David S. Reynolds
The richest period in American literary history, the American Renaissance (1830–1865) produced Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, and Emily Dickinson. A distinction is traditionally made between the so-called light or optimistic authors (Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman) and the dark or gloomy ones (Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville), with Emily Dickinson, occupying a middle ground, shifting between the light and the dark. Optimistic themes included nature’s miraculous beauty, spiritual truths behind the physical world, the primacy of the poetic imagination, and the potential divinity of each individual. Pessimistic ones included haunted minds, perverse or criminal impulses, doubt, and ambiguity. Americans probed these themes with special intensity largely because of the nation’s Puritan heritage. Calvinist preachers from John Cotton through Jonathan Edwards had devoted their lives to probing ultimate questions about death, God, and human nature. When this metaphysical impulse collided with 19th-century skepticism and secularism, the result was literature that ranged from the exhilarating to the disquieting, from Emerson’s affirmations to the ambiguities of Hawthorne and Melville. The American authors were strongly influenced by foreign literature, from the ancients to the Romantics. This transnational influence mingled with the styles and idioms of an emerging popular culture that was distinctively American, divided between conventional, sentimental-domestic writings and sensational or grotesquely humorous ones. Integrating themes and images from this variegated popular culture, the major authors also projected in their works the paradoxes of a nation that promoted both individualism and union, that touted freedom but tolerated chattel slavery, that preached equality but witnessed widening class divisions and the oppression of women, blacks, and Native Americans. These oppressed groups produced a literary corpus of their own that was once neglected but that has assumed a significant place in the American canon.
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).
The Cold War (defined here by the popular, though much-questioned, time frame of 1947–1991) coincides initially with a post-World War II wave of literature by Asian Americans as well as reforms affecting immigration numbers and national origins. Post-1965, further immigration reform and refugee admission led to a different wave of authors, which coincides in its turn with geopolitical shifts, including the ongoing massive conflicts and regime changes in Asia, that would ultimately lead to rapprochement and the generally accepted end of the Cold War around the late 1980s. Furthermore, these years coincide with the birth of pan-Asian American consciousness and political movements in the late 1960s and 1970s. Thus, there is an unsurprising plethora of literature from this era, as well as an increasing volume of literary criticism on it, though neither usually treats the geopolitical or domestic US concerns most commonly identified with the Cold War. Asian American literature and authors importantly fit the logic of the early Cold War by illustrating, as proto-model minorities, the blessings of life in America as a contrast to an increasingly Communist-identified Asia after the “loss” of China to Communism in 1949. Their identification with Confucian or other traditional ideals also made them role models for the domestic social containment that constrained middle-class America to conformity in the 1950s (though, of course, there were less mainstream narratives that combated this trend). However, both of these narratives shifted in the 1970s. From exemplary immigrants, Asian American literary depictions turned toward much more ambivalent and traumatized refugees, chiefly from Southeast Asia. Likewise, a generation of authors rebelling against the model minority image protested racial inequities in both a domestic and international framework. Linking nation and globe via Third World solidarity, later Cold War works and post-Cold War reflections on the period heavily critiqued the US military presence in Asia and reflected on the enduring traumas and difficulties of racialization for Asian Americans inextricably identified as foreign or Other. Calling for civil rights out of a re-narrated history of exclusion, incarceration, and discrimination, rather than appealing to the vague pluralism of the early Cold War, Asian American literature illustrates this era’s conflict through exemplars of containment and a more explicitly revolutionary and diverse set of works.
Theresa Delgadillo and Leila Vieira
Latinx literature in the Midwest encompasses work created by authors from a variety of backgrounds, with authors of Mexican, Puerto Rican, and Cuban descent predominating in literature that takes locations throughout the region as its settings. Although much work focuses on Chicago, the multiple Latinidades of the region appear in fiction and poetry from across the region. Regarding genre, most of this literature falls into the categories of novel, short story, and poetry; however, works such as prose poems, novels in verse, heavily footnoted fiction, or metaliterary texts challenge genre boundaries and reveal Latinx literary innovation. This literature emerges from the history and experience of Latinx migration to the region, which dates back to the beginning of the 20th century, and, not surprisingly, that history often figures in the literature. Spanish-language Latinx literature about the Midwest also exists, and like its English-language counterpart, often addresses transnational experiences. Major publishers have made the work of Latinx authors in the Midwest well-known, yet there are also vibrant cultures of small press, community, and collective publishing, and self-publishing, through which Latinx authors have shared their talents with wider audiences in and beyond the region.
Some of the themes addressed by Latinx literature in the Midwest are migration, with characters coming both from other regions of the United States and directly from Latin America; labor, mostly industrial and agricultural work, but also involving characters in the service sector and professionals; belonging and the question of what and where home is and how to create this space in the Midwest; environment and gentrification; transnationalism, often evoking different ethnic backgrounds from the present; family relationships; gender and sexuality, focusing on what it means to be Latinx and part of the LGBTQ community and situations of discrimination with families and workplaces; race, including Afro-Latinx characters; and religion and spirituality, looking not only to Catholicism, but also to Judaism and African diaspora–inspired systems of Orisha worship.
Not until the end of the 20th century did scholars begin to look at early African American print culture in the depth it deserves. A story painfully intertwined with the transatlantic slave system and racism, early black print engagement combined, from its beginnings, responses to white aggression and a powerful set of individual and communal desires to read about, record, and, via print, share truths of black life in the United States. Some of the first creators of black print in the United States, from the authors of the earliest slave narratives to poet Phillis Wheatley, had to think through questions of individual and communal identity vis-à-vis emerging American socio-political structures and find ways to ensure control over their own voices in a white-dominated culture that tried to exclude, use, or abuse those voices.
But early black print culture is not simply the story of a single genre like the slave narrative or of exceptional individuals like Wheatley. Rather, it is also the story of organizational print tied to churches, conventions, and activist groups. It is as well the story of a diverse range of modes, from the rich pamphleteering tradition (perhaps most excitingly expressed by David Walker) to early black periodicals like those edited by Samuel Cornish and Philip Bell. Especially after 1830, it also became the story of a range of black women (from Maria Stewart and Jarena Lee to Frances Ellen Watkins Harper), of African Americans across the North (and occasionally in the midst of the slave South), and of an increasing number of formats, genres, and approaches. And it became a story of how black activists might interact (in print and beyond) with white antislavery activists, recognizing both shared and different goals and philosophies as they attempted to fight not only for emancipation but for broader civil rights.
Edward Halsey Foster
Queer theory, a subject of much controversy among academics and literary critics in recent decades, raises crucial questions regarding the reception and creation of literary texts. Advocates of queer theory claim that both heterosexuality and homosexuality are socially constructed and that there is nothing “natural” about any sexual identity. Literary works traditionally seen as expressions of their authors' feeling or presence, as is the case with lyric poems, must now be reconceived as political discourse. The individual and his or her writings are no longer considered to be “essentially” gay or straight but instead are components in a broad political discourse. Queer theory is by no means universally accepted—its critics include such well-known scholars as Rictor Norton (b. 1945) and the best-selling author Camille Paglia (b. 1947)—but the vast majority of academic literary studies of gay writers follow its dictates.
Asian American literature and art have had an illuminating effect on the significance of human rights in the United States and in national culture. Americans are often assumed to enjoy exceptional liberties and rights, which they seek in turn to deliver to other people, in other parts of the world. However, Asian American cultural critique provides an incisive perspective on the limits of citizenship and national belonging as the basis for the granting of fundamental human freedoms, rights, and protections to all persons. The legal exclusion of Asians from immigration and naturalization, as well as from other forms of social and economic security such as property ownership, has long been justified through the construction of Asian racial difference. Reforms in immigration law after World War II, which did eventually transform Asian American life in the United States, took place in the context of a “global Cold War,” and during the same period that saw the institution of an international human rights regime. “Integration” proved as essential a mandate in US domestic and foreign policy as did “containment” in this global conflict. As a result, not only has the Asian American population grown significantly and become more heterogeneous since the late 20th century, the nation has seen the flourishing of Asian American literary and cultural production. Asian American writers and artists have been especially keen to investigate the political, legal, and ideological tensions and contradictions that pervade the postsocialist world and the war on terror. Their works explore the political precarity faced by those caught between the contradictions of neoliberal multiculturalism, the logics and technologies of state security, and the legal tethering of human rights to citizenship.
James Kyung-Jin Lee
Alongside readings of Asian American literature that foreground the racial, gender, class, and transnational constitution of the community and the writers that produced literary work, one may consider how ill, disabled, and wounded embodiment work their way into the literature as well. Indeed, one might go as far to say that these differential modes of embodiment are constitutive of the corpus of Asian American literature itself, for illness and disability are often, though not always, the somatic expression of the kinds of racial and other forms of violence that Asian American authors take up as central themes. To explore the world of illness and disability and to pay attention to the ways that wounded embodiment figures in the literary provide a critical index of how Asian Americans have been and are valued. Moreover, to take the Asian American ill and disabled body in literature seriously as producing specific narratives themselves, rather than merely more deficient versions of those produced by their able-bodied counterparts, is to read Asian American literature as a site through which new ideas of sociality, intersubjectivity, and care might be possible, which then may trigger new political imaginations. Whether reading in Asian American literature’s most historical and canonical works traces of illness, disability, and wounded embodiment’s marks or the early-21st-century “boom” in nonfiction that attends to questions of illness and disability, death and dying, a generative, even capacious, understanding of Asian America emerges from the shadows of what was previously known and knowable as a social identity.
Michael R. Griffiths
Indigenous people in Australia have used inscriptive practices for at least 65,000 years and have employed alphabetic writing extensively since contact with Europeans, but the latter half of the 20th century saw an even wider explosion of indigenous writing in Australia. Aboriginal writers have worked across all modes: poetry (beginning with Oodgeroo Noonuccal in the 1960s), theater (flourishing in the 1970s with the National Black Theatre and spreading as far afield as Western Australia with the formation of Jack Davis’s Yirra Yaakin Aboriginal Theatre Company), the novel, and the proliferation of life writing in the 1980s. In each case, indigenous writing in postwar Australia balances the aesthetic with the political, drawing in transnational influences while also foregrounding local concerns.
Known primarily as the author of On the Road (1957), the novel most closely associated with the Beat Generation, Jack Kerouac (1922–1969) also wrote extensively about his French-Canadian heritage. A native of the large francophone community of Lowell, Massachusetts, he faced the dilemma of writing in a foreign language, English, while one of his motives to write was to memorialize a community assimilating to U.S. society and speaking French less and less. The recent publication of his two short novels in French from the early 1950s, La nuit est ma femme (The Night Is My Woman) and Sur le chemin (Old Bull in the Bowery), provides evidence that the preoccupation with travel informing On the Road is deeply tied to his sense of cultural and linguistic exile. Hundreds of thousands of immigrants from Quebec to New England in the 19th and early 20th centuries practiced survivance, cultural survival, especially through maintaining fluency in French and adhering to Catholicism while living among a Protestant majority. These customs of the Quebecois diaspora had begun in Canada: following the 1763 annexation of Lower Canada to Britain at the end of the French and Indian War, francophones resisted immense pressure to assimilate, both official and unofficial. Narratives of displacement from France and subsequently Quebec persisted in folklore and literature on both sides of the border through the 20th century.
In early 1951, Kerouac drafted La nuit est ma femme, telling the story of Michel Bretagne, a French Canadian from New England who wanders around the eastern United States with a sense of homelessness. Narrating in a French that reproduces the southern New England dialect, Michel laments that neither of the languages he speaks really belongs to him. The text develops the theme of cultural and linguistic mixing and its discovery through travel. Shortly after completing La nuit est ma femme, Kerouac brought this theme to On the Road, famously composing the novel on a roll of paper in three weeks in April 1951. Contrary to legend, he did extensive rewriting before his landmark work was published: Sur le chemin, which he drafted in late 1952, offers an “on the road” story about Franco-Americans and was by his own account a key part of the rewriting process. During this time, he elaborated his theory of “spontaneous prose,” writing quickly and in an improvisational manner as a way of conveying geographic, cultural, and linguistic movement. In the wake of On the Road’s depictions of the expanses of the United States, including its geographic place in North America, Kerouac turned to Franco-American New England. His next book, Dr. Sax (1959), takes place in Lowell and features lengthy passages in French; the novel’s central concerns are his community’s relationship to a legacy of displacement and the conflict between clinging to the past and creating something new. If there is a principal thrust in Kerouac’s writing, it is to challenge American literature to recognize its transnational and translingual character.
Thomas Xavier Sarmiento
Literature that features Asian Americans in the Midwest simultaneously functions as an archive that documents the existence and experiences of people of Asian descent in the heartland and as a provocation to reimagine the relationship between race, place, and (trans)national belonging. Although Asian people have been immigrating to the middle of the country since the late 19th century, the Midwest continues to figure as a hinterland where Asian people do not reside and have no desire to visit. Thus, fictional, semi-fictional, and autobiographical accounts of the region from the perspective of Asian Americans, spanning at least eight decades, help debunk the impression that Asian Americans are practically nonexistent in the Midwest, or that Midwestern Asian Americans do not have an authentic sense of racial-ethnic identity. These novels, short stories, memoirs, and plays not only engage the strangeness of being of Asian descent in America’s heartland, but also they explore imaginative ideas of affinity and place: what it means to dream of elsewheres or to rework the realities of “here” from the lens of so-called nowheres. Some of these texts depict the history of Asian migration to and refugee resettlement in the US interior, gesturing toward alternative genealogies of movement and displacement. Others create new worlds that fuse food (e.g., pop and tea, hotdish and chicken afritada), language, and other transcultural practices. Midwestern Asian American literature encompasses stories by and about East Asian, Southeast Asian, and South Asian peoples whose lives intersect with gender, sexuality, class, and ableness. Literature about Asian Americans in the Midwest often communicates a sense of racial isolation: the loneliness and abjection Asian Americans feel in being the only Asian person or one of a handful of persons treading in a sea of whiteness. However, it also can provoke readers to reimagine the Midwest as Asian, female empowering, and queer. Whereas dominant cultural attitudes often associate the region as devoid of people, opportunities, and racial, gender, and sexual diversity, Midwestern Asian American literature represents the heartland as abundant, with counter-narratives that encompass emotional attachments to place, social interactions different from those on the coasts, and Asian American characters who inhabit areas that are often seen as incompatible with, if not hostile to, cultural difference. The range of stories indicates more broadly that there is no unified Asian Midwest or Asian American experience. Rather, the literature of Asian Americans in the Midwest calls attention to the significance of space and place in conceptualizing racial formations as diverse and dynamic.
Prose is a fabrication, not a linguistic axiom. It has a complex history well before its intricate literary genealogy. Made, not given, prose comes down to modern use with the form, formally determined, of a world-historical invention. As culturally significant in its evolutionary advent as in its ramified means of reporting event, prose thus bears with it a biography as telling as the fictional narratives it eventually serves to recount. Born of empiricism and print culture, prose is neither neutered poetry nor transcribed speech. Only its immediate ancestry is oratorical. Nonetheless, when “modern prose” is launched by leaving embellished declamatory models behind for the reign, first of epistemological lucidity, later of verisimilitude in narrative fiction, the oral is not thereby cancelled entirely. For prose, not unlike poetry, makes—and shapes—its way by incorporating the subvocal underlay of alphabetic (hence phonemic) language into the rhythms of its evoked readerly enunciation. It is in this fashion, by tapping its own linguistic platform or substrate, that prose comes to seem, more than otherwise, a medium rather than just one among several contested rhetorical means. Long after the modified or overthrown “plain style” taken up by early fiction like that of Daniel Defoe or Jonathan Swift, prose’s developing tendency to recover language’s silent phonetic resonance anticipates, in turn, one major Victorian inheritance from the complexities of Romantic verse sonority: a legacy that renders, ever afterward, the idea of “prose poetics” anything but an oxymoron. Here, too, is where the idea of “style” persists as an ongoing flashpoint for literary response. From Charles Dickens and Herman Melville to Joseph Conrad, for instance, we hear the potential sounding of theme in the depth charges of fictional prose. At the same time, from Jane Austen to Virginia Woolf, we can track an alternate mode of deflected orality in the “free indirect discourse” of surfaced inner speech—not overheard talk, these elicited mental monologues, but their own kind of artificial and subliminal eavesdropping—as they channel the cadences of represented psychology. Channel: in precisely that sense of a medium by which prose can best be understood and studied, both in the ecology of modern literary communication and in its reframing by media theory.
Elizabeth le Roux
South Africa’s literary history is divided across both language and race. A survey of the country’s publishing history provides a lens for examining these diverse literatures in an integrated way, by focusing on the production context, the circulation, and the readership. The key threads in South Africa’s publishing history can be traced to influences operating outside publishing: the influence of colonial governance, followed by the nationalist government and its apartheid system, and then the post-apartheid influence of transformation. All these factors reveal ongoing attempts by the government of the day to regulate and control publishing and the circulation of information. However, publishing history requires further study to better understand how publishing has evolved in South Africa, and how that permitted or prevented authors from circulating their work to readers.
Queer South Asian Diasporas can refer to the individuals and communities of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) people who trace their ancestry to the South Asian subcontinent, but have lived beyond its borders. These communities and individuals generate vibrant forms of cultural production: writing, activism, filmmaking, performance art, and creative manipulations of everyday practice. Additionally, queer diaspora can refer to a particular way of analyzing South Asian public cultures and discourse through a transnational lens with an eye toward the ways that normative genders and sexualities are managed and manipulated to secure and undo nationalist projects. Given the dislocation rendered by pushes and pulls from multiple nations and communities, a common theme in the theorization of queer diaspora and the representation of LGBTQ South Asian life is the struggle over and production of “home” as physical space, affective landscape, and shared embodiment. Theories of queer diaspora help scholars understand how some practices that are not particularly associated with mainstream queer identities can be interpreted as queer, especially when read in the context of South Asian histories. The homosociality of South Asian domestic life, filmic conventions, and ritual practices lend themselves to queer interpretations. While these intimacies do not read as queer to everyone, LGBTQ South Asians precisely apprehend these queer possibilities as alternatives to white and Western gay habitus. Also, queer diaspora explains that migrant, postcolonial subjects are often perceived as having non-normative genders and sexualities given the ways that imperial projects have managed those aspects of human life. This framework is reflected in the narratives of LGBTQ South Asians who name how their (un)desirability is based on race, including the hair on their body, their ethnic heritage, and the stereotypes they are associated with.
“South Asia” is the term used to refer to that part of Asia that comprises Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. South Asian American literary studies emerged from the ethnic studies movements in the United States during the late 1960s. Asian American literary studies has analyzed poetry, fiction, memoir, and drama by writers of South Asian descent living in the United States, first by looking at the principal thematic impulses found in the writings and the literary techniques employed by authors from the early 1900s into the 21st century. Scholars have also argued that the worldviews and representations of South Asian American writers, sometimes considered within the category of “postcolonial” literature rather than multiethnic literature, gesture beyond the narrow confines of genre, nation, religion, ethnicity, and culture. South Asian American literary studies illuminates these texts’ unexpected connectivities, global vision, and entwined histories and highlights how those who read them have the opportunity to enlarge their consciousness.
Abram C. Van Engen
The Salem witch trials have gripped American imaginations ever since they occurred in 1692. At the end of the 17th century, after years of mostly resisting witch hunts and witch trial prosecutions, Puritans in New England suddenly found themselves facing a conspiracy of witches in a war against Satan and his minions. What caused this conflict to erupt? Or rather, what caused Puritans to think of themselves as engaged, at that moment, in such a cosmic battle? These are some of the mysteries that the Salem witch trials have left behind, taken up and explored not just by each new history of the event but also by the literary imaginations of many American writers.
The primary explanations of Salem set the crisis within the context of larger developments in Puritan society. Though such developments could be traced to the beginning of Puritan settlement in New England, most commentators focus on shifts occurring near the end of the century. This was a period of intense economic change, with new markets emerging and new ways of making money. It was also a time when British imperial interests were on the rise, tightening and expanding an empire that had, at times, been somewhat loosely held together. In the midst of those expansions, British colonists and settlers faced numerous wars on their frontiers, especially in northern New England against French Catholics and their Wabanaki allies. Finally, New England underwent, resented, and sometimes resisted intense shifts in government policy as a result of the changing monarchy in London. Under James II, Massachusetts Bay lost its original charter, which had upheld the Puritan way for over fifty years. A new government imposed royal rule and religious tolerance. With the overthrow of James II in the Glorious Revolution, the Massachusetts Bay government carried on with no official charter or authority from 1689 until 1691. When a new charter arrived during the midst of the Salem witch hunt, it did not restore all the privileges, positions, or policies of the original “New England Way,” and many lamented what they had lost. In other words, in 1692, New England faced economic, political, and religious uncertainty while suffering from several devastating battles on its northern frontier. All of these factors have been used to explain Salem.
When Governor William Phips finally halted the trials, nineteen had been executed, five had died in prison, and one man had been pressed to death for refusing to speak. Protests began almost immediately with the first examinations of the accused, and by the time the trials ended, almost all agreed that something had gone terribly wrong. Even so, the population could not necessarily agree on an explanation for what had occurred. Publishing any talk of the trials was prohibited, but that ban was quickly broken. Since 1695, interpretations have rolled from the presses, and American literature—in poems, plays, and novels—has attempted to make its own sense and use of what one scholar calls the mysterious and terrifying “specter of Salem.”
Julie Buckner Armstrong
Southern literature provides numerous, diverse responses to the civil rights era. Produced during the movement itself and continuing into the 21st century, southern civil rights writing appears as poetry, drama, memoir, graphic narrative, short stories, and novels, including literary fiction and bestsellers. Movement-related works commemorate events, places, and people both famous and unknown. Authors speak of political awakening to systemic racism and violence. They consider the effectiveness of organizing tactics and the ethical implications of resistance strategies. They write compellingly about the ways segregation, protest, race relations, and sweeping social changes affect individuals and their relationships. Southern literature also exists in complex relationship to the civil rights era due in part to both terms’ fluid, evolving definitions. “Southern literature” can refer to works written in and about the American South, yet both of these categories remain more dynamic than static. The South is demarcated geographically as the United States’ southeastern and south central tier and historically as a region with ties to the former Confederacy. The South’s vexed legacy of slavery and segregation plays a role in defining a regional identity that some consider to be distinctive in terms of dialect, food culture, and an emphasis on conservative views of family, community, religion, place, and history. Many scholars, however, see constructions of a distinct southern identity with an accompanying literature as outmoded, particularly in an era of shifting demographics within the US and globalization more broadly. Like “southern literature,” the “civil rights era” resists rigid definition. The movement itself can refer to the period from the US Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision desegregating public schools to the 1965 Voting Rights Act—an era focused on specific civil rights leadership, goals, and, notably, the American South. Alternatively, one can define the movement more comprehensively to look at what happened before and after “the King years,” referring to the period’s iconic figure Martin Luther King Jr. This version of civil rights extends the movement to points North and West, includes Black Power (typically focused on the late 1960s and early 1970s), and links it to contemporaneous human rights and post-colonial struggles. Authors from the American South respond to this broader story by connecting the movement to issues such as immigration; policing and incarceration; economic and environmental justice; and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights. Here writers depict a dynamic, multifaceted South that continues striving to transform political ideals into realities.
(East and Southeast) Asian Canadian literature has consistently been preoccupied with the transpacific: from its lived spaces, its imagined ones, and its hybrid literary constructions. This body of literature includes narratives of arrival, autobiographical texts, historiographic novels, magical realist fiction, and experimental poetry. While these texts have usually been read through historical frameworks, thinking through them spatially enables us to understand and trace the alternate geographies of mobility, belonging, and cultural change beyond the project of the Canadian nation. These texts are predicated on transnational spaces of commerce and labor, trauma and resistance, refuge and liminality, and mobility and materiality. They reflect and produce the complex and overlapping trajectories of communities and individuals from East and Southeast Asia. From fictions of Chinatown to testimonies of racist dispersal and exclusion, refugee narratives to speculative decolonial futures, Asian Canadian literature has shaped both rural and urban Canadian spaces and their transnational and local textures. Thinking through the transpacific spaces in the literature points to the ways in which racist and exclusionary policies have shaped the landscapes and social spaces of the nation whether through immigration laws or forcible dispossession and internment. Yet, it also gives rise to the possibilities of new collectivities and communities within and beyond the nation-state. In the face of unequal globalization and movements of labor and capital, this mode of analysis points to possible indigenous and diasporic solidarities and place-making. Contemporary texts from Asian Canadian writers also evince a consciousness of Canadian bioregions and the confrontation of extraction economics that allows for a discussion of intersectionality in the context of environmental humanities and ecocriticism.
While the Vietnam War looms large in American national culture of the 20th century, Vietnam, Vietnamese people, and Vietnamese American experiences have been little attended to. Vietnamese American literature engages this erasure both in writing about Vietnamese perspectives on that war and by expanding the signification of “Vietnam” beyond being a synonym for a war. Beginning in the 1960s, Vietnamese American literature in English was dominated for the next few decades by memoirs, largely designed to educate American readers about Vietnamese politics and history. Rather than continuing to offer Vietnam as it appears in much other American literature, as a surreal backdrop to a US psychic wound, these writers narrate Vietnam, Vietnamese people, and Vietnamese Americans with autonomous geographical, philosophical, emotional, and intellectual presence and perspective, and often provide direct analysis and critique of both the South Vietnamese regime and its American ally. In the late 20th and 21st centuries, Vietnamese American literature has diversified in both form and content, expanding the field beyond direct engagement with the Vietnam War and the refugee experience, in work that rewrites canonical Western characters and genres, that challenges normative literary forms as well as social identities, and that explores US racialization, consumerism, and popular culture. In addition to writing Vietnam and Vietnamese American experiences into the national American imaginary landscape, this literature reconfigures the demonized and threatening tropes of the threatening, untrustworthy “gook,” and the passive, dependent “victim” figure, into the socially necessary and beneficial “critical refugee.” Through the experiences of marginalization, trauma, and survival, the critical refugee possesses insights and knowledge necessary for a 21st century of increasing displaced populations, whether from war, famine, or natural disaster. This critical perspective is also more transnational than nationalistic or exilic, exploring both physical and imaginary transnational connections.
Vietnamese Canadian refugee aesthetics are the diverse expressions of how hundreds of thousands of refugees and their descendants experienced the Vietnam War and its aftermath. They are shaped on the one hand by a history of war in, and forced migration from, Vietnam and on the other by resettlement in multicultural Canada. Significantly, Vietnamese Canadian refugee aesthetics are produced within a distinct context of Canadian “forgetting of complicity” in the Vietnam War. A major shaping force of this aesthetics is the idea that Canada was an innocent bystander or facilitator of peace during the war years, instead of a complicit participant providing arms and supporting a Western bloc victory. This allows, then, for a discourse of Canadian humanitarianism to emerge as Canada resettled refugees in the war’s wake. Vietnamese Canadian refugee aesthetics are produced and received in relation to the enduring narrative of Canadian benevolence. In this way, they celebrate the nation-state and its peoples through gratitude for the gift of refuge. More importantly, however, they illuminate life during and in the wake of war; the personal, political, and historical reasons for migration; the struggles and triumphs of resettlement; and the complexities of diasporic existence. Refugee aesthetics are driven by memory and the desire to commemorate, communicate, and make sense of difficult pasts and the embodied present. They often take the form of literary works such as memoirs, novels, and poetry, but they are also found in community politics and activism such as commemoration events and protests, and other popular media like public service videos. Produced by refugees as well as the state, these aesthetic “texts” index themes and problematics such as the formation of voice; the interplay between memory, history, and identity; the role of autobiography; and the modes of representing war, violence, and refuge-seeking.