The 19th century featured two opposed yet interconnected historical trends: the growth of a multigenerational and deeply rooted Chinese American community; and the development of the cultural prejudices and fears comprised by the Yellow Peril narrative. Those xenophobic fears produced violence, social and political movements, and legal exclusions, culminating in the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and its many follow-up laws and policies, all designed as much to destroy the existing Chinese American community as to restrict future immigration. But out of that period of exclusion and oppression came some of the first Chinese American literary and cultural works published in both Mandarin/Cantonese and English: the personal and collective poems carved into the walls of the Angel Island Immigration Station by detainees; auto-ethnographic memoirs of Chinese American life and community such as Yung Wing’s My Life in China and America (1909); and the journalistic, autobiographical, and fictional works of Edith Maude Eaton/Sui Sin Far, the first Chinese American professional creative writer. These works both reflect and transcend the realities of the Exclusion era, helping contemporary audiences understand those histories, connect them to later Chinese American writers, and analyze the exclusionary debates and proposals of the early 21st century.
Andrew Way Leong
Early Japanese American literature is not just the sum total of literary works written by the first persons of Japanese descent in the United States. Nor is it just a set of texts where two pre-existing categories of “Japanese” and “American” national literature happened to overlap. Early Japanese American literature is best understood as an ideological terrain, an arena where later, taken-for-granted ideas about the boundaries of identities and literatures known as “Japanese” and “Japanese American” were first constructed.
Due to the enduring legacies of single-nation and monolingual approaches to the study of modern literatures, only a handful of scholars have devoted serious comparative attention to the long history and formal breadth of literary production by persons of Japanese descent who traveled to or resided within the continental United States. In linguistic terms, early Japanese American literary production includes works written in Japanese, English, and other languages, such as classical Chinese, German, and Russian. In historical terms, the emergence of early Japanese American literature extends from travel narratives produced by castaways in the 1820s to the publication of full-fledged literary magazines and newspaper sections in the 1890s. In formal terms, early Japanese American literature includes literary forms that readers more familiar with European contexts might associate with early modernity, such as phrasebooks, essays on education, spiritual autobiographies, and diplomatic guides.
Daniel Y. Kim
Since the late 1990s, a growing number of US authors has been drawn to the Korean War, hoping to undo its status as “The Forgotten War.” The fact that it has served as the focus of novels by eminent Korean American authors like Chang-rae Lee and Susan Choi is not entirely surprising, given that they are the children of immigrants whose early lives had been shaped by the conflict. Given the extraordinarily high number of civilian deaths that resulted from the war and the many families that were fractured, the war is clearly a defining event that helped create a Korean diaspora. It has also become the focus, however, of novels by non-Korean American authors, including Toni Morrison, Rolando Hinojosa, and Ha Jin, which testifies to the fact that it was an event in which a number of domestic histories of race and transnational histories of empire converged. The body of literary works that have emerged around this event can be thought of as constituting an archive of what Michael Rothberg has termed “multidirectional memory,” one that suggests the intimacies of multiple histories involving not only Koreans and Korean Americans, but also other US racialized groups including African, Mexican, Chinese, and Japanese Americans as well as their connections to the complicated formations of empire that have shaped the relationships between Asian nations. Contending with the complexity and range of literary works that have centered on this event enables a reconsideration and expansion of what the proper subjects and objects of Asian American literary criticism are. If the field has outgrown its origins, in which the projection of a cultural nationalist vision of Asian American identity was a paramount goal, the vibrancy of these works stems from their soundings of a subject that is not univocal but multivocal. The political desires they seek to animate in their readers are not reducible to an agenda of combating domestic racism or consolidating a nativist notion of Asian American cultural identity, though they may contribute to such endeavors. More expansively, however, they articulate a multivalent range of progressive political aspirations and proliferate an array of identificatory possibilities.
“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.
Although it may not be a truth universally acknowledged, the pages of Asian American literature are nevertheless filled with complex representations of transpacific women. These constructions of Asian femininity counter the more recognizable versions of Asian women that have circulated from the late 19th century to the present: archetypes of the Asian mother as symbolic of a lost homeland, the exotic and submissive Asian butterfly, or the vilified and dangerous dragon lady. These persistent characterizations of Asian femininity are in one sense no surprise, especially given the longstanding Orientalist binary (Edward Said) that imagined the East as the West’s submissive and feminized other and the frequent connection between women and the land in nationalist fiction. As a critical framework and archival methodology, transpacific femininities reconfigures the centrality of gender, sexuality, and transpacific experience to Asian American literature. Transpacific femininities was originally conceived as a mode of analysis for a specific historical context and literary form: the Philippines in the early to mid-20th century and representations of women in prose. But it is ultimately a more capacious model that (a) recovers a long history of the importance of women to transpacific literature, (b) carefully considers how multiple empires and nations influenced the Pacific, and (c) counters the feminization of Asia by revealing how writers were actively involved in redefining the terms of national identities, communities, and transpacific relations. The plural “femininities” underscores instability and contradictions in texts and authorial strategies, for while transpacific femininities is above all a feminist way of reading, the term also recognizes that these authors and texts do not all advocate feminist practices.