With a Chinese American Gunslinger, He’s Challenging the Whiteness of Westerns

“Historically the Western has been this super masculine genre — the male cowboy, the male rancher, the male outlaw,” North said. “It’s a genre that was ripe to be reinvented or mined. There’s something interesting and powerful about these myths, and it can be fun and liberating to play with that and create something that’s your own.”

Other writers are exposing the way that Westerns frequently feature Native and immigrant characters as generic villains or victims, if they appear at all. Téa Obreht’s 2019 novelInland,” set in the American West in the late 19th century, featured an unorthodox cowboy: an immigrant from the Ottoman Empire riding a camel instead of a horse, whose supernatural abilities include the ability to sense the feelings of the dead.

Lin’s book is among the new Westerns that explore the lives of Chinese Americans and immigrants, who have largely been omitted from the cultural history of the West. Chinese immigrants made up to 90 percent of the work force on the Central Pacific railroad line, but they were often exploited and denigrated, and were later banned from gaining citizenship by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

Jenny Tinghui Zhang, a Chinese American writer from Austin, set her forthcoming debut novel, “Four Treasures of the Sky,” against the backdrop of the Exclusion Act. It follows a girl named Daiyu who is kidnapped from China in the 1880s and taken to the American frontier, where she tries to find a place in the face of anti-Chinese sentiment and violence against immigrants.

“We’re beginning to question a lot of the foundational, overly simplistic mythologies about the country, and the Western as a genre seems like a perfect vehicle to challenge those,” said C Pam Zhang, whose Booker Prize-nominated 2020 debut, “How Much of These Hills Is Gold,” is set during the Gold Rush in a fablelike version of the West where tigers roam.

Zhang, who grew up reading “Little House on the Prairie,” said she wanted to write a frontier adventure story that explored the loneliness of the immigrant experience, and the clash between civilization and wilderness. In “How Much of These Hills Is Gold,” two orphaned Chinese American siblings, one of them transgender, set out with a stolen horse in search of their fortune and a burial place for their father.

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