by Deanne Stone, OLLI Member

When Greg Choy transferred to UC Santa Barbara in his junior year, he was on his way to getting a degree in aquatic biology. His academic plans took a sharp turn when he took a literature class with a storied professor who changed students’ lives. “He was amazing,” says Choy. “He gave the most inspiring lectures while cradling a cup of coffee and a cigarette in one hand. In those days when professors were benignly allowed to smoke in classrooms, students in the front row would provide extra cigarettes just to keep them talking.” That professor, along with a few others, inspired Choy to pursue advanced degrees in literature and became a model for his own teaching style (sans cigarettes!) when he became a teacher. “I loved the way he talked about literature. He showed us that the art of the lecture is about conveying information in a conversational tone that engages listeners, which is much more difficult than it seems.”

Choy’s academic interests took another turn when he enrolled in a graduate seminar in American literature at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo in 1986 and was introduced to the writer Maxine Hong Kingston. His class presentation on her memoir, The Woman Warrior, led him to discover other Asian American writers and to the realization that Asian American Literature was becoming a field of scholarly study. Choy had found his academic path. He earned a Ph.D. in English from the University of Washington and wrote his dissertation on Asian American Literature.

Studying Asian American literature was not only an intellectually rich pursuit, but also resonated with Choy on a personal level. Although a third generation American, he was sensitized early on to the social consequences of looking different from his classmates in Ventura County, where Asian Americans had a historical presence but were a demographic minority. ‘I was called plenty of names and tried to behave as unlike the Asian stereotype as I could.”

The book that had the most profound influence on Choy was Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Asian-American Writers, published in 1974. The age of the book is evident from the title, which hyphenated “Asian-American.” The debate over the hyphen has engaged scholars and the Asian American community: Which word should be the modifier? Should it be treated as a compound word? Should both nouns or one be in lower or upper case? The debate about the hyphen, says Choy, was a debate about identity and the very language we use to tell out stories, a subject at the crux of his OLLI course, Asian American Writers: A Unique View of the American Experience.

Choy has chosen four books that represent Asian American writers of different ethnicities and generations. Besides considering their literary merit, Choy will discuss the works within the socio-historical context and conditions of the Asian American experience. “Reading Asian American literature is really reading history.”

Choy and his wife, Catherine Ceniza Choy, professor and chair of the Ethnic Studies Department, have two children. Living in Berkeley and teaching at the university, he says, is a dream come true for this academic couple. “We’re still pinching ourselves that we’re lucky enough to be living and working in the San Francisco Bay Area.”