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Erin Suzuki and Aimee Bahng
The use of the term transpacific in Asian American studies should be reevaluated vis-à-vis Pacific studies, Indigenous studies, and Oceanic studies. In particular, following Lisa Yoneyama’s model for examining “decolonial genealogies of transpacific studies,” such a reevaluation emphasizes interdisciplinarity, intersectionality, and, above all, a reckoning with settler taxonomies of intellectual production as vital to the continued use of the term. Beginning with a review of key scholarly interventions into the “settler colonial grammar of AA/PI,” this article relates the US histories and logics that first produced the categories “Asian American” and “Pacific Islander” and brought them into categorical relation with one another. These historical entanglements between diasporic and Indigenous movements across and through the Pacific, can be understood through cultural analysis of literary works that reconfigure transpacific studies around Oceanic passages and Pacific currents highlighting an Indigenous-centered regional formation. Rather than allowing transpacific discourses to dismiss the Pacific Islands as distant or remote “islands in a far sea,” such an approach recasts the region along the lines of what Tongan scholar Epeli Hau‘ofa formulates as an interconnected “sea of islands.” It concludes by considering the ongoing harm produced by settler epistemologies of possessive liberal humanism and by inviting a decolonial approach to Asian American cultural politics.
The concept of the “transpacific” has inherent asymmetries that must be explored in order to generate a more nuanced interpretive logic of transpacific possibility. Such epistemic asymmetry should be considered not simply as a description of the massive inequalities undergirding the geopolitical arrangements of the transpacific world, but also as a catalyst through which transpacific knowledge and critical orientations of the transpacific are produced. Scholarship evidences three key turns—through militarization, the ecological, and indigeneity—that collectively work to map the uneven terrain of the transpacific. The poet Lawson Inada’s wry observation about the epistemic, economic, and aesthetic challenges posed by the transpacific—that “the problem . . . is water”—provides a starting point from which to trace a fluid genealogy of transpacific literary and cultural production. This fluid genealogy traces alternative versions of the transpacific as “imaginable ageographies” to counterbalance the existing architectural ideas about security, economics, and militarization that have delimited this arena. Analysis of a wide range of texts demonstrates that transpacific asymmetry and transpacific interconnection can both be usefully leveraged to disrupt hierarchies of knowledge and practice.
Globalization and global travel have existed for centuries. It is over the past century in particular, however, that travel has become truly global, in the sense that most and not just some travel can in some way or other be said to globalized. Indeed, with the invention and spread of new technologies of mobility (like jet travel), and new technologies of information (like the internet), as with the increasingly invasive impact of human activity on the planet at large (like global warming), it is difficult to conceive of travel in the 21st century that is purely “local.” Travel in the age of globalization, then, is at one and the same time both more widespread yet also more irrelevant than ever. As humans, goods, and information move around in ever-increasing quantities, and at ever-greater speed, it seems that mobility is at an all-time high in human history. On the other hand, as a rising number of people and places are interlinked through ever-faster travel and various forms of communication technologies, the local and the global are becoming harder and harder to distinguish.
In this, travel writing has faced a range of challenges that are both old and new. With contemporary travel writers facing a global reality that is very different from the colonial legacy of a traditionally Eurocentric genre, travel writers in the age of globalization have been forced to radically reconsider the itineraries, the destinations, the purpose, and the identity of the traveling subject. Traditionally defined as a white (European) male, the global traveler of the 21st century can take on many forms in terms of race, gender, sexuality, and nationality. At the same time, however, a large number of contemporary travel writers have found it hard to break with the mold of old, desperately continuing to pursue the exotic adventure and the untouched “otherness” of the blank spaces of a map that, in the age of Google Earth, satellite navigation, jet and space travel, global warming, and an explosive growth in human population, are no more.
In an autobiographical lecture originally delivered at Purdue University in 1965 and later published in The Last Decade: Essays and Reviews 1965–75 (1979), Lionel Trilling recalled that the “great word in the College [Columbia] was INTELLIGENCE” and that he had early adopted the motto THE MORAL OBLIGATION TO BE INTELLIGENT from his teacher there, John Erskine. For Trilling, moral values coupled with an acute intelligence were at the center of what he did as a literary critic, cultural commentator, and educator. One could see these preoccupations as early as his dissertation on Matthew Arnold, which became a great success when it was published as a book in 1939. Trilling's study revealed much about Arnold's writing, and also about his thoughts as they related to the society in which he lived. As Trilling put it in the volume's preface: “I have undertaken in his book to show the thought of Matthew Arnold in its complex unity and to relate it to the historical and intellectual events of his time.” The result, Trilling concludes, “may be thought of as a biography of Arnold's mind.”
Mark Twain is the fountainhead to the great winding waterway of America's native-born literature, a literature that finds profundity in the personal experience and everyday speaking habits of its people; in their typically wry humor in response to pretense, oppression, and sorrow; and in their founding democratic ideal that rebukes all forms of tainted privilege and power, including the deep American strain of racism. No other single author is as closely identified with shaping a voice that propelled the young nation toward its final break from the rigid dictates of European literary forms. No other nineteenth-century writer remains as readable at the dawn of the twenty-first, nor as strikingly prophetic of contemporary themes and concerns. And no figure ever did more to romanticize the experience of American boyhood.
Realism has a bad reputation in contemporary times. Generally thought to be an outdated mode that had its heyday in Victorian fiction, the French bourgeois novel, and pre-revolutionary Russian literature, literary histories tend to locate realism’s timely end in the ferment of interwar modernism and the rise of the avant-garde. Outside of the West, realism might be said to have met an even worse fate, as it was a mode explicitly presented to colonized societies as a vehicle of modernity, in opposition to what were deemed the poetic excesses, irrational temporalities, and/or oral-storytelling influences of indigenous literature. Yet despite this sense of realism’s outdatedness and political conservatism, the first decade-and-a-half of the 21st century has witnessed, across a wide range of literature and cultural production, what might be seen as a return to realism, not simply as a resistance to today’s new culture of heterogeneity and digitization but as a new way of imagining literary and political futures in a world increasingly lacking the clear-cut lines along which politics, history, and capitalism can be imagined. The arc of 21st-century realism can be seen through contemporary debates around the term, suggesting that considering 21st-century realism not as a residual mode or grouping of texts but as a particular perspective on literary futures—as the coming together, for instance, of unresolved and newer conflicts over relations of power and the politics of knowledge—offers a different story of global form making.
West Indian fiction in the 21st century continues a tradition begun in the late 1990s as the fourth generation of Anglophone Caribbean writing. Though West Indian writing dates back to the early 19th century, West Indian literature began coalescing into a discrete field of study in the 1930s, motivated in large part by the political imperatives of anti-colonialism, political independence, and decolonization. Much of the fiction published in the late 90s to the present continues to adhere to the realist mode of representing Caribbean life—both in the region and in diaspora—as well as thematic engagements with decolonization, cultural nationalism, migration, diaspora, race, class, gender, and sexuality. Historical novels, modernist narratives, coming-of-age stories, and neoslave narratives remain significant features of West Indian fiction, in ways that are geared toward negotiating sovereign realties for individuals and communities that share a history of colonial domination, slavery, indentureship, and more recently, depleted cultural nationalisms.
In the last decade, scholars in the field have begun the work of theorizing the recent fictional output as constituting its own discrete moment in literary development. What is distinct about contemporary writing is the way in which some authors have begun to ironically rework now-familiar forms, themes, and politics of West Indian writing. Some recent West Indian fiction produces atypical, often incomprehensible, and ultimately dissonant conclusions designed to complicate the political priorities of previous generations. This ironic approach typifies 21st-century West Indian fiction’s skepticism about the nation building and identity politics developed in previous waves—in particular, the conflation of identity with sovereignty. At the same time, this fiction doesn’t simply reject earlier modes: one of its defining aesthetic features is a re-inhabitation of the central forms and politics of preceding waves, in order to complicate them.
The central feature of the fourth generation of West Indian fiction, then, is a continued engagement with the region’s history of colonization, slavery, and decolonization that is also marked by critical and self-reflexive engagements with the Caribbean literary tradition.
Patricia B. Heaman
John Updike is perhaps America's most versatile, prolific, and distinguished man of letters of the second half of the twentieth century, having created a literary oeuvre that includes fiction, poetry, essays, criticism, a play, children's books, memoirs, and other prose. His first published short story and poem appeared in The New Yorker in 1954; he joined the staff in 1955 and has continued to publish in that magazine throughout his career. Since his first book in 1958, few years have gone by in which he has not published at least one volume, as well as an impressive number of book reviews, short stories, poems, art reviews, and topical and personal essays. His reputation rests largely on his fiction, for which he has won numerous prestigious awards, prizes, and recognitions. His subject matter is closely linked to his personal experience of small-town, middle-class life in America from the time of World War II through the beginning of the twenty-first century. Much of his early work is based on memories of people, places, and events associated with his childhood and youth in southeastern Pennsylvania, and works of his mature period focus largely on the themes of marriage, adultery, religious faith, and family life. Despite occasional forays into non-American settings and past and future time frames, Updike's fiction for the most part reflects the culture, conflicts, and concerns of his readers' American time and place. His recent work often deals with a return to or reflection on the personal, historical, or literary past as it has created the present and is interpreted and transformed by a contemporary consciousness.
The forerunners of modern investigative journalism emerged during the US Progressive Era Presidency of Theodore Roosevelt and became known as the muckrakers, a badge of shame they often wore with honor. Finding venues in the popular mass magazines of the early 20th century—such as Collier’s, Cosmopolitan, and McClure’s—and in more overtly populist, socialist publications, such as the Appeal to Reason, that also had considerable readerships, these writers railed against corporate greed, political corruption, and to a lesser degree race discrimination (their race investigations seldom challenged Jim Crow or Mexican- and Chinese-Exclusion). Muckrakers’ value-driven investigations often clashed with the purported professional objectivity of the day’s more politically beholden mainstream journalists. Ironically, Upton Sinclair—who began as a romantic-minded novelist and never quite worked as a journalist, properly speaking—became the most famous among them. Sinclair’s investigation into the meatpacking industry, which brought him to fame as their exemplar, began as an assignment for the Appeal, before it developed into a novel, The Jungle. He had narrated it to move readers to socialism. Instead, it provoked Roosevelt to pass the Pure Food and Drug Act. Ignoring the disdain of high literary circles, Sinclair went on to self-publish a staggering number of reform-driven novels, book-length essays, and pamphlets grounded in evidence-based critiques of every conceivable injustice. He sold them directly, democratically, and cheaply to huge and growing audiences throughout his lifetime and became, arguably, the world’s first mass-market author. Sinclair also remains representative of the white, culturally Protestant narrative privilege that historical muckrakers tended to assume. He would rise to world prominence and would carry the muckrakers’ historical moment and movement beyond their own times, into its final connection with the more racially inclusive New Left that arose at the time of his death.
After a long void in scholarship, literature on US/Central American art began to emerge in the decade of the 2010s. As this new body of literature emerges it is important to consider the politics of visuality and visibility as it informs production and reception of contemporary art by US Central Americans. During the years of US intervention that fueled Central American conflicts (1970s–1990s), the United States produced a visual discourse on Central Americans for US audiences, especially evident in photography, political posters, and Hollywood films. This visual discourse relied on a what I call a “solidarity aesthetics” for Central America, in which images and representations of Central Americans were made, selected, disseminated, and framed to produce empathy and encourage action with the region across the globe. Yet, this solidarity aesthetics entailed optical codes—imagery on poverty, violence, and tropical landscapes—that subsequently established a reductive visual trope about Central America still used today. This visual discourse not only objectifies a Central American subject, but further enables the erasure of US/Central American creative practices as it implies the region produces violence and not art. In the context of such visual discourse, art by Alma Leiva, Muriel Hasbun, Beatriz Cortez, Jessica Lagunas, and Óscar Moisés Díaz exemplifies a disruption of dominant visual discourse by US Central Americans artists. They create art and images that counter historical erasure and the visual tropes that propagate violence while offering alternative visual narratives that reflect on the legacies of war, US intervention, and the consequential displacement and mass migration of thousands of Central Americans.
In 1853 Commodore Matthew Perry opened not only the doors of a “double-bolted land” as Herman Melville called Japan in Moby-Dick (1851) but also the possibilities of modern literature. While it is a half-Chinook, half-Scot American called Ranald McDonald who smuggled himself into Japan in 1848 and became the first teacher of English in the country, Gerald Vizenor, a distinguished Native American novelist, completed a postmodern novel Hiroshima Bugi: Atomu 57 (2003), remixing Moby-Dick with Matsuo Basho’s haiku travelogue Narrow Road to the Far North, Lafcadio Hearn a.k.a. Koizumi Yakumo’s Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan, and Ranald MacDonald’s Japan: Story of Adventure. After the opening of Japan, Fukuzawa Yukichi (1834–1901), one of the founding fathers of modern Japan, visited Europe and the United States of America, and decided to Westernize his own country. Being the first translator of Thomas Jefferson’s composed “The Declaration of Independence,” Fukuzawa published a million-selling An Encouragement of Learning (a series of seventeen pamphlets published from 1872 to 1876), in which the author emphasized the significance of sciences and the spirit of independence in the way comparable to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” (1837) and “The American Scholar” (1841).
While Professor Thomas Sergeant Perry, a great nephew of Commodore Perry, started teaching American literature in 1898 at Keio University, which Fukuzawa established, Yone Noguchi (Noguchi Yonejiro, 1875–1947), a great admirer of Edgar Allan Poe and Matsuo Basho, became famous as a cosmopolitan poet in the United States, receiving good reviews for the first collection of poems all written in English, Seen and Unseen (1896). It is highly plausible that his correspondence with Ezra Pound provided the latter with a key to promoting the poetics of imagism. Following the example of Noguchi, Nishiwaki Junzaburo (1894–1982), another cosmopolitan poet famous for the translation of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, studied English literature and philology at Oxford University and published in 1925 the first volume of poetry Spectrum in London. Thus, Ezra Pound, who once admired Yone Noguchi in the 1910s, came to recommend Nishiwaki as the finalist for the Nobel Literary Prize in 1957.
The year 1955 saw the first postwar climax of transpacific literary history. William Faulkner, a major American modernist and recent laureate of Nobel Prize in Literature, paid his first visit to Japan in the summer of 1955, giving a series of seminars in Nagano. Speculating on Japanese culture, he gave an insight into the literary affinity between Japan and the American South in an open letter entitled “To the Youth of Japan.” American as he is, Faulkner shares the memory of lost war with the postwar Japanese, for he came from Mississippi, part of the Deep South, the very defeated nation in the Civil War. Without this memory of lost war, Faulkner could not have developed his apocryphal imagination. Therefore, it is very natural that Faulkner’s visit to Japan invited quite a few major Japanese authors to develop their own apocryphal imagination, ending up with major works published in 1973, the year of Oil Shock, all inspired by Faulkner’s double novel The Wild Palms (1939): Endo Shusaku’s Catholic novel Upon the Dead Sea, Oe Kenzaburo’s nuclear novel The Flood Invades My Soul, and Komatsu Sakyo’s science fiction novel Japan Sinks. Noting that the year of 1973 also saw the publication of Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, we could well locate here the genesis of transpacific postmodern literature in the 21st century.
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.
Jaime Javier Rodríguez
The US–Mexico War produced a wide range of literature in the United States that exposed the provisional and contingent qualities of US nationalism, even while it also asserted the anti-Mexican racism and xenophobia that continues to shape cultural and political discourse in the early 21st century. Much of the popular literature produced in mass-market novelette form, for example, deployed a range of Mexican enemies that ran through a sequence from noble, chivalrous opponents, to fiendish enemies and terrorist bandits. This instability in how writers saw Mexico and Mexicans suggests that the war could paradoxically generate critical self-reflections that countered essentialist notions of manifest destiny. The eventual projection of the bandit figure as the prototypical Mexican villain reinforced Anglo-American national self-definitions of moral, cultural, and racial superiority as a response to the destabilizing energies resulting from the invasion of a neighboring American republic. For Mexican American writers, the war, although a major feature of Mexican American literature, nonetheless became an environment in which to explore conditions of non-national, liminal border identities, which became strikingly relevant as the 20th century turned into the 21st. In Mexico, the agonized response to the nation’s failure to stop the “Yankee” invader led instead to a confrontation with its own lack of a unifying national identity and forced writers and political intellectuals to ask hard questions about Mexico’s destiny.
Jones Very's claim on literary posterity comes mainly from a brief period between September 1838 and the spring of 1840 when, in a burst of unprecedented creativity, he wrote the three hundred poems, mainly sonnets, that constitute that claim. During that period, Very believed, spectacularly so, that he had “seen the light” in religious terms. Whatever else it achieved—which wasn't much—this spell of religious exaltation was good for his poetry. Most of the rest of the roughly eight hundred seventy poems he composed, from the early 1830s, when he was in his early twenties, to 1880, the year of his death, was tepid stuff by comparison, mainly of interest these days to scholars wishing to see what “the proud full sail” of his best work had developed from and would molder into. Very was for a time associated with the transcendentalist movement headed by Ralph Waldo Emerson, which emphasized personal intuition as a major source of spiritual truth. The Very scholar Helen R. Deese has argued convincingly, however, that the Very of the so-called “ecstatic” period, at least in his best work, was “essentially a mystic” outside classification.
Gore Vidal is a novelist, essayist, playwright, and provocateur whose career has spanned six decades, beginning in the years immediately following World War II and continuing into the early years of the twenty-first century. In addition to a major sequence of seven novels about American history and such satirical novels as Myra Breckinridge (1968) and Duluth (1983), he has written dozens of television plays, film scripts, and even three mystery novels under the pseudonym of Edgar Box. He has also written well over one hundred essays, gathered in numerous volumes published between 1962 and 2001. Taken as a whole, this seemingly varied work has an uncanny unity, exhibiting a tone of easy familiarity with the world of politics and letters, an urbane wit, and a sense of supreme self-confidence on the part of the writer. Vidal's lineage in American literature may be traced back to Henry James, the sophisticated American from the upper echelons of society who mingles with European sophisticates, and Mark Twain, the raw humorist and critic of American empire.
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.
The American literature of the Vietnam War, even at so short an historical distance from the end of the war (1975), can seem exotic to the contemporary reader, who might be excused for thinking of it as a species of travel writing, providing an imaginative tour of an exotic place and a turbulent historical period, but depicting a fundamentally different order of reality. This view, paradoxically, represents an important truth even while making it difficult to come to an understanding of this body of writing. Travel writing imposes a double burden on writers: first, to understand for themselves what they have seen so far from home, and, second, to bring at least some of that experience home to their countrymen. That is exactly the burden that many writers who served in Vietnam—as soldiers, journalists or civilian advisers—take up. In her book Travel Writing: The Self and the World (1997), Casey Blanton describes the problem with precision: “Melville's Ishmael, sole survivor of an epic journey…discovers the central dilemma of travel literature when he begins to tell the reader of Moby-Dick about Queequeg's home: ‘It is not down on any map. True places never are.’ Ishmael's attempts to represent the exotic island homeland of his friend are frustrated by the inherent difficulty of rendering the foreign into familiar terms.” Melville's great novel (1851) and Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (1902), both concerned with venturing into the unknown regions of the world and the self, provide important points of reference for many of the American writers who have taken the American war in Vietnam as a subject. Along with Graham Greene's short novel The Quiet American (1955), these texts provide a stylistic point of departure for many writers going to or coming from Vietnam.
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.
Vietnam War literature is a prolific canon of literature that consists primarily of works by American authors, but it is global in scope in its inclusion of texts from writers of other nationalities like Australia, France, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. The war’s literature first emerged in the 1950s during the Cold War when Americans were serving as advisors to the French and the Vietnamese in literary works such as Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, a British novel, and William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick’s The Ugly American, an American novel, and gradually evolved as American involvement in the war escalated. In the mid-1960s, Bernard B. Fall, who grew up in France and later moved to the United States, offered well-known nonfiction accounts like Street Without Joy: The French Debacle in Indochina and Hell in a Small Place: The Siege of Dien Bien Phu, and numerous other writers, mostly Americans, began to contribute their individual accounts of the war. Thousands of literary works touch on the Vietnam conflict in some way, whether in the form of combat novels, personal narratives and eyewitness accounts, plays, poems, and letters, and by both male and female writers and authors of different ethnicities. These numerous literary works reflect the traits unique to this war as well as conditions endemic to all wars. Many Vietnam War texts share the cultural necessity to bear witness and to tell their writers’ diverse war stories, including accounts from those who served in combat to those who served in the rear to those who served in other roles such as the medical profession, clerical work, and the entertainment industry. Important, too, are the stories of those who were affected by the war on the home front and those of the Vietnamese people, many of whom were forced to leave their homeland and resettle elsewhere after the war during the Vietnamese diaspora. While combat novels are still being written about the Vietnam War decades later, notably Denis Johnson’s award-winning Tree of Smoke and Karl Marlantes’s Matterhorn, bicultural studies that reflect work by North Vietnamese writers and the Viet Kieu are especially pertinent because Vietnam War literature is a continuing influence on the literature emerging from the 21st-century conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.