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In Memoriam: David Wong Louie

September 20, 2018

David Wong Louie, UCLA professor emeritus of Creative Writing and Asian American literary studies, died at home with family at his side Wednesday, September 19, at age 63 after a long illness with cancer. Internationally recognized as a literary pioneer in Chinese-American writing in several genres—novel, short story, and personal essay—Louie forged a powerfully eloquent voice that mapped with deep sensitivity and darkly comic wit the trials and hard-won insights born of inhabiting and navigating the difficult and often invisible spaces between white America and Chinese America.  Pangs of Love Knopf, 1991), Louie’s debut short story collection, won the Los Angeles Times Book Review First Fiction Award, the Ploughshares First Fiction Book Award, and was a New York Times Book Review Notable Book of 1991 and a Voice Literary Supplement Favorite of 1991. “To say that David Wong Louie is unique is to state the pure truth,” said the Los Angeles Times. “He has broken the silence of Chinese men in America” (Los Angeles Times, November 3, 1991). That newspaper’s review presciently captured the focus and reach of Louie’s writing: “It must be said right off that Louie is the furthest thing from a genre ethnic writer. He is elegant, funny, a touch spooky, and has as fine a hair-trigger control of alienation and absurdity as any of the best of his generation. The odd plight of his young Chinese Americans is an illuminating special symptom in a wider malaise” (Los Angeles Times, June 16, 1991).

Louie’s novel The Barbarians Are Coming (G. P. Putnam & Sons, 2000) won the Association for Asian American Studies Prose Award in 2002. The New York Times review called attention to the novel’s deft treatment of the “rift between the second-generation protagonist and the society he seeks to belong to. More deeply, it is about the about the rift within himself, one that imparts to the narrator’s words and perceptions the skittering instability of mercury spilled out of a broken thermometer” (NYT, April 2, 2000). Louie’s stature in the canon of American letters was acknowledged by the inclusion of his story “Displacement” in One Hundred Years of the Best American Short Stories (Houghton Mifflin, 2015). In his final published essay, “Eat, Memory” (Harper’s Magazine, 2017), selected for The Best American Essays 2018, Louie plunged fearlessly into terrain unbound by culture: his own experience of not being able to eat for six years following surgery for throat cancer. For a writer who had placed food, Chinese and otherwise, front and center in his stories, there was no one better equipped to report back to us, with the deepest humanity, on the loss of tasting food and sharing the pleasure and critical appreciation of meals.

Born December 20, 1954 in Rockville Center, New York, Louie grew up behind his family’s Chinese laundry in East Meadow, NY. He and his siblings were virtually the only Asian-Americans in a high school of 3,000 students. He took great pride in his immigrant, working class origins, but he also used that experience in The Barbarians are Coming to explode the threadbare stereotypes of Chinese Americans. He was a lifelong New York Yankees fan, who watched the entire Yankee game, as always, the night before he died. Louie studied and taught at Vassar College, returning to the school throughout his career to give readings and maintain his close ties to his New York colleagues. Louie joined the UCLA Department of English in 1992 and was also affiliated with the Department of Asian American Studies. Before his arrival at UCLA, Louie taught at Vassar College (1988-1992) and the University of California, Santa Cruz.  He received his BA degree in English from Vassar College (1977) and his MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Iowa (Iowa Writers’ Workshop, 1981). In addition to his prize-winning works, Louie’s achievements included notable service as juror on the National Book Award Fiction Panel, member of the PEN American Center Open Book Committee and the PEN Center USA West Board of Directors and Mentorship Program, and nominator and evaluator for the MacArthur Fellows Program “Genius” Award. Louie was also awarded a Lannan Writing Fellowship in 2001. His published works include the volume Dissident Song: A Contemporary Asian American Anthology (1985), co-edited with Marilyn Chin.  An expanded edition of his short story volume Pangs of Love, which will include “Eat, Memory” and the short story “Cold Hearted,” as well as a new introduction by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen and an afterword by King-Kok Cheung, is forthcoming from University of Washington Press, 2019.

Louie was weaned on the Vassar tradition that creative writing and literature go hand in hand, that writers must also be readers. He mentored hundreds of students of diverse ethnicities and genders, including some who themselves became noted writers.  In addition to Creative Writing, he created and taught the first Asian American Literature course at Vassar College. He was the first Asian American writer hired by UCLA to teach both creative writing and Asian American literature in a tenure-track capacity.  With gratitude, Louie’s colleagues remember his brilliance as a teacher and his extraordinary generosity, not to mention his abiding sense of humor, disarming wit, and, in recent years, inspiring resilience.  He is survived by his wife Jackie, son Jules, daughter Sogna, sister Marge, and brothers George and Richard.

Please see here for the announcement from The New York Times.