Modernism and Asian American Writers
- Audrey Wu ClarkAudrey Wu ClarkDepartment of English, United States Naval Academy
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.