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.
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.
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.
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.
From the countryside to the city, from the city to foreign lands, people who challenge heteronormative notions of gender and sexual practices have left their place of origin in search for freedom of expression for ages. Despite this, it was only in the late 1980s to early 1990s that migration studies scholars started to look at the role of sexuality within migratory patterns, probably due to historical facts such as the civil rights movements, new trends within feminism (i.e., Third World feminism), the birth of fields that spur on intersectional approaches (such as cultural and LGBTQ studies), and most importantly, the AIDS pandemic and the way it “traveled” around the world, particularly affecting sexual and racial minorities.
Whereas exile is often understood as a legal or political category, sexile may come detached from official institutions and yet still imply an individual’s undesired uprooting from his or her nation state. Building on the scholarship of David William Foster, Arnaldo Cruz-Malavé, José Quiroga, and others, Puerto Rican academic and author Lawrence La Fountain-Stokes was the first to put into circulation the implications of sexual practices and identities for migratory patterns within Latin American literary studies. But it was Puerto Rican sociologist Manolo Guzmán who coined the neologism “sexile” to refer to emigration caused by one’s sexual orientation.
While the practice is, in a sense, a timeless and global phenomenon, it is more common for residents of the Caribbean due to the region’s colonial history. The effects of extended colonialism and its constant cultural contact with previous colonizing empires, as well as neocolonialist socio-economic structures in place at present and common to the geographical zone as a whole, make its development differ from that of other Latin American countries, which obtained independence in the early 19th century. Thus, many of its inhabitants look to move to places such as the United States or Spain, which have commonly influenced their sexual imaginaries, seeking a friendlier environment than that of a region contestably referred to as one of the most homophobic places on earth.
Julie Buckner Armstrong
Southern literature provides numerous, diverse responses to the civil rights era. Produced during the movement itself and continuing into the 21st century, southern civil rights writing appears as poetry, drama, memoir, graphic narrative, short stories, and novels, including literary fiction and bestsellers. Movement-related works commemorate events, places, and people both famous and unknown. Authors speak of political awakening to systemic racism and violence. They consider the effectiveness of organizing tactics and the ethical implications of resistance strategies. They write compellingly about the ways segregation, protest, race relations, and sweeping social changes affect individuals and their relationships. Southern literature also exists in complex relationship to the civil rights era due in part to both terms’ fluid, evolving definitions. “Southern literature” can refer to works written in and about the American South, yet both of these categories remain more dynamic than static. The South is demarcated geographically as the United States’ southeastern and south central tier and historically as a region with ties to the former Confederacy. The South’s vexed legacy of slavery and segregation plays a role in defining a regional identity that some consider to be distinctive in terms of dialect, food culture, and an emphasis on conservative views of family, community, religion, place, and history. Many scholars, however, see constructions of a distinct southern identity with an accompanying literature as outmoded, particularly in an era of shifting demographics within the US and globalization more broadly. Like “southern literature,” the “civil rights era” resists rigid definition. The movement itself can refer to the period from the US Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision desegregating public schools to the 1965 Voting Rights Act—an era focused on specific civil rights leadership, goals, and, notably, the American South. Alternatively, one can define the movement more comprehensively to look at what happened before and after “the King years,” referring to the period’s iconic figure Martin Luther King Jr. This version of civil rights extends the movement to points North and West, includes Black Power (typically focused on the late 1960s and early 1970s), and links it to contemporaneous human rights and post-colonial struggles. Authors from the American South respond to this broader story by connecting the movement to issues such as immigration; policing and incarceration; economic and environmental justice; and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights. Here writers depict a dynamic, multifaceted South that continues striving to transform political ideals into realities.
(East and Southeast) Asian Canadian literature has consistently been preoccupied with the transpacific: from its lived spaces, its imagined ones, and its hybrid literary constructions. This body of literature includes narratives of arrival, autobiographical texts, historiographic novels, magical realist fiction, and experimental poetry. While these texts have usually been read through historical frameworks, thinking through them spatially enables us to understand and trace the alternate geographies of mobility, belonging, and cultural change beyond the project of the Canadian nation. These texts are predicated on transnational spaces of commerce and labor, trauma and resistance, refuge and liminality, and mobility and materiality. They reflect and produce the complex and overlapping trajectories of communities and individuals from East and Southeast Asia. From fictions of Chinatown to testimonies of racist dispersal and exclusion, refugee narratives to speculative decolonial futures, Asian Canadian literature has shaped both rural and urban Canadian spaces and their transnational and local textures. Thinking through the transpacific spaces in the literature points to the ways in which racist and exclusionary policies have shaped the landscapes and social spaces of the nation whether through immigration laws or forcible dispossession and internment. Yet, it also gives rise to the possibilities of new collectivities and communities within and beyond the nation-state. In the face of unequal globalization and movements of labor and capital, this mode of analysis points to possible indigenous and diasporic solidarities and place-making. Contemporary texts from Asian Canadian writers also evince a consciousness of Canadian bioregions and the confrontation of extraction economics that allows for a discussion of intersectionality in the context of environmental humanities and ecocriticism.
The social and political conditions actuated by 9/11 have been a major catalyst for new literature, television and film about South Asians and Muslims in America. Stemming from a 2001 speech by then president George W. Bush, the concept of the “War on Terror” has served to rationalize the domestic regulation of Muslims, while also validating the need for US imperialist and capitalist expansion. Where US government discourse highlights first-person narratives that figure America as a benevolent global protector of freedom and democracy, South Asian American fictional and non-fictional narratives posit critiques of Islamophobia and the US security state. Spanning a breadth of genres and styles, including the paradigmatic 9/11 novel, the bildungsroman, comedic satire, dramatic monologue, magic realism, documentary film, and urban fiction, South Asian American literature and media highlight narratives of interfaith and cross-racial solidarity. The imaginary worlds of these texts confront the injustices of US imperialism and the global War on Terror for Muslim communities both in the United States and abroad. At the same, South Asian American representation engaged with the impacts of post-9/11 politics and society has enriched understanding of the complex lived experiences of Pakistani and Bangladeshi Americans, as well as those of Indian Americans who are Muslim or trace their ancestry to the Sikh-majority state of Punjab. By centering the perspectives of those communities most affected by detention, xenophobia, and surveillance, post-9/11 South Asian American literature and media reveal how the exigencies of history produce new forms of narrative and cultural practice.
The Cold War (defined here by the popular, though much-questioned, time frame of 1947–1991) coincides initially with a post-World War II wave of literature by Asian Americans as well as reforms affecting immigration numbers and national origins. Post-1965, further immigration reform and refugee admission led to a different wave of authors, which coincides in its turn with geopolitical shifts, including the ongoing massive conflicts and regime changes in Asia, that would ultimately lead to rapprochement and the generally accepted end of the Cold War around the late 1980s. Furthermore, these years coincide with the birth of pan-Asian American consciousness and political movements in the late 1960s and 1970s. Thus, there is an unsurprising plethora of literature from this era, as well as an increasing volume of literary criticism on it, though neither usually treats the geopolitical or domestic US concerns most commonly identified with the Cold War. Asian American literature and authors importantly fit the logic of the early Cold War by illustrating, as proto-model minorities, the blessings of life in America as a contrast to an increasingly Communist-identified Asia after the “loss” of China to Communism in 1949. Their identification with Confucian or other traditional ideals also made them role models for the domestic social containment that constrained middle-class America to conformity in the 1950s (though, of course, there were less mainstream narratives that combated this trend). However, both of these narratives shifted in the 1970s. From exemplary immigrants, Asian American literary depictions turned toward much more ambivalent and traumatized refugees, chiefly from Southeast Asia. Likewise, a generation of authors rebelling against the model minority image protested racial inequities in both a domestic and international framework. Linking nation and globe via Third World solidarity, later Cold War works and post-Cold War reflections on the period heavily critiqued the US military presence in Asia and reflected on the enduring traumas and difficulties of racialization for Asian Americans inextricably identified as foreign or Other. Calling for civil rights out of a re-narrated history of exclusion, incarceration, and discrimination, rather than appealing to the vague pluralism of the early Cold War, Asian American literature illustrates this era’s conflict through exemplars of containment and a more explicitly revolutionary and diverse set of works.