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date: 04 March 2021

The Cold War and Asian Canadian Writinglocked

  • Christine KimChristine KimDepartment of English, Simon Fraser University
  •  and Christopher LeeChristopher LeeDepartment of English Language and Literatures, University of British Columbia

Summary

Despite the supposed end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, its legacies remain unresolved in Asia and continue to shape Asian Canadian writing. The presence of what are now called Asian Canadians became increasingly visible in the 1960s and 1970s. In 1967, the federal government passed a new Immigration Act that abolished national quotas which had effectively excluded most immigrants from areas outside Euro-America and introduced new opportunities for students and skilled immigrants. In the late 1970s, 60,000 refugees from Southeast Asia entered Canada, the first time that Canada had admitted a significant number of non-European refugees. This period also marked the height of postwar Canadian nationalism: in 1967, Canada celebrated its Centennial and tried to project an image of liberal inclusion; this would be further consolidated in 1971 with the adoption of state-sanctioned multiculturalism. However, this specific Canadian national identity failed to address racial discrimination, including those forms directed towards Asian immigrants from the mid-19th century until past the World War II. While Canada’s Cold War politics are informed by these unresolved historical traumas, the multiple intersections between Asian Canadian experience and the Cold War remain largely illegible when read through the frame of the Canadian nation.

Alongside the tradition of Asian Canadian cultural activism, Asian Canadian writers, such as Joy Kogawa, Roy Miki, Paul Yee, SKY Lee, M. G. Vassanji, and others, produced texts that sought to address the erasure of Asian historical presence while exploring and depicting the psychic as well as social costs of racial exclusion and discrimination during the 1970s and 1980s. SKY Lee’s novel Disappearing Moon Café (1991) explores how issues such as Asian–Indigenous relations, gender hierarchies, class relations, racialization, queerness, and the politics of memory are shaped under the subtext of the Cold War. Laotian Canadian writer Souvankham Thammavongsa’s second book of poetry, Found (2007), engages with the history of her parents’ migration from Laos to Canada via a refugee camp in Thailand, and in doing so, Thammavongsa challenges the Cold War representations of Southeast Asian countries. Kim Thuy’s Ru (2009) examines migration in relation to the narrator’s journey from Vietnam to a Malaysian refugee camp and then to a small town in Quebec. Madeleine Thien’s Dogs at the Perimeter (2011) raises questions about post-Cold War justice by drawing attention to Canada’s involvement in the conflicts in Cambodia and implicitly posing the question of Canada’s unacknowledged responsibilities. Thammavongsa, Thuy, and Thien’s texts can be read as post-Cold War literature as the Cold War created the conditions for these literary projects to emerge. Beyond a source of thematic or historical content, the Cold War remains embedded, if ambivalently, in the very construction of Asian Canadian literature.

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