Meet erin Khue Ninh: Asian American Lit Scholar
“They say all our work is autobiographical,” says professor and writer erin Khue Ninh. Simply by choosing a subject to write about, you expose personal preferences, opinions, and experiences. This is true even in academia, and it is certainly true for Ninh.
Ninh’s first book, Ingratitude: The Debt-Bound Daughter in Asian American Literature, explores common threads of filial debt and bitterness in narratives by second-generation Asian American women. Ninh saw these patterns in the literature as underscoring an experience that had troubled and impacted generations of Asian American women, and she decided to finally give language to it.
Writing about family relationships, Ninh found the academic distance enabling, as it made her more objective. She describes the book as “autobiography by indirection.” As she wrote, Ninh used her own reactions to the literature she was analyzing as a kind of emotional tuning fork. She described testing whether “what I wrote rang true, if it resonated on an emotional level. If it didn’t, then I knew analytically I wasn’t there yet.”
As passionate as Ninh was while writing her dissertation — which later became her book — dedication and enthusiasm did not pay the bills. Ninh had decided at 16 to become a literature professor. But she faced a rude awakening when she realized the Darwinian setup of the graduate school system, and her romanticized concepts of academia proved to be naive. With far more candidates than available tenure-track positions, it was a “brutal” system, according to Ninh. When she received an AAUW American Fellowship in 2003, she was despairing about the hiring odds and realizing that teaching was a limited possibility for a humanities graduate student.
Receiving the fellowship meant more than financial security for the year; it meant validation of Ninh’s work. As she describes it, “You have to be a self-marketer for your own brand in academia, so confidence is critical.”
Confidence and affirmation have made a winning combination for Ninh in the years since her fellowship. Not only was her book published, but she also has written for national news sources like the Huffington Post and ESPN about Asian American identity in the media and literature. Also present in her writing are critiques of capitalism, patriarchy, and misogyny, especially as they relate to immigrant families.
Ninh contests existing dogma that idealizes immigrant families as being havens from a capitalist world. She argues that the immigrants who come to the United States and pursue their aspirations for their children are very aware of the capitalist society to which they now belong. For that reason, and because of the disadvantages their children will face compared with native-born families, many parents pragmatically channel their children into lucrative fields. In a piece for the Huffington Post, Ninh wrote, “As many of my colleagues in Asian American studies have noted, Asian immigrants push their children hard because they recognize that discrimination — conscious or not — is real. That all other things being equal, the blue-eyed candidate will get the position — and so the Asian kid has to make sure other things are better, to have a shot.”
Now a tenured professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, in the Asian American Studies Department, Ninh is settling into her role as a senior scholar. Ten years after her fellowship, she says, “AAUW made my life come true.” Her work continues to touch upon truths for many readers and foster important intergenerational discussions.
erin Khue Ninh’s 2003–04 American Fellowship was sponsored by two AAUW of California American Fellowships: the Ruby Henry/Napa County (CA) Branch Fellowship and the San Francisco (CA) Branch/Mildred Bickel Fellowship.
This post was written by Fellowships and Grants Intern Emily McGranachan.