New Orleans and Asian American Literature and Culture
- Marguerite NguyenMarguerite NguyenDepartment of English, Wesleyan University
New Orleans has long been a city vital to the American imagination, known for its deep colonial and cultural history while, at the same time, evolving into the post-Katrina “city that care forgot.” Shaped by Spanish, French, and British imperialisms and situated at the edge of the American South, the Gulf Coast, and the Caribbean, New Orleans is a geography distinguished by transnational crosscurrents and intense meteorological activity; an economically and politically strategic port town, it is a below-sea-level city continuously vulnerable to environmental disaster. Typically neglected in dominant mappings of the city, however, are the area’s Pacific ties that have also helped to make New Orleans. Ever since the mid-19th century, various Asian and Asian American groups have populated southern Louisiana as immigrants, workers, traders, and refugees. After the Civil War, thousands of Chinese and Filipinos arrived in the region as a supposed replacement for slave labor. In the mid-20th century, the US government dispersed numerous Japanese Americans to the area after internment, while since the late 20th century, New Orleans has been home to one of the densest populations of Vietnam War refugees in the country. These migrations spurred the creation of ethnic enclaves and cultural practices that have directly and tangentially defined New Orleans, providing significant labor pools and offering illustrative narratives of post-disaster rebuilding. Given the region’s rich Pacific history and daily environmental vulnerability, engaging New Orleanian culture compels an Asian Americanist ecocritical approach, or one that engages the relationship among space, matter, culture, and critique, and attends to regional details as well as Pacific contexts. Some of the more prominent portrayals of Asian Louisiana, such as those by Lafcadio Hearn and Robert Olen Butler, have tended to exoticize their subject. By contrast, examining works by Bao Phi, An-My Lê, and Anna Kazumi Stahl reveals alternative ecologies of Louisiana that contribute to a stronger understanding of racial relations in the region, further specifies the Gulf Coast’s transnational dynamics, and foregrounds the value of Asian American studies for ecocriticism (and vice versa). These artists’ portrayals of disaster-oriented landscapes show how attention to overlooked Asian American ecologies reveals the fundamental spatial, economic, and environmental precariousness of our times for marginalized communities.