Bilingualism is an integral element of the lives and experiences of Asian Americans as well as a condition, theme, and style of a large and diverse body of Asian American writings. The history of Asian immigration, U.S. imperialism, and anti-Asian laws and policies all contributed to creating the material conditions for the linguistic environment of Asians in the United States. Whether the strictures of Asian exclusion, which severely limited immigrants’ access to English, or the stigmatization of the Japanese language during the Pacific War, social and cultural hostility to bilingualism was common. Despite such hostility, this literature of exclusion and incarceration reflects vibrant language-worlds in which writings in the language of the immigrant’s origin, as well as transliteration and translation of Asian languages into English, suggest the formal creativeness and psychological resilience of Asian Americans who navigated life in two languages. U.S. imperialism in the Philippines promoted English as the language of colonial bureaucracy and opportunities in the islands while also giving rise to literature in English as part of Filipino literature. Filipino diasporic writers note the power and prestige of English while being cognizant of the colonial origins of English in the Philippines. In a climate where bilingualism is regulated not by exclusionary laws and policies but by social and cultural forces, post-1965 Asian American literature explores the persistence of Asian non-belonging in English, with tropes of the mother tongue and the psychology of language loss recurring in its exploration of citizenship and assimilation. Asian American writers from Hawai‘i provide a distinctive postcolonial outlook, resisting assimilation into English through the use of Pidgin. As a rich and innovative literary language, Pidgin captures the experiences of Hawai‘ians excluded from the privileges of whiteness. The broader literary apparatuses of American literature also significantly conditioned bilingualism. American literary modernism’s Orientalism valorized Asian languages but employed limited and fixed ideas of the Other. The global dominance of English as a literary language has become a backdrop for new experiments with bilingualism in Asian American literature and new models of writing in English by Asian diasporic writers.
Several 19th-century Californio testimonios are the product of interviews of Californio men and women made by H. H. Bancroft’s agents, looking for historical information that would be incorporated in what became, in time, Bancroft’s History of California. In their narratives, Californio informants discuss the 19th-century political and economic periods, with particular interest in the periods of Spanish, Mexican, and US colonization, which brought the dispossession and exploitation of indigenous people in California. These testimonios offer information on the treatment of the Indians within the mission, and their demise after close contact with missionaries and settlers. The role of missionaries in the colonization is also examined—the secularization of mission lands, the pastoral economy dominant in Alta California, and the subsequent dispossession of the Californios after 1848 by the Land Act of 1851, incoming US settlers and squatters, and land speculators. The testimonios offer a first-person account of numerous events, problems, and conflicts in Alta California during the 19th century.
The 19th century featured two opposed yet interconnected historical trends: the growth of a multigenerational and deeply rooted Chinese American community; and the development of the cultural prejudices and fears comprised by the Yellow Peril narrative. Those xenophobic fears produced violence, social and political movements, and legal exclusions, culminating in the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and its many follow-up laws and policies, all designed as much to destroy the existing Chinese American community as to restrict future immigration. But out of that period of exclusion and oppression came some of the first Chinese American literary and cultural works published in both Mandarin/Cantonese and English: the personal and collective poems carved into the walls of the Angel Island Immigration Station by detainees; auto-ethnographic memoirs of Chinese American life and community such as Yung Wing’s My Life in China and America (1909); and the journalistic, autobiographical, and fictional works of Edith Maude Eaton/Sui Sin Far, the first Chinese American professional creative writer. These works both reflect and transcend the realities of the Exclusion era, helping contemporary audiences understand those histories, connect them to later Chinese American writers, and analyze the exclusionary debates and proposals of the early 21st century.
Julia H. Lee
Comparative African American and Asian American literary studies traces the diverse (if uneven) ways that African American and Asian American authors have explored the relationship between the two groups and delves into the histories and the politics behind these interracial representations. The literature ranges from the polemical to the fantastic, from the realist to the postmodern, and from the formally innovative to the generically conventional. While some may assume that the politics behind such representations are either coalitional or conflictual in nature, the literature is highly ecumenical, including narratives that engage in Orientalism and/or Negrophobia, Third World rhetoric, postcolonial critique, and political radicalism. African Americans have long been interested in Asia as a potential site for resistance to American racism and empire, while Asian American authors have looked to the experiences of black Americans to understand their own experiences of racism within the United States. Despite the fact that there is a long-established tradition of Afro-Asian literary representation, literary criticism has only taken up a sustained and in-depth study of this topic within the past two decades. Afro-Asian literary studies is part of a late-20th-century “comparative turn” within US-based race studies, which goes along with the increasing transnational/diasporic orientation of formerly nation- or area-based disciplines.
Asian American literature has capaciously explored the issues of gender, sexuality, and reproduction that have been so foundational to Asian American racial formation. It has likewise engaged, directly or indirectly, with “eugenics,” a pseudoscience by which nation states sought to improve their populations through managing reproduction. Eugenics, a term coined by Charles Darwin’s cousin Sir Francis Galton in 1883, spans the late 19th to the early 21st centuries, where it continues in the form of population control and the “new” eugenics of genetic and reproductive technologies. In some national sites eugenics was aligned with feminist movements for birth control, whereas in others, such as the United States, they were largely opposed. Nonetheless, eugenic feminists argued that women’s right reproduction was the necessary mechanism by which women should gain rights within the state; as a formation, moreover, eugenic feminism specifically targeted Asian American women as standing in the way of US feminist advance. As such, one of the key ways eugenics was practiced in the United States in relationship to Asian populations was through immigration policy. The history of Asian exclusion in the United States therefore speaks to a larger eugenic project predicated on the notion that Asian immigrants embodied a public health threat in terms of diseases and deviant sexualities of various sorts. The 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act opened up Asian immigration to the United States and also gave rise to a new set of stereotypes, gendered and otherwise, about Asian Americans as model minorities. Asian American literature has critically mined these issues, with some Asian American literature acceding to eugenics by stressing an assimilationist politics and with other works challenging it by critiquing eugenics’ reproductive logic of purity.
Asian American literature and art have had an illuminating effect on the significance of human rights in the United States and in national culture. Americans are often assumed to enjoy exceptional liberties and rights, which they seek in turn to deliver to other people, in other parts of the world. However, Asian American cultural critique provides an incisive perspective on the limits of citizenship and national belonging as the basis for the granting of fundamental human freedoms, rights, and protections to all persons. The legal exclusion of Asians from immigration and naturalization, as well as from other forms of social and economic security such as property ownership, has long been justified through the construction of Asian racial difference. Reforms in immigration law after World War II, which did eventually transform Asian American life in the United States, took place in the context of a “global Cold War,” and during the same period that saw the institution of an international human rights regime. “Integration” proved as essential a mandate in US domestic and foreign policy as did “containment” in this global conflict. As a result, not only has the Asian American population grown significantly and become more heterogeneous since the late 20th century, the nation has seen the flourishing of Asian American literary and cultural production. Asian American writers and artists have been especially keen to investigate the political, legal, and ideological tensions and contradictions that pervade the postsocialist world and the war on terror. Their works explore the political precarity faced by those caught between the contradictions of neoliberal multiculturalism, the logics and technologies of state security, and the legal tethering of human rights to citizenship.
Audrey Wu Clark
In her pathbreaking book Asian American Panethnicity (1992), Yen Le Espiritu traces Asian American panethnicity to the Yellow Power movement of the civil rights era of the 1960s. Thereafter the political struggles of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Indian, and Filipino Americans were documented in literature and studied in literary anthologies such as Frank Chin et al.’s Aiiieeeee! (1974) and David Hsin-Fu Wand’s Asian-American Heritage: An Anthology of Prose and Poetry (1974). However, early Asian American literature suggests that Asian American consciousness emerged earlier than the civil rights era. During the era of Chinese exclusion (1882–1943), Chinese American writers such as Lee Yan Phou, Sui Sin Far, and Onoto Watanna—Sui Sin Far’s sister, who wrote under a Japanese pseudonym—wrote about Chinese American and Japanese American experiences. The subsequent era of Japanese exclusion (1907–1945) brought about the modernist haiku poetry of Japanese American writers Yone Noguchi and Sadakichi Hartmann. Nevertheless, it wasn’t until the Popular Front era of the 1930s that various forms of panethnic and queer Asian American political consciousness emerged in the literature of Korean American writer Younghill Kang, Filipino American writers Carlos Bulosan (who mentions Kang in his novel, America Is In the Heart) and José García Villa, and Chinese American writer H. T. Tsiang.
The politically progressive Popular Front of the 1930s, together with the influence of experimental literary forms of high modernism from just a decade before, set the stage for the Asian American panethnicity and queer consciousness that are described in the works of Kang and Bulosan, and Villa and Tsiang, respectively. Kang’s autobiographical novels The Grass Roof (1931) and East Goes West: The Making of an Oriental Yankee (1937) and Bulosan’s novel, America Is in the Heart (1943) exhibit important thematic influences by T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Likewise, Villa’s Have Come, Am Here (1942) and Tsiang’s novels The Hanging on Union Square (1935) and And China Has Hands (1937) demonstrate the influence of queer modernist Gertrude Stein. Just a few decades earlier, Yone Noguchi and Sadakichi Hartmann were both writing modernist haikus that responded to those of their friend Ezra Pound. However, without the language of political solidarity that the Popular Front provided, Noguchi’s and Hartmann’s politics, implicit in their poetry, remained overlooked by critics until the 1990s.
Amy C. Tang
The repetition and reframing of styles, forms, and texts variously known as pastiche, parody, intertextuality, appropriation, or sampling is a pervasive practice in Asian American literature. Since the emergence of Asian American literary studies in the 1970s, such strategies have formed a key site for negotiating the terms of Asian American identity, politics, and culture. While pastiche has been recognized as a signature style of postmodern culture at large, it has held particular significance for Asian American literary and cultural studies because of its resonance with Asian American identity. Because Asian Americans have long been stereotyped as mimics of Western culture, and because the category Asian American refers to a coalition of multiple and diverse ethnic groups, Asian American identity itself seems constituted by the formal operations of imitation and recombination central to parody and pastiche. The close alignment between Asian American identity and these formal practices has made shifting critical attitudes toward parody, pastiche, and intertextuality into a telling register of evolving conceptions of Asian American identity. In the cultural nationalist era of the 1970s, pastiche was seen as the formal expression of Asian Americans’ tendency to repeat and reproduce dominant ideologies, a sign of complicity with white racism, and a lack of cultural integrity. By contrast, a second wave of Asian American criticism in the 1990s embraced strategies of textual repetition as subversive parody rather than complicit pastiche, reinterpreting them as articulations of a politically oppositional, hybrid and heterogeneous Asian American subject. Since the turn of the millennium, the use of parody, pastiche, and intertextuality in Viet Nguyen’s prize-winning 2015 novel The Sympathizer intimates yet another iteration of Asian American identity centered on the war refugee, a model of Asian American subjectivity which shifts attention from traditional topics of immigration and assimilation to urgent questions of imperialism and militarism. Taken together, these examples demonstrate how the formal strategies of parody, pastiche, and intertextuality have served as crucial sites for the invention and reinvention of Asian American identity, politics, and aesthetics.
Ju Yon Kim
The term “performance” covers expansive ground: it can suggest theatrical presentation, the demonstration of ability, or the execution of a task. Theories of performance variously emphasize one understanding over others or put multiple conceptions into play. For example, because performance encompasses both theater and “performativity,” or the efficacy of declarations and reiterated acts, the relationship between these distinct kinds of performance has been the subject of fruitful scholarly debate. Yet however elastic the term might be, the field of performance studies has coalesced around questions of embodiment, identification, presence, repetitions, and cultural transmission.
Asian American literature and culture similarly encompasses a wide range of works, but it shares with performance theory an interest in embodiment, identification, and cultural transmission, especially in relation to issues of race and nation. Studies of Asian American literature and culture have moreover turned to performance as an analytic framework and object, emphasizing theatrical models of social interaction, the relationship between performance and performativity, and the potential to respond to the forces of racialization, colonization, and assimilation through various kinds of performances. Although juxtaposing performance theory and literature might seem to run counter to the critical distinction between text and embodiment underscored by academic fields such as performance studies, works of Asian American literature evince an affinity with theories of performance in dramatizing the tension between text and embodiment, particularly in efforts to capture the voices of “Asian America” in accents, dialects, and pidgin. On the stage, productions have taken advantage of the distinct possibilities afforded by performance to explore the complexities of identification, kinship, and memory in the context of migration and racial marginalization.
Martin Joseph Ponce
The materialist methodology known as queer of color critique investigates the ways that racialized subjects are positioned outside the gender and sexual norms of the US nation through the contradictory demands and desires of capitalism, labor, migration, and the state. According to Roderick Ferguson’s influential account in Aberrations in Black: Toward a Queer of Color Critique (2004), capital recruits and exploits racialized labor whose surplus urban and agricultural social formations are in turn constituted by state institutions and academic disciplines as aberrant and deviant to ensure national-cultural purity and white dominance. Construing “queer” in this broad sense has proven useful for examining how Asian North American racialization is predicated on ascriptions of gender and sexual nonnormativity—from the Chinese prostitute of the late 19th century, to the hypersexual Filipino menace of the 1920s, to the Asian butterfly/dragon lady dichotomy across the 20th century and into the 21st. When this interdisciplinary approach converges with literary studies, however, it leaves unaddressed the relationships between racialized heterosexual deviancies as inscribed on the one hand, in legal, sociological, and popular culture discourses, and on the other, in literary representations that thematize same-sex desires and gender-nonconforming embodiments produced by Asian North American writers themselves.
Queer of color critique’s biopolitical approach to sexuality as organized along lines of valuation and devaluation—the enhancement of life, and the targeting for death—provides a capacious analytic for apprehending these two meanings of “queer” (state-imposed racial otherness and reclaimed cultural representation) within the same frame. To render those comparisons visible for critical analysis requires recovering Asian North American lesbian contributions to women of color feminism of the 1970s and 80s, which scholars have posited as queer of color critique’s theoretical and political precursor, and reading subsequent queer texts in light of those interventions. Poet-activists Kitty Tsui and Merle Woo reconfigure the category of “lesbian” to accommodate Asian American subject positions and kinship relations, construct cross-racial solidarities, and express racialized eroticisms. Shani Mootoo’s novel Cereus Blooms at Night (1996) provides a complex instance in which same-sex female eroticism and trans subjectivities are portrayed but also eclipsed by or made subservient to nonnormative heterosexualities. Kai Cheng Thom’s poetry collection a place called No Homeland (2017) and Elaine Castillo’s novel America Is Not the Heart (2018) center trans and queer women’s experiences, respectively. For queer of color critique to fulfill its cross-racial comparative potential, queer and trans Asian North American women’s literature must be incorporated as a vital part of the conversation.