Harrod J. Suarez
What is the difference between studying an archipelago and studying archipelagically? As research in literary critical studies has shown, the difference is significant and what results from each profoundly distinct and possibly at odds with each other. If one approaches the archipelago as an empirical entity—that is, as a chain of islands—there has been the tendency to regard it as smaller and more isolated than other geographic formations, which then determines its marginalization even when working with the advent of transnational and postcolonial rubrics. On the other hand, if the archipelago, following Édouard Glissant and others, is conceptualized as a mode of analysis, then studying different landscapes, histories, narratives, and cultures becomes an altogether different endeavor. Using such approaches to animate the relationship between Oceania and Asian American and Pacific Islander literary studies has been the focus of numerous critics working at the intersections of these and other fields. A controversy that received national media attention framed certain of the stakes involved in the effort to address Oceania, a moment of representational crisis that produced rich responses and galvanized efforts to deal rigorously with the field’s heterogeneity, hybridity, and multiplicity. The resulting epistemological pursuits seem to emphasize the need to study archipelagically, opening up new frameworks and problematics crucial for reimagining the place of Oceania in diverse fields.
Monica Chiu and Jeanette Roan
Asian American graphic narratives typically produce meaning through arrangements of images, words, and sequences, though some forgo words completely and others offer an imagined “before” and “after” within the confines of a single panel. Created by or featuring Asian Americans or Asians in a US or Canadian context, they have appeared in a broad spectrum of formats, including the familiar mainstream genre comics, such as superhero serials from DC or Marvel Comics; comic strips; self-published minicomics; and critically acclaimed, award-winning graphic novels. Some of these works have explicitly explored Asian American issues, such as anti-Asian racism, representations of history, questions of identity, and transnationalism; others may feature Asian or Asian American characters or settings without necessarily addressing established or familiar Asian American issues. Indeed, many works made by Asian American creators have little or no obvious or explicit Asian American content at all, and some non-Asian American creators have produced works with Asian American representations, including racist stereotypes and caricatures.
The earliest representations of Asians in comics form in the United States were racist representations in the popular press, generally in single-panel caricatures that participated in anti-immigration discourses. However, some Asian immigrants in the early to mid-20th century also used graphic narratives to show and critique the treatment of Asians in the United States. In the realm of mainstream genre comics, Asian Americans have participated in the industry in a variety of different ways. As employees for hire, they created many well-known series and characters, generally not drawing, writing, or editing content that is recognizably Asian American. Since the 2010s, though, Asian American creators have reimagined Asian or Asian American versions of legacy characters like Superman and the Hulk and created new heroes like Ms. Marvel. In the wake of an explosion of general and scholarly interest in graphic novels in the 1990s, many independent Asian American cartoonists have become significant presences in the contemporary graphic narrative world.
Christopher B. Patterson
Asian Americans have frequently been associated with video games. As designers they are considered overrepresented, and specific groups appear to dominate depictions of the game designer, from South Asian and Chinese immigrants working for Microsoft and Silicon Valley to auteur designers from Japan, Taiwan, and Iran, who often find themselves with celebrity status in both America and Asia. As players, Asian Americans have been depicted as e-sports fanatics whose association with video game expertise—particularly in games like Starcraft, League of Legends, and Counter-Strike—is similar to sport-driven associations of racial minorities: African Americans and basketball or Latin Americans and soccer. This immediate association of Asian Americans with gaming cultures breeds a particular form of techno-orientalism, defined by Greta A. Niu, David S. Roh, and Betsy Huang as “the phenomenon of imagining Asia and Asians in hypo- or hypertechnological terms in cultural productions and political discourse.” In sociology, Asian American Studies scholars have considered how these gaming cultures respond to a lack of acceptance in “real sports” and how Asian American youth have fostered alternative communities in PC rooms, arcades, and online forums. For still others, this association also acts as a gateway for non-Asians to enter a “digital Asia,” a space whose aesthetics and forms are firmly intertwined with Japanese gaming industries, thus allowing non-Asian subjects to inhabit “Asianness” as a form of virtual identity tourism.
From a game studies point of view, video games as transnational products using game-centered (ludic) forms of expression push scholars to think beyond the limits of Asian American Studies and subjectivity. Unlike films and novels, games do not rely upon representations of minority figures for players to identify with, but instead offer avatars to play with through styles of parody, burlesque, and drag. Games do not communicate through plot and narrative so much as through procedures, rules, and boundaries so that the “open world” of the game expresses political and social attitudes. Games are also not nationalized in the same way as films and literature, making “Asian American” themes nearly indecipherable. Games like Tetris carry no obvious national origins (Russian), while games like Call of Duty and Counter-Strike do not explicitly reveal or rely upon the ethnic identities of their Asian North American designers. Games challenge Asian American Studies as transnational products whose authors do not identify explicitly as Asian American, and as a form of artistic expression that cannot be analyzed with the same reliance on stereotypes, tropes, and narrative. It is difficult to think of “Asian American” in the traditional sense with digital games. Games provide ways of understanding the Asian American experience that challenge traditional meanings of being Asian American, while also offering alternative forms of community through transethnic (not simply Asian) and transnational (not simply American) modes of belonging.
Aline Lo and Kong Pheng Pha
Hmong American literature is an emerging field within Asian American literature, seeing a steep rise in production starting in the early 2000s. In collective and individual publication efforts, the literature includes mostly memoirs, short stories, and poetry. Essays, personal narratives, transcribed oral folktales, and plays have also been published in anthologies, including two that are edited by Hmong American writers. Although there has been an upsurge in publication and a wide representation in terms of genres, there is still no widely published Hmong American novel. Coming from an orality-based culture and a long history of marginalization both in Asia and the United States, many Hmong American narratives contend with issues related to silence and secrecy. In the context of 20th-century French imperialism and US neocolonialism, much of the literature also touches on the subjects of displacement, refugee resettlement, trauma, and cultural shifts. Of the latter, there is a definite preoccupation with religion and changes in gender roles and sexuality, particularly as many of the writers have been born or largely raised in the United States and are therefore interested in representing Hmong American identities and experiences. Hmong American literature can also be characterized by a sense of regionalism; many of the narratives and publications take place in heavily Hmong-populated areas like the Central Valley of California and Upper Midwest states like Minnesota and Wisconsin. While the move toward textuality comes with its own problems, it also presents Hmong Americans with a new method of self-representation. Historically studied by outsiders and exoticized for belonging to a culture that has resisted assimilation and maintained a unique language, religion, and cultural practices, Hmong writers are producing their own narratives, and altogether, the literature is rich with complex characters, speakers, and stories that represent and explore Hmong American experiences.
Daniel Y. Kim
Since the late 1990s, a growing number of US authors has been drawn to the Korean War, hoping to undo its status as “The Forgotten War.” The fact that it has served as the focus of novels by eminent Korean American authors like Chang-rae Lee and Susan Choi is not entirely surprising, given that they are the children of immigrants whose early lives had been shaped by the conflict. Given the extraordinarily high number of civilian deaths that resulted from the war and the many families that were fractured, the war is clearly a defining event that helped create a Korean diaspora. It has also become the focus, however, of novels by non-Korean American authors, including Toni Morrison, Rolando Hinojosa, and Ha Jin, which testifies to the fact that it was an event in which a number of domestic histories of race and transnational histories of empire converged. The body of literary works that have emerged around this event can be thought of as constituting an archive of what Michael Rothberg has termed “multidirectional memory,” one that suggests the intimacies of multiple histories involving not only Koreans and Korean Americans, but also other US racialized groups including African, Mexican, Chinese, and Japanese Americans as well as their connections to the complicated formations of empire that have shaped the relationships between Asian nations. Contending with the complexity and range of literary works that have centered on this event enables a reconsideration and expansion of what the proper subjects and objects of Asian American literary criticism are. If the field has outgrown its origins, in which the projection of a cultural nationalist vision of Asian American identity was a paramount goal, the vibrancy of these works stems from their soundings of a subject that is not univocal but multivocal. The political desires they seek to animate in their readers are not reducible to an agenda of combating domestic racism or consolidating a nativist notion of Asian American cultural identity, though they may contribute to such endeavors. More expansively, however, they articulate a multivalent range of progressive political aspirations and proliferate an array of identificatory possibilities.
Roderick A. Ferguson
Queer of color critique is a critical discourse that began within the U.S. academy in response to the social processes of migration, neoliberal state and economic formations, and the developments of racial knowledges and subjectivities about sexual and gender minorities within the United States. It was an attempt to maneuver analyses of sexuality toward critiques of race and political economy. As such, the formation was an address to Marxism, ethnic studies, queer studies, postcolonial and feminist studies. Queer of color critique also provided a method for analyzing cultural formations as registries of the intersections of race, political economy, gender, and sexuality. In this way, queer of color critique attempted to wrest cultural and aesthetic formations away from interpretations that neglected to situate those formations within analyses of racial capitalism and the racial state.
Abram C. Van Engen
The Salem witch trials have gripped American imaginations ever since they occurred in 1692. At the end of the 17th century, after years of mostly resisting witch hunts and witch trial prosecutions, Puritans in New England suddenly found themselves facing a conspiracy of witches in a war against Satan and his minions. What caused this conflict to erupt? Or rather, what caused Puritans to think of themselves as engaged, at that moment, in such a cosmic battle? These are some of the mysteries that the Salem witch trials have left behind, taken up and explored not just by each new history of the event but also by the literary imaginations of many American writers.
The primary explanations of Salem set the crisis within the context of larger developments in Puritan society. Though such developments could be traced to the beginning of Puritan settlement in New England, most commentators focus on shifts occurring near the end of the century. This was a period of intense economic change, with new markets emerging and new ways of making money. It was also a time when British imperial interests were on the rise, tightening and expanding an empire that had, at times, been somewhat loosely held together. In the midst of those expansions, British colonists and settlers faced numerous wars on their frontiers, especially in northern New England against French Catholics and their Wabanaki allies. Finally, New England underwent, resented, and sometimes resisted intense shifts in government policy as a result of the changing monarchy in London. Under James II, Massachusetts Bay lost its original charter, which had upheld the Puritan way for over fifty years. A new government imposed royal rule and religious tolerance. With the overthrow of James II in the Glorious Revolution, the Massachusetts Bay government carried on with no official charter or authority from 1689 until 1691. When a new charter arrived during the midst of the Salem witch hunt, it did not restore all the privileges, positions, or policies of the original “New England Way,” and many lamented what they had lost. In other words, in 1692, New England faced economic, political, and religious uncertainty while suffering from several devastating battles on its northern frontier. All of these factors have been used to explain Salem.
When Governor William Phips finally halted the trials, nineteen had been executed, five had died in prison, and one man had been pressed to death for refusing to speak. Protests began almost immediately with the first examinations of the accused, and by the time the trials ended, almost all agreed that something had gone terribly wrong. Even so, the population could not necessarily agree on an explanation for what had occurred. Publishing any talk of the trials was prohibited, but that ban was quickly broken. Since 1695, interpretations have rolled from the presses, and American literature—in poems, plays, and novels—has attempted to make its own sense and use of what one scholar calls the mysterious and terrifying “specter of Salem.”
The study of settler colonialism has evolved from a nearly exclusive examination of the interplay of Indigeneity and white settler colonial domination to an engagement that has become attentive to questions of racialized migration. Because British settler colonies violently displaced Indigenous peoples without widespread exploitation of their labor, racialized migrant labor has played an important role in establishing and developing settler colonies, from the exploitation of enslaved and convict labor, to indentured and contract labor, and to contemporary iterations of guest and undocumented labor. The reliance on hyper-exploitable, deportable, or disposable classes of migrants has been an integral logic of settler colonialism in North America, rendering Indigenous communities even more vulnerable to dislocation, dispossession, and environmental harm. Asian North American cultural representation offers a rich site to explore settler colonial logics of land dispossession, resource extraction, relocation, urban redevelopment, and incarceration. In particular, Asian North American cultural production has often recycled settler colonial tropes that both denigrate and romanticize Indigenous cultures in claims for belonging that attempt to challenge the racial logics of civil, social, and political exclusion. In North America, the projection of a heroic “pioneer” identity aims to recover early Asian labor from historical obscurity by demonstrating its vital contributions to developing the settler nation. These expressions reinforce the value of Western civilization and industry over an empty, uncivilized, and unproductive Indigenous world. Asian American invocations of “local” identity in Hawai‘i similarly assert a romanticized identification with Indigenous cultures that obscures Asian Americans’ structural dominance and active role in the dispossession of Native Hawaiians. Alternatively, Asian North American cultural producers have also become strong voices in social and cultural movements to prioritize Indigenous self-determination, ecological protection, and decolonial anti-capitalism. Critical approaches to Asian North American representation have become increasingly attuned to reckoning with colonial complicity, exploring the ethics of responsibility, indebtedness, and solidarity with Indigenous communities.
South Asian American visual culture is a diverse field of visual art, created by artists who are first-, second- and third-generation immigrants from Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh, among other diasporic locations (e.g., Kenya). South Asian American artists work in a range of media forms, including photography, sculpture, installation, video, painting, and drawing. Collectively, these artworks are frequently exhibited in museums and galleries as depictions of contemporary South Asian immigrant life. However, a close reading of individual works produces a more dynamic picture. Instead of viewing South Asian American visual culture solely in terms of artists’ own immigrant biographies, scholarship and museum practices have begun to focus on how its aesthetic and political contributions have been central to the representation of racialized, gendered, and sexualized immigrant bodies in the United States since the turn of the millennium. Drawing across archival collections, aesthetic histories, and digital media forms, artists create works that link the colonial documentation of “native” bodies on the subcontinent with the surveillance and documentation of immigrant bodies by the US state. Alongside artists, academics and activists also work to produce curatorial interventions through exhibitions that generate feminist and queer critiques of the relation between nation-state and diaspora. Emphasizing the transnational ties of capital and labor that bind together the subcontinent with the United States, South Asian American visual culture creates new frameworks for the relationship between race, visuality, and representation.
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.