20 years later, Generation YELL-Oh Girls is still revolutionary

The anthology that made a generation of Asian American girls feel heard might be making a comeback.

Tevy Khou
Impact
ByChristina Lee

In June 1998, Vickie Nam was working her first job out of college, overseeing a team of several dozen teen contributors at the newly-launched Teen People as the magazine’s news team coordinator. As a history and women’s studies major at Wellesley College, studying Asian American representation in media, she still remembered a 1989 issue of Seventeen where first-time cover star Niki Taylor wore saris and exaggerated black liner to elongate her eyes, Fu Manchu-style.

Nam figured that as a journalist, she could enact change from within. But that prospect seemed extra daunting at Time Inc., where she was Teen People’s only staff woman of color. So, as she’d sift through review copies of the inspirational book series Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul that she found around the office, Nam’s mind wandered to a book idea she had before graduation. Just as she saw with magazines like Seventeen, YM, and now Teen People, Nam realized that Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul was missing one key perspective: her own.

“These were anthologies written by young people,” Nam says, “but what I noticed was the dearth of writings that explored the experiences of historically marginalized youth.”

In a book proposal she sent to HarperCollins a few months after starting at Teen People, Nam listed the questions she’d pose in the first anthology by and for young Asian American women: “To what extent has being an Asian had an impact on our adolescence? Did we have Asian friends when we were growing up, and if so, what made those relationships unique compared to relationships we had with other peers? Did we all confront racism and discrimination? How did other Asian Americans cope with the idea that they were different, yet the same, as their non-Asian peers? And most important, how did these experiences finally help them come to grips with their identity — as a girl, as an Asian American, or just another teenager?”

Nam solicited answers from university students, teens at youth organizations, and subscribers to Asian American magazines like A. She’d Xerox her calls for submissions at the Teen People office before snail-mailing them. Then in 2000, she left Teen People to become managing producer at Asian Avenue, a precursor to MySpace catering solely to Asian Americans. With Asian Avenue’s members database on hand, Nam’s search for contributors moved online, too. “I had a million people at my fingertips,” she tells Mic.

Soon, over 500 submissions covered her bedroom floor. “The work came to me in torn journal paper, fluorescent stickies, and pretty stationery embellished with Sanrio paraphernalia and all sorts of wild, supportive testimonials,” Nam wrote in the anthology, published in the fall of 2001.

“Vickie was able to facilitate finding community not just for the contributors, but for people reading the book.”

The title — YELL-Oh Girls: Emerging Voices Explore Culture, Identity, and Growing Up Asian American — attempted to reclaim the term “yellow peril,” from the scapegoating over wages and jobs dating back to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Moreover, the title was a “call to action,” Nam wrote. As Nam saw for herself, young Asian American women were ready to explore questions about their identity. They were eager to speak for themselves on who they were and whom they should aspire to be. In total, YELL-Oh Girls featured 86 poems and essays.

YELL-Oh Girls captures this moment within a generation of Asian American women, in terms of Asian Americans coming together in ways aided by the internet, but also finding their creative community and a particular type of voice,” says Kimberly McKee, an associate professor of religion and intercultural studies at Grand Valley State University and one of the book’s contributors. “Asian American women had been doing phenomenal activism from the very beginning, though you’re not hearing about Asian American activists generally in K-12 education. By creating this space, Vickie was able to facilitate finding community not just for the contributors, but for people reading the book.”

***

I reread YELL-Oh Girls shortly after The Guardian interviewed me this spring, in the aftermath of the Atlanta-area spa shootings. I was relieved to be speaking with someone, though the more this journalist asked about why these shootings were significant, the more unqualified I felt to be in this position. I didn’t feel like an authority on my own experience as an Asian American, let alone for an entire community.

It’s highly likely that back in 2001, I bought YELL-Oh Girls not because I related to Nam’s editor photo, which shows a Korean American wearing pigtails and an “I 💗 ME” raglan tee, but because she had worked at my favorite magazine. But struggling to process racist violence in 2021, I now wondered what YELL-Oh Girls had to say to young women whose anger was righteous but whose voice still felt shaky.

I expected painfully awkward grade school memories and well observed markers of late ‘90s adolescence, like Biore strips. And YELL-Oh Girls does feature all of this, though I was struck by the clarity and emotional range across the anthology. I audibly gasped when I read of a teacher correcting the pronunciation of a young Taiwanese woman’s own name. Some stories do speak to the lunchbox moment — when children of immigrants get teased for bringing their “ethnic” food to school. But other reflections, about chicken tinola and furikake, are as lovingly rendered as a Studio Ghibli scene. The ode to Biore strips is in Pidgin, by a writer from Hilo, Hawai’i.

Some contributors felt isolated in having to constantly defend their young Asian American identity. McKee learned of her heritage mostly through culture camps, where adoptive parents assigned a reading curriculum and arranged for cooking and dance demonstrations. But she wouldn’t discover how she felt as a Korean adoptee in majority-white Penfield, New York, about 80 miles east of Buffalo, until she wrote “The Other Sister” for YELL-Oh Girls. “I guess it’s fair to say that people stare out of curiosity,” McKee wrote. “It’s not like they’re always calling me ‘slanty-eyes.’ But I look forward to the day that I’ll stop having to explain and teach others all the time.” She wouldn’t discuss those feelings with her family until her copy of the book arrived at her doorstep.

“There was a whole community around art-making and art-sharing.”

“For a lot of adoptees with questions about adoption and Asian American identity, we’re also managing our adoptive parents’ feelings, or we perceive that we have to be managing those feelings,” McKee says now.

Other contributors introduced me to an Asian American world I hadn’t been privy to: zines like Bamboo Girl and Slander, organizations like the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. The book quotes This is Life host Lisa Ling, from a New York Times story marking the age of “Asian It Girls like Ming-Wa, Bai Ling, Michelle Yeoh, and Lucy Liu,” on how her upbringing was at odds with the current moment: “I went to public school, and the kids called me ‘Risa Ring.’”

“There was a lot of really badass Asian Americans who identified as feminist back then, but whose work got swallowed up by media conglomeration,” says Alison Roh Park, a community organizer, founder of social platform Urbanity, and the poet behind YELL-Oh Girls’s “Maybelline on Maple Street”. In it, Park writes about the taunt of seeing a peer tug at the corners of their eyes to mimic stereotypically slanted Asian eyes.

“There was a whole community around art-making and art-sharing,” Park tells Mic. “I just vividly remember YELL-OH Girls as part of this larger arsenal.”

For these young women, writing for YELL-Oh Girls was about figuring out how they could uniquely contribute to their community. When Kristina Wong was a student at the University of California at Los Angeles, she launched a spoof mail-order bride website. In an accompanying YELL-Oh Girls essay titled “A Big Bad Prank: Broadening the Definition of Asian American Feminism Activism,” she explained that the site “was a response to the blatant racism, Western stereotyping of the East, and sexist attitudes typical of Asian sex sites.”

Most of the contributors I reached sounded sheepish about their YELL-Oh Girls contributions, as if they were old diary entries no one was meant to read. They see how rudimentary and raw their explorations on race and adolescence were, compared to their complex understandings today as writers, scholars, activists, and elected officials.

“It was the first time that anyone felt like my voice mattered.”

Still, these contributors cannot overstate how formative writing for YELL-Oh Girls was. After being rejected for a different teen anthology, Ophelia Speaks, YELL-Oh Girls featured two of 19-year-old Caroline Fan’s essays. One of them, “Chinglish,” is about how she once struggled to balance speaking English and Chinese. “If I ever faltered, I would be reminded at recess, at the water fountain, and during daycare,” she wrote.

Today, Fan is president and founder of the Missouri Asian American Youth Foundation. After 9/11, she appeared at a rally for tolerance and understanding in college. Amid the 2014 Ferguson protests, she stood and spoke in solidarity with Black Lives Matter. This July, she defended St. Louis County’s public health director, saying that racial slurs he received for supporting a new mask mandate “felt like being stabbed.”

“I really want to thank Vickie,” Fan says, of the career she’s built of activism and public speaking engagements, “because it was the first time that anyone felt like my voice mattered.”

***

On YELL-Oh Girls’s release day, Nam — who had just been profiled by Time magazine— was in Times Square, scheduled to make an appearance on the TV network Oxygen. That day was Sept. 11, 2001. “I remember seeing this mass fleeing of people in downtown Manhattan, heading uptown and covered in soot,” she says. Her TV appearance was canceled.

Three days later, the YELL-Oh Girls book tour launched in Manhattan as scheduled. The event, hosted by the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, featured readings by Nam, Park, and contributor Mai-Linh Hong. Attendees received swag bags from MAC Cosmetics. But Nam realized that she couldn’t discuss a book detailing the unique challenges that Asian Americans face without addressing how that story was evolving before their eyes. In the spirit of YELL-Oh Girls, the book launch event turned into a forum. Many of Nam’s tour dates, in fact, at universities, libraries, and independent bookstores, would turn into forums.

Nam would ask: “What’s happening in the world? What’s happening in your life? What can we do to uncover our histories, to feel seen and heard, and also to interrogate society, the dominant culture for the ways in which they’re dehumanizing us?” These questions are not unlike the ones driving YELL-Oh Girls, in which Nam wrote that “Asian skin comes in a wide range of colors and hues.” Except during the book tour, in a world forever changed by 9/11, Nam says that perspectives on “the racialized violence against Arab Americans, Muslims, Sikhs, South Asian Americans — any dark-skinned Asian American” couldn’t be overlooked. YELL-Oh Girls does feature a “South Asian Girls Speak Out” roundtable, though South Asia is as far westward as the book ventures.

Since April, Nam, who is now living in Santa Cruz, California, and raising her 3-year-old daughter Yuna, has been in talks with HarperCollins about a potential YELL-Oh Girls re-release, perhaps as an ebook or audiobook. Twenty years ago, Nam wasn’t interested in another YELL-Oh Girls book or a spinoff (“What about YELL-Oh Boys?” she says people asked), because she wasn’t sure how different a second book would be from the first. But today’s Asian American youth have grown up with post-9/11 Islamophobia, as seen in the first Marvel Cinematic Universe movie Iron Man. They’ve seen their communities scapegoated for the COVID-19 pandemic by back-to-back presidential administrations. Meanwhile, YELL-Oh Girls gets cited in reading lists about feminism, about the Asian American feminist movement, for white people, in the aftermath of the Atlanta-area spa shootings, and by the educator and activist behind the “brown eyes/blue eyes” experiment about racial discrimination.

The original cover of Generation YELL-Oh Girls.

So Nam agreed with HarperCollins that a reissue could be important. She followed up with the publisher — but then talks frustratingly stalled. On Aug. 29, after HarperCollins hadn’t responded for four months, Nam wrote, “I sense if I’m not persistent, the potential ebook and/or audiobook will fall through the cracks and disappear. And with it, countless voices and dreams of AAPI women and girls.” HarperCollins responded a few days later, promising to follow up “very soon with a plan.” That plan has yet to materialize. (“As for a reissue, we are working to resolve some publishing details with the author about the revised edition and therefore have not yet scheduled a reissue,” a HarperCollins rep tells Mic.)

Fortunately, a spiritual sequel to YELL-Oh Girls arrived this month. The Auntie Sewing Squad Guide to Mask Making, Radical Care, and Racial Justice distills practical lessons from a mutual aid network of over 400 volunteers who sewed cloth masks for at-risk communities throughout the pandemic. Kristina Wong is a founder and contributing writer. Mai-Linh Hong is one of the book’s three editors. Nam also contributed a blurb, because somewhere during the writing process, Wong and Hong realized that they had both contributed to YELL-Oh Girls.

“Something about The Auntie Sewing Squad book feels YELL-Oh Girls-ish,” Hong says. “It’s a lively anthology with a lot of Asian American women voices talking about racial justice; Publishers Weekly described it as ‘feisty,’ which I think was funny but appropriate. It meant a lot to us, to ask Vickie to blurb the book because there’s something full circle about it, that 20 years later, two of her contributors collaborated on a book, and she could still be a mentor to us.”

As for Nam, she has stopped collecting teen mags in favor of books for her daughter Yuna. Nam squeals as she reads aloud the titles: Amy Wu and the Perfect Bao. Eyes That Kiss at the Corners, an illustrated ode to almond-shaped eyes. Watercress, about Chinese parents who forage the coveted ingredient from the side of the road. Outside, Inside, in which a Vietnamese American author explains the pandemic to children.

“Yuna’s bookshelf looks completely different from mine,” Nam says. Fortunately, Yuna will never have to search for female Asian American voices, the way her mother did.