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Any discussion of “Asian American literature” must address the inadequacy of the term to describe the array of writings that spring from a multiplicity of cultures and experiences. Ultimately, the phrase has come to encompass writers of Asian heritage living in, writing about, born in, or having sojourned to America. This set of definitions is not limited to written literatures or those originally created in the English language; it can also be extended to transcribed Chinese oral narratives, narratives written in Vietnamese and translated into English, or Chinese characters carved into walls. The term Asian American literature also prompts questions regarding national boundaries. “America” need not be limited to the United States; the fluid concept of nation can spill over geographical boundaries to reach neocolonies where complex constructions of “America”—economic and cultural—significantly affect other countries.
Douglas S. Ishii
Though Asian American literary studies bears its critical legacy, the Asian American Movement (1968–1977) is largely invisible within Asian American literary studies. This has led to a critical murkiness when it comes to discerning the extent of the Movement’s influence on Asian American literary criticism. The Movement is often remembered in literary scholarship as the activities of the Combined Asian Resources Project (CARP)—a collective of four writers who were only loosely associated with Asian American Movement organizations. As metacritical scholarship on “Asian American” as a literary category has suggested, CARP’s introductory essay to Aiiieeeee!: An Anthology of Asian-American Writers (1974) is simultaneously held as the epitome of cultural nationalism’s misogynist tendencies and as the prototypical theorization of Asian American literature. However, this essentializing of CARP as the Movement ignores how the collected writings of the Asian American Movement, Roots (1970) and Counterpoint (1976), identify literary production and criticism as sites of racial critique in distinction from CARP’s viewpoints.
Literary and cultural scholarship’s deconstruction of “Asian American” as a stable term has provided the tools to expand what constitutes the literature of the Movement. As Colleen Lye notes, the Asian American 1960s novel has emerged as a form that challenges the direct association of the era with the Movement. The historical arc of the Movement as centered on campuses highlights the university as an institution that enables Asian American student organizing, from the 1968 student strikes to contemporary interracial solidarity actions, as well as their narrativization into literary forms. Expanding what counts as literature, the decades of Asian American activism after the Movement proper have been documented in the autobiographies of organizers. In this way, the Asian American Movement is not a past-tense influence, but a continuing dialectic between narration and organizing, and literature and social life.
Robert T. Hayashi
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.
Vivian L. Huang
Asian American queer performance indexes racialized, gendered, and sexualized forms and modes of performance created by, for, and about Asians in an American context. Since the 1980s, queer and ethnic studies have conceptualized performance not only as object of study (e.g., staged performance, visual art, film) but also as a method of critique and hermeneutic for troubling knowledges of Asian American encounter and subject formation. Performance in this sense can be understood as Asian American and queer in its engagement with and critical rescripting of histories and ideologies of empire, nationalism, war, globalization, migration, missionizing, white supremacy, and cis-normative heteropatriarchy that constitutes themes of Asian American studies. The interdisciplinary field of performance studies offers quotidian performance, racial performativity, and gender performativity as discursive tools with which to consider social conventions and scripts that render Asian American queer formation legible and dynamic toward future rewritings.
Christopher B. Patterson
Asian Americans have frequently been associated with video games. As designers they are considered overrepresented, and specific groups appear to dominate depictions of the game designer, from South Asian and Chinese immigrants working for Microsoft and Silicon Valley to auteur designers from Japan, Taiwan, and Iran, who often find themselves with celebrity status in both America and Asia. As players, Asian Americans have been depicted as e-sports fanatics whose association with video game expertise—particularly in games like Starcraft, League of Legends, and Counter-Strike—is similar to sport-driven associations of racial minorities: African Americans and basketball or Latin Americans and soccer. This immediate association of Asian Americans with gaming cultures breeds a particular form of techno-orientalism, defined by Greta A. Niu, David S. Roh, and Betsy Huang as “the phenomenon of imagining Asia and Asians in hypo- or hypertechnological terms in cultural productions and political discourse.” In sociology, Asian American Studies scholars have considered how these gaming cultures respond to a lack of acceptance in “real sports” and how Asian American youth have fostered alternative communities in PC rooms, arcades, and online forums. For still others, this association also acts as a gateway for non-Asians to enter a “digital Asia,” a space whose aesthetics and forms are firmly intertwined with Japanese gaming industries, thus allowing non-Asian subjects to inhabit “Asianness” as a form of virtual identity tourism.
From a game studies point of view, video games as transnational products using game-centered (ludic) forms of expression push scholars to think beyond the limits of Asian American Studies and subjectivity. Unlike films and novels, games do not rely upon representations of minority figures for players to identify with, but instead offer avatars to play with through styles of parody, burlesque, and drag. Games do not communicate through plot and narrative so much as through procedures, rules, and boundaries so that the “open world” of the game expresses political and social attitudes. Games are also not nationalized in the same way as films and literature, making “Asian American” themes nearly indecipherable. Games like Tetris carry no obvious national origins (Russian), while games like Call of Duty and Counter-Strike do not explicitly reveal or rely upon the ethnic identities of their Asian North American designers. Games challenge Asian American Studies as transnational products whose authors do not identify explicitly as Asian American, and as a form of artistic expression that cannot be analyzed with the same reliance on stereotypes, tropes, and narrative. It is difficult to think of “Asian American” in the traditional sense with digital games. Games provide ways of understanding the Asian American experience that challenge traditional meanings of being Asian American, while also offering alternative forms of community through transethnic (not simply Asian) and transnational (not simply American) modes of belonging.
From the dawn of cinema in 1895 to the coming of World War II, the representation of Asian immigrants on the American screen shifted from unwanted aliens to accepted, if exotic, citizens—in other words, from Asian immigrants to Asian Americans. Since World War II, American race relations have been defined mainly through the comparison of white and black experiences; however, in the latter half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th, white American fears about racial and cultural purity focused on Asian immigration. Although there was immigration from other Asian countries, at the time, the vast majority of Asian immigrants were arriving from China. In newspaper articles and popular fiction, writers exploited and extended Yellow Peril fears about Chinese immigration through tales of Chinese immorality and criminality. American filmmakers then capitalized on these familiar stories and repeated the stereotypes of the evil “Oriental villain” such as Dr. Fu Manchu and the benign “model minority” such as detective Charlie Chan. American culture more broadly, and American film more specifically, conflated different Asian peoples and cultures and represented Asian immigration, for the most part, through white American attitudes toward Chinese immigrants. In film, this resulted in Japanese and Korean American actors playing Chinese and Chinese American characters before the war, and Chinese and Korean American actors playing Japanese characters during and after the war. More notoriously, however, American films often cast white actors in Chinese roles, especially when those characters were more prominent in the narrative. This practice of “yellowface” contributed to the continuance of stereotyped representations of Chinese characters in film and exposed the systemic racism of a film industry that rarely allowed Asian Americans to represent themselves. With World War II, the Japanese replaced the Chinese as America’s Yellow Peril villain, and American race relations turned from the question of Asian immigration to that of African American civil rights.
Alison Yeh Cheung and Kent A. Ono
For the vast majority of TV history, Asian Americans have played a minimal yet nevertheless infamous role. From the “yellow peril” to the “model minority,” racial stereotypes have been used to characterize Asians and Asian Americans on the television screen. In the rare instances when Asian American actors did appear, they either were in minor roles or as figures from a bad racist dream. Research on Asian Americans on TV comes from many disciplines and cuts across multiple fields such as media studies and Asian American studies. This article discusses the early history of Asian Americans on TV, traces notable figures in contemporary television, and concludes with the role of digital convergence and the development of delivery and recovery platforms. It also provides an overview of scholarly literature written about Asian Americans on TV, including articles and books written about Asian American TV shows, the history of Asian American TV representation, and research on TV and digital media, including YouTube and other transmedia convergence cultural materials.
Esther Kim Lee
Asian American theater was created in the 1960s and the 1970s as a national movement by actors, playwrights, designers, directors, and producers who wanted to promote the inclusion and representation of Asian Americans in American culture. At the beginning of the 1960s, the concept of “Asian American theatre” did not exist, and “Asian American drama” was not a known genre. Instead, there were “oriental” actors who wanted to play non-stereotypical roles and to fight the practice of yellowface, a makeup convention in which white actors alter their face to look Asian. The “oriental” actors had a two-pronged agenda of art and activism to be taken seriously for their talent and experience. The first Asian American theater company, the East West Players, was founded in 1965 by actors in Los Angeles to further the agenda. In the 1970s, other Asian American theater companies and groups emerged around the country, and original Asian American plays began to be produced. Playwrights such as Frank Chin, Wakako Yamauchi, and Philip Kan Gotanda had their first plays produced at Asian American theater companies founded in the 1960s and 1970s.
In the 1980s, Asian American plays began to be produced in mainstream theater, which includes Broadway, off-Broadway, and regional theaters. The success of David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly, which received the 1988 Tony Award for Best Play, brought much attention to Asian American drama, and a number of plays were produced and published subsequently. Playwrights such as Velina Hasu Houston, Elizabeth Wong, and Jeannie Barroga had their plays produced at major theater companies, and Asian American theater companies continued to support new playwrights. In nontraditional theater venues, multimedia and avant-garde artists such as Jessica Hagedorn and Ping Chong were active in creating original performance pieces. Additionally, solo performance became a major performance genre for Asian American artists who wanted to use their body and voice to tell their own stories. Dan Kwong, Denise Uyehara, and Brenda Wong Aoki were forerunners in launching the genre of Asian American solo performance. A number of Asian American actors such as B. D. Wong, John Lone, and Mia Katigbak also received significant opportunities and recognition, but their two-pronged agenda of art and activism remained relevant and urgent. In the early 1990s, Asian American actors led the protest of the Broadway production of the mega-musical Miss Saigon that featured a white actor in yellowface makeup in the original London production. The protest galvanized Asian American theater artists around the country and inspired a new generation of writers, actors, designers, directors, and producers to create what would become one of the fastest growing sectors of American theater.
Patricia P. Chu
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.
Throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, intellectuals and politicians have focused on three main groups as foundational to national and cultural identities: indigenous, African, and European. Mestizaje or racial mixing as a political project has worked to silence the presence and contributions of people of African and Asian descent, while favoring intermixing among European and indigenous. Researchers in the fields of history, anthropology, and sociology have long debated the role of Asians in the transition from slavery to wage labor and produced studies on the transnational and diasporic dimensions of Asian migration and settlement in the region. However, literature and cultural production captures aspects of the Asian presence in the Caribbean Latina/o world that remain absent or underplayed in most empirical studies. Prominent Latina/o writers and artists from the Caribbean (Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic) incorporate Asian characters and themes into their work on history, migration, and diaspora. They explore the Asian dimensions of Caribbean Latina/o racial, ethnic, gendered, and class identities and pose a challenge to foundational discourses of national and cultural identities based on mestizaje and syncretism that serve to subsume and erase the Asian presence. Secondary migrations of Asians from Latin America and the Caribbean to North America has produced a small but significant demographic of Asian Latina/os, some of whom reflect on their experiences through essays, memoirs, fiction, poetry, and art. The cultural production of Asian Latinas/os resists hegemonic concepts of race, nation, citizenship, and identity.
Jenny Heijun Wills
Transnational adoption from Asia began in the 1950s as an institutionalized practice. Since, hundreds of thousands of young people from countries such as South Korea, China, India, Vietnam, and the Philippines have been adopted and raised primarily in white families in places like the United States, Canada, and Australia but also Scandinavian countries and countries in western Europe. What began as a relief program for multiracial “war orphans” in South Korea has blossomed considerably and affects countries and people around the world; transnational adoption has become a popular industry that targets young people in countries including Guatemala, Brazil, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Haiti, and Russia. Today, transnational adoption continues to be a lucrative industry, though the practice seems to be dwindling in popularity and certain “sending nations” have recently declared its abolition (i.e., Ethiopia in 2017). The United States is by far the most prolific “receiving nation,” and is implicated as one of the greatest instigators, given that nation’s military presence in places such as South Korea and Vietnam in and around the years that transnational adoption expanded from those countries. While not nearly as many Canadians (in comparison to Americans) adopt from countries in Asia, adoptees raised in that country have unique experiences mainly due to vastly distinctive regionalism, that makes, for instance, the identities of Asian/Québécois adoptees uniquely precarious. Mexico is considered a “sending nation,” and since race and class factors rarely see young people both immigrating and migrating from the same nation under the auspices of transnational adoption (though it is not always the case; see, e.g., the United States’ history of sending black children for adoption to various European nations), it is mostly not included in conversations about transnational Asian/North American adoption.
For decades, literature about transnational Asian/American adoption centered on adoptive parents, social workers, and pro-adoption activists. In the 1990s, Asian adoptees around the world began to recount their experiences of racial and cultural alienation, among other things, in life writing and poetry. Adoptees in North America were no exception. Asian/North American authors (as well as non-Asian writers) began exploring these subjectivities, too, usually in the context of examining racial, cultural, and national issues related to other Asian/North American subjects who were not subjects experienced. Across most of these representations—by adoptees and non-adoptees alike—the theme of personal and collective history is a notable focus, and adoptees are imagined as another meaningful example of the paradoxical and complex ways Asian/North Americans’ paper histories, immigration rights, and so-called model minorityhood have been levied. Transnational Asian/North American adoption continues to be a topic of fascination for so many writers and audiences and these representations cross genres, aesthetic modes, and narrative styles.
Krystyn R. Moon
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.
This essay considers the expressive and figurative dynamics of Asians in science fiction in the early 20th century. Racial sentiment and policy in the era saw and defined Asians as “ineligible aliens” to exclude from immigration and citizenship. Asian figures expressed these dynamics in science fiction, adapting Orientalist tropes and Yellow Peril themes to the imperatives of the emergent genre. The invisible menace of villainous masterminds like Fu Manchu from crime and detective fiction were refigured as visible science fiction foes whose defeat redeemed the power and potential of science from its degenerate and dehumanizing application. Asian racial tropes aligned particularly with science fiction’s concern about extra-terrestrial life forms. While the term “alien” was not used in the period for such creatures, its later prominence expressed valences and associations, particularly with “invasion,” that Asians originally represented in the genre.
Wystan Hugh Auden was born on 21 February 1907 in the cathedral city of York. He was the youngest of three sons of a physician, George Auden, and his wife, Constance, née Bicknell. His unusual name was a result of his father's archaeological interests, which included the editorship of the Historical and Scientific Survey of York and District (1906). St. Wystan was a Mercian prince whose martyrdom led to the foundation of the church of that name in Derbyshire. In 1908 his father left a lucrative practice to serve as the first-ever school medical officer in Birmingham. The family lived outside that industrial city in the then village of Solihull, which today is a Birmingham suburb. When Auden was eight years old, he went as a boarder to a preparatory school called St. Edmund's in Surrey, where he met Christopher Isherwood, who was to become a close friend and also, in due course, a distinguished writer. In 1920 Auden went to the public school, Gresham's, where his parents had to pay high fees. It had developed under the headmastership of G. W. S. Howson from being a local school to a leading establishment with an interest in science. Although brought up by his mother to be a High Anglican, Auden began to lose his religious beliefs. This may have been coincidental with his recognition that he had homosexual proclivities. Robert Medley, a schoolfellow and later a noted theatrical designer, interested him in writing poetry.
Within the literary connections between Australia and the United States, the more traditional notion of “influence” gained a different kind of intellectual traction after the “transnational turn.” While the question of American influence on Australian literature is a relatively familiar topic, the corresponding question of Australian influence on American literature has been much less widely discussed. This bi-continental interaction can be traced through a variety of canonical writers, including Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Charles Brockden Brown, through to Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, Henry Adams, and Mark Twain. These transnational formations developed in the changed cultural conditions of the 20th and 21st centuries, with reference to poets such as Lola Ridge, Karl Shapiro, Louis Simpson, and Yusef Komunyakaa, along with novelists such as Christina Stead, Peter Carey, and J. M. Coetzee.
To adduce alternative genealogies for both American and Australian literature, Australian literature might be seen to function as American literature’s shadow self, the kind of cultural formation it might have become if the American Revolution had never taken place. Similarly, to track Australian literature’s American affiliations is to suggest ways in which transnational connections have always been integral to its constitution. By re-reading both Australian and American literature as immersed within a variety of historical and geographical matrices, from British colonial politics to transpacific space, it becomes easier to understand how both national literatures emerged in dialogue with a variety of wider influences.
The emergence of the trade paperback in the 1980s crucially transformed the way in which Australian literature was received in North America. The publication history of Patrick White on the one hand and Glenda Adams and Peter Carey on the other shows how younger writers actually made more of a cultural impact, despite White’s Nobel Prize, because the form in which they met the reading public was one freed from the modernist binary between high and low culture. The 1980s saw the emergence of a more globalized and more culturally pluralistic world—though also one much more pervaded by multinational capital—in which Australian writers flourished.
When situating 20th-century Australian poetry within world literary space, critical histories often map it against the Anglo-American tradition and find it wanting. In particular, and despite the strong reputations that poets such as Judith Wright and A. D. Hope continue to enjoy, there is a tendency to regard Australian poetry from the Second World War until the mid-1960s as variously complacent, insular, or retrograde: representative of what John Tranter in his introduction to The New Australian Poetry in 1979 called “a moribund poetic culture.” Certainly, there was a turning away from avant-garde experimentalism in the immediate postwar period (as there was in Britain and the United States), but in Australia, this has been linked to a discrediting of modernism as a result of the Ern Malley hoax. In the Malley “affair,” as Michael Heyward dubbed it, two conservative poets hoodwinked the editor of the avant-garde journal Angry Penguins with a suite of poems written by a wholly invented working-class surrealist. As a result, according to Wright (among others), Australian poets became less adventurous in favor of more traditional forms. On top of this, recent revisionist accounts of the hoax have virtually canonized “Malley” himself as a bona fide modernist and so exacerbated a sense of lost opportunity after the mid-1940s. Yet modernizing impulses may take many forms, and it is an overstatement to suggest that innovation had ceased, or that the poetry of this period was somehow disengaged from the rest of the world or from international literary-political debates. A reassessment shows that Australian poets were keenly engaged with the questions of their time but also dealt with the persistent, unresolved problem of how to become “unprovincial,” overcoming a cultural cringe that now gravitated away from Britain and toward America. In fact, for Australian literature prior to the emergence of Patrick White, poetry, rather than beating a retreat, actually led the way forward. It is time, then, to reconsider the poetry of the postwar era within its own cultural ecologies, acknowledging that Australian poetic modernism, while it remains contested, may also be distinctive.
Travel writing has been an important form through which Australians learned about their own culture and their place in the world. Indigenous cultures of place and travel, geographic distance from the imperial metropole, and a long history of immigration have each made travel a particularly influential cultural practice. Nonfictional prose narratives, based on actual journeys, have enabled travelers in Australia and from Australia abroad to explore what was distinctive and what was shared with other cultures. These are accessible texts that were widely read, and that sought to educate and entertain their audience. The period from the inauguration of the Australian nation in 1901 to 1960, when distance shrank because of technological innovation and new forms of identity gained ascendance, shows the complex ways in which Australians defined their country and its global contribution. Writing about travel to Britain and other European locations helped authors to refine the Anglophone inheritance and a sense that Britain was Home. Northern-hemisphere travels also made some writers intensely feel their national identity. Participation in global conflicts during this period shifted Australian allegiances, both personal and governmental. At the same time, a new tourist industry encouraged Australians to travel at home, in order to learn more about remote areas and the Asia-Pacific region. Travel writing both abroad and at home reveals how particular forms of emotional allegiance and national identity were forged, reinforced, and maintained. This has been a particularly influential genre for a nation based on colonial migration and indigenous displacement, in which travel and mobility have been crucial.
“Women’s poetry” as a marketing and pedagogic category emerged in the 1970s alongside second-wave feminism. To map the emergence of women’s poetry in and of Australia requires exploring the role of gender in poetic authorship and how the field of Australian poetry has changed in light of feminist movements and theories. Women have used poetry to cross between public and private spheres, to assert an individual and often collective voice, and to critique gender’s intersection with other constitutive identities such as nation and race. While poetry has provided a highly significant means of linguistic transformation and social activism, it has sometimes been viewed as too limiting for feminist writers. Similarly, while the category of “women’s poetry” was strategically empowering in particular periods, it has also been viewed as generating exclusions and marginalization. Feminism has developed both historically and culturally, with the valency of various feminisms in Australia being tested through processes of institutionalization and social change at both a local and global level.
Women seem barely visible in the lively Australian literary scene of the 1950s and 1960s. Popular wisdom has it that after the war women were sent home and imprisoned in domesticity, but this was not entirely true. Significant numbers earned a living, and gained popular success, writing historical fiction, children’s stories, feature journalism, and radio and television scripts, but the growing separation of literary from popular writing meant that their work lacked serious critical attention, and still does. Others did not achieve publication for years, while those who did were rarely recognized as significant artists. As a writing generation, these women, in particular the novelists, were eclipsed from view, both at the time and in subsequent histories. One reason for this is that they tended to be detached from prevailing debates about national identity and from traditional Left-Right oppositions. Their sense of the social responsibility of writers led them to explore topics and ideas that were outside the postwar political mainstream, such as conservation, peace, civil liberties, and Indigenous rights. Four case studies offer some illustration of the range of literary activities undertaken by these women writers, and allow a consideration of the ways in which they engaged with their social and cultural milieux: Kylie Tennant (1912–1988), Nancy Cato (1917–2000), Judith Wright (1915–2000), and Kath Walker/Oodgeroo Noonuccal (1920–1993).