David Wong Louie, an American writer who drew on his experiences as the son of Chinese immigrants to create stories that explored identity, alienation and acceptance, died Sept. 19 at his home in Venice, Calif. He was 63.
The cause was throat cancer, for which he was treated for years, said his friend Stephen Mills.
Mr. Louie published only one novel, “The Barbarians Are Coming” (2000), and one short story collection, “Pangs of Love” (1991), but his work won awards and acclaim.
“It must be said right off that Louie is the furthest thing from a genre ethnic writer,” critic Richard Eder wrote in a review of “Pangs of Love” in The Los Angeles Times in 1991. “He is elegant, funny, a touch spooky, and has as fine a hair-trigger control of alienation and absurdity as any of the best of his generation.”
Mr. Louie’s work influenced younger writers, like Viet Thanh Nguyen, the Vietnamese-American author who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2016 for his novel “The Sympathizer.”
“His stories read now as if they were written yesterday,” Nguyen wrote in a foreword for a forthcoming edition of “Pangs of Love” published by University of Washington Press. “They remain powerful, moving, relevant, urgent, and they persist in that way because of the author’s imagination, his capacity to tell a story, his wit and humor.”
Language itself — the struggle to master a new one or the pointed rejection of a tongue, whether new or ancestral — was often a theme in Mr. Louie’s stories.
Mr. Louie also wrote of characters who resist their ethnic backgrounds. Sterling Lung, the protagonist of “The Barbarians Are Coming,” a Chinese-American chef who was trained in French cuisine but who is constantly asked to make Chinese food, rebels against his Chinese parents by marrying a Jewish woman instead of a woman in China named Yuk, chosen from afar by his parents.
“What did he expect?” Sterling thinks about his father. “I was born here, among the wolves. If he wanted a clone of himself, if he wanted Yuk for a child, he should’ve stayed in China.”
But Sterling’s marriage, born of passionate rebellion, becomes dutiful and cold, much like that of his parents.
Mr. Louie was born Dec. 20, 1954, to Henry and Yu Lan (Mok) Louie in Rockville Centre, N.Y., on Long Island. His father came to the United States from China in the 1940s, and his mother joined him in the 1950s. The family ran a laundry in East Meadow, N.Y., for most of Mr. Louie’s childhood.
He was one of the few Asian-Americans at East Meadow High School.
“A lot of Asian people, including myself, try to figure out who we are by trying on different guises,” Mr. Louie told The New York Times in a 1991 profile. “All my childhood friends were white, so I thought of myself as white almost. I’d tell myself, ‘Don’t think of your parents.’ ”
He graduated from high school in 1973, earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Vassar College in 1977, and a master’s in creative writing from the University of Iowa in 1981. He taught writing at the University of Iowa, Vassar, and colleges in the University of California system before settling at UCLA, where he also taught Asian-American studies, in 1992.
“Pangs of Love” won awards from The Los Angeles Times and the literary journal Ploughshares for best first book and was selected as a Notable Book of 1991 by The New York Times Book Review.
In 1990, Mr. Louie learned he had Hodgkin lymphoma, for which he was treated for two years.
His illnesses, his meticulous editing habits, and his decision not to write while classes were in session contributed to his relatively slim literary output, some of his colleagues said.
His first marriage, to Diane Hoberman, ended in divorce. In 1995, he married Jacklyn Kim, whom he leaves. He also leaves a son from his first marriage, Jules; a daughter from his second, Sogna; a sister, Marge Louie; and two brothers, George and Richard.
Food was a recurring theme in Mr. Louie’s work and a passion in his life, both to cook and consume. The throat cancer, which was first diagnosed in 2011, deprived him of solid food in his last years, an experience he described in his last published essay, which appeared in Harper’s in 2017.
In it Mr. Louie described a new, excruciating kind of alienation.
“I don’t remember how it feels to be in the presence of food and crave it, want to own it, or how it feels to know its pleasure and anticipate having that pleasure again,” he wrote. “I can’t relate to that kind of beauty anymore.”