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.
The Chicana/o gang story begins with the literary appearance of the pachuco/a figure in newspapers, rumors, gossip, and the vernacular and folkloric imaginations of Mexicans, Chicanas/os and Anglos from El Paso, Tejas, to East Los Angeles and even Fowler, California, in such works as Beatrice Griffith’s American Me (1948) and José Montoya’s “El Louie” (1972). It evolves to include tell-all stories by former Mexican Mafia and Nuestra Familia members, who detail their disenchantments with these pinto organizations and the very real dangers they represent. Complementing these literary representations of the pachuco and the cholo figure is Hollywood’s cinematic rendering of them in early Chicana/o gang stories, such as Kurt Neuman’s The Ring (1952), and in later films, such as Taylor Hackford’s Blood In, Blood Out (1993). Despite the different narrative forms, all these gang stories, with few exceptions, operate as cautionary tales of lives wasted away in gang membership. Some stories moralize; others simply seek to render a realist representation of gang life without judgment; still others seek to contextualize gang membership in complex ways to subtextually call for addressing the root causes of these “social problems.”
Most of these narratives fall into one of two primary ideological camps. The first is the dominant camp; it seeks to represent gang life as deviant and destructive and functions to socialize Chicanos/as through these cautionary tales. The second is the insurgent camp, in which gang members represent themselves as products of the socioeconomic conditions of the barrio; it therefore relies heavily on understanding gang life as part of a barriocentric vernacular capitalism that renders those stories inherently valuable.
The result of the first camp’s lens is that Chicana/o gang fiction (that which is represented by outsiders and non-gang members) and other fictionalized gang narratives often rely on oversimplified snippets or sketches of life in the barrio. They thus create inauthentic, one-dimensional, or stereotypical representations of Chicana/o gang members and the barrio itself. This leads to the continued barrioization (Villa) of Chicana/o life and Chicanas/os themselves. Most mainstream Hollywood Chicana/o gang films reproduce these logics. In fact, the majority of Hollywood Chicano gang films are set in East Los Angeles or the “greater Eastside”—an area that includes Northeast Los Angeles, Echo Park, Boyle Heights, and the unincorporated area of Los Angeles east of the Los Angeles River. What this means is that East Los Angeles remains Hollywood’s localized “heart of darkness.”
By contrast, the second ideological camp relies on lived experience or what I term a “barrio-biographics” that privileges the barrio as the site of and cultural foundation for the gang member’s narrative and her or his epistemological and ontological formation, creating a “barriological” framework (Villa). These barrio-biographics are the core literary forces that drive authentic Chicana/o gang stories. It should also be noted, however, that pinta/o narratives differ from Chicana/o street gang narratives in that pinta/o narratives foreground the experience of imprisonment and the author’s or main character’s interactions with the carceral state as an added layer of their own epistemological and ontological formations in the barrio.
Chicana/o gang narratives, broadly defined to include pinta/o stories and gang films, operate as cautionary tales but also as tales of coming into a “complete literacy,” as Luis J. Rodríguez would describe it. This complete literacy, in turn, allows Chicana/o gang members to articulate their own lives and choices, and complicates any impulse to moralize or render Chicana/o gang figures simply as “deviants.” Thus these Chicana/o gang figures and their narratives remain part of a history of real, realist, and fictive representations of themselves in the American imagination that provides them the space to contest their own cultural significations. Overall, some narratives celebrate and glamorize the Chicana/o gang figure as a revolutionary in the fight against white supremacy, while others that see this figure as regressive, violent, and, arguably, equally oppressive.
Western American literature is a diverse body of writing that documents human responses to the ecological changes that have reshaped the region over the years. The literature includes narratives of contact and encounter, nonfiction nature essays, borderlands literature, popular Westerns, hard-boiled detective narratives, Dust Bowl novels, eco-memoirs, climate change fiction, and other genres. At a time when the West faces a number of environmental crises, a survey of the region provides insights into how we arrived at this point by addressing key moments in the environmental past, including struggles over land use, conflicts over resources, the historical meanings of eco-disaster, and efforts at finding solutions to these problems. In settler colonial imaginaries, the region appears as a space of promise and possibility. It offers a retreat from a hyper-modernizing world and serves as a bulwark against changes taking place elsewhere. In this way, the region is also a shifting terrain associated with the nation’s moving frontiers and contact zones, as Europeans continually pushed beyond the spaces of their previous settlements. Before the West was called the West, however, it was home to hundreds of tribal groups who did not configure the land through this geographical lens. Likewise, for some Hispanics, it was known as Aztlán, the mythic land of the ancient Aztecs, and also el Norte. Beginning in the mid-19th century, Chinese immigrants called the area in what is present-day California “gold mountain,” while from 1733 to 1867, parts of the West from Alaska to California were recognized as “Russian America.” As a place that calls forth diverse memories about encounters and conflicts, stories about dispossession and recovery, and dreams of enrichment and tales of going bust, the West remains a contested terrain whose literature carries traces of the economies and ecologies of the people who have made it their home.
From the countryside to the city, from the city to foreign lands, people who challenge heteronormative notions of gender and sexual practices have left their place of origin in search for freedom of expression for ages. Despite this, it was only in the late 1980s to early 1990s that migration studies scholars started to look at the role of sexuality within migratory patterns, probably due to historical facts such as the civil rights movements, new trends within feminism (i.e., Third World feminism), the birth of fields that spur on intersectional approaches (such as cultural and LGBTQ studies), and most importantly, the AIDS pandemic and the way it “traveled” around the world, particularly affecting sexual and racial minorities.
Whereas exile is often understood as a legal or political category, sexile may come detached from official institutions and yet still imply an individual’s undesired uprooting from his or her nation state. Building on the scholarship of David William Foster, Arnaldo Cruz-Malavé, José Quiroga, and others, Puerto Rican academic and author Lawrence La Fountain-Stokes was the first to put into circulation the implications of sexual practices and identities for migratory patterns within Latin American literary studies. But it was Puerto Rican sociologist Manolo Guzmán who coined the neologism “sexile” to refer to emigration caused by one’s sexual orientation.
While the practice is, in a sense, a timeless and global phenomenon, it is more common for residents of the Caribbean due to the region’s colonial history. The effects of extended colonialism and its constant cultural contact with previous colonizing empires, as well as neocolonialist socio-economic structures in place at present and common to the geographical zone as a whole, make its development differ from that of other Latin American countries, which obtained independence in the early 19th century. Thus, many of its inhabitants look to move to places such as the United States or Spain, which have commonly influenced their sexual imaginaries, seeking a friendlier environment than that of a region contestably referred to as one of the most homophobic places on earth.
The continued growth of the Asian American population in the US South has redefined the region in terms of its economy, culture, and identity. While the literature associated with the region predominantly focuses on whites and African Americans, several narratives explore the experiences of Asian Americans. These texts span a variety of genres, including memoirs, young adult fiction, and historical analyses. From Chinese immigrant laborers who migrated to the Mississippi Delta during Reconstruction to second-generation Korean Americans growing up in the suburbs of northern Virginia, Asian Americans in the South engender more nuanced interpretations of concepts like race, region, and place-based identities. Writers of Asian descent like Monique Truong and Cynthia Kadohata as well as non-Asian writers like Cynthia Shearer and Robert Olen Butler illustrate the ways in which Asian immigration complicates long-standing notions of Southern culture and identity. Some of their works address the ambiguities of segregation-era racial politics as those defined as neither white nor African American struggle to navigate their place along the color line. These texts feature local-born southerners who perceive Asians as outsiders and in turn, establish both overt and subtler forms of exclusion and surveillance to maintain control. However, the growing visibility of Asians in the region also hints at the possibility of new multiracial and multiethnic coalitions and new communal identities centered on the shared struggle against economic, political, and social inequalities. Several narratives set in the post-Jim Crow South underscore the global networks that connect the South to the rest of the world. Writers have used and continue to employ the Asian American figure as a means to destabilize the white–black racial binary that has long characterized the Southern literary tradition and position the South in a broader, more global context. The emergence of Asian Americans in addition to Latinos and indigenous populations on the Southern literary landscape highlights the diverse cultures and histories that mark the South not as a monolith but rather as a region experiencing constant transformation.
Ju Yon Kim
The term “performance” covers expansive ground: it can suggest theatrical presentation, the demonstration of ability, or the execution of a task. Theories of performance variously emphasize one understanding over others or put multiple conceptions into play. For example, because performance encompasses both theater and “performativity,” or the efficacy of declarations and reiterated acts, the relationship between these distinct kinds of performance has been the subject of fruitful scholarly debate. Yet however elastic the term might be, the field of performance studies has coalesced around questions of embodiment, identification, presence, repetitions, and cultural transmission.
Asian American literature and culture similarly encompasses a wide range of works, but it shares with performance theory an interest in embodiment, identification, and cultural transmission, especially in relation to issues of race and nation. Studies of Asian American literature and culture have moreover turned to performance as an analytic framework and object, emphasizing theatrical models of social interaction, the relationship between performance and performativity, and the potential to respond to the forces of racialization, colonization, and assimilation through various kinds of performances. Although juxtaposing performance theory and literature might seem to run counter to the critical distinction between text and embodiment underscored by academic fields such as performance studies, works of Asian American literature evince an affinity with theories of performance in dramatizing the tension between text and embodiment, particularly in efforts to capture the voices of “Asian America” in accents, dialects, and pidgin. On the stage, productions have taken advantage of the distinct possibilities afforded by performance to explore the complexities of identification, kinship, and memory in the context of migration and racial marginalization.
Alicia Ivonne Estrada
Founded in 2003 by Maya immigrants in Los Angeles, California, the radio program Contacto Ancestral, which airs weekly on the community station KPFK and online, creates a sense of community through the reaffirmation of indigenous cultural practices as well as the construction of a historical memory in the diaspora. This sense of community is particularly highlighted through the articulation of a Maya identity that is linked to indigenous hemispheric struggles and their resistance movements. Through the varied interviews with indigenous elders, activists, and community members on issues that range from the Guatemalan genocide, land, and environmental struggles to the multiple forms of violence faced by indigenous immigrants in the United States Contacto Ancestral creates, to use Ann Cvetkovich’s term, a “community-based archive.” This archive highlights a shared history between indigenous peoples as well as their differences and heterogeneity. In doing so, Contacto Ancestral produces an essential space to link and empower multiple generations of particularly Maya communities living in Mesoamerica, the diaspora, and elsewhere.
American science fiction has been a significant source of ideas and imagination for Japanese creators: they have been producing extensive works of not only written texts but also numerous films, television shows, Japanese comics and cartoons (Manga and Animé), music, and other forms of art and entertainment under its influence. Tracing the history of the import of American science fiction works shows how Japan accepted, consumed, and altered them to create their own mode of science fiction, which now constitutes the core of so-called “Cool-Japan” content. Popular American science fiction emerged from pulp magazines and paperbacks in the early 20th century. In the 1940s, John W. Campbell Jr. and his magazine Astounding Science Fiction had great impact on the genre, propelling its “Golden Age.” In the 1960s, however, American science fiction seemed dated, but the “New Wave” arose in the United Kingdom, which soon affected American writers. With the cyberpunk movement in the 1980s, science fiction became part of postmodernist culture. Japanese science fiction has developed under the influence of American science fiction, especially after WWII. Paperbacks and magazines discarded by American soldiers were handed down to Japanese readers. Many would later become science fiction writers, translators, or editors. Japanese science fiction has mainly followed the line of Golden Age science fiction, which speculates on how science and technology affect the social and human conditions, whereas the New Wave and cyberpunk movements contributed to Japanese postmodernism. Japanese Manga, Animé, and special effects (SFX) television shows and films (Tokusatsu) are also closely related to science fiction and have developed under its influence. Even as works of the Japanese popular culture owe much to American science fiction, they have become popular worldwide.
There is no singular manifestation of Latina/os in the white imagination. Rather, Latina/os occupy various, competing, and interdependent forms of representation. Latina/os are depicted as perpetually foreign and as the future of conservative American values. They are cast as lazy drains on society and as people who outwork Americans and take their jobs. Latinas are rendered as sexy señoritas who desire US white men and as hyper-fertile producers of “anchor babies” in the United States. And these are just a few of the ways in which US whiteness imagines Latina/os. These representations find expression in stereotypes, discursive tropes, and racial scripts—beliefs that explicitly or implicitly take narrative form. As a product of the white imagination, these depictions of Latina/os find expression in a wide array of discursive locations, from film and literature to journalism and political speech, to name a few.
These manifestations of Latinas/os in the white imagination stretch across US history from the late 18th century to the 21st century. These representations have been shaped by and met the exigencies of US whites’ national and racial projects. As such, depictions of Latina/os reveal crucial aspects of US whiteness within a given historical moment and across time. While there are numerous, often contradictory elements of these depictions, they are also interdependent and work together to meet the needs of whiteness. Critically, however, Latinas/os have not been imagined by whiteness without response. Rather, throughout this history, Latinas/os have actively negotiated these dominant racial scripts—from claiming whiteness and citizenship to asserting indigenous heritage or pride in ethnic heritage—in order to meet their own needs.
Josephine Nock-Hee Park
The first wave of the now-canonical literature of the Vietnam War featured the GI grunt, the wary officer, and the rock-and-roll journalist—all embattled and disillusioned white men. These fictions, memoirs, and reportage came to define the expressive labor shaped by the ethical morass of the war, and these differing genres melded in the cinematic renaissance occasioned by the Vietnam War, which installed a generation of American auteurs. Asian American writers contended with this potent cultural formation, not only to critique the popular imagination of white innocence lost, but to claim the force and even intoxication of this cultural juggernaut. Asian American literary texts from the 1970s onward were shaped by the war and its aftermath—notably including the resistance movements it sparked—and the 21st-century rise of Vietnamese American reckonings with the war’s legacy has instigated significant reappraisals of the aims and effects of the war.
The foundational Asian American literary writings of Maxine Hong Kingston and Frank Chin weighed the service of the Asian American soldier in Vietnam in the context of the Third World movements that drove the formation of Asian American studies. A decade later, the publication of bestselling memoirs by Le Ly Hayslip, popularly heralded as the emergence of a Vietnamese American voice, marked the origins of a burgeoning field of writing, wide-ranging in form and genre but arrayed alongside and against the mainstream imagination of Vietnam. The major fiction of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer (2015) has come to stand as a culminating literary riposte to the canonized first wave of Vietnam War literature: Nguyen’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel exposes long-standing fictions of U.S. conduct and foregrounds a complex Asian American and refugee perspective. Asian American literature of the Vietnam War expresses a dynamic range of felt responses to the cultural history of the war to produce imaginative work that interrogates the war’s iconic images and reveals its unseen subjects.
The social and political conditions actuated by 9/11 have been a major catalyst for new literature, television and film about South Asians and Muslims in America. Stemming from a 2001 speech by then president George W. Bush, the concept of the “War on Terror” has served to rationalize the domestic regulation of Muslims, while also validating the need for US imperialist and capitalist expansion. Where US government discourse highlights first-person narratives that figure America as a benevolent global protector of freedom and democracy, South Asian American fictional and non-fictional narratives posit critiques of Islamophobia and the US security state. Spanning a breadth of genres and styles, including the paradigmatic 9/11 novel, the bildungsroman, comedic satire, dramatic monologue, magic realism, documentary film, and urban fiction, South Asian American literature and media highlight narratives of interfaith and cross-racial solidarity. The imaginary worlds of these texts confront the injustices of US imperialism and the global War on Terror for Muslim communities both in the United States and abroad. At the same, South Asian American representation engaged with the impacts of post-9/11 politics and society has enriched understanding of the complex lived experiences of Pakistani and Bangladeshi Americans, as well as those of Indian Americans who are Muslim or trace their ancestry to the Sikh-majority state of Punjab. By centering the perspectives of those communities most affected by detention, xenophobia, and surveillance, post-9/11 South Asian American literature and media reveal how the exigencies of history produce new forms of narrative and cultural practice.