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date: 20 September 2020

Summary and Keywords

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.

Keywords: queer of color critique, queer Asian North American literature, queer women’s literature, trans of color literature, Kitty Tsui, Merle Woo, Shani Mootoo, Kai Cheng Thom, Elaine Castillo

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