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Article

Agriculture is a significant yet understudied theme in Asian American literature. Representations of farming in Asian American literature often respond to and engage with agriculture’s important role in Asian American history. As farmers and as farm laborers, Asian Americans have been pivotal to US agriculture, and this agricultural experience was foundational to the formation of Asian American communities in the period prior to World War II. Additionally, literary representations of agriculture in Asian American literature navigate racialized traditions of American pastoral and Jeffersonian agrarianism. They have often done so in ways that highlight the systems of racial and economic exploitation at work in US society and position US agribusiness in relationship to US colonialism and neo-colonialism. Consequently, Asian American literature’s representations of farming can expose the assumptions around race, property, and citizenship at work in the agrarianism of the 21st-century US alternative food movement. The writings of Carlos Bulosan, Hisaye Yamamoto, and David Mas Masumoto provide case studies of these trends.

Article

Although largely disregarded since the humanistic turn of ecocriticism at the beginning of the 21st century, nature writing has continued to play an important role in nurturing trans-Pacific, and transnational, literary environmentalism. Euro-American traditions dominate this literary genre, but it nevertheless involves cross-cultural traffic of ideas and thoughts. Its trans-Pacific presence, mostly through American influences on works in Japan, demonstrates in three ways how American nature writing has been cultivating Japanese literary soil and has in turn been nurtured by it, albeit less conspicuously. First, Henry David Thoreau’s influence on Japanese literary environmentalism, especially his philosophy of plain living and high thinking, helped engender a tradition of nature writing in Japan that began with Nozawa Hajime—often called the “Japanese Thoreau”—and has been developed by those who followed, including Ashizawa Kazuhiro and Takada Hiroshi. Second, interactions between pastoralism and a new mode of environmental awareness show that the seemingly American notion of “wild awareness” and the Japanese concept of aware have materialized as a new environmental sensitivity in Japan and in the United States, respectively, reflecting cross-cultural nurturing of environmental ideas, thoughts, and practices. Finally, there has been a subtle yet radical impact of American counterculture on Japanese nature writing, exemplified by Nashiki Kaho’s literary hybridity, based on her integration of the traditional with the radical.

Article

Literature on Hiroshima and Nagasaki cannot be limited to works on the atomic bomb or fiction referring specifically to these locations. Rather, in the nuclear age, it must include a variety of literary works that are conscious of the destiny of the earth, given the danger of nuclear pollution, and engage with the terrible fantasy of the end of the world. As John W. Treat states in his influential critical work, Writing Ground Zero: Japanese Literature and the Atomic Bomb, “The concept of hibakusha now has to extend to everyone alive today in any region of the planet” (x–xi). The range of nuclear-themed works that symbolically invoke Hiroshima or Nagasaki is enormous. Nuclear literature as a creation of survivors, or spiritual survivors, focuses on an awareness of the planetary catastrophe concerning Los Alamos, Trinity Site, the ground zeroes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and other global nuclear zones. The two nuclear sites in Japan (Hiroshima and Nagasaki) and in the United States (Los Alamos and Trinity Site) are historically connected. The authors and protagonists of nuclear literature have literal and affective transpacific and cross-cultural experiences that when considered together seek to overcome the tragic experience of the first nuclear bomb and bombing, including the Japanese acceptance of American nuclear fictions during the Cold War.

Article

Lucy M. S. P. Burns and Mana Hayakawa

Acknowledging “absence” as a powerful and accurate political charge against the continuing exclusion of Asian Americans in American theater, dance, and the larger mainstream US performance landscape, Asian American feminist performance has inspired a critical mass of articles and monographs. A broad range of works by feminist performance scholars address productions that center on Asian American women, gender, and sexuality, and also explore and contest Asian American subject formation. Although they provide different ways of thinking about feminist approaches to Asian American performance, all emphasize how racialized bodies are produced within specific historical and political conditions and are invested in resisting cultural limitations and in interrogating power. Whether drawing on theater, dance, music, drag, or performances of everyday life, this scholarship can provide a glimpse of the critical concerns of overlapping academic fields. Whether mapping theoretical frameworks, archival politics, uses of dance as method, epistemologies of the body, fandom, affect, or alternative or unconventional performance spaces, Asian American feminist performance studies scholars move away from rigid definitions of identity, form, geographic location, or audience. At the intersection of Asian American, performance, and feminist studies, the multiple strategies of feminist praxis—such as archiving and analyzing historical documents, foregrounding bodily performance alongside text-based materials, and reconceptualizing theoretical and artistic paradigms—signal the capaciousness of the categories “Asian American,” “feminist,” and “performance.”

Article

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.

Article

As a group, Asian Americans in particular have been portrayed by American society as incapable or uninterested in American sporting practices and traditions. When individuals have realized public acclaim for athletic prowess, their achievements have been characterized in media and elsewhere as an exception to the Asian American experience, even when their success also represents its common collective narratives. NBA (National Basketball Association) basketball player Jeremy Lin’s meteoric rise in 2012 was often defined through the trope of the model minority. Conversely, Pacific Islanders, in particular males, have been represented as possessing innate athletic prowess but with limited intellect. These tropes of Asian American and Pacific Islander identity in American society have long obscured their relation to sports and recreation, and there has been little scholarship in either sports studies or Asian American studies on the unique sporting cultures of these groups and their relations to American sporting practices and institutions. Asian American and Pacific Islander relations to American sport are best understood as a unique history defined by their relation to American colonialism, racism, global capitalism, and the transnational nature of modern sport.

Article

Chinese opera in America has several intertwined histories that have developed from the mid-19th century onward to inform performances and representations of Asian Americans on the opera stage. These histories include Chinese opera theater in North America from 1852 to 1940, Chinese opera performance in the ubiquitous Chinese villages at various World Fairs in the United States from 1890 to 1915, the famous US tour of Peking opera singer Mei Lanfang from New York to Chicago and San Francisco in 1930, a constellation of imagined “Chinese” opera and yellowface plays from 1880 to 1930, and the more recent history of contemporary opera created by Asian Americans commissioned by major opera houses. Some of these varied histories are closely intertwined, not all are well understood, and some have been simply forgotten. Since the mid-19th century, Chinese opera theater has become part of US urban history and has left a significant imprint on the collective cultural and historical memory of Chinese America. Outside of Chinese American communities arose well-known instances of imagined “Chinese” opera, yellowface works that employ the “Chinese opera trope” as a source of inspiration, or Western-style theatrical works based on Chinese themes or plotlines. These histories are interrelated, and have also significantly shaped the reception and understanding of contemporary operas created by Asian American composers and writers. While these operatic works of the late 20th and early 21st centuries are significantly different from those of earlier moments in history, their production and interpretation cannot escape this influence.

Article

The plot of return from America to Asia to search for origins is central to Asian diasporic literature of the past 120 years. By returning to Asia and writing about their ancestors, Asian North Americans (those born or raised in the United States or Canada) expand their cultural understanding and produce narratives that serve as “countermemory,” contributing to a communal memory that is “oppositional . . . the memory of the subordinated and the marginalized, memory from below versus memory from above,” in the words of Viet Thanh Nguyen. For immigrants and their offspring, Asian diasporic narratives of return typically reflect experiences of “racial melancholia,” described as unresolved mourning for the losses associated with migration, in the context of social discrimination, exclusion, or marginalization due to race. For Asians, racial melancholia is exacerbated by its incompatibility with ideals of America as equal, inclusive, and race-blind. Writers sometimes use narratives of return to comprehend and resolve their parents’ melancholia by remembering their stories and articulating their grievances; this process of countermemory typically requires a lengthy cultural apprenticeship. In addition to family histories, narratives of return encompass essays, memoirs, novels, poems, plays, and films. They may also be written by or about protagonists born and raised in Asia who return, perhaps to reform or improve their homeland, after living abroad.

Article

Performers of Asian ancestry worked in a variety of venues and media as part of the American entertainment industry in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Some sang Tin Pan Alley numbers, while others performed light operatic works. Dancers appeared on the vaudeville stage, periodically in elaborate ensembles, while acrobats from China, India, and Japan wowed similar audiences. Asian immigrants also played musical instruments at community events. Finally, a small group lectured professionally on the Chautauqua Circuit. While on the stage, these performers had to navigate American racial attitudes that tried to marginalize them. To find steady work, performers of Asian ancestry often had to play to stereotypes popular with white audiences. Furthermore, they faced oversight by immigration authorities, who monitored their movements in and around the country and made it difficult for foreign entertainers to work in the country for long periods of time. Despite these hurdles, Asians and Asian Americans have appeared in the performing arts in the United States for over one hundred years.

Article

Christine Kim and Christopher Lee

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.

Article

Contemporary Asian American art includes artworks created by artists of Asian heritage in the Americas as well as contemporary works that engage with Asian American or Asian diasporic communities, history, aesthetics, politics, theory, and popular culture. This includes Modern and Postmodern works created in the post-World War II era to the present. Asian American art is closely tied to the birth of the Asian American movement of the 1960s and 70s as well as a wide range of art movements of the same time period from minimalism, to community murals, to the birth of video art, to international conceptual movements such as Fluxus. “Asian American art” is associated with identity based works and began to be institutionalized during the multicultural era of the 1980–1990s. From the early 2000s onwards, Asian American art has shifted to more transnational framework but remains centered on issues of representation, recovery, reclaiming, recuperation, and decolonization of marginalized bodies, histories, and memories. Common themes in Asian American art include narratives of immigration, migration, war, trauma, labor, race and ethnicity, assimilation, dislocation, countering stereotypes, and interrogating histories of colonization and U.S. imperialism.

Article

Twenty-first-century Asian American literature is a developing archive of literary fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and multimodal cultural texts. As a field, it is marked by its simultaneous investments in exploring the United States’ imperial geopolitical relations and the concurrent rise of Asia. Global India, a shorthand for the nation’s ascendance onto the world stage after the liberalizing market reforms of the early 1990s, is discernible in Asian American—and particularly South Asian American—depictions of a range of figures including call center agents, entrepreneurial farmers, art gallery owners, and globe-trotting filmmakers. It is an India to which many writers imagine returning, given its heightened standing in the world economy and the prospect of American decline. This change marks a shift in the literature from the Americas being the primary locus of attachment to Asia as a site of possible reinvestment, both psychic and material. Asian American writers frequently focus on parallels between the experience of international migration and that of in-country migration to India’s major cities. They also tacitly register the rise of India in narratives about the abortive promises of the American dream. In comparison to Asian American literatures of the 20th century, which were primarily read as part of the multiethnic canon of American literature, Asian American literatures written under the sign of Global India are equally legible as part of diasporic, postcolonial, world, and global Anglophone literary formations. Many writers considered postcolonial in the 20th century may be profitably read in the 21st century as Asian American as well, whether because of a move to the United States or a professed affiliation. This expansion of the field is a consequence of the evolving diasporic and global imaginaries of Asian American writers and scholars.

Article

Since the start of the 21st-century, a general consensus has emerged that South Korea is a “global” phenomenon. Growing references to celebrated aspects of Korean culture and society—such as K-pop or Korean food—in literature, television, video, and film index a perceptual shift regarding South Korea. However, Korean American literature has tirelessly interrogated Korea’s place in the world, tracing and exposing often elided links and histories upon which its current prominence depends. Attending to Korean American and a growing spectrum of Asian American literary imaginations of South Korea in the 21st century illustrates the particularity of the nation’s curious global presence. Doing so also allows for an examination of the fissures between the perception and reality of global South Korea, of current assumptions about globalization, and of non-US-centric sites of affiliations notable in Asian American literature. Writers including Jimin Han, Patricia Park, Krys Lee, Jane Jeong Trenka, Maurene Goo, and May Lee-Yang exhibit divergent patterns and approaches and together highlight multiple facets of the structural entanglements that comprise global South Korea. These include changing patterns and motives for migration to and from Korea; redefining “Koreanness”; the complexities of “globalization,” and the oft-celebrated Korean Wave, or hallyu.

Article

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.

Article

This article takes a critical and historical look at how South Asian performers and performances circulated in the late 19th and 20th centuries in the United States and Australia. It compares how dance practices, both in the United States and in Australia, are interwoven with 19th- and early 20th-century Orientalism and anti-Asian immigration law in both countries, as primarily white dancers engaged with Indian dance practices to develop intercultural styles of Western contemporary dance. While the comparisons of Indian dance in the United States and Australia highlight the similarities of national policies that curtailed Asian immigration, they also suggest that the patterns of migration and travel, particularly where dance is concerned, are much more complex. Dancers and dance forms moved from India to Australia to the United States in an intricate triangle of exchange and influence.

Article

In the history of modern Japanese literature, the Taishō era (1912–1926) is retrospectively identified as a period characterized by a liberal arts ideology, individualism, a democratic spirit, aestheticism, and anti-naturalism. In the latter half of the Taishō era, the liberal arts ideology was gradually replaced by socialism. After the Great Earthquake of 1923, Japanese literature was enmeshed in a triangular contest between the old-fashioned “‘I’ novel” (or psychological novel), proletarian literature, and modernist literature (especially the neo-sensualists). This structure of the literary world, in parallel with the rise of popular literature, continued into the prewar Shōwa era (1926–1945). During the Taishō era, Walt Whitman and Edgar Allan Poe were the most influential and respected American writers. Whitman’s writing offered Taishō writers, including Takeo Arishima and poets of the popular poetry school, a model of living that was free and natural and a colloquial-style free verse. But for the modern Japanese literati from the Taishō to the prewar Shōwa era, the most influential American writer was without a doubt Edgar Allan Poe. Poe’s works served as a creative inspiration to Taishō novelists such as Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, Haruo Satō, and Ryūosuke Akutagawa, many of whom shared a creative perspective that was based on a blend of anti-naturalism and aestheticism. Influenced by Poe, they attempted diverse variations on the themes of the fantastic and of doppelgängers and even experimented with detective stories. Needless to say, Poe helped to establish the detective story genre in Japan through Rampo Edogawa and others. For early Shōwa literati, Poe was a forerunner of modern critical theory. Among Japanese readers, around 1920, American literature ceased to be read as a sub-branch of British literature and began to be read as American literature proper. From the Great Earthquake and up through the prewar Shōwa era, three distinctive periods can be discerned when American literature was energetically translated and introduced. The first period was from the end of Taishō to the start of Shōwa, when American “socialist” literature—in the broad sense of writers like Upton Sinclair—left a deep mark on Japanese proletarian literature. The second period was around 1930–1931, when contemporary modernist American novels were translated and published in various anthology forms. The third peak came around 1935–1938, when bestselling American historical romances or epics such as Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth and Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind were published and gained a large readership.

Article

Asian American literature was born from two mixed race Eurasian sisters, Edith Maude Eaton and Winnifred Eaton, who wrote in the early 20th century under the pen names Sui Sin Far and Onoto Watanna, respectively. Edith spent her career chronicling, in fiction and non-fiction, the lives of Chinese in North America, and recounted her own multiracial experiences in the autobiographical “Leaves from the Mental Portfolio of an Eurasian,” while Winnifred is best known for her popular fiction about the exotica of Japan, novels and stories that include several mixed race protagonists. More than thirty years later, Kathleen Tamagawa penned a mixed race memoir, Holy Prayers in a Horse’s Ear, describing the difficulties of living as a biracial Japanese-white woman trying to assimilate into the white mainstream of US society. The number of mixed race Asian American authors rose in the mid- to late 20th century due to an increase in mixed race marriages and Asian immigration. The turn of the 21st century saw prominent multiracial Asian American authors writing about Asian American lives, mixed race Asian American authors choosing not to write about multiracial Asian American characters, and monoracial Asian American writers who populate their fiction with multiracial Asian American characters. Among these authors, Ruth Ozeki stands out as someone who has consistently focused her attention on multiracial Asian American characters, illustrating the richness of their mixed race experiences even as her fictional storyworlds shine a light on the environmental issues in a globalized world.

Article

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.

Article

Do considerations of Asian America as, to use Kandice Chuh’s words, a “subjectless discourse” entail a turn toward objects? “Object theory” refers to a broad range of intellectual currents that take up objecthood, things, and matter as starting points for reconceptualizing identity, experience, politics, and critique. A few prominent threads of object theory include new materialism, thing theory, speculative realism, and object-oriented ontology. Versions of object theory have also been developed in disability studies, critical ethnic studies, posthumanism, and multispecies studies. What spans these varied, sometimes contentious fields is an effort to displace anthropocentrism as the measure of being and knowledge. By troubling the (human) subject, the poststructural and deconstructive turns in Asian American studies have especially primed the field to more closely engage the place of objects in Asian America. While Asian American writers and critics have tirelessly explored subjectivity and its mixed fortunes—from providing access to legal rights, political representation, and social resources to facilitating the reinforcement of racial and ethnic hierarchies—they have also sought to tweak the historical relationship of Asian Americans to objects. Asian Americans have been excluded, exploited, and treated as capital because they have been more closely associated to nonhuman objects than to human subjects. Asian American literary studies develops object theories to grasp these dynamics through investigations of racial form, modes of objecthood, material things, ecology, and speculative fiction. Ultimately, object theory leads Asian American literary studies to reconsider the place of human subjectivity in politics, attend to the formation of Asian America through nonhuman matter, and develop positive visions for Asian American futures from speculative imaginations of being and reality. This article discusses the place of object theory in Asian American literature and surveys key topics, including phenomenologies of race, transvaluations of objecthood, speculative realisms, and ontologies of Asian America.

Article

The several works of American literature set in Okinawa or about Okinawans include travel narratives, war diaries, memoirs, biography, fiction, and drama. Perhaps the earliest, Francis L. Hawks’s 1856 Narrative of the Expedition of an American Squadron to the China Seas and Japan, is an account of Commodore Matthew C. Perry’s gunboat diplomacy of 1853–1854 when he forced his demands on leaders of what was then the Ryukyu Kingdom, allowing Americans to land, travel, and trade there. Hawks also provides informative and colorful descriptions of the local residents, architecture, and natural environment. A century later, Okinawa commanded all of America’s attention in the spring of 1945 during the last and worst battle of the Pacific War. Two Okinawan immigrants to the United States published autobiographical accounts in English of mid-20th-century Okinawa, including the battle and its aftermath. Masako Shinjo Robbins’s My Story: A Schoolgirl in the Battle of Okinawa (2014) describes life in prewar, wartime, and early postwar Okinawa from the perspective of a daughter in an impoverished family. Sold as a child by her father to a brothel in the 1930s, she barely survives the battle after being trapped in a cave collapsed by shelling. Jo Nobuko Martin’s novel A Princess Lily of the Ryukyus (1984) depicts the horrifying ordeal of the Princess Lily Student Corps of high school girls, the author among them, and their teachers, who were drafted as combat medics during the Battle of Okinawa. Writing from the American side of the battle, Pulitzer Prize–winning author Ernie Pyle accompanied U.S. forces as a war correspondent. His account in The Story of Ernie Pyle (1950) begins with American battleships’ shelling of Okinawa and ends the day he was killed by a Japanese sniper on the offshore island of Iejima. Over more than 12,500 Americans died in the Battle of Okinawa which took the lives of approximately 94,000 Japanese soldiers and 160,000 Okinawan civilians, between one-quarter and one-third of the prefecture’s population at the time. The widespread devastation left most residents homeless, destitute, or both. During the months that followed, the American military placed thousands in refugee camps, sometimes for more than a year, supplying food, shelter (mostly tents), and medical treatment for the wounded and ill. U.S. occupation personnel supervised the distribution of relief aid and the construction of homes and public buildings, but they were also tasked with bringing “democracy” to Okinawa, which many Americans considered feudalistic. The contradiction between American espousals of democracy and policies imposed top-down under U.S. military rule soon became obvious to Okinawans, and to at least some American military personnel. One of them, Vern Sneider, published a satirical novel, The Teahouse of the August Moon, in 1951. Later adapted into two plays and a film, it is probably the best-known work of American literature set in Okinawa. Lucky Come Hawaii (1965) by Jon Shirota depicts the experience of Okinawans in Hawaii, focusing on the strained relations among resident ethnic groups following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. It was the first novel by an Asian American writer to become a bestseller and one of several works portraying the lives of Okinawan immigrants including three plays by Shirota and an autobiography by Hana Yamagawa. Victory in the Pacific War brought Okinawa under American military occupation for the next twenty-seven years, 1945–1972. Forcibly seizing private farmlands, the U.S. government constructed a vast complex of bases to support hot wars in Korea and Vietnam and the Cold War against the Soviet Union. Sarah Bird’s novel The Yokota Officers Club (2001) depicts the bases’ effects on Okinawans and Americans living in close proximity yet in separate worlds during the U.S. occupation. Today, more than four decades after Okinawa’s return to Japanese sovereignty, a grossly disproportionate 74 percent of the total U.S. military presence in Japan remains in this small island prefecture with 0.6 percent of the nation’s land area. Bird’s Above the East China Sea (2015) juxtaposes the ordeals of an American military dependent living on base in present-day Okinawa who contemplates suicide after her soldier sister dies in Afghanistan with a student medic in the 1945 battle ordered to kill herself to avoid capture by the Americans. Drawing on extensive research in Okinawan culture, Bird evokes Okinawan religious beliefs and observances relating to death and the afterlife to frame her narrative and inform her readers.