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Nature has, like love, been an essential topic for authors in every language and every literary form. The first thing to acknowledge about the term nature writing is that it conventionally refers to a distinctive category of nonfiction, not to the entire spectrum of literature about the natural world. The present survey is further restricted to American nature writing, though the genre has also developed in many other countries. The American lineage of nature writing has been especially influenced by the work of Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862), who combined journal-based descriptions of the New England landscape and knowledgeable appreciation of science with lyrical prose, receptiveness to nature’s human and transcendent meanings, and a highly personal voice.
Thoreau’s own orientation to solitude, wildness, and the music of nature has also been complemented, however, and in some cases forcefully challenged, by subsequent writers focusing on urban landscapes; environmental justice; the impact of gender, class, and race on our visions of nature; environmental justice; food and agriculture; and material culture. Many literary scholars also now prefer to consider nature writing under the multi-genre and international rubric of “environmental literature.” Nevertheless, this particular form remains a vital model for integrating imaginative literature with close observation of natural phenomena. Today’s writers continue to find, with Thoreau, that books “with earth adhering to their roots” may blossom in the human spirit, revitalizing individual lives even as they also address the urgent environmental and cultural challenges we now confront.
Although largely disregarded since the humanistic turn of ecocriticism at the beginning of the 21st century, nature writing has continued to play an important role in nurturing trans-Pacific, and transnational, literary environmentalism. Euro-American traditions dominate this literary genre, but it nevertheless involves cross-cultural traffic of ideas and thoughts. Its trans-Pacific presence, mostly through American influences on works in Japan, demonstrates in three ways how American nature writing has been cultivating Japanese literary soil and has in turn been nurtured by it, albeit less conspicuously. First, Henry David Thoreau’s influence on Japanese literary environmentalism, especially his philosophy of plain living and high thinking, helped engender a tradition of nature writing in Japan that began with Nozawa Hajime—often called the “Japanese Thoreau”—and has been developed by those who followed, including Ashizawa Kazuhiro and Takada Hiroshi. Second, interactions between pastoralism and a new mode of environmental awareness show that the seemingly American notion of “wild awareness” and the Japanese concept of aware have materialized as a new environmental sensitivity in Japan and in the United States, respectively, reflecting cross-cultural nurturing of environmental ideas, thoughts, and practices. Finally, there has been a subtle yet radical impact of American counterculture on Japanese nature writing, exemplified by Nashiki Kaho’s literary hybridity, based on her integration of the traditional with the radical.
Literature on Hiroshima and Nagasaki cannot be limited to works on the atomic bomb or fiction referring specifically to these locations. Rather, in the nuclear age, it must include a variety of literary works that are conscious of the destiny of the earth, given the danger of nuclear pollution, and engage with the terrible fantasy of the end of the world. As John W. Treat states in his influential critical work, Writing Ground Zero: Japanese Literature and the Atomic Bomb, “The concept of hibakusha now has to extend to everyone alive today in any region of the planet” (x–xi).
The range of nuclear-themed works that symbolically invoke Hiroshima or Nagasaki is enormous. Nuclear literature as a creation of survivors, or spiritual survivors, focuses on an awareness of the planetary catastrophe concerning Los Alamos, Trinity Site, the ground zeroes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and other global nuclear zones. The two nuclear sites in Japan (Hiroshima and Nagasaki) and in the United States (Los Alamos and Trinity Site) are historically connected. The authors and protagonists of nuclear literature have literal and affective transpacific and cross-cultural experiences that when considered together seek to overcome the tragic experience of the first nuclear bomb and bombing, including the Japanese acceptance of American nuclear fictions during the Cold War.
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.
Aaron K. DiFranco
One of the most prolific poets of the late twentieth century, A. R. Ammons generated a poetic style versatile enough to handle hard, controlled lyrics as well as more expansive, contemplative meditations in his long poems. Although most often placed in an American tradition from Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, and Ralph Waldo Emerson through Wallace Stevens, his innovative voice perhaps best supports his proposition that he had been influenced by “everyone.” In one of his few poetic statements, A Poem Is a Walk, he indicates a debt to Samuel Coleridge's “secondary imagination,” Lao-tzu's Taoist configurations, as well as his own frequent walks, each of which served as a model for encountering the contradictions of the world's shifting details. Often associated with the poet John Ashbery for the way his reflexive verse presents the motions of mind, Ammons's attention to the details of nature encountered on his excursions also invites comparison to poets Robert Frost and Gary Snyder. Restless and circumspect, believing more in process than pattern, Ammons produced more than twenty volumes of poetry over his celebrated career.
On 13 September 1876 in Camden, Ohio, Sherwood Anderson, the third of seven children, was born to Irwin McLain Anderson and Emma Smith Anderson. Irwin Anderson struggled to support his large family by making harnesses as industrialization rendered his craft increasingly obsolete. His search for employment eventually took the Andersons to Clyde, Ohio, where Sherwood worked hard at a variety of jobs to compensate for his father's tendency to simply disappear, sometimes for weeks. Sherwood brought great energy to his entrepreneurial efforts, whether as a stable hand, a bicycle factory worker, or a newsboy. For instance, when a train stopped at Clyde, he hopped on, sold papers to passengers, and jumped off just before it continued its journey. The admiring townspeople nicknamed Sherwood “Jobby”. At age nineteen, after his mother's death, Anderson's ambition led him to Chicago, but he found only menial work there. So when the Spanish-American War broke out in 1898, he enlisted in the Ohio National Guard and discovered that he relished the camaraderie of army life.
Stefanie K. Dunning
Maya Angelou was born Marguerite Johnson in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1928. Because her brother Bailey could not say her whole name as a child, Marguerite became Maya. Angelou's life is synonymous with her work; she has published a series of five autobiographies, her most famous being I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1970). In each of these five works, Angelou writes about particular and important parts of her life. Yet not only does each book elucidate periods in Angelou's own life, but these books also paint a picture of the time she is writing about within the black community. Angelou's work demonstrates that the personal is political and that the events that shape and inform an individual life are often related to large political movements and events that affect an entire community.
Katherine O’Brien O’Keeffe
Literary culture in Anglo-Saxon England flourished in two languages—Anglo-Latin and Old English—although the written record of that flourishing is uneven. The literature in these languages of culture did not develop in isolation from each other: vernacular literary works often show a keen awareness of Latin texts and textual practices. Vernacular literature in Old English was precocious in its early expansion from secular and religious poetry to homiletic and documentary prose, as well as translations of the Bible, saints’ lives (in prose and in verse), histories, and philosophical works. The best known of all Old English works is Beowulf, and close behind are the short lyric poems generally, though misleadingly, known as elegies. Not always clear from even the best Modern English translations is the way that these intense poems share techniques of composition and echoes of shared formulas with other long and short poems. The saint-heroes of Elene, Juliana, and Judith share heroic values and poetic language with Beowulf and The Wanderer. This kind of appropriation—where the language of secular poetry was repurposed for religious subjects—was the miracle Bede saw in Cædmon’s Hymn.
Old English literary prose developed in the late 9th century in conjunction with a program of translation from Latin associated with King Alfred. Within a relatively short time, Anglo-Saxon scholars translated into Old English Gregory’s Dialogues, Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, Augustine’s Soliloquies, the first fifty psalms, and, further, Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica and Orosius’s World History. The late 10th and early 11th centuries saw an efflorescence of Old English prose, particularly in the works of Ælfric of Eynsham and Archbishop Wulfstan of York. Spanning the 9th century to the 12th, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reports and reflects on the events of its time, in verse and in prose.
The diversity of scholarly contributions to the interdisciplinary fields of animal studies and posthumanism defies summation. As loosely assembled areas of inquiry, however, these fields contest the exceptionalist elevation of humans above animals on the basis of the latter’s alleged lack of language and reason, their exclusion from the political, their inability to experience pain or to understand death, and their absence of a moral sense of right and wrong. Posthumanism also stresses that species difference warrants an ethico-political attentiveness that eschews automatically reducing animals to figurative representations of gender, sexual, or racial difference. While theses hierarchies are no doubt sustained in part by exploiting the metaphorics of species difference, the urgency of dismantling the human/animal hierarchy has inclined animal studies and a number of cognate fields toward the literal, resulting in non-allegorical readings of texts by authors such as George Orwell, Henry David Thoreau, and Toni Morrison. This preference for literality is also shared by continental philosophers working in speculative realism and object-oriented ontology (OOO), as well as by literary critics who advance the enterprise of “surface reading,” which eschews the notion that texts contain “hidden meanings.” The nonhuman turn has emerged in conjunction with a preference for literality because posthumanism tends to stress immanence rather than transcendence. This ethos engenders a flattening effect that places humans, animals, plants, and things on same ontological level (OOO); resists interpreting literary animals in human terms (literary animal studies); and rejects the role of the critic as a hermeneutic decipherer of texts (surface reading). The “literal turn” thus poses a number of questions for literary theory. Literal meaning is definitionally uniform, but can univocal sense be maintained? In the 1960s, Jacques Derrida radicalized the Saussurian notion of the arbitrary nature of signs, arguing that the isolation of a literal or proper meaning presumes the arrival of signified that would escape the chain of signification. If proper meaning never fully is itself, however, then one can never determine what is properly literal or figurative. Metaphors are typically defined as figures of resemblance that transport the name of one thing to something else. But this definition remains fatally inadequate because “resemblance” itself is metaphoric. In addition to overlooking the equivocality of the terms “literal,” “metaphorical,” and “allegorical,” the literal turn also risks reducing interpretation to a volitional act: a practice of choosing among different available approaches over which the human governs. To what extent do readers who believe they are performing literal readings disavow textual agency: that is, the conditions that texts establish for their own reading? To apply to texts what are often too loosely called “methodologies” is always to find interpretative approaches foiled by textuality’s uncontrollable effects. Does the literal turn thus reinscribe the humanist subject insofar as it presumes the reader’s power to wrest control over the feral force of language? Does it ironically restore human mastery under the guise of surrendering it?
Animals have prowled literature from its beginnings in the ancient world through medieval bestiaries and out from the margins of the novel in the modern era. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, animals’ literary presence has generated increasing critical interest. Animal studies, a relatively new interdisciplinary field, calls attention to the accelerating exploitation of animals in the period of industrial modernity and questions what it is possible to know about animals’ own experiences. Foundational theoretical approaches to understanding the historical and philosophical condition of thinking about animals—John Berger’s “Why Look at Animals?” (1972), Thomas Nagel’s “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” (1974), and Jacques Derrida’s “The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow)” (2002)—propose a fundamental aporia or gap between human and animal experiences, and they caution against the projection of anthropocentric categories onto animal lives. Many novels from this recent period likewise treat animals as charismatic strangers. Yet other contemporary literature sometimes reimagines human-animal relationships to insist on affinity and continuity. In such novels, animals prompt diverse and often experimental stylistic choices that put pressure on the novel’s traditional association with everyday life, the individual self, the boundaries of the nation, and empirical observation more broadly. Still, many recent novels remain essentially committed to a realist tradition. Some of these—most notably by J. M. Coetzee—depict relations of care between humans and often vulnerable or dependent animals that prompt reflection on the meaning of ethical action. In novels that purport to narrate from animals’ own perspective, writers likewise meditate on the ethics of interspecies relations as they use language innovatively in an effort to realistically evoke the sensorium of another species. Pushing the boundaries of realism, other novels reinvent the animal fable, using varying degrees of fantasy to imagine wild or domesticated animals as tropes that reflect upon human embodiment, community, and politics. Whether realist or fabulist, the novels of contemporary postcolonial and world literature particularly explore the power and limits of mapping histories of human belonging and domination onto animal figures, even as they often highlight the limitations of these comparisons. Not all of these approaches are equally invested in creating a literature that could materially impact the lives of animals in an era of diminishing biodiversity. However, uniting this varied and ever-growing array of novels is a question of how literature can represent the lives of intimately entangled bodies in a globalizing world.
Heather J. Hicks
From 1950 to the 2010s, the genre known as apocalyptic fiction has grown in prominence, moving from the mass-market domain of science fiction to a more central position in the contemporary literary scene. The term “apocalyptic fiction” can be understood to encompass both depictions of cataclysms that destroy the Earth and texts that portray the aftermath of a disaster that annihilates a nation, civilization, or all but a few survivors of the human population. The term itself finds its roots in the book of Revelation, and while contemporary apocalyptic fiction tends to be largely secular in its worldview, important traces of the Christian tradition linger in these texts. Indeed, while apocalyptic fiction has evolved over the past sixty-five years in response to historical transformations in Western societies, much of it remains wedded to Revelation’s representation of women as the cause of apocalyptic destruction. The material of the 1950s reflects Cold War anxieties about nuclear war while presenting sexually liberated women as implicated in the same modernity that has created the atomic bomb. People of color are also depicted as threats that must be contained. The apocalyptic fiction of the 1960s registers a fascination with genetic, social, and literary mutation, ambivalently treating a variety of “others” as both toxic and potentially useful ambassadors to some new, postmodern condition. The 1970s see the emergence of feminist apocalypses, works that react against the sexist tendency to conflate female power and sexuality with apocalyptic menace. The 1980s introduce the “American apocalypse,” a subgenre that imagines a disaster befalling America in specifically economic terms. The 1990s, meanwhile, find combinations of the feminist and American apocalypse, while also beginning to bring environmental peril into focus. From 2000 forward, there is a renewed interest in broader, more global disasters, in part informed by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Formally, this is the era of the “metapocalypse”—apocalyptic fictions that are self-reflexive about the conventions of the genre, including those involving gender and race. Nonetheless, several of the novels in this period still unapologetically introduce figures that recall Jezebel and Babylon from Revelation. Finally, the period since 2010 has seen a revived emphasis on economic collapse precipitated by neoliberal capitalism as well as the anthropocene.
Literary texts have long been understood as generative of other texts and of artistic responses that stretch across time and culture. Adaptation studies seeks to explore the cultural contexts for these afterlives and the contributions they make to the literary canon. Writers such as William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens were being adapted almost as soon as their work emerged on stage or in print and there can be no doubt that this accretive aspect to their writing ensures their literary survival. Adaptation is, then, both a response to, a reinforcer of, and a potential shaper of canon and has had particular impact as a process through the multimedia and global affordances of the 20th century onwards, from novels to theatre, from poetry to music, and from film to digital content. The aesthetic pleasure of recognizing an “original” referenced in a secondary version can be considered central to the cultural power of literature and the arts.
Appropriation as a concept though moves far beyond intertextuality and introduces ideas of active critical commentary, of creative re-interpretation and of “writing back” to the original. Often defined in terms of a hostile takeover or possession, both the theory and practice of appropriation have been informed by the activist scholarship of postcolonialism, poststructuralism, feminism, and queer theory. Artistic responses can be understood as products of specific cultural politics and moments and as informed responses to perceived injustices and asymmetries of power. The empowering aspects of re-visionary writing, that has seen, for example, fairytales reclaimed for female protagonists, or voices returned to silenced or marginalized individuals and communities, through reconceived plots and the provision of alternative points of view, provide a predominantly positive history. There are, however, aspects of borrowing and appropriation that are more problematic, raising ethical questions about who has the right to speak for or on behalf of others or indeed to access, and potentially rewrite, cultural heritage.
There has been debate in the arena of intercultural performance about the “right” of Western theatre directors to embed aspects of Asian culture into their work and in a number of highly controversial examples, the “right” of White artists to access the cultural references of First Nation or Black Asian and Minority Ethnic communities has been contested, leading in extreme cases to the agreed destruction of artworks. The concept of “cultural appropriation” poses important questions about the availability of artforms across cultural boundaries and about issues of access and inclusion but in turn demands approaches that perform cultural sensitivity and respect the question of provenance as well as intergenerational and cross-cultural justice.
Harrod J. Suarez
What is the difference between studying an archipelago and studying archipelagically? As research in literary critical studies has shown, the difference is significant and what results from each profoundly distinct and possibly at odds with each other. If one approaches the archipelago as an empirical entity—that is, as a chain of islands—there has been the tendency to regard it as smaller and more isolated than other geographic formations, which then determines its marginalization even when working with the advent of transnational and postcolonial rubrics. On the other hand, if the archipelago, following Édouard Glissant and others, is conceptualized as a mode of analysis, then studying different landscapes, histories, narratives, and cultures becomes an altogether different endeavor. Using such approaches to animate the relationship between Oceania and Asian American and Pacific Islander literary studies has been the focus of numerous critics working at the intersections of these and other fields. A controversy that received national media attention framed certain of the stakes involved in the effort to address Oceania, a moment of representational crisis that produced rich responses and galvanized efforts to deal rigorously with the field’s heterogeneity, hybridity, and multiplicity. The resulting epistemological pursuits seem to emphasize the need to study archipelagically, opening up new frameworks and problematics crucial for reimagining the place of Oceania in diverse fields.
Archives and libraries operate within a complex web of social, political, and economic forces. The explosion of digital technologies, globalization, economic instability, consolidation within the publishing industry, increasing corporate control of the scholarly record, and the shifting copyright landscape are just some of the myriad forces shaping their evolution. Libraries and archives in turn have shaped the production of knowledge, participating in transformations in scholarship, publishing, and the nature of access to current and historical materials. Librarians and archivists increasingly recognize that they exist within institutional systems of power. Questioning long-held assumptions about library and archival neutrality and objectivity, they are working to expand access to previously marginalized materials, to educate users about the social and economic forces shaping their access to information, to raise awareness about bias in information tools and systems, and to empower disenfranchised communities.
New technologies are transforming the practices of librarians and archivists as they restructure bibliographic systems for collecting, storing, and accessing information. Digitization has vastly expanded the volume of material libraries and archives make available to their communities. It has enabled the creation of tools to read or decipher material thought to have been damaged beyond repair as well as tools to annotate, manipulate, map, and mine a wide variety of textual and visual resources. Digitization has enhanced scholarship by expanding opportunities for collaboration and by altering the scale of potential research. Scholars have the ability to perform computational analyses on immense numbers of images and texts. Nevertheless, new technologies have also presaged a greater commodification of information, a worsening of the crisis in scholarly communication, the creation of platforms rife with hidden bias, fake news, plagiarism, surveillance, harassment, and security breaches. Moreover, the digital record is less stable than the printed record, complicating the development of systems for organizing and preserving information. Archivists and librarians are addressing these issues by acquiring new technical competencies, by undertaking a range of social and materialist critiques, and by promoting new information literacies to enable users to think critically about the political and social contexts of information production.
In most 21st-century archives and libraries, traditional systems for stewarding analog materials coexist with newly developing methods for acquiring and preserving a range of digital formats and genres. Libraries provide access to printed books, journals, magazines, e-books, e-journals, databases, data sets, audiobooks, streaming audio and video files, as well as various other digital formats. Archives and special collections house rare and unique books and artifacts, paper and manuscript collections as well as their digital equivalents. Archives focus on permanently valuable records, including accounts, reports, letters, and photographs that may be of continuing value to the organizations that have created them or to other potential users.
Susan M. Schultz
Insofar as John Ashbery has a group affiliation as a poet, it is with the New York School of Poets, populated by Frank O'Hara, Kenneth Koch, James Schuyler, Barbara Guest, and Bernadette Mayer, among others. These are witty, erudite, urbane, and profoundly urban poets whose work is at once about the place, New York City, and written according to its pace. It is ironic, then, that Ashbery, born on 28 July 1927 in Rochester, New York, grew up in a white wood house on an apple farm outside the small town of Sodus, located in the western part of the state. More than seven decades later, Sodus's population hovers below ten thousand, and its Chamber of Commerce advertises such special events as bowling at Papa Joe's restaurant; the town's Web site features a mere three photos of its scenic areas, mostly water scenes, including one of a Boy Scout sailboat near Sodus Point.
Sarah Park Dahlen
Asian American children’s literature includes books of many different genres that depict some aspect of the Asian diaspora. In total, the books should depict the breadth and depth of Asian diasporic experiences. Children’s books published in the early 20th century include mostly folktales, while books published after the 1965 Immigration Act tend to include contemporary fiction, poetry, and biographies. They address topics such as immigration and acculturation as well as capture landmark moments and experiences in Asian American history, such as the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II and the transnational, transracial adoption of Asian children to the United States. Books published at the turn of the 20th century have broached newer topics, such as mixed-race identities, and are written in a variety of genres including fantasy. As noted by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, the number of books by and/or about Asian Americans published is disproportionate to the total number of books published each year and to the population of Asians in the Americas. Also some Asian American writers continue to publish on topics unrelated to their identities. Academic researchers, practitioners, and writers have addressed various aspects of how this body of literature represents Asian Americans, mostly noting distortions and erasure and offering suggestions for improvement, emerging topics, and engagement with young people.
Asian American detective fiction is an eclectic body of literature that encompasses works from a variety of 20th- and 21st-century Asian American authors. Prior to the emergence of these writers in the late 1990s and early 2000s, depictions of Asians and Asian Americans in the mystery genre were primarily the domain of white authors like Earl Derr Biggers and John P. Marquand. During the pre-World War II era, “Oriental detectives” like Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto enjoyed varying degrees of popularity in literature and film before gradually fading into obscurity. Meanwhile, the few U.S. writers of Asian descent working in the detective genre often refrained from portraying Asian American characters in their works, focusing instead on stories involving white protagonists. However, a sea change occurred when a wave of Asian American authors arrived on the crime fiction scene: Henry Chang, Leonard Chang, Dale Furutani, Naomi Hirahara, and Ed Lin are representative examples. Differentiating themselves from their Asian American predecessors, these writers focused their mysteries not only on detectives of Asian descent but on the specific ethnic communities in which they were born. Using the detective genre’s focus on “Whodunit” as a literary imperative, these works explore contemporary anxieties about Asian American identity in relation to issues of race, gender, sexuality, and national belonging. As a result, many Asian American writers of detective fiction have chosen to reframe Asian American identity through the use of the detective genre, a vehicle through which the racist stereotypes of the past are addressed, combatted, and symbolically defeated. Whether a genre, subgenre, or school of literature, Asian American detective fiction is a rich and ever-evolving form of literary expression that continues to both expand upon and complicate earlier discourses on race, gender, and sexuality within the realms of U.S. crime fiction and contemporary Asian American literature.
Anita Mannur and Casey Kuhajda
Asian American ecocriticism focuses on providing theoretical frameworks for understanding race and ethnicity in environmental contexts. Attention to Asian American literary criticism can fill crucial critical lacunae in the study of the environment in American studies. Since the early 2000s, ecocritical and environmental studies have conceptualized place, the physical and built environment, not only as an object of study but also as a site from which to launch a critique of how ecocritical studies has centered issues such as climate change and environmental degradation by understanding the intersectional contexts of environmental studies. Asian American ecocriticism in this sense can be understood as a rejoinder to the extant body of work in ecocritical studies in that it demands a vigorous engagement with race, class, and ethnicity in understanding what we think of as the environment.
Elda E. Tsou
The contested category of Asian American literature presents a rich opportunity to explore questions of epistemology. At the start of the 21st century, a formal turn in literary study further illuminates shifts in structures of knowledge and ways of knowing. Asian American literature emerged in the 1970s as a critical response to a history of exclusion and misrepresentation. As the field established itself, literary knowledge was defined quite narrowly: it is produced by Asian Americans and the subject of knowledge is Asian America itself. The reading practices that arise from this central paradigm have been called “instrumental” or “sociological,” insofar as they conceive of literary language, with varying degrees of formal interest, as an instrument or expression of Asian America. From the 2000s onward, scholarship on Asian American form and poetics has grown steadily, and what distinguishes this particular movement is its privileging of form as its primary object of investigation. Correspondingly the subject of knowledge also shifts from Asian America as the default referent to Asian American literature and the literary tradition. Critics note that one consequence of making form the prime objective is a potential tendency to drift away from the ambit of Asian America altogether. Those literary texts featuring conspicuous formal experimentation have garnered a lot of attention; less has been paid to the early texts, like the anthology Aiiieeeee!: An Anthology of Asian-American Writers (1974), where formal concerns are not as explicit. Yet upon closer examination of Aiiieeeee! one discovers another type of figurative activity that can help redefine Asian American literary knowledge, offering us new ways of reading and looking at race.
Beginning in the 1960s and continuing into the present day, a wide range of performers and playwrights have contributed to Asian American experimental theater and performance. These works tend toward plot structures that break away from realist narratives or otherwise experiment with form and content. This includes avant-garde innovations, community-based initiatives that draw on the personal experiences of workshop participants, politicized performance art pieces, spoken word solos, multimedia works, and more. Many of these artistic categories overlap, even as the works produced may look extremely different from one another. There is likewise great ethnic and experiential diversity among the performing artists: some were born in the United States while others are immigrants, permanent residents, or Asian nationals who have produced substantial amounts of works in the United States. Several of these artists raise issues of race as a principal element in the creation of their performances, while for others it is a minor consideration, or perhaps not a consideration at all. Nevertheless, since all these artists are of Asian descent, racial perceptions still inform the production, reception, and interpretation of their work.