit a reader’s sympathy. There is a reluctance to commit to memoir; he withholds an account of the self at the same time that he is compelled to tell it, since such an account is what brings him too close for comfort to his subject matter. This resistant push and pull within Kang’s autobiographical writing produces intriguing moments when discussions of the heterogeneity of Asian America comes up against the unsettling anxiety that there are perhaps only small differences (and some uneasy likenesses) between himself and those he writes about ... The Loneliest Americans can be uncomfortable and frustrating to read when it makes personal and polemical statements that risk speaking on behalf of Asian Americans as a group, with himself included. The hesitation and doubt that Asian Americans might feel about the term under which they live is at times delivered, in Kang’s book, matter-of-factly, in a generalized fashion, as written on behalf of Asian America writ large ... Kang’s book shows how one might teach Asian American studies differently in the contemporary moment, on this side of 1965 ... It is a provocation that leads to other questions more than answers, questions which I ask my students about the limits of constructing one’s political subjecthood, identity, and solidarity with others through the belief that racial trauma, oppression, and injury must always be claimed and assumed to be shared in the same way and for the same ends.