Everyday Ethnic -- Author Shawn Wong Knows Race Is Not Always Foremost In The Minds Of Asian Americans - They Like Fast Cars And Barbecues, Too

Well, let's see. There are Cynthia Kadohata, Li-Young Lee, Gish Jen and David Henry Hwang. And then Garrett Hongo, Marilyn Chin, Fae Myenne Ng and Chang-rae Lee.

And what about John Yau, Russell Leong, Jessica Hagedorn and David Mura? Even right here in Seattle, there are Sharon Hashimoto, Alan Chong Lau, Lydia Minatoya, Peter Bacho and James Masao Mitsui.

You can't mention any of them, of course, without remembering novelists Maxine Hong Kingston, Amy Tan and Frank Chin - though the latter, who pushes the art of intra-ethnic literary combat to new levels, won't appreciate being listed in the same paragraph with the other two.

A flood of American names, a flood of American writers. All of Asian ancestry. And all surging to literary prominence and/or popular acceptance in the past decade.

It was not so long ago, Shawn Wong recalls, that he couldn't have named even one of his fellow Asian-American writers.

"When I was in college and 19 years old, I'd been writing about a year when I realized that I was the only Asian-American writer I knew of," muses the 46-year-old novelist and University of Washington English professor, relaxing on the deck of his Magnolia home with an expansive view of the Ballard Locks laid out before him.

"I knew of some Asian-American actors, of course. You'd see them in movies or on TV - they always played houseboys or gardeners or karate experts."

This was the late 1960s, and none of Wong's professors at the University of California at Berkeley could name an Asian-American writer, either. However, the young Berkeley native spoke with Jeffery Paul Chan, a friend who was a graduate student at San Francisco State University.

"You know, there's this guy named Frank Chin, and he lives only about two blocks from you in Berkeley," Chan said. "And he's published a short story."

The rest is history, if not a literary detective story. Wong introduced himself to Chin, and they soon began trying to identify other Asian-American writers. First, they came across a local greenhouse owner named Toshio Mori, who had published a well-received short-story collection, "Yokohama, California," two decades earlier but had never published another book.

"The most astounding thing was, in 21 years no one had gone to him and talked to him about his writing career," Wong recalls.

Along with Chan, they tape-recorded three days of literary reminiscence by the 60-year-old Mori - their first effort to document a body of literature that no one thought existed. Soon, these three young Chinese-American literary sleuths were joined in the project by the Japanese-American writer Lawson Fusao Inada, who was later to become the first Asian-American poet published by a major American publishing house.

Their combined efforts resulted in the 1974 book, "Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Asian American Writers," which was published by Howard University Press. If nothing else in an age of growing ethnic awareness, it awakened the American publishing community to the many Asian voices in its midst.

Then, just four years ago, the same four writers edited a companion volume, "The Big Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Chinese American and Japanese American Literature."

In between, all those names at the top of this story emerged on the writing scene - especially Kingston ("The Woman Warrior," 1976; "China Men," 1980) and Tan ("The Joy Luck Club," 1989; "The Kitchen God's Wife," 1991), whose books taught an often-myopic publishing industry that "multicultural" translates into "multi-marketable."

After Berkeley, Wong earned a master's degree in creative writing from San Francisco State in 1974 and cobbled together part-time college teaching jobs before moving to Seattle in 1976 with his first wife. He taught at Highline Community College and in an alternative public high school before landing a job in the UW's American Ethnic Studies Department in 1984.

Wong also published a novella, "Homebase," in 1979, and he edited four other anthologies of multicultural literature before his second work of fiction, the novel "American Knees" (Simon & Schuster, $21), was published last month. A love story etched with sly humor and steeped in many of the racial and cultural issues animating the current debate on affirmative action, it promises to be Wong's most popular work to date.

"I wanted to write a more contemporary story that didn't go along that well-worn path (of some Asian-American literature)," says Wong, whose bemused, casual manner masks a fiercely held set of convictions. "I got to thinking: Asian Americans do a lot of things other than talking to their grandmothers about family history. We go to barbecues, we fall in love."

They even drag race. For 19 years, Wong has been active on the Pacific Northwest drag-racing circuit, piloting his 600-horsepower 1970 Dodge Challenger to the top of his class in 1984. To many people, he is best known as Shawn Wong, drag racer, not Shawn Wong, novelist and tenured professor who this fall assumes chairmanship of the University of Washington's creative-writing program.

"Lots of writers have hobbies. Some make furniture, I drag-race," says Wong. "It's a sport where race isn't an issue; it's what kind of car you drive - a Dodge, a Chevy, whatever. The loyalties are to brand names, not ethnic lines."

In "American Knees," Raymond Ding's problem is that he can't keep his ethnic lines and personal lines straight. A Chinese-American affirmative-action officer at a Bay Area college, Raymond is divorced from the daughter of a wealthy Chinese restaurateur. Nearing 40, he meets the much younger Aurora Crane, a news photographer whose parents are of Irish and Japanese ancestry.

Their on-again, off-again love story - complicated by Raymond's affair with Betty Nguyen, a colleague who was a refugee from Vietnam - manages to draw out and mock virtually every racial and cultural stereotype that Asian Americans live with. Sometimes you wonder if these characters ever think of anything else but race.

"Raymond is a `professional Asian' - that's how he approaches his job, thinking about it all the time," explains Wong, who is married to a third-generation Japanese American, Vicki Tsuchida. "In some ways, I'm like that, too: I teach it, and I talk about it all day."

He adds: "There's also a sense that when Asian Americans get together and talk about relationships, they talk about race - not just male-female relationships, but race, too."

In its original way, Shawn Wong's newest novel is a lively and provocative continuation of that Asian-American dialogue - a literary conversation he himself helped uncover all those years ago.

Donn Fry is The Seattle Times' book editor. Harley Soltes is Pacific Magazine's photographer.

-------------- Wong's reading --------------

Shawn Wong will read from "American Knees" and autograph copies of the novel in three upcoming events:

-- 7:30 p.m. tomorrow at Elliott Bay Book Co.

-- 7 p.m. Tuesday at Barnes & Noble/University Village.

-- 7 p.m. Oct. 5 at University Book Store/Seattle.