Asian Storytellers and Their Lack of Awards


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Historically, women and nonbinary/third gendered people were the storytellers that held society together. The role of a storyteller is still alive in our families. When our aunties begin to start to make a list of potential spouses or gossip about that family member we all have who is well into their 30s and 40s living hundreds of miles away from their biological family. We grimace through these spiels, waiting for it to end. However, what they’re doing is reinforcing and keeping alive the family tree and history—even if their intentions aren’t always benevolent. 

Gossip is one of the oldest forms of storytelling, often dismissed because of its proximity to women. It’s been deemed frivolous by men. The truth is that spreading idle gossip is a form of preserving family stories. 

So why is it Asian women and nonbinary/third gendered people rarely receive accolades for their narrative prowess?

Within the last thirty years, Asian women finally started getting recognition for their contributions to contemporary storytelling. With the Oscar season recently over, I was interested in looking at past nominees and winners. There is plenty of discourse about how award ceremonies are performative and an inaccurate portrayal of the work being produced. While I know this is true, I also know that when a marginalized group wins a major accolade a wave of diversity follows. Investors and producers will take a chance on “riskier” stories because of the winner’s success. All of a sudden, these stories are marketable to the mainstream.

Growing up, I yearned to see myself on television. It was an impossible wish when Latina/e characters were portrayed as the thick-accented hyper-sexuals and Filipina/e actors played Latin roles.

I yearned for BIPOC TV and would watch reruns of Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Sister Sister, and That’s So Raven. TV stopped investing in diverse stories and would instead pour money into all-white casts like Friends, NCIS, Gilmore Girls, and The OC


Sandra Oh wining her Golden Globe for ‘Killing Eve.’    Photo credit: popsugar.com

Sandra Oh wining her Golden Globe for ‘Killing Eve.’

Photo credit: popsugar.com

People who looked like my family always played supporting roles until Grey’s Anatomy. The show was created, produced, written by, and featured a diverse group of characters. I was blessed with Chandra Wilson, Sandra Oh, and Sara Ramirez. Their characters weren’t reduced to racial stereotypes and were allowed to be complex, flawed individuals. The cast of Grey’s Anatomy would go on to win Emmys, Screen Actor Guild Awards, Golden Globes, and more. The success of a show created by a Black woman started a wave of diverse shows with BIPOC actors playing lead roles like Sleepy Hollow or Jane the Virgin. Hollywood slowly started to invest in stories created, written, produced, and acted by marginalized voices. 

Winning awards is crucial to proving to gatekeepers to invest in diverse stories. Looking back to early award winners, it appears that the first woman to win an award in Hollywood was Miyoshi Umeki for Best Supporting Actress in Sayonara (1957). The movie was a tale of a military officer who fell in love with an Asian entertainer. Not the most imaginative or unique story, but the ending was progressive for the 20th century. In the music world, Yvonne Marianne Elliman was the first Asian American to win a Grammy in 1978 for Album of the Year.


H.E.R. wining her 2021 Oscar    Photo Credit: nme.com

H.E.R. wining her 2021 Oscar

Photo Credit: nme.com

After years of nominations Asian American women take home major wins this year. Chloe Zhao won best director for Nomadland and Youn Yuh-jung won best supporting actress for Minari at the Oscars. 2020 was especially blessed for H.E.R. who won an Oscar and Grammy for the best original song “Fight for You” featured in Judas and the Black Messiah

Hollywood isn’t the only industry that is beginning to celebrate its Asian artists. The conversations about diversity and equity have been a popular topic in the publishing industry. A lot of the time, before there’s a movie script these big-budget movies these stories can be found on the page. In one of the oldest forms of storytelling, Asian American women are finally winning awards for their work.

Some of the biggest literary awards are the National Book Award, Pulitzer, Nobel, and Booker Prize. The last Asian woman to win the Booker Prize was Kira Desai for The Inheritance of Loss in 2006, before her was Arundhati Roy for The God of Small Things in 1997, and before her was Ruth Prawer Jhabvala for Heat and Dust in 1975. It’s been 15 years since an Asian woman has won the British award, but this Avni Doshi was close with Burnt Sugar on the long-list. The rotating judges for the Booker Prize have a better history awarding Asian women awards. The National Book Award has only been won by an Asian woman for Fiction in 2019 for Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise, Don Mee Choi’s DMZ Colony won for Poetry this year, and the Young Adult category has two women winners: Cynthia Kadohata in 2013 for The Thing About Luck and Thanhha Lai in 2011 for Inside Out and Back Again. The Pultizer, unfortunately, last awarded Asian women storytellers for Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel Namesake in 1999 and Sheryl WuDunn’s reporting in 1990. Malala Yousafzai deserves a special shout-out for her Nobel Peace Prize in 2014 since her memoir—I Am Malala—was published a year before and it played a huge role in starting conversations about how restrictive female education was while growing up in Pakistan. 

It should be noted that the majority of the Asians being celebrated by these well-known awards committees are often East or South Asian. Having Asian narratives being reduced to a few regions only gives a small glimpse of the politics, histories, and stories of the biggest continent and population in the world. The West is slowly featuring non-Eurocentric narratives in its various forms: filmmaking, music, and literature.

While these mainstream awards are a good barometer to measure the likelihood of Asian artists receiving larger budgets for their projects, it is important to look at niche foundations that hand out for awards. When it comes to literary awards, the Lambda Literary Foundations hands out annual awards for published works that feature LGTBQIA+ themes. There are a plethora of categories and the winners often have intersectional marginalized identities. 

Storytelling is an inescapable facet of the human experience. We are constantly trying to share our lived experiences, so we don’t feel alone. Art is created every day by people whose voices are shared and celebrated less frequently. We should share and celebrate all Asian art.

It’s time to push for more voices and remember titles well after award season is over. There’s no expiration date when it comes to enjoying and sharing stories.

Associate Editor
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Why now?

Overachiever Magazine was started by Rehana Paul in October of 2018 to give a platform to all Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities.

Our name is poking fun at the stereotype that all Asians are overachievers, especially Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities. It’s also in recognition of all of us who have had no choice but to be overachievers: managing societal expectations, family obligations, and educational opportunities, all while fighting the patriarchy.

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We do not claim to speak for all Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities. We are just here to give them a place to speak for themselves.

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