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Asian American Literature: Leaving the Mosaic

Written by eastern writer on Tuesday, June 03, 2008

By Shirley Geok-lin Lim

U.S. novelist Henry James once noted that it takes a lot of history to produce the flowering of literature. In that light, the speed with which new Asian American literature is surfacing might be considered a form of encapsulated history, an enthusiastic response from mainstream U.S. literary circles to the belated appearance of Asian Americans on the U.S. consciousness. At the same time, it suggests that the task of evaluation is both urgent and complex.

Evaluation of a marginal yet emerging and rapidly transforming tradition should avoid definitive criteria drawn from different literary traditions. This does not imply that evaluation is not useful or possible. On the contrary, because emerging literatures are more conflict-situated, provisional and transitory, they must incorporate their own self-reflexive, interrogative, critical discourses -- in other words, a self-evaluation.

A survey of the publishers' lists on Asian American writing shows that in the 1990s, this discipline became, to use a colloquial phrase, a "hot property." Its popularity in the early days of the new century can be generally linked to the success of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, to such African American authors as W.E.B. Du Bois of the early 20th century and Toni Morrison of more recent vintage, winner of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1994. Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior (1978), the first Asian American work to receive wide acclaim, and Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club (1989), which established that writer as a best-selling author, have given rise to other writers whose works are of such a range of appeal as to be found in supermarkets and college bookstores alike.

Scholarly and popular interest in Asian American literature is of recent vintage, finding its direct roots in student activism at San Francisco State and the University of California at Berkeley, among other places in the United States in the late 1960s, that led to the creation of interdisciplinary ethnic studies programs. Today, courses in Asian American literature are common throughout U.S. higher education. As a result, this body of writing has expanded not only in visibility, but also -- more significantly -- in achievement.

Journals such as Bridge in New York City, and Amerasia, created at the University of California at Los Angeles, were vital forces in increasing awareness of selected Asian American writers. This interest, which intensified in the last two decades among mainstream U.S. readers and publishing houses, has brought with it renewed opportunities and, ironically, a crisis of representation. One sign of this crisis is the internal debate that swirls around efforts to define a "canon" of texts -- a list of the best or most significant writing -- and to agree upon a fixed curriculum. In that regard, as discussions revolve around provisionality and temporality, Asian American literature is a particularly shifting, oft-contested field.

How, at the outset, does one define the boundaries of Asian American literature? Three early anthologies, Asian-American Authors (1972), Asian-American Heritage (1974) and Aiiieeeee! (1975), suggested that the "melting pot" paradigm was inadequate to an understanding of Asian American cultural identity. At the same time, influenced by the 1960s black civil rights movement, the editors of Aiiieeeee! -- who later published plays, novels, short stories and poetry -- argued that Asian American "sensibility" was an American phenomenon distinctively different from and unrelated to Asian cultural sources. But this point of view evaporated over the years, in the face of increased Asian immigration during the last quarter of the 20th century.

Thanks to that influx, the Asian percentage of the U.S. population has increased from 0.5 percent to more than three percent. Interestingly, Aiiieeeee! focused only on Chinese and Japanese-American authors, almost all of them male. By comparison, in the 25 years since the groundbreaking anthology appeared, U.S. bookstores have been filled with the works of Americans of Filipino, Malaysian, Indian, Pakistani, Vietnamese, Korean and other descents, with women widely and notably represented.

Usually, Asian American literature has been assessed by reviewers and critics from the single perspective of race. In other words, the literature is read as centered on the identity position of Americans of Asian descent and within the context of Asian American immigration histories and legislative struggles against unjust policies and racial violence. The truth is that different immigration histories of national-origin communities give rise to writings reflective of cross-generational concerns and styles. Chinese-language poems written by immigrant Chinese on the barracks walls of Angel Island (the site of immigrants' arrivals on the U.S. West Coast) between 1910 and 1940, and Issei (first-generation Japanese American) tankas (Japanese verse form) have been translated. Each has added to the archival "canon" of Asian American literature. The stories and essays of Edith Eaton (Mrs. Spring Fragrance, 1910), who took the pen name of Sui Sin Far to signify her adoption of the Chinese half of her ancestry, focused on the problems facing Chinese and those of "mixed race," or as she calls them "Eurasians," in the United States of the early 20th-century. Carlos Bulosan's America Is in the Heart (1946) follows a Filipino immigrant as he and other migrant workers struggle for social justice and acceptance. Each is part of the Asian American tradition.

In the period before the burst of new writing of the postwar era and even later, memoirs were the favored genre with immigrant and first-generation writers. (This is true of other ethnic literature as well.) Younghill Kang's The Grass Roof (1931), Pardee Lowe's Father and Glorious Descendant (1943), and Jade Snow Wong's Fifth Chinese Daughter (1950) satisfied a mainstream audience's curiosity about the strangers in its midst. Indeed, Japanese American World War II internment experiences were a major subject for memoirs and autobiographical poetry across the postwar decades, as reflected in Monica Sone's Nisei Daughter (1956), Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston's Farewell to Manzanar (1973), and Mitsuye Yamada's poems in Desert Run (1988).

But the Asian American writing communities were far from limited to one era and venue, and to one discipline of literature. Writers communicated, and continue to communicate, across a range of genres -- including fiction, poetry, drama and oral history.

The first novel published by a U.S.-born Japanese American (or Nisei) was John Okada's No No Boy (1957), one year after Chinese American Diana Chang's The Frontiers of Love received respectful attention. The swift pace of literary production since then indicates that the trajectory of the Asian American literary tradition is still in formation -- imaginatively so.

The range of achievement in recent years is quite impressive. After the awards garnered by Kingston's The Woman Warrior, other Asian American works found welcome readers and audiences. Cathy Song's novel Picture Bride and Garrett Hongo's collection of verse, The River of Heaven, helped solidify the reputation of the Asian American writing community in the 1980s, as did M. Butterfly, David Henry Hwang's startling theatrical piece, and Philip K. Gotanda's drama, The Wash.

As Tan emerged with The Joy Luck Club and Kingston continued her rise with Tripmaster Monkey (1989), other writers like Bharati Mukherjee (Jasmine) came to the fore. Debut novels by Chinese American Gish Jen (Typical American), Korean American Chang-rae Lee (Native Speaker) and Vietnamese American Lan Cao (Monkey Bridge) all were warmly received. In 1999, Chinese American writer Ha Jin won the National Book Award for Waiting, his first novel, set against the backdrop of the Cultural Revolution. In short fiction, such writers as David Wong Louie (Pangs of Love, and Other Stories 1991), Wakako Yamauchi (Songs My Mother Taught Me, 1994) and Lan Samantha Chang (Hunger, 1998) have been similarly acclaimed.

This range of achievement speaks to the diversity of thematic concerns in Asian American literature that parallels contemporary Asian American heterogeneity. Asian American works are not situated in, nor do they contribute to, a cohesive and united tradition. Rather, certain cultural elements appear to be shared by authors from varying histories and origins. Similar concerns may be seen to arise from a particular East Asian world view, from patriarchal constructions of kinship and gender, and from shared experiences of struggle and isolation in the new world of the United States. And yet, no single tradition underlies the variant strategies and techniques that characterize the achievement of Asian American literature.

The fact is that heterogeneous representations -- in literature as in society -- help to overturn the stereotype of "inscrutable" Asian Americans. (When Filipina-American Jessica Hagedorn titled her recent anthology of Asian American literature Charlie Chan Is Dead, there was more than a touch of irony in this reference to the heroic, yet stereotypical Asian American detective protagonist in the 1930s era novels of Anglo-American writer Earl Derr Biggers and their film adaptations.)

Until recently, Asian American studies accepted a limited psychosocial notion of the stereotype. Psychologists such as Stanley Sue argued that Euro-Americans historically justified their discrimination against Asian Americans on popular prejudices that denigrated immigrants as inferior, diseased, and unwelcome. This unfortunate 19th-century negative stereotype has given way in our day to a positive stereotype of the Asian American as educated, hard-working and successful, a model minority, a depiction that is finding a growing presence in literature as well, even as it is the subject of continued debate within the community.

Another theme, operating alongside race analysis, is gender analysis, with many works recounting Asian American women's struggles against traditional patriarchal attitudes. Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior is one example -- a complex series of narratives about growing up in a community structured along gender and race lines.

As in most traditional societies, gender roles in Asian American communities have tended to be fixed and communally scrutinized. The tensions these strictures have caused surfaced over the past decade in such anthologies of Asian American writing as Home to Stay (1990) and Our Feet Walk the Sky (1993). Generally, the high esteem centering on male children brought loftier economic and social expectation of sons. Daughters were expected to marry and to become part of their husbands' households. Indeed, the dominant view throughout East Asian societies was that women were subject first to fathers, then to husbands, and then -- if widowed -- to their sons.

Immigration to the United States, a society in which male and female roles are more fluidly and more freely defined, put traditional social values under stress. It follows that this development has affected literature. The works of the younger generation, such as Gish Jen's Mona in the Promised Land (1996) and Vietnamese-American writer Lan Cao's Monkey Bridge (1997), express the confusions arising from the gap between their desires for self-reliance and individual happiness and their immigrant mothers' expectations. But even at an earlier date, just after World War II, Jade Snow Wong and Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston, in writing about growing up female, had made similar reflections about gender bias in their families.

It is true, of course, that gender roles often are presented as a function of culture. South Asian American women writers such as Bharati Mukherjee and Bapsi Sidhwa (An American Brat, 1994) have focused on the cross-cultural tensions that arise when crossing national borders. Asian American male characters face a crisis in understanding the significance of manhood -- in books such as Louie's Pangs of Love and Gus Lee's China Boy (1991). In love or in the family unit, therefore, Asian Americans have had to negotiate conflicting ideals of male and female identities.

Another major theme in Asian American writing is the relationship between parents and children. This, too, has an historical and social underpinning. In years past, because of the language barriers that faced immigrant Asian Americans, the point of view of the American-born, second-generation Asian American sons and daughters usually prevailed in their literature. As early as 1943, Lowe's autobiography, Father and Glorious Descendant, gave U.S. readers the character of a dominant father within a strong, cohesive ethnic community.

While second-generation children often reject their parents' social expectations, immigrant parents are not simply flat representations of static societies. They are also individuals who had broken away from their original communities in moving to the United States. As a result, the U.S.-born Asian American writers portray complex parental characters who are themselves double figures. Works by Yamamoto and Yamauchi depict mother-daughter relationships that are prone to conflict and tensions that are not only familial, but also gender-based. Lan Samantha Chang's evocative short stories in Hunger further exemplify such writing.

Parent-child relationships are not merely signified as a set of themes but also as patterns of narrative strategies -- points of view, plots, characters, voices and language choices. Who the center of consciousness is in the poem or story affects the flow of identity for the reader. The range of voices and tones given to the speakers tells us whether the parents are non-English-speaking immigrants or bilingual speakers, and whether or not the children differ vastly from their parents in cultural attitudes and values. What is seldom in doubt is the central significance of the parent-child relationship in these works, illuminating the primary social role that families play in Asian American communities.

Some of these works are also pegged to regions. For example, the narratives of Okada, Toshio Mori and Kingston are set specifically in enclaves on the U.S. West Coast, while Louis Chu's Eat a Bowl of Tea (1961) takes place in New York City's Chinatown, a continent away. Works emanating from Hawaii, such as Milton Murayama's novel All I Asking for Is My Body (1975), and Lois-Ann Yamanaka's poems and fictions in Saturday Night at the Pahala Theatre (1993) and Blu's Hanging (1998), express a strong island identity and use English registers and dialect resources specific to Hawaiian colloquialism. Similar island-identified themes and stylistic registers are evident in anthologies and titles published by Hawaii's Bamboo Ridge Press.

Invariably, there has been a move toward postmodernist techniques present as well in recent years. Works by younger contemporary authors, such as novelist Cynthia Kadohata's In the Valley of the Heart (1993) and the dramas of playwrights Hwang and Gotanda match Kingston's tour-de-force novel Tripmaster Monkey (1989). They experiment with such on-the-edge techniques as parody, irony and pastiche to challenge the interlocking categories of race, class and gender, and to include sexual identity as one of the central themes of identity. Using similar techniques, Jessica Hagedorn's Dogeaters (1990), set in the Philippines, critiques historical U.S. colonialism and the Marcos regime while celebrating Filipino cultural fusions.

Single-genre anthologies offer a wide spectrum of styles and voices. The Open Boat (1993) and Premonitions (1995) indicate new directions in poetry. Charlie Chan Is Dead (1993) and Into the Fire (1996) introduce readers to recent fiction. And two 1993 anthologies, The Politics of Life and Unbroken Thread, record what is happening in drama. There is a healthy heterogeneity evident as well in recent anthologies focusing on individual national origins, such as Living In America (1995), the reflections of South Asian Americans, and Watermark (1998), a collection of writings by Vietnamese Americans, as well as a newly-published volume, Southeast Asian American Writing: Tilting the Continent (2000). And certainly there is a rich variety of communal identities, genres and styles to be found in recent general anthologies, including Shawn Wong's Asian American Literature (1996).

Taken together, the goal of these anthologies is to provide satisfactory access to the provocative, challenging and original works produced in the last century. Striking a balance between well-known, acclaimed works and newer writing, the selections typically reflect considerations of both historical and thematic significance and literary quality, a criterion that often is the subject of healthy and vociferous debate. Together, though, the diversity of styles, genres, and voices testifies to the vitality of Asian American writing.

Ultimately, this diversity has, at its core, transnationalism -- a global movement of cultures, people and capital. This new phenomenon has caused writers to create new identities for people -- and for themselves. The Asian American rubric is a melange of emigres, refugees, exiles and immigrants who have been coming to the United States for decades, continuing to write and be published here. Until recently, though, a number had maintained their identities of origin and even had returned to their native lands later in life. An example is the well-known Chinese writer and Columbia University scholar Lin Yu-Tang, who returned to Taiwan after his retirement from teaching. Despite having written a novel set in the United States, Chinatown Family, a half-century ago, he has not been classified as an Asian American author.

Today, clearly, these national identity borders are viewed as more porous, a result of and contributing factor toward a globalization of cultures and of the world's economies under the forces of free market operations, paralleled by a shift toward a greater transnational construction of U.S. identity. Émigré, migrant or transnational writers such as Korean Americans Chang-rae Lee and Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Indonesian American Li-Young Lee, Malaysian American Shirley Geok-lin Lim, South Asian Americans Meena Alexander, Chitra Davakaruni and Bapsi Sidhwa - as well as Hagedorn and Cao - are constructing strikingly new American identities that contrast sharply with, for example, the Eurocentric model of capitalism in its early stages that J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur described more than 200 years ago in his Letters from an American Farmer (1782). The transnational identities of the 21st century emerge, by contrast, at a moment of capitalism in its maturity, and are dependent upon global exchanges.

The novels of Lee, Cao and Jin require consciousness of bicultural, binational aesthetics and linguistic formation. The fictions of Jin (who arrived in the United States in 1985), for example, set in China of the past 30 years, while new, are different from the newness of U.S.-born writers such as Kingston, whose attempts to recover an ethnic history result in explorations of reverse migrations, from the United States to a China she had never seen.

In reading Asian American literature, then, we are reminded that critics and teachers must mediate between new texts and historically constructed U.S. literary traditions, between social locations and literary identities of the communities for and to which the texts are speaking. Together, recent works of Asian American authors -- transnational, immigrant and native Americans alike -- underscore the phenomenon of rapid publication and the continuous reinvention of Asian American cultural identity. In deliberately placing these writers of varied origins together, the growing canon of Asian American writing suggests a collective set of new American identities that are flexibly transnational and multicultural and that help leaven the multinational mosaic that has historically shaped the United States.


Shirley Geok-lin Lim, currently on a leave of absence from her professorship at the University of California at Santa Barbara, is serving as chair professor of English at the University of Hong Kong.


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